Ministering to Married Couples in Crisis

Church Matters, Leadership, Personal Development, Refreshment

Practically everywhere we turn today, we find someone we care about experiencing some sort of marital crisis. And the fallout does not just impact the couple themselves. Children, extended family, church community, and overall cultural health are all negatively affected by marital crisis and its commonly sad conclusion . . . divorce! The good news is that, even today, many people still look first to the church for help when their marriage is in trouble. The need is overwhelming, and many of us who are professional marriage counselors thank God there are pastors and lay leaders answering the call to step up and minister to these hurting souls.

However, we also know from experience that what might appear on the surface to be just a simple communication problem, or a stubborn spirit that merely needs to relax and allow God to minister to their hurting heart, can quickly become a ministry quagmire that can suck a well-intended pastor or lay helper into a messy and hurtful situation for everyone. So are there tips that can better set up ministry-minded helpers to more effectively be used by our Lord to help the couple in crisis while simultaneously protecting themselves and their ability to perform future ministry? Our answer is a resounding yes and yes!

Step 1: Don’t try to “wing” it!

Even if you are used to relying heavily on the leading of the Holy Spirit, the level of complexity in many struggling couples can overwhelm you in a hurry. Within a marriage crisis, there always exist his issues, her issues, and their issues. That’s a lot to sort out in the limited time most helpers really have available to invest. Those many layers and levels of complexity are why so many professional counselors report how much they hate doing marital counseling.

Step 2: Use a step-by-step curriculum when possible.

There are some great resources available to help pastors and lay leaders structure marriage ministry efforts. Having a guide can keep the couple focused and on track and can avoid the many possible spinouts and tangents that commonly occur when emotions get triggered. One option is Focus on the Family’s new mentor program, Marriage 911: Mentor Kit. This resource provides both a step-by-step program a helper can walk through with a couple in crisis and complete training for the mentor on how to best use the product. But there are also other good programs in the marketplace. The goal is to keep the couple from running off the road and into the relational ditch! Such resources also help keep the helper healthy and sane and able to continue to respond to that divine call to couples in crisis.

Step 3: Get some good education and training.

There are many books and training seminars that can provide some helpful additional information and understanding that can go a long way in increasing your effectiveness while protecting you and those you help. We are not suggesting getting a degree in marital therapy. We are talking about information that a minister and part-time lay counselor can use. The main goal is for you to be better prepared to help while gaining additional tips on what to watch out for and how to sidestep common marriage ministry traps. Our latest book, Restoring Hope: An Integrative Approach to Marital Therapy, is primarily written for professionals, but the Focus Marital Therapy model the book presents has many strategies, tips, and tools that pastors, and lay leaders, can easily use in their work with couples.

Step 4: Set appropriate and firm boundaries.

When working with couples in crisis, we are typically ministering to hurting and needy people. They often see you as the only person they can trust to talk about what they are going through. When we, as helpers, come alongside people in real pain, whose marriage and family are hanging in the balance and whose innocent children are being impacted, it is tempting to get caught up in the urgency of the moment. Often, it can seem like if we could just say that one right thing or get them to see this one obvious oversight, everything would be better. It’s a trap! The most common result being the helper gets sucked into their relationship dynamic, which ends up prolonging and perpetuating their mess. This can easily lead to marriage ministry feeling like it’s trying to suck the life out of the helper.

The key is to establish clear boundaries upfront so the couple is aware of the start and end time of a session with a crystal clear understanding of appropriate limits regarding any communication between sessions. This may at first feel contrary to a Christ-like type of ministry, but a helper’s goal must be to empower the couple to learn to responsibly manage themselves and their circumstances as soon as possible. Good, clear boundaries that are carefully established and maintained both empower the people we serve and protect those ministering to them.

And as a final sidenote, pay close attention to anytime you feel overwhelmed. Do not see it as a personal failure or evidence of your inadequacy. This work can get squirrely in a heartbeat, even for those highly trained and experienced. Do yourself, and those you minister to, a favor and don’t hesitate to refer to a professional when in over your head.

Restoring Hope_Cover

Robert Paul_hi resRobert S. Paul, MS, LPC

Vice President – Focus on the Family Marriage Institute

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