“It’s hard to get people to see past the ceremony,” said the Rev. Andy Stoddard, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ripley.
It’s an understandable hubris on behalf of the young and betrothed. Love, after all, tends to scramble one’s faculties of reason, but that’s where the wisdom of the church comes in.
Most churches require couples to seek some form of premarital guidance, and it goes by different names, like “Pre-Cana,” “Before You Say ‘I Do,’” and “Engaged Encounter.”
Many couples get started with a questionnaire which indicates how they’ll handle things like money, extended family and career planning. The results provide the basic data for future conversations with their minister.
Today there are a variety of marriage preparation materials, and a flurry of organizations and Web sites such as “For Better and Forever,” and the “American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.”
There are also programs designed for couples who plan to marry outside their own faith traditions.
Couples can show initiative by exploring the universe of material themselves, demonstrating that they take seriously the need for some form of premarital guidance.
Regardless of which program a minister uses, the conversation usually turns on a couple of key questions.
“Who am I, who are we and who are we in God? That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” said the Rev. Tom Lalor, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo.
Lalor has been coaching couples for more than 30 years, and he says the key to success is helping them see beyond the honeymoon and to realize marriage isn’t easy.
Lalor is currently working with Emily Haadsma and her fiancé, Kurt Nelson, for their wedding in June.
Since the University of Mississippi students got engaged in July, Lalor has been a steady presence in their lives, answering questions, praying with them and generally being a guide.
“When we met with him the first time it hit home that we’ve actually decided to do this,” said Emily, laughing.
In March the couple will go on a weekend-long marriage preparation retreat with other couples. They’ll discuss a variety of topics, including what type of work Emily will do while Kurt is in medical school, and how they’ll handle the fact that she is Catholic and he is Baptist. Emily is confident that, with Lalor’s help, everything will work out fine.
“Our faith is very important to both of us, and we’re keeping that at the center of all our preparations,” said Haadsma, who will graduate in May.
Not all couples have Emily and Kurt’s foresight, however, and that’s part of why, sadly, half of all marriages today end in divorce.
To try and stem the tide of soaring divorce rates, the folks at Hope Church in Tupelo have taken a slightly different approach to fostering healthy marriages. When couples have problems, they’re referred to Andy Lawhon and his wife of 45 years, Barbara.
Each year the couple leads a nine-week course that’s open to engaged couples and married couples alike. They use material developed by Michigan-based author and lecturer Dan Seaborn.
The Lawhons also welcome several troubled couples into their home each year for an informal meal and discussion. They talk about what it takes to maintain – or rebuild – a healthy marriage, including the couple’s faith life.
“Most of the couples have been married for five or six years, and the new has worn off,” said Andy, whose wife has taken classes and attended seminars on nurturing healthy marriages.
“Men often don’t listen well, and try to fix things, and women feel ignored,” he said. The mentor-couple approach is also used by other Tupelo churches, like The Orchard, a United Methodist Congregation.
Lalor has found that although couples assume that they’re perfectly compatible, it still helps to verbalize expectations.
At Tupelo First Presbyterian Church the Rev. Tom Groome likes to meet with couples on five occasions prior to their wedding. He talks to them about making decisions together, including how they’ll move through life’s transitions.
“This is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman and with God,” said Groome. “The covenant is fulfilled in the daily relationship of the two being married and becomes a mutual ministry.”
Haadsma and Nelson aren’t looking at their marriage preparation as a hoop to jump but rather as an ongoing dialogue, a process of talking things out, in the presence of a minister, so that nothing gets overlooked.
“Especially for women, we get so involved in trying to make sure everything is perfect, it’s nice to step back from the whole experience and gain some perspective,” said Haadsma.
“That kind of prayerful distance can be a powerful thing,” she added. “In the end, this is essentially about God bringing two people together. Kurt and I feel strongly that our priorities are in line with one another, and our process of preparation is helping us to realize that.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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