Jared McDonald and Brittany Wilson just got married. But before they tied the knot, they spent eight weeks being mentored in marriage by another couple in their church—Kirk Giles, the president of Promise Keepers Canada, and his wife, Shannon. Their time together reflects a growing trend in Canadian churches to engage people other than pastors and counselors in the work of strengthening the bonds of marriage both before and after the wedding.
“I don’t actually think of it as ‘counselings,’” McDonald says. “I just think of it as going to see someone who is more like a mentor—and a friend as well. They’ve been married a long time and it was good to see their different perspective. They were able to speak from their experience.”
Kirk and Shannon Giles lead the pre-marriage mentoring team at Forward Church in Cambridge, Ontario. It is the first component of what is planned to be a ministry to couples, Christian and non-Christian, at every stage of their married life. A key element in the program is weekly meetings where a marriage-mentoring couple invites a young couple such as Jared and Brittany into their home. The sessions allow them to talk through their expectations of marriage on things like communication, sex, dreams for the future, their free-time preferences, and so on.
FamilyLife Canada also offers marriage-mentor training. There are 645 trained mentor couples and 154 churches that are using marriage mentoring now in Canada, director Brent Trickett explains. The couples meet once a month for about a year to discuss fourteen marriage-related topics. “It’s really just conversations that a Christian couple is going to lead them through,” he says.
“We always bring it back around to remembering that marriage is about two people becoming one,” Giles says. “And if you’re withholding a secret from your spouse-to-be and from God, you’re not setting your marriage up for success. If there’s ever a time when you’re going to need to deal with this, now is the time. We can’t control whether or not they follow through on those things, but we can set the environment and create the conversation in such a way that provides the opportunity for them to take those next steps in their relationship.”
Kevin Pent, Forward’s Church Life Pastor, concedes there are times when the issues adversely impacting a marriage are so deep or complex that a couple needs professional or pastoral help. “But for the average marriage that’s facing common problems and crises,” he says, “too often we underestimate the power of mobilizing Godly laypeople to speak into lives. There’s power in community. Often what we have seen as being effective is to have mentoring within the context of a small group. Then those couples who just feel they need to talk two-on-two with another couple — or one-on-one with another spouse — they can connect with them and speak at a deeper level. And they’ve already established that trust through the small group community.”
“Kirk’s been really great just,” McDonald says. “I know when I’m going through something, I can right away send Kirk a message and he’ll respond and give me some advice or set up a call or something like that.”
Pent says Forward undertook this marriage initiative because like most churches, “we’re very reflective of the culture now in divorce rates, marital breakdowns. I really saw a dire need to hone in on marriages and see what we could do to promote a culture where healthy marriages became more the norm. And obviously, to do that, you need more the occasional marriage class.”
Trickett worries about the impact today’s marriage breakdowns will have on generations to come if left unchecked. “My oldest is 14. Many of her friends are living between two parents, week on and week off,” he says. “People are growing up and don’t have good role models of what a good marriage should look like. That puts young people in a state of fear — ‘Maybe I shouldn’t get married’ — and I think it’s because we don’t celebrate marriage enough and how great it is. That’s what mentoring really does. It shows people that it’s worth it.”
To be sure the most recent figures on marriage breakdowns are worrisome. Statistics Canada reported in 2011, for example, that 41 percent of legal marriages will end before couples reach their thirtieth anniversary, 24 per cent of divorced or separated parents reported that they had children aged 18 or younger, and 19 percent of Canadians surveyed said their parents were either divorced or separated, up from 10 percent a decade earlier. And in 2008, Statistics Canada described the average marriage lasting only 13.7 years. These numbers do not necessarily account for all the couples who separate but never divorce nor the common-law unions that fail and second and third marriages which are even more likely to end in divorce.
While somewhat fewer marriages involving Christian couples are likely to fail—research suggests the divorce rate among Americans of faith is around 30 percent—the anecdotal evidence, at least, shows that mentoring is helping marriages to start strong and stay strong. “We’ve had several couples come to Christ, and some couples that were cohabitating that decided to step back and covenant to purity until they got married,” Pent says. “It’s really been amazing to see what God has done through great curriculum and outstanding marriage-mentor couples within a context that is very much Spirit-led.”
“My church [Circle Drive Alliance in Saskatoon] is 600 people usually on a Sunday. A couple that we’re mentoring, if they don’t show up to church for four weeks, the church probably wouldn’t know. But we know,” Trickett says. “We’re able to call them and say, ‘How are you doing? We need to get together and talk.’ It really helps people just to know that they’re loved, somebody cares about them, and they have someone to talk to when they’re in trouble.”
Jared and Brittany are also open to becoming marriage mentors themselves one day. “I’d like to get a few years of marriage under my belt first. But it’s definitely something we would consider,” McDonald says. “A lot of times, especially in today’s society, when something goes wrong, people want to jump off right away. This really encourages you to work through it. And that I found was super valuable and something that I would definitely love to pass on to others.”
“Most Christians,” Giles says, “and certainly most men that I know go, ‘I really don’t have much to offer people.’ But you forget that God’s been walking with you throughout your life, shaping you as you have followed Jesus. You’ve had all kinds of experiences. And God’s given you those experiences so that you can help other people as they’re going through different things in life. You’ve got a wealth of lessons you’ve learned—some painful and some very positive—that you can share to other couples and help them to be prepared for those kinds of circumstances in life in the days ahead. It’s a powerful ministry.”