Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/17 2015

Pre-marital Counseling: Getting to the Heart of Marriage

premarital-counselingHave you ever overheard a conversation between a wedding coordinator and the pastor? I had one that went like this:

Wedding Coordinator: “Have you met the bride yet? She is a real Bridezilla. Her first question was about the carpet. She wanted to know if we were going to have it changed before her wedding. It seems she doesn’t like the color.”

Pastor: “Sounds like a bride with the wrong priorities!”

How does a pastor counsel a couple to focus on the right priorities? What is an essential and what is a frill? This is where competent pre-marital Christian counseling comes into play. To really get to the heart of marriage preparation, pre-marital counseling is vital. You may have noticed I wrote marriage preparation and not wedding preparation.

Many couples enter my office with a lovely planner that has lists and lists of things to do before the wedding. Rarely does the list mention “prepare for a marriage”. The wedding is important not because of extravagance but because it is a worship service. So, I tell them that I am certain we can plan for a beautiful worship service, but my most important job as a pastor is preparing them for marriage. It is my responsibility to take the focus away from a one day event and toward a lifelong commitment—a covenantal relationship between each other and God.

I generally hold three sessions with a couple. During the first session I get to know them. One of the key things we talk about are faith traditions, why they want to get married in the church, what their faith means to each of them, and where God is in their relationship. We discuss how they met, where they met, how long they dated before they got engaged, what they have in common, and where they have found themselves in conflict. Other topics are families of origin, family traditions, friends, education, careers, and their thoughts on having children and parenting. The conversation always leads to values and money (one of the key stressors in a marriage).

During the second session, we plan the worship service. This includes going through the entire service and offering them choices for each section of the liturgy. They also spend a significant amount of time reading Scripture together and deciding on passages that speak to them and their relationship. Watching their interactions during this process gives a great deal of insight into how they work together and problem solve. It gives room to begin the discussion on compromise. This also gives insight into how they respect each other, how they speak to one another, and how they value the other’s worth as a person. We talk about fighting fair: talking to each other in a respectful manner, no name calling, and discussing the matter at hand rather than every grievance they have from the past.

In the third session, we discuss how things have been going over the past few weeks and any concerns they have about the relationship. They have a chance to voice their struggles and areas of concern so that we can discuss them openly. I also ask what makes their relationship special and why they have decided they are meant to be together.

Every pastor has his/her own method of conducting pre-marital counseling. The important thing is that it is conducted openly and honestly and offers the couple the opportunity to truly explore their relationship. As a pastor with an Mdiv degree, when I sense that a couple has serious issues that go beyond my level of expertise, it is vital that I refer them to a person who is specialized in Christian counseling—like someone with a master of social work degree. I am never reluctant to refer a couple because as a pastor my desire is for them to enter into a solid, Christ-centered marriage based on a loving, devoted relationship. Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. In a successful marriage, each person gives 100 percent.

The Rev. Carolyn Cranston ’99 is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and serves as the director of alumnae/i and church giving. As an ordained teaching elder, she’s also temporary associate pastor at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and often officiates weddings.



10/2 2015

When Relationships Harm: How the Church Can Help

pastoral counseling relationshipsIntimate partner violence (also called “domestic violence” or “relationship violence”) is a subject about which many of us in the church know very little. Even if we do know something about it, we often feel uncomfortable discussing it. That may be because we believe that it doesn’t happen to people we know. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t so. A report released in 2011 found that more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner in their lifetime. Clearly, this is not something that just happens to “other people”; it’s happening right now in our faith communities, to people we know, and that means we need to spend some time thinking about this and about how we want to respond.

But, what can churches really do about this problem? Most of us are not professionally trained in this area, so how can we help? Here are a few suggestions for ways I think the church can respond to and maybe even help prevent intimate partner violence:

  1. Know our limits Most clergy and other congregational leaders are not trained professionals in the area of intimate partner violence. This means that when it comes to providing direct assistance, we will often need to refer to other agencies in our community who do have this expertise. Each congregation can be prepared for this by maintaining a resource list that includes various options for help (emergency shelters, financial assistance, care and counseling services, etc.). Even better, church leaders can develop relationships with these agencies so that when we have to refer, we have a personal contact who can help the person make the transition between caring communities.
  2. Acknowledge our responsibility Although most congregations are not fully equipped to deal directly with domestic violence, it is important for us to think about what responsibility we do have in these situations. We may not be able to offer certain kinds of help, but we can offer pastoral and spiritual care and the support of the religious community. No survivor of abuse or violence should feel they have to choose between the help of secular agencies and the support of their faith community. They need both in order to seek healing for themselves and their families.
  3. Think more carefully about our language and our theology How we talk about theological themes like love, marriage, suffering, and redemption within the church may help to lay the groundwork for healthier relationships, or it may perpetuate destructive patterns between partners. If we choose to, we can paint a different picture of the way relationships should be. We can communicate to those in our faith community the norms that we uphold as God’s expectations for us in intimate relationships: equality, honesty, accountability, and mutual respect. We can say very clearly, from the pulpit and all throughout our communities, that God doesn’t want anyone to suffer needlessly, and that abuse or violence in any form is contrary to the loving relationships that God longs to create among human beings. We can also teach that forgiveness within human relationships does not mean relieving someone of responsibility for his or her actions. This might remind us all that we don’t have to excuse abuse or violence in the name of forgiveness. Instead, we can hold up a vision of healthy relationships as being free from all forms of violence and coercion, while still holding out hope that transformation is possible.

In some ways, I think this last point might be the most important, because domestic violence doesn’t begin with violent actions. Instead, it has its origins in the attitudes of people who have come to believe that it is acceptable for one person in a relationship to exercise power over another. In our religious communities, our children and young people are watching us to find models of what adult relationships should be. If we can offer them healthier, more loving, and more respectful ways of understanding relationships in light of the practices and language of our faith traditions, we will be giving them an enormous gift. And in doing so, we may even be helping to prevent relationship violence from happening in the first place.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.