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October 13, 2001
Column #1050

(Second of a series of five columns)

MARRIAGE ENRICHMENT A NEGLECTED MINISTRY

     CARY, NC - Last weekend my wife and I were in Raleigh suburb training pastors and Mentor Couples in how to create a ''Marriage Savers Congregation'' that can virtually eliminate divorce. I asked couples to use their REFOCCUS marital inventory, and write down whether they agreed or disagreed with 10 statements like these:

I feel I can express myself clearly to my spouse.

My spouse sometimes discounts my feelings.

We find ourselves disagreeing about the same issues over and over.

I would like to change some of the ways we solve problems between us.

     The couples had 20 minutes to privately discuss their answers. (Husbands and wives, why not try your own experiment, with these four items?)

     Esau Harris, an African American pastor, returned shaking his head. ''We have got a lot to talk about!'' he declared. His wife, Tina, was beaming and gave me two thumbs up. Later I called them up to hear the details.

     ''What's visual is worth 1,000 words,'' he said. ''I can now see areas which I had tried to ignore, thinking that if you ignore them they will go away. You set an atmosphere for us to talk about things right then and there.''

     Tina added, ''There were things I had known, but it was hard to present them before. REFOCCUS gave me a way to get back to work on those things.''

     Asked for an example, Esau said ruefully, ''Out of 10 questions, we needed to talk about five of them! One in particular was, `We find ourselves disagreeing about the same issues over and over.' She said she agreed with that statement. I disagreed. Once I feel we have talked about something, it is sufficient for me. But she feels there has been no definite closure. So she brings the matter up over and over. I have to work better to be sure she has a sense of resolution.''

     Tina remembered an incident in which he met with a young lady who is almost a daughter to them, who shared private details of a relationship she was having. ''It bothered me. There are some things women should not tell men, and I said so. He did not take me seriously at that time. He said, `Forget that.' When we got in the car, I said, `When there is something I don't like, you make me feel that my ideas do not matter.'''

     Tina, who has been a co-pastor with Esau in a new start-up church, Rehoboth Worship Center, only a year and a half, also surprised her husband by disagreeing on another item: ''I feel I can express myself clearly to my spouse.'' He said, ''She is very outspoken. If there is ever something plaguing her mind, she has no problem talking. Her answer came as a complete shock.''

     His wife of 13 years shook her head, ''There are a lot of things I can't bring up to him and I deal with it myself. I don't want to seem sulky or whiny. So there's a lot I do not say.''

     Next week, Harriet and I will celebrate our 36th anniversary. I learned 26 years ago when we first attended a Marriage Encounter, that I was unaware how distressed she was over my temporary job in Washington while we lived in Connecticut. From her perspective, I was a workaholic, who never took time to listen to her or to spend time with our young boys. I was stunned when she said, ''You love your work more than me.'' In fact, I hated being away from my wife and family. From her point of view, I was gone while she was left alone with three young boys. I pledged to never abandon her again, and to take time on a daily basis to talk deeply about our lives. We fell back in love that weekend. It changed our lives.

     Our marriage improved so much that I became interested as a journalist in  researching other ways marriages could be improved, such as REFOCCUS. It is an inventory of 100 items, best taken in a weekend retreat with other couples, that only costs $13.75. There's even a REFOCCUS Manual with opening prayers and Scripture and sermon outlines for a retreat. (Call 402 551-9003. Ask for Kathy Butler.)

     Churches tend to ignore married couples, instead of realizing that couples need to refresh their marriage. Every congregation should have an annual retreat where couples can fall back in love again, as we did.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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