What Pastors Need to Know About Premarital Education

“What did Jesus say about marriage?” a Sunday school teacher asked her students. Cindy, a third grader, raised her hand high and said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do!”

Silly as this old Sunday school joke may be, it is not far from the reality that couples who enter into marriage are often ill-prepared to deal with common but difficult challenges encountered in marital relationships. Our U.S. society requires a license to drive a car, rightly so, and encourages teenagers to take driver’s education because people’s lives are at stake. Marriage educators often bemoan that our society hands out marriage licenses without adequately preparing couples to meet difficult challenges in marital relationships.

Clergy are in a unique position to make significant contributions for their parishioners as they often take part in parishioners’ rites of passage, including marriage. Yet educating clergy to teach premarital education is often neglected in theological education. In this article, I will review several important issues about premarital education and what clergy can do to help couples better prepare for marriage.

What do we know about marriage, premarital education, and divorce?

There has been plethora of research about marriage, marriage education, and divorce in the past twenty years or so, and we know a lot about them. Even so, the national divorce rate in U.S. has remained steady at around 50 percent. Many researchers point out that negative effects of divorce are grave and wide-ranging and include an increased risk of psychopathology, increased rates of accidents, increased incidence of physical illness, violence, and homicide, decreased longevity, and more. Children may also suffer damaging effects, such as depression, health problems, poor academic performance, and poor social competence. The effects of divorce are not limited to the boundaries of the family, but also contribute to social, economic, and political problems.

Recognizing the deleterious social effects of failed marriage, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 has provided 150 million dollars each year for the last several years to many organizations across the country for healthy marriage promotion (and fatherhood). Such government funding helped promote many premarital education resources including David and Claudia Arp’s 10 Great Dates before You Say I Do, John Van Epp’s How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (or Jerkette), and premarital inventories including FOCCUS Inc.’s FOCCUS (Facilitate Open Caring Communication Understanding and Study) and David and Karen Olson’s PREPARE/ENRICH. Excellent nonreligiousrelationship education resources for teenagers are also available at The Dibble Institute. Although we do not yet know whether the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 made a significant impact in reducing the national divorce rate, it is welcome news that many local churches have become more interested in relationship education in recent years.

Does marriage preparation or premarital education work?

It has been well-established that premarital education, when delivered properly, helps couples avert bad marriages and, once married, contributes to increased marital stability. One of the most significant research studies on this topic has been a national study conducted in 1995 by Creighton University’s Center for Marriage and Family. The study examined the efficacy of premarital education with 1300 married couples across the U.S. who received premarital education. According to the study, about two-thirds of the couples who were asked rated premarital education highly valuable. As a result of marital preparation programs, 3 to 5 percent of the couples cancelled their marriage plans because, presumably, they discovered that they were not ready for marriage or that they were not a good match for each other. Couples receiving premarital education four months or less before the wedding date do not cancel the marriage. For this reason, it is suggested that premarital education should be offered a minimum of six to eight months prior to the wedding. Canceling marriage was better facilitated by the use of a self-diagnostic tool such as FOCCUS.

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