PREMARITAL COUNSELING A Pastor’s Guide by David Norman
INTRODUCTION!........................................................4 THE SETTING!............................................................5 DISCERNING WHERE A COUPLE STANDS WITH CHRIST!......................................................................7 PROVIDING A CLEAR GOSPEL UNDERSTANDING !....................................................................................8 DISCUSSING THE ROLE OF THE HUSBAND!.........9 DISCUSSING THE ROLE OF THE WIFE!................10 MAKING PLANS FOR THE FUTURE!......................11 A CRASH COURSE IN CONFLICT RESOLUTION!.12 A BREIF EXPLANATION OF THE MARRIAGE COVENANT!.............................................................14 APPENDIX A: RECOMMENDED BOOKS!..............16 APPENDIX B: HOW TO WRITE A WEDDING POLICY!....................................................................17 APPENDIX C: SAMPLE WEDDING POLICY!..........18 ABOUT THE AUTHOR!.............................................19
INTRODUCTION As a pastor, Iʼve been honored to officiate several weddings through the years. There is nothing quite like the joy of walking with a couple as they begin a new life together as one. But even though all of the excitement and celebration surrounds the wedding day, I think my favorite part may actually be in the preparation stage – the pre-marital counseling. Now up front, I feel the need to admit that I am not an expert at this. Iʼm just someone who has developed a system over time that tends to work for me. Itʼs not that I have all of the answers – in fact, Iʼm quite certain that I donʼt even have all of the questions. But I gain a real sense of joy every time that I spark a conversation about the future that a couple would never have discussed otherwise. To see a couple talk about expectations of their future spouse – to watch them share the structure of the homes they were raised in, and how those affect their understandings of the home – is exciting. My gift-set is significantly stronger in proclamation than in counseling, so because of that, I had to learn the “how-to” of premarital counseling on the job. And while I would never tell you how to do premarital counseling, my goal through this ebook is to give you a few ideas worth considering. Letʼs get started!
THE SETTING Believe it or not, one of the most important decisions you make in counseling a couple has to do with where you meet. That seems trivial, and many of us who come from a church background might find it a bit odd that we would even need to consider meeting anywhere other than a church office, but letʼs consider that as an option, rather than the obvious answer.
So where are some places conducive to premarital Counseling? Most of the premarital counseling that Iʼve seen has occurred in a church office. Itʼs the most convenient for the pastor/counselor, itʼs private, and it gives the session a more professional feel. But that, in fact, could be itʼs greatest weakness. You see, my goal in counseling isnʼt to be a professional. Iʼm not a professional counselor and I donʼt claim to be. My goal is to get to know these two individuals and to get to know their hearts so that I can best lead them towards a Godly marriage. I must be willing to stretch myself a bit in order to provide a relaxed atmosphere – at least at the onset. Plus, in church plant settings, thereʼs not always such a thing as a “church office.” When my wife and I were married, we participated in some premarital counseling that was held in the pastorʼs home. Iʼve found using this setting extremely helpful over the years because it provides a more comfortable atmosphere than an office, and gives the couple a look at the pastorʼs family. It certainly helps to span the gap between a professional and a friend giving counsel (which is ultimately what Iʼm aiming for). It also helps me to have my wifeʼs input on the couple, because she often sees things that I would miss otherwise, which helps to provide direction for our conversations. But alas, this is not always an ideal place because it requires the participation of your wife/family which is nice to have, but if done too often, can become a burden that your family does not need to bear. Iʼm a fan of coffee shops. (I feel like that needs to come in the form of a confession. “Hi, my name is David, and Iʼm a big fan of coffee shops.) Starbucks isnʼt my third place, itʼs typically my first and second as well. Local coffee shops are even better in my book. Iʼve found that you can often find a corner to hang out in and meet at most coffee shops, especially if you give a little forethought regarding the timing of your meeting. This is a major step away from the formal and professional office towards a comfortable, friendly get-together. In this type of setting, rather than two people coming to you for your professional counsel in your professional office, theyʼre sitting across the table from you drinking the good stuff. Cafeʼs and diners are other good options. I love finding a good local dive and breaking bread with a couple as we talk about their upcoming marriage. In fact, if the couple has a favorite hangout, itʼs a great idea to meet there – with the thought being that theyʼre more likely to feel comfortable opening up in that setting, than in a less familiar, more formal environment. Again, this takes it from formal to casual, from professional to friend, which is my goal in the first place.
So which of these works best? Personally, I have used all of them except a church office. (Though to be honest, I始ve never had a church office while doing premarital counseling). I like them to meet my family and get to know my wife and kids. I like meeting with them on neutral ground and building a friendly relationship and have found coffee shops, cafe始s, and diners very conducive to doing that. All of this is an attempt to create an atmosphere where the couple feels safe to share the truth of their relationship with you. In a given series of sessions, I始ll usually meet with them for coffee or a meal first. Then, I may invite them to dinner at my home to help build trust between the couple and myself. From there, we usually just bounce around a bit (sometimes, inviting them back into my home). Ultimately, it始s up to you to determine what is best in your context in light of your familiarity with the couple, their comfort with you as their counselor and/or pastor, and your specific situation.
DISCERNING WHERE A COUPLE STANDS WITH CHRIST The people in our churches are at different places in their journey with Christ. While some have been in Christ for decades, others may have only recently had their hearts opened to Christ, and there are innumerable levels of spiritual maturity in between these two. In light of that reality, one of the most important duties of our premarital counseling is to discern where this couple stands with Christ. There will be, with Godʼs grace, couples that come to you committed to serving Christ and their spouse faithfully and willingly. There will also be couples that come to you with a very superficial understanding of the Gospel and the implications of it in marriage. There will be - despite your tireless exhortation otherwise – couples who come to you where one is a believer and the other has no Gospel foundation at all. It is your responsibility to discern exactly where they are on the path of sanctification.
“Why,” you might ask. ”What difference does it make?” I know some pastors who refuse to officiate any wedding for an unbelieving couple. Others, I know of, refuse to officiate a wedding for an “unequally yoked” couple, where one is a believer and the other is not. Wherever you chose to draw the line, do so with integrity upfront. Let them know at the onset that while you will be willing to counsel them, there are circumstances in which you are unwilling to marry them. (For more information on how to do this, see “How to Write a Wedding Policy” in the Appendix). As pastors, we know that the single, greatest determining factor in where a marriage will stand in 25 years, is where they stand with Christ. It makes a huge difference if they are passionately pursuing him and his Kingdom together, than if they are merely seeking hope, fulfillment, happiness, and contentment in one another. And where they stand with Christ today should vastly influence your counsel as you move forward, providing them with the best advice and insight for how to create a marriage built upon Christ.
PROVIDING A CLEAR GOSPEL UNDERSTANDING Once you have a good grasp of a where a couple stands with Jesus, youʼre in a position to share the big picture, clarify any misunderstandings, correct wrongthinking, and remind them of Godʼs faithfulness. You have the honor of sharing with them the wonder and beauty of the Gospel. They came to you – a pastor – for guidance. They could have selected any thousands of books out there, and instead submitted themselves to your leadership and wisdom. It would only be weird if you didnʼt talk about Jesus and his impact on the marriage. A clear Gospel understanding provides a radically different understanding of sin, guilt, and repentance than that of modern culture. To grasp the reality of the Gospel is to grasp the depth of sin, the need for forgiveness, and the need for Christʼs atoning work. To understand the absurdity of Godʼs great love for us is to understand the sin in our hearts and the audacity of grace. You do a disservice to the couple – and the future of their marriage – if you focus on anything other than the Gospel at the onset of your counseling. Everything else hinges on this reality. Donʼt start with Mars and Venus, or with Love and Respect, or any other idea of the family before you discuss Jesus. In Ephesians, Paul instructs the husbands to see Christ as the example for what it means to lead (Eph. 5:25). Christ is the example for wives to follow as they trust and submit to their husbands as Jesus trusted and submitted to his Fatherʼs will in Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). The conversation must begin with Christ. Then, and only then, can you move forward to discussing the ramifications of the Gospel and Godʼs plan for their family.
DISCUSSING THE ROLE OF THE HUSBAND Once youʼve provided a clear Gospel understanding, youʼre now in a position to discuss more specific marital issues. At this point, I think it is appropriate to begin conversations that help suggest a Biblical model for the home. A common argument that couples face during the early years in marriage has to do with expectations. If the husband and wife have two entirely different understandings of what it means to be a husband, or what it means to be a wife, there will eventually be a falling out. And so the question to the couple becomes, “What is your understanding of the role of the husband in marriage?” (Weʼll deal with the role of the wife in the next chapter.) As their pastor, you have a responsibility to help them grasp Godʼs call for the man. And it is at this point that your own convictions will (and should) direct the conversation. But for the sake of disclosure, I try to make certain that I hit these points: A husband should lead his family to love Christ. He has the responsibility to be the priest of his home and to be the spiritual leader of his family. In his pursuit of Christ, he should inspire his family to love and pursue Christ. He will set the spiritual tone in his family – either positively or negatively. A husband is called to love his wife. He is not called to abuse his authority as her spiritual head, nor is he called to abdicate it. He is called to follow the example of Christ – the head of the Church – in the manner that he lovingly, sacrificially, and humbly leads. He is called to provide for his family financially through discipline and hard work. For some homes, this means the husband is the primary breadwinner. For others, it means he is the only one. Regardless, the Bible has strong words for a man who possesses the ability and opportunity to provide for his family, but lacks the will and/or discipline to do so. The role of husband, as understood though the lens of Scripture, is a tremendous honor and responsibility. I love teaching men of Godʼs calling on their lives and challenging them to become the men God created them to be. And I believe that is the most important thing (aside from the Gospel) that I can offer a family – a better understanding of Godʼs call on the man.
DISCUSSING THE ROLE OF THE WIFE It is just as important to discuss the wifeʼs role as it is the husbandʼs. And while it may be tempting to pawn this discussion off to your wife, I would encourage you not to. Instead, be as frank and candid regarding Biblical womanhood as you are about Biblical manhood. Again, your convictions will direct the conversation from this point. The couples that you counsel came to you seeking your advice, not mine. So donʼt be timid about sharing your understanding of the Bibleʼs definition of the role of the wife. Here is the main point that I try to discuss: A wife is called by God to be submitted to her husband. That doesnʼt mean that she is less intelligent or capable. It means that husbands and wives were created to be equal, but with complementary roles. He lovingly, sacrificially, and humbly leads like Christ (Eph. 5:25), and she respectfully submits like Christ (Luke 22:42). The reality is that wives are instructed to be submitted to their husbands “as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). That means, very plainly, that a wife cannot be fully submitted to God and not submitted to her husband. The Biblical portrait of a Biblical wife is one who, in her submission to God, submits to her husbandʼs authority. This particular conversation is always extremely uncomfortable going in, but each time it prompts deep considerations and drives husbands and wives into their Bibles. It requires them to come to a mutual understanding of what it means to be husband and wife. Even if they donʼt opt for my suggestions (in spite of my very strong recommendation), their future marriage is given a firmer foundation as the result of the conversation it started.
MAKING PLANS FOR THE FUTURE If conversations surrounding the Biblical roles of husbands and wives are some of the most intimidating and uncomfortable, the most enjoyable aspects of counseling a couple is the joy that they exude during conversations surrounding the future. Many times, these conversations have already taken place and the couple is thrilled to let you know just how perfect and wonderful their happy family will be. Other times, though, a conversation may never take place unless you broach the subject. So as you participate with the couple as they look to the future, there are some distinctive questions that need to be asked and considered.
How will they nurture their relationship? Itʼs vital that they determine what actions theyʼll take to strengthen and deepen their relationship before they feel that they need to. Once their marriage is at the place where one of them determine that they need to nurture their relationship, tragically, itʼs often too late.
Will they have children? Typically this question has been posed before and there is some semblance of agreement. How many? This will typically be an ongoing conversation subject to change throughout the years, but there needs to be a reasonable amount of contentment with their understanding. How will they come to that number? Is there a spiritual conviction about having children? Are they part of the Quiver-Full movement? Or do they want to make sure they all fit in a minivan? When will they begin? Who gets to decide when the time is “right?” Do they have a financial goal before having children? Are they waiting a certain number of years, etc. Will they put the kids in day care or will the wife stay home with them? Will they send the kids to public school, private school, or home school?
How will they manage their finances? Will the husband manage the bills or the wife? Will they use credit cards? Is debt a part of their plan? Are they bringing debt into the marriage? What is their plan for paying that debt off? Have they taken a Personal Finance course together? Will they rent their home or purchase it? What about personal vehicles? Will they both work? Will he work while she stays home with the kids? Will she work until they have kids and then quit and stay home? Obviously, this list isnʼt extensive. My goal is simply to prompt you to consider what needs to be discussed.
A CRASH COURSE IN CONFLICT RESOLUTION Relational conflict happens. Thereʼs no getting around that in any marriage. Sure, the couple that youʼre counseling canʼt even fathom the thought that there will be a day when theyʼll fight. But they still need a few tools to use when that day does come. So what are some tools that you can put in their toolbag to prepare them for future conflicts? Confession - It seems contradictory, but the most important tool in any conflict resolution toolbox is confession. If a couple can get a good grasp on their sin – if they can honestly, humbly, and genuinely latch onto the reality of their own faults and shortfalls – conflicts and arguments take on an entirely different shape. We protect our families, and stop many conflicts before they ever start, when we emphasize authentic confession. As soon as either party is made aware of any hiccup in the relationship – any division or pain – they should immediately look for their role and for their responsibility. In Matthew 7:3, Jesus speaks directly to the absurdity that occurs when we focus on someone elseʼs sin and neglect our own. Repentance - Conflict resolution requires change. If conflict occurs when two people are moving in two different directions, then in order to resolve that conflict, someone is going to need to adjust course. Repentance, by itsʼ very definition, is a transformative change of heart, or change of mind. When we confess our sins against our spouse, we must take the next step and change direction. Otherwise, weʼre just apologizing and guaranteeing that the same conflict will happen again! Forgiveness - If true confession and real repentance occurs in a marriage, forgiveness becomes necessary. Letʼs be honest, the husband will mess up. So will the wife. And while there may be the temptation to withhold forgiveness in order to store up ammunition for a future conflict, Christʼs forgiveness toward us compels us to show forgiveness to others. Couples must practice keeping short accounts. This requires all three of the points above. In order to keep short accounts both partners have to take their own sin seriously (viewing their own sin as more detrimental to the marriage as their spouseʼs), both partners have to repent, and both partners must offer forgiveness to their spouse. They donʼt hold onto resentment. They refuse to cultivate a root of bitterness. They opt instead, to confront their own sin, or to be honest about the hurt that the other caused (intentionally or not). By maintaining short accounts, frustration and irritation is never given ample time to marinate and develop into animosity. Discussing conflict resolution relies on an understanding of the Gospel (which is why I place that conversation early on in the counseling sessions). We learn to confess our sins to our spouse by confessing our sins to Christ. (And we learn to better confess our sins to Christ, by confessing to our spouse). We learn to
repent of our sins before our spouse by repenting of our sins before Christ. And we forgive because we have been forgiven. These practices cannot prevent the conflicts that are inevitable in every marriage, but they just may protect that marriage from ending as a result of those conflicts.
A BREIF EXPLANATION OF THE MARRIAGE COVENANT One of the last things I like to do in counseling the couple is to try to provide them with a better understanding of the marriage covenant, and why we do some of the things we do in modern wedding ceremonies. In my experience, this helps tie the bow on your counseling and prepares them to take the final step toward marriage joyfully and seriously. In the Old Testament times, covenants were often made between tribes, nations, and families. The ceremony that they practiced is foundational to the ceremony that we observe today.
Are you with the Bride or Groom? The two parties in a covenant would gather (often in a ravine or ditch), under the watchful eye of their families. The families would typically gather on either side of the ravine in order to witness the covenant. Today, we practice the same event as we enter the church and are asked by the ushers, “Are you with the Bride or Groom?” Your answer will help guide them as to which side of the isle (representing the ravine) they should sit – not as passive observers to this covenant, but as active witnesses.
Here Comes the Bride One of the highlights of every wedding is where the Bride – with everyone in attendance straining to see – walks down the isle. Traditionally, covenant ceremonies would require an animal sacrifice – to be cut in half (in effect, proclaiming, “May the same be done to me if I do not honor this covenant.”) – allowing the blood to run freely throughout the ravine. While this gives good justification to the good redneck practice of having barbeque at the reception, the practice of sacrificing animals at the wedding ceremony has become largely frowned upon because no cleaning deposit would cover that. (I kid, I kid.) Instead, today we cover the isle with another red item that is much more aesthetically and fragrantly pleasing – rose petals. But it carries the same significance. Just as the rose gave itʼs life up for this moment, so the bride and groom are dying to their own lives, and joining together as one.
Til Death Do Us Part Part of the traditional wedding vows state, “til death do us part.” The original covenant ceremony would exchange important items (a sword or shield) – today we exchange rings – and would vow before friends, family, and God himself that the covenant being established is only dissolved upon death. There is no escape clause or loophole.
I enjoy reminding couples of the history behind the ceremony that they始re soon to celebrate. It deepens the understanding of the moment by displaying the significance of each action.
APPENDIX A: RECOMMENDED BOOKS I started this series out with a very important disclaimer: I am not an expert at this, just someone who has developed a system over time that tends to work for me. So with that in mind, here are some books that I have found extremely useful: Reforming Marriage by Douglas Wilson The Exemplary Husband by Stuart Scott The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace What Did Your Expect?? by Paul David Tripp Covenant Marriage by Fred Lowery The Blessing by John Trent and Gary Smalley When Sinners Say “I Do” by Dave Harvey – This is currently the required reading for couples that I counsel. Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas Love That Lasts: When Marriage Meets Grace by Gary & Betsy Ricucci God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation by Andreas J. Köstenberger and David W. Jones Breaking the Cycle of Divorce by John Trent
APPENDIX B: HOW TO WRITE A WEDDING POLICY Many churches already have wedding policies in place, but for some pastors, you will not have that blessing. Instead, you will need to do the work of crafting your own wedding policy. A general search on google will bring up a host of links to various policies all around the internet, but most of those are very church specific and detail building usage and fees, etc. While these are helpful in their context, they can quickly become overwhelming for someone simply doing research for writing their own.
So how do you write your own wedding policy? Make Your Requirements Clear One of the worst things you can do in regards to a wedding policy is to write it in such a vague method that no one knows what you will or wonʼt require. I donʼt suggest that you copy mine verbatim (See Appendix C), but you need to determine what those are for you. What are the things that are huge red flags for you? Will you marry non-believers? Will you marry a believer and an unbeliever? Will you marry a couple that lives together? Will you marry someone who is divorced? Your theological perspective will determine your positions, but you need to make them known.
Leaving Room for Exceptions A wise pastor once told me that wedding policies should be written in such a way that it frees the pastor to say “no,” while leaving room for him to say “yes.” The policy wasnʼt intended to be a final say on the subject, but rather a filter to help limit the number of times the pastor has to actually say, “no.” By writing your policy in this way, you have full freedom to officiate the weddings you feel good about, but the same freedom to recommend them to another avenue if you donʼt.
APPENDIX C: SAMPLE WEDDING POLICY CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ENGAGEMENT! Weddings are such a special and joyous celebration. This is one of the most exciting times of your life and Iʼm thrilled that you would consider me to be a part of it! But before I can commit to officiating the wedding, there are a few things that we need to ensure are already in place. I request that both partners give clear testimony of being born-again believers. That is not to say that I am not willing to officiate a wedding in which this is not true, but this is certainly my preference (after all, I am a pastor). All of the premarital counseling that I offer is Biblically grounded and rooted in the Gospel. But if youʼre open to learning more about Godʼs plan for your life and your marriage, Iʼm willing to work with you. However, I will not, under any circumstances, officiate a marriage joining a believer with an unbeliever. Both partners must commit to a Biblically-defined marriage. I am firm on this. Marriage is the joining of one man and one woman in the presence of God, (Gen. 2:24) for a lifetime (Mark 10:8-9). Please understand that this does not mean that I will not officiate a wedding for a divorced person or persons. It simply means that I want to do my due diligence to fully understand the situation before making any decision. The couple must submit to premarital counseling. There will be a minimum of three premarital counseling sessions (if possible, by the pastor officiating the wedding), though the specific number of sessions is at the discretion of the counseling pastor. During this time, the sessions should cover (a.) The Gospel, (b.) Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, (c.) The Future – finances, children, etc., (d.) The Marriage Covenant, and (e.) Conflict Resolution. The couple must commit to ceasing any sexual activity or cohabitation immediately – lasting until the wedding night. Any exceptions to this policy must be approved by the elders (or deacons) of the church.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR David Norman is a Christ-follower, a husband, a daddy, a pastor, a seminary student, a musician, and a blogger. He is currently at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth pursuing his M.Div. in Expository Preaching. www.davidnormanblog.com www.facebook.com/davidnorman www.twitter.com/david_norman