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  • The local pastor is perhaps the most commonly called “first responder” to a marital crisis...but most are ill-equipped to handle it. Tweet This
  • Regardless of the denomination, 24% of married people who are active members of a church report struggling in their marriage. Tweet This

A good friend of mine (JP), a priest whom my wife and I have known for years, had been trying to help a couple in crisis. From the outside as an observer, the situation was shocking. This particular couple had a bunch of beautiful kids and appeared to have it all together. They were a homeschooling military family and active in the parish, in church every Sunday. The kids were all sent to a faithful Christian college. The father was a guy that other men in the church looked up to and admired. 

But this couple’s marriage had hit its “endgame.” 

Unbeknownst to friends, years of physical distance and stress from recurring deployments created an environment in which emotional distance became the norm. The wounds from tragically missed expectations and unmet emotional needs had finally culminated in an affair, and deep resentment set in on both sides. 

Some close friends tried to step in, and the couple approached this pastor for help. He tried valiantly to counsel this couple and save their marriage. 

It didn’t work.

Certainly, there are effective interventions that can occur for couples in crisis, interventions which were not followed here. In [our book], we touch on some of them. But anyone who works in this field will tell you that it is far easier to save a marriage by preventing it from ever falling into such a crisis in the first place. 

In the survey that Communio partnered with the Barna Group on, we found that 93 percent of pastors reported that they do counseling for couples in crisis. But 57 percent of these pastors reported feeling either unqualified or only somewhat qualified for it. This finding held fairly consistently across both Protestant and Catholic pastors. 

That statistic is shocking when you consider that your local pastor is perhaps the most commonly called “first responder” to a marital crisis. The fact remains that most are ill-equipped to handle it. Common training as a counselor is not sufficient. 

Most pastors remain unaware of the most effective marital crisis ministry resources and strategies that are available. Many immediately refer couples to counseling. However, most professional counseling remedies are not evidence-based—meaning, they have not been subjected to outside independent evaluation to determine their efficacy in actually saving a marriage. Much of what passes for professional counseling is frequently shaped by the current relationship zeitgeist and focuses on “self-actualization” at the expense of the relationship. Christians are frequently surprised to find that even many Christian counselors are not primarily focused on helping a couple return to relationship health as a couple

Simply put, most churches lack a “marriage 911” or an effective marriage emergency strategy. 

Marriage and relationship ministry must be much broader than just prepping the engaged or doing subpar work with those in crisis. 

But this critical gap is just one of many within church-based relationship ministry. To the extent marriage ministry might exist in a church, it frequently is comprised of 1) some basic marriage preparation path on the front end, and 2) inadequate crisis ministry on the other. If a church is among the current leaders in this field, it might once in a while host a marriage retreat. Now, some church leaders think that crisis ministry may only be needed a handful of times a year. After all, most churchgoers aren’t facing a full-blown marriage crisis. With just three to six divorces occurring in a given community for every 1,000 adults in any given calendar year, they could be forgiven for making that conclusion. 

But we know the crisis under the visible surface is many times larger than what pastors experience. As of this writing, Communio has helped churches conduct more than 20,000 surveys of their own active churchgoers. What we’ve found is that, regardless of the denomination, 24 percent of married people who are active members of a church report struggling in their marriage.

The real number of total Christian marriages struggling is much higher, because churchgoing women in our surveying were 31 percent more likely than churchgoing men to report struggling in their marriage. Obviously, if one person in a marriage is struggling, then that marriage is struggling—regardless of whether both individuals are aware of it. 

The data suggests what many instinctively know to be true: Men appear less aware of relationship challenges than women. It shows up in other data around divorce filings. Nearly 70 percent of all divorce filers are women. Does this mean women cause 70 percent of divorces? No. Taken together with our survey data, we start to understand why women may often despair of being happy in their marriage. Statistically speaking, men are just less likely to report struggling and, as a consequence, are more likely to be unaware of their wife’s struggles. 

Our good friend Richard Albertson, the founder of Live the Life Ministries, likes to tell the story of when he and his wife attended a marriage class for the first time. They were to rate their marriage on a one-to-five scale. When he saw his wife’s score, he said, “No, honey—five is the high score.” 

“I know,” she replied. 

Richard had no idea that his wife was highly dissatisfied. The encounter started him on a path to being, today, one of the national leaders in marriage ministry. 

Any practitioner in marriage ministry will tell you that it is frequently a huge challenge to convince a husband to invest in his marriage before he perceives that it is in crisis. Even after he gets a sense that there is an initial challenge, getting him to show up for a program or a multiweek class is often about as hard as teaching a sixth grader advanced physics. 

This is a huge obstacle. 

A church must work creatively to overcome this important barrier for a relationship ministry to have any chance of success. Marriage and relationship ministry must be much broader than just prepping the engaged or doing subpar work with those in crisis. 

John Van Epp, Ph.D., formerly a therapist for 25 years, adjunct professor, and a contracting trainer for two decades with the military, is currently the President/Founder of Love Thinks, LCC, where he developed evidenced-based relationship courses that have been taught by more than ten thousand instructors to over a million participants internationally. J.P. De Gance, founder and president of Communio, designed and oversaw the largest privately-funded community marriage project in US history, lowering the divorce rate 24% in one large city over a 3-year period.

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted with permission from Chapter 13 of the authors’ new book, Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America.