There is almost nothing sweeter than a euphoric, newly engaged couple who grant you the honor of being the one to help them prepare for marriage and then tie the knot. Premarital counseling is a monumental responsibility, and sometimes it is hard to know where to start and what tools are available to help. Before signing the happy couple up for their first counseling session, spend some time thoughtfully designing a process that will truly meet their needs and prepare them for the future.
Laws do not require pastors to be licensed therapists to provide premarital counseling, but that does not necessarily mean that seminary provides all of the education needed to do a thorough job of it. Around half of all pastors feel ill-prepared to serve couples, and so if you are in that number, you are not alone. Check with your denomination and local seminaries for continuing education classes in premarital counseling or pastoral care and counseling. Courses range from a few hours to a few days, and oftentimes congregations will help to subsidize the cost, especially if continuing education costs are already included in your contract.
Choose an Assessment Tool
Assessment tools give you and the couple you are serving an inside look at what makes their relationship tick and their areas of conflict, strengths and blind spots. After the couple complete the assessment, you submit it for scoring and receive interpreted results that highlight areas to cover with your clients. Some assessment tools require you to attend a class or training before you are allowed to administer the test. Check with your denomination to see if it has a preference. If it does not, some assessment tools to consider are Prepare/Enrich, Myers-Briggs, PREP, FOCCUS and RELATE.
Design your premarital counseling sessions around the basics of married life, as well as your couple's assessment results. Be sure to cover each person's spiritual journey, faith beliefs about marriage, the roles of each partner within the relationship, deal breakers, health and HIV testing, sex life, money, children, careers, relational maintenance and communication. Sometimes it is helpful to have each partner take a Love Language quiz to aid in learning communication and relationship maintenance skills for the long haul. Help your couple manage expectations about the ups and downs of any committed relationship, and equip them with tools for how to reach out for help during difficult seasons. Tailor the number of premarital counseling sessions to the needs of your couple, as well as to the material you hope to cover.
Discuss the Process
Meet with the engaged couple to discuss the premarital counseling process, including the assessment tool, the number of sessions recommended and the total cost for the assessment and sessions, as well as any cancellation policy. Be sure to communicate that you are clergy and not a licensed therapist and that you will refer them to other help if it is needed. The couple should sign a contract stating that they understand the terms and limitations of your service. Some churches and clergy opt to offer a certain number of low-income couples access to free premarital counseling services each year, do sessions on a sliding scale or offer free sessions to members of the congregation. Make sure that your church board is on the same page with whatever you decide to do.
Growth Mindset Is Key
Incorporate a growth mindset into your premarital counseling because it is helpful for both you and your clients to remember that people are constantly growing and changing. Premarital counseling is not designed to make things perfect before marriage but rather to increase awareness and equip couples with tools for growing together in healthy ways.
Community is key to a healthy marriage, so encourage your clients to find couples to mentor them in marriage. This could be possible through a congregational support group for engaged and newly married couples or even through small groups and Bible studies. Worship attendance keeps couples plugged into a community of people who care about them and are ready to help, pray and support as the need arises.
Premarital counseling does not always end on the last session. Newlyweds experience a wide range of changes in their first year or two of marriage. It takes time and practice to learn new coping and communication skills. It is not always easy to compromise and accept the other partner exactly where and as they are, and many couples need extra help. Agree on set times and ways to check in with the newlyweds during the first year or two of marriage, simply to see how things are going and to offer to be of service.
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- The 5 Love Languages: Discover Your Love Language
- Prepare/Enrich: Premarital Couples
- Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy: Solution-Focused Premarital Counseling – Helping Couples Build a Vision for Their Marriage
- Contemporary Family Therapy: Premarital Counseling – A Needs Assessment Among Engaged Individuals
- Pastoral Psychology: A New Model for Premarital Counseling Within the Church
- Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling: Clergy Beliefs, Preparation, and Practice in Premarital Counseling
- Journal of Marital and Family Therapy: A Review of Three Comprehensive Premarital Assessment Questionnaires
- Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy: Predicting the Short- and Long-Term Helpfulness of Premarital Counseling
- Journal of Religion and Health: African American Clergy Share Perspectives on Addressing Sexual Health and HIV Prevention in Premarital Counseling
- Iowa State University: The Preparation of Pastors in Premarital Counseling
- Journal of Psychology and Christianity: Christian PREP – An Empirically Based Model for Marital and Premarital Intervention
- FOCCUS Inc: Become a Facilitator
- RELATE Institute: Frequently Asked Questions
- MBTI Training Institute: Counselors, Coaches, Therapists, Clergy
- United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries: Marriage Preparation Ministries in United Methodist Churches
- Model good listening skills as well as teaching them.
- Help the couple feel comfortable with you and safe in revealing difficult issues.
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- It is better to be up front about difficult relationship patterns than to have a couple come to you during divorce for help two years later.
Anne Kinsey is a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach and missionary, residing in rural North Carolina. She is the founder of Love Powered Life, a nonprofit organization with the mission of creating loving community for trafficking survivors and their families. Anne has enjoyed writing for publications like Working Mother, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, Bizfluent and Career Trend. She resides in rural North Carolina with her husband, three children and a house full of furry friends.