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July 8, 2000
Column #984

(Third in a series of three columns on marriage)

Marriage Ministry A Way To Save Nine of Ten Bad Marriages

     Ten years ago, I wrote about Father Dick McGinnis, an Episcopal priest who asked this question of his congregation of 180 people: ''Are there any couples here whose marriages were once on the rocks, but who have come off of them? If so, meet me in the chapel after the service.''

     To his surprise, 10 couples showed up. He confessed, ''I have more work than I can handle in marriage counseling. I prayed about it. What came to me was to not look at the problem, but the solution. That triggered in my mind how Alcoholics Anonymous got started. Some people tried to help each other stay sober, with the help of Catholic and Episcopalian pastors. Out of it came the 12 steps of AA that have helped millions stay sober.

     ''I want to meet with you to see if there is anything of a common nature you had to do for your marriage to be restored. I want to see if God has a way of re-establishing marriages.''

     Seven couples agreed to do so. The group discovered that God does indeed have a plan. ''It is a natural spiritual process,'' said Lon Pardee, one husband. ''When you reach out to give, you get. If we hoard what we've got, we don't get any more.''

     At first, their stories seemed wildly dissimilar. One woman had been in adultery for eight years. One man was an alcoholic who was out of work for two years. There was a workaholic prosthodontist and a bisexual who had homosexual affairs early in his marriage.

     But they were able to agree on 17 ''Action Statements'' that each had gone through, like the 12 steps of AA. One was, ''Through other Christians' testimony and personal example, we found hope for our marriage.'' At Marriage Encounter five couples first saw good marriages.

     Two others: ''I made a decision and commitment to follow Jesus as my Savior and Lord. Once obedient to God, we were able to love by his standards, not ours.''

     Lowell Weddington explained, ''We were non-Christians. We had enormous problems communicating. We tried books with humanistic messages like `I'm OK. You're OK.' None of it was working. So we said, `Why not try God?' We went to church and realized the Lord really loved us, and we began to love ourselves.''

     Three other steps are clustered around ''Commitments to partner.''

     ''We/I made a decision to stay together. We/I made a decision to forgive mate and myself.'' And what is particularly difficult in a bad marriage: ''I accepted my mate as he/she is.'' Each learned they could not change a mate, but ''realized the problem was with myself and began to change with the Lord's help.''

     After the couples learned to tell their stories using the 17 Action Statements, Father Dick had them meet with couples considering divorce. A couple who had survived adultery has more credibility to tell a couple hurt by adultery how to restore trust than any pastor or counselor.

     Within five years, those seven couples met with 40 couples heading toward divorce, and saved 38 of them. That's a 95 percent success rate!

     I wrote at the time, ''In my view, this is a discovery of far greater importance than the discovery of AA's 12 steps. Only a tenth of people become alcoholics, but half of marriages fail.''

     The McGinnises have now planted their ''Marriage Ministry'' in 25 churches in 10 states. They trained 14 ''back-from-the-brink couples'' at First Assembly of God in Rockford, IL. Therapists in that city heard about it and sent over dozens of their worst cases. In three years, the mentors have met with more than 100 troubled marriages and saved all but four of them.

     One was Richard and Dusty Burchardt who had experienced pain from the beginning of their marriage and tried counseling for five years without luck. When they began meeting weekly with Tom and Jan Drake, a mentor couple, the Burchardts saw changes right away. Dusty said they ''helped us recognize that we were stuck in depressive cycles.'' They said `We went through something similar, and here is what we did.' We did everything wrong. Little problems quickly escalated,'' Richard added.

     The Action Statements nudged them to ''take responsibility for our own actions and stop blaming the other as we tended to do,'' Richard explained. ''We had been trying to change our partner. We learned there is a right way to relate to each other. Going every week to the Drakes helped because they held us accountable and taught us how to solve problems.''

     Would you like to start such a ministry in your congregation? See a paper, ''How To Rebuild Troubled Marriages'' found at www.marriagesavers.org.

  Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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