By John Armistead

Daily Journal

“Pastor,” a voice on the telephone says, “you don’t know me but a friend of mine at work knows somebody who goes to your church and recommended you. My girlfriend and I are getting married tomorrow and wondered if you would do it for us.”

Any pastor who has been in the harness for a while has encountered some such scenario. How is he to respond?

Most ministers would refuse, especially if they didn’t know the couple. And, for many pastors, the main reason for refusal would be the lack of an opportunity for premarital counseling.

The purpose of counseling

Premarital counseling refers to the conversations a minister has with an engaged couple before their marriage. These conversations presuppose the couple wants to be married in a church and that somehow the spiritual perspective and wise counsel of the pastor will help prepare the couple for the sacred obligation of marriage and help ensure its success. (Success, in this case, usually means that the marriage will not end in divorce.)

Does premarital counseling really help prevent divorce? Does it help the couple learn how to effectively communicate with each other and build a sharing relationship? While there is no statistical data to answer such questions, many area pastors seem to indicate by the stress they give premarital counseling that it does work and that it does lay foundations for a healthy marriage.

Topics covered

Even though Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo does not require premarital counseling, the congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Forrest Sheffield, expects each couple he marries to meet with him three times. Sheffield talks with them about money management, dealing with in-laws, communicating with each other, family roles, and sexual needs.

“I usually wrap it up by saying the key word to me is adjustment, being able to give on both parts,” said Sheffield. “Not far under that would be the word commitment.”

First Baptist Church of Saltillo, like a growing number of churches, recently adopted guidelines requiring that couples married at the church go through premarital counseling. The Rev. Ken Anderson, the church’s pastor, leads each couple he marries through an intensive 10-session seminar on marriage. Each session lasts an hour and starts with “leaving mom and dad” and goes through coping with their future children going off to school. “This is the best time you have to talk to them about the challenges of married life,” he said.

The religious approach

The Rev. Charles Walling, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, is required by the church’s canon law to give premarital counseling to couples desiring a wedding. The couple, in turn, is required to give at least 30 days notice of their wedding.

Walling is uncomfortable with the word “counseling.” “I call it premarital instruction,” the priest said. “What I try to do is get an idea where the bride and groom are coming from spiritually. I try to draw out from them where they are and show them that there is a religious perspective.”

Walling wants each couple to understand the gravity of what they are doing. “They are required (also by canon law) to sign a statement saying that they hold marriage to be a lifelong union,” he said.

The minister’s preparation

What kind of preparation do the seminaries give ministers in premarital counseling? Very little, it seems.

The lack of academic interest in premarital counseling is perhaps reflected in the definitive book on Pastoral Care, “Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling” (Abingdon, 1990). Of the book’s 1,376 pages, only one and a quarter pages are devoted to the entry “Premarital Counseling.”

The general editor of the book is the Rev. Rodney J. Hunter, professor of pastoral theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “Pastoral care is an enormously broad and complex discipline and premarital counseling is only one aspect,” he explained.

Furthermore, the theological curriculum is becoming more densely packed each year. “That means we have fairly limited space to do pastoral care,” he said.

Hunter tries to teach his students fundamental attitudes and principles that can apply to a whole range of caring situations. “You just can’t cram it all into a one semester course,” he said. Still, he is able to devote one day out of 26 class days in the semester to premarital counseling.

At the same time, in spite of the fact that most ministers spend much of their time counseling church members, many seminaries, like Candler, no longer require a course in pastoral care.

An intense weekend

Lynn McGrath and Guy Weeks will be married June 1. They recently attended a weekend retreat for engaged couples at St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, in Cullman, Ala. The Catholic diocese requires all engaged couples to participate in such a weekend.

Weeks and McGrath joined 26 other couples for the retreat. It was a time, said McGrath, for her and her fiance to sit down and really talk with each other.

“Two married couples – an older couple and a younger couple – headed up the weekend,” said McGrath. “They would shoot us questions and had us talk about everything and didn’t leave a stone unturned. When they rang the bell the couples would go off together by themselves and talk about our answers,” she said.

The retreat ended with a mass. “It was the perfect setting,” said McGrath. “We had a little free time to walk the grounds of the monastery and visit the grotto.”

Marriage enrichment

However helpful premarital counseling may be, some ministers, like the Rev. Ron Barham, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist in Tupelo, feel more effort should be put into helping couples after they are married. Barham has found many couples see premarital counseling as just another requirement they have to meet before they get to the altar.

“I feel that marriage enrichment within the first year is much better received (by the couple) and much more effective,” he said. “Before they are married, they are studying something they are going to do rather than something they are doing.”

“Did I do a good job?”

The Catholic Church requires four months notice before allowing a couple to wed. In addition to the weekend retreat, Weeks and McGrath will have five or six sessions of premarital counseling with the Rev. Meryl Schmit, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo.

“There is an expression we use,” the priest said. “‘A wedding is a day. A marriage is a lifetime.’ We’re trying to get them in touch with things that begin the day after the wedding.”

He works with helping the two people begin to think in terms of “couple-ness,” and tries to tailor each session to meet the couple’s needs. The priest takes his work of helping lay a strong foundation very seriously. “When I sign my name to the form (which goes to the bishop) indicating they have done everything required to get married, I ask myself, ‘Did I do a good job?'”

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