Where do I start?
Ministry requires never-ending learning and growing. I am constantly reminded about something I need to do and develop. Just a few weeks ago, a fellow elder emailed me, asking for guidance for how he and his wife should start their first meeting with a couple who was in marital crisis. My mind raced through my various training lessons and notes. What I found was too detailed, too sketchy, or not relevant.
As I started to jot down a few thoughts, I found myself grateful for the simple request, since it revealed a glaring hole in how we equip our ministry leaders. So I created a few lists.
The first list is what the leader couple—the husband and wife leading in the care—will share with the couple seeking help. The second list outlines what the leader couple will share with the couple who was asked to join the care process. What do I mean by this? At Sojourn Community Church, we seek to offer care in community, so we ask every couple requesting care to invite a couple from their community group to come with them. The benefit of this is twofold: (1) this helps ensure that the couple in care is receiving ongoing gospel-centered support outside the scheduled meeting times, and (2) it also helps equip the couple from the community to better care for others in the future. The criteria we set before those seeking help is to invite a couple whom they trust and who can encourage and challenge them in their life with God and one another.
These guidelines are far from being complete, but they cast a vision for what will take place in the first session and the weeks that follow. You may or may not go over all of these guidelines at the very start of the session. But it’s helpful to keep these points in mind so you can intentionally share them at the appropriate time and shepherd the couple accordingly.
A dozen principles for shepherding the couple receiving care
- Primary focus: Our primary focus is on each of your relationships with God, then on your marriage. Your individual relationship with God guides and empowers your relationship as husband and wife.
- Equal love: We are not for the husband or the wife, but for both of you. We will encourage both of you equally. You may be tempted to think we have a bias if we spend more time with either the husband or wife, but our desire is to love you both the same.
- Listen: Listening is love. Pay attention whenever your spouse speaks. Turn toward your spouse when he or she speaks. Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart. We may ask you questions based on what your spouse just shared.
- Draw out: Ask your spouse questions based on what you hear. Ask clarifying questions; draw out your spouse’s heart (TED: Thoughts, Emotions, Desires) with a loving curiosity.
- Talk to each other: There will be times when we will ask you a question so you can respond to your spouse, not us. We want you to respond to what your spouse shares—summarize what your spouse shared, and share your own reflection based on what your spouse shared.
- Talk about yourself: More times than not, we want you to share about your own struggles in your life with God, your spouse, and others. We will step in and redirect if you start to blame the other or simply talk about your spouse in hurtful ways.
- Not heard before: Let us know when your spouse shares something that you haven’t heard before. This will help us to understand your marriage and how God is at work. We may simply ask, “Have you heard this before?”
- Draw near to God: Encourage each other in your life with God and others. Help one another to remember God’s presence, promises, power, and pursuing love. Remind each other that Jesus continually invites us to come to Him and find rest (Matt. 11:28–30). Help each other to fight the good fight of faith. Encourage your spouse to respond to God’s invitation by faith in obedience.
- Effort: Marriage requires effort. Remember, God has called you to fight FOR each other, not fight AGAINST each other. God’s Spirit will empower you to do what you can’t do in your flesh. God always does so much more than what we ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
- Homework: Be intentional to do what we ask you to do between meetings. Husband, don’t force your wife to remind you to complete the assignment the night before our next meeting. Take the lead. Be intentional. Take time to discuss your reflections with each other. The assignment is for you to connect with God and one another.
- Notebook: We will be covering a lot of important information—from your spouse, yourself, us, and God. We want you to take notes, jotting down key thoughts, words, themes, Scripture passages, etc. You will also write down your assignments so you will not have to look for what we ask you to do at the end of our time together.
- Expectant: Have expectancy that God can and will work. He is FOR your marriage and FOR you (and your spouse) growing in relationship with Him. Be watchful for ways in which His Spirit is moving in your heart and within your spouse.
4 words of counsel for shepherding the couple coming alongside the couple with a marital crisis
- Purpose: You are here because your friends chose you to journey alongside of them. You are privileged to learn about the details of their story and struggles. You are here to encourage them in their journey with God and each other.
- Participate: You have freedom to ask questions, draw out the heart, and help them to remember the truths of the gospel and to respond to God by faith.
- Share: Feel free to share anytime something that is being discussed resonates with you (marital struggle, what God is showing you, etc.) as the Spirit leads. This will let your friends know they are not alone in their struggles. We may ask you to hold your question or comment if the timing is not right or if we feel the need to head in a different direction.
- Pursue and pray: You will know more about your friends than most. Be intentional to pursue one another between our meetings as you try to live life together. Encourage one another in Christ regularly. Pray for and with one another.
Join the conversation
What are some of your helpful guidelines for shepherding couples during care?
This article, What Principles Guide My First Meeting with a Couple in Marital Crisis?, first appeared on Biblical Counseling Coalition, June 16, 2015. Adapted for CareLeader.org with permission from author.