What is marriage ministry?

Recently, I was invited to speak to a gathering of pastors and seminarians at a Chinese seminary in Southern California. The subject was the relationship between marriage ministry in the church and the minister’s own marriage. The topic can be a little touchy, especially in the Chinese church; while the need for such a ministry is becoming increasingly apparent, it still feels quite risky for people to be vulnerable with others about their marital struggles. And that goes doubly for the pastors.

My overall recommendation, however, is meant for more than just the Chinese context. Put simply, the recommendation is twofold: (a) marriage ministry must be grounded in an overall vision of discipleship and the Christian life that applies to all believers, and (b) whatever social change this entails must begin with the leaders who are responsible for stewarding the vision.

I suppose an entire book could be written about this, but the points themselves are simple. First, we need to get beyond the kind of “program” mentality that treats marriage ministry as something that happens on an event-to-event basis. Typically, a variety of speakers are invited to speak on this or that topic; the events are promoted in the congregation and people pick and choose what they want to attend, if they attend at all.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe a great deal of good can come from these events (at least I hope so, since I often play the role of “hired gun” for such ministries myself!). But that’s not the same thing as the entire congregation having a shared vision of what it means to follow Jesus in our everyday lives — a vision which can then be specifically applied to the concerns of married couples. When churches have asked me to come speak, I have often asked a question of my own in response: “How will my doing so help your congregation fulfill its mission?” An awkward silence is sometimes the response, or a quick exit from the conversation. But to my way of thinking, the “ministry” doesn’t fully qualify as such until there is a reasonably clear and communally embraced answer to that question.

Second — especially in congregations with a more hierarchical organization — whatever changes in relationships are entailed by that vision and mission must be embodied in the leadership. “Don’t do as I do, do as I say,” won’t work here. After all, that has never sufficed for matters of true discipleship; Jesus himself led by both teaching and example.

That may sound like an extra burden on pastors, who are already expected to be exemplary human beings in ways that are often unreasonable. But I’m not suggesting that pastors up the ante; I’m suggesting that they cultivate a new congregational culture, as firmly or gently as needed. Sometimes, we say we believe in grace but live by merit. The one who meets our social standards is the one we admire; violate those expectations and we will shame you (even if quietly). This is not how it should be for those who follow a crucified Savior. There is no question that we should continually be growing in maturity — but like children, we need an environment of love and grace to do so.

My hope is that “marriage ministry” would be so much more than providing one subgroup within the congregation (albeit a large one!) with their own special experiences. There should be a shared understanding of why we value healthy marriages, tied to a shared vision of what we believe God wants from all of us, married or otherwise. And those who have the role of casting and cultivating that vision must also take care to humbly practice what they preach — while always insisting on our need for grace.