My parents divorced when I was nine years old. Except for very occasional cards and notes, my father pretty much disappeared from my life.
Nobody explained what was happening. In fact, I learned about the divorce overhearing my mother explain to my two older brothers why we were moving.
We left New Jersey, where we’d been living, and went to live with my grandfather in Maine. Only later in life would I realize his ability to provide a home prevented the economic disaster experienced by many single-parent families.
I count the small Methodist church we joined was as one of the greatest influences in my young life. When I joined the active youth group in my new community, I was surrounded by adults who loved, inspired and guided me. Often, they filled the gaps in my broken family.
In my teens I was involved in district, sub-district and conference events. I worked in the craft shop at the conference church camp during summers. While I felt a call to ministry, I also wanted to marry and have children. At that time (the 1950s), there were no married women pastors as role models to be found.
Happily, the young man with whom I fell in love decided to become a minister. I rejoiced I could have it all: marriage, children and a ministry as a pastor's wife. Early on, however, we didn’t exactly “ride off happily into the sunset” as I’d anticipated. Marriage didn’t solve my problems and anxieties.
While we generally thought of ourselves as blessed and happy after our 10th anniversary, I occasionally found myself unreasonably discontent, irritable and prone to slamming cupboard doors. Cliff didn't understand my anger, and actually I didn't either.
By that time, we had three amazing children, served a wonderful local church, had many cherished friends -- so much for which to be thankful. Still, there was unrest between us.
Cliff usually retreated from my angry outbursts. He hadn’t yet learned to be an active listener, and I hadn’t yet learned to communicate in "I feel” messages.
Fortunately, we had an opportunity to participate in a marriage enrichment retreat. That event (and others we have attended through the years) changed our marriage and our lives.
Having grown up in a family that didn't talk about feelings, I struggled to understand and suppress my anger, often blaming someone else for it. Through the retreat, I learned (and was surprised) it’s okay to be angry; it’s a perfectly normal human response that indicates something needs attention.
I learned to tune in to my anger to figure out my needs and how to express my feelings and needs without attack or assigning blame. Cliff learned to stay present when I was upset and to ask empathetic questions about my needs.
At home, we began a transformed life as we practiced "I messages" and active listening between ourselves, with our children and in other relationships as well.
That event took place almost 50 years ago. We went on to become Certified Marriage Enrichment Leaders and Trainers through the organization now called Better Marriages (formerly the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment).
Every time we participate in or lead a marriage enrichment or relationship education event, we still learn something new about ourselves and about the emotional baggage we brought into our marriage: my fear of abandonment and Cliff’s uncertainty about how to deal with a woman’s feelings.
We learned — and continue to learn — how to express love deeply and openly, how to share our feelings and needs, and how to manage the conflicts that are inevitable in any intimate relationship.
When Cliff was elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church, we questioned whether we’d continue leading marriage enrichment retreats and training events. As it turned out, we found couples eager for us to continue the training. They discovered the experience not only gave them skills to share with others but also improved their own relationships.
In the meantime, through several acts of grace, I, a teacher who always wanted to be a writer, was invited to compile a collection of stories about marriage ministry for Discipleship Ministries, called Couples Who Care. After completing that project, I proposed and published a second collection, Couples Who Cope. Next, I was offered the opportunity to write a spiritual guide for volunteers in mission as well as write the third edition of the Growing Love in Christian Marriage (GLCM) Pastor's Manual, which Cliff and I revised and updated together.
Are your ministries filling in the gaps of the broken homes in your congregation and community?
Working on that project, which focused primarily on marriage preparation, deepened my growing conviction that it isn’t enough for a church to offer effective pre-marital counseling and education. If we’re serious about “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (the mission of The United Methodist Church), we must equip people to build and nurture healthy relationships.
To slow the trend of family breakdown and mitigate its devastating effects on our communities, churches need to offer
- relationship education for children, youth and adults
- marriage preparation, education and enrichment
- ministries for families in crisis, transition and special situations
- ministries for singles
These convictions led me to develop an annotated list of various resources focused on marriage, families and healthy relationships recommended by United Methodists around the connection. This compilation continues to grow.
I also began collecting and collating contact information for people trained in various relationship ministries, creating a United Methodist Marriage and Family Ministries Directory, which is also maintained on my own website along with a calendar of events and trainings. I have a contract with Discipleship Ministries to continue researching, writing and updating these documents and for responding to inquiries from individuals and churches.
The church made a huge difference in my life, serving as an extended family and providing the relationship education and support I needed. There’s a deep hunger within our churches and communities for interpersonal skills building and family support systems.
It delights me to connect with persons already providing or seeking information about effective relationship education and enrichment ministries. Please let me know of your questions and share information about your ministries.