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September 1, 2001
Column #1044

100,000 Mentor Couples in 10,000 Churches

     The American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) made an extraordinary announcement this week that they will seek to train 100,000 married couples as marriage coaches in 10,000 churches over the next five years.

     ''This is the best news I have heard this year for the marriage-strengthening movement,'' commented Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couple Education.

     ''Research shows that the people who can best teach the skills of how to have a good marriage are those who have solid marriages, serving as mentor couples. People get married in churches, so this work is best done in congregations, where there is trust. It is natural to recruit couples who are part of that community.''

     Most marriage preparation today is done by pastors or professional counselors, such as AACC members. Sollee, a former Associate Director of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, thinks that is a mistake:

     ''We don't need to turn marriage into a mental health issue. Marriage is not a disease. It is a language that must be learned. Mentor couples do a better job of teaching because they are not outsiders with a white coat syndrome. For example, a stepfamily couple who has walked the walk, can be more helpful to a couple entering a stepfamily than some professional who may never have been in a stepfamily and may not even be married.''

     AACC President Tim Clinton said his group's 45,000 members were moved by recent George Barna polling data showing that ''divorce in the church is at a par with the society at large. The divorce rate is still at an epidemic proportion. About 40 to 50 percent of people who are getting married this year, will end up getting divorced, and if separations are also counted it is 66 to 67 percent.''

     Therefore AACC is calling not just the church ''but the nation to some type of effort to curb, to reduce the divorce rate. We are demonstrating our commitment by providing resources to help strengthen marriages. We have produced ''Marriage Works,'' 30 one-hour videos by some of the finest people in marriage coaching and marriage mentoring. We have enrolled 5,000 already, with more than 100 from a single church.''

     Most marriages fail due to selfishness. What they need to see modeled for them is selflessness. No one can do a better job teaching selfless love than a couple who has learned that lesson often painfully.

     Consider Kevin and Julie Steuber of Overland Park, Kansas. Both had one failed marriage before marrying each other 15 years ago. Four years later, Julie filed for divorce. Police showed up to escort him out of the house. Why?

     ''Kevin was very controlling. When I got a job and brought home a paycheck, he said, `It has to be spent on what I say it goes to.' No matter how many times I explained how I felt, he did not understand. We differed on the way we should raise children, in our communication styles and did not agree on anything.''

     Kevin thought he was the ''perfect husband,'' a Christian who was a good provider, working at two jobs, who never chased other women. But he now ruefully acknowledges that ''I never listened to Julie, to hear what she needed. I couldn't understand why she got so emotional.''

     They paid $100 an hour for eight visits to a counselor who agreed that Kevin was doing all he could in the marriage. He told Julie, ''You better shape up and listen to your husband.''

     Pretty hopeless, right? Not at all, because Kevin was taken in by a friend, Dale Hedrick, who, with his wife, showed him videotapes by Gary Smalley, ''Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships'' which explain in an often humorous way, how radically men and women differ.  Dale also went to Julie and showed her the same videos. ''They softened my heart,'' she recalls. ''I learned why he does not understand my feelings. I agreed to allow him to come back to the house. 

     ''He then listed everything we had ever argued about, and said, `When I said this, I really hurt you.' He was right, dead on. Once you break through the communications barrier, how each sex works, we could work things out.''

     Today they lead a ''Marriage Assist Team'' of marriage mentors at Christ Lutheran Church who came alongside a dozen conflicted couples, all of whom saved their marriages. 

     The key, says Kevin, is ''God's plan for marriage. If you think of God first, your spouse second, and yourself last your priorities are straight. Selfishness is a huge problem.'' 

     He knows from experience and can teach it.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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