Prioritizing Marriage: Minnesota Church Mentors Couples Through Every Season

In our Real Ministries for Real Marriages series, we look at how churches across the country are thinking up ways to meet the needs of couples in their congregations—from those anticipating a wedding, to those seeking to strengthen a healthy marriage, to those grieving a divorce.

Two years ago, a woman named Jennifer approached the altar during a Sunday service at River Valley Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and asked a prayer team member to pray that God would give her the strength to leave her husband the next day. The prayer leader asked Jennifer if she could revise the prayer and instead ask the Lord to help her give the marriage another chance. She agreed, and the prayer leader invited Jennifer to attend a marriage ministry class.

The next day, instead of gathering her bags, Jennifer gathered her courage and went to church to seek help in mending her broken marriage.

“Jennifer and her husband immediately took hold of the process like a life preserver ring was thrown to them,” recalls Pam Johnson, Care Ministries pastor at River Valley. “They grabbed on to it and were open to what God wanted to do.”

Not only did Jennifer and her spouse resurrect their marriage, but they also now serve in a leadership capacity at River Valley, where average weekly attendance is 7,500.

Johnson maintains that the missing ingredient in so many relationships these days is hope, and that’s what the church’s marriage ministry aspires to restore for couples who are struggling.

“There aren’t enough voices speaking hope into marriage these days,” says Johnson. “Marriages need God’s breath of life breathed into them.”

The marriage ministry at River Valley offers help to couples through all seasons of life, including the premarital stage.

If a couple wants to strengthen their marriage, they complete a marriage mentor request form that provides relevant background information, then are matched with a trained mentor couple based on their needs. This often works better than attending traditional couple’s therapy where one half of the couple may not feel understood if the counselor is of the opposite sex.

“What’s great about the mentoring piece of the marriage ministry is that the husband gets to speak to another husband and the wife gets to speak to another wife,” explains Johnson. “It feels like a level playing field where everyone is heard.”

In the past five years, this strategy has helped over 450 couples at River Valley.

Engaged couples also get paired with mentors. The husband- and wife-to-be fill out a questionnaire, which the mentor couple assesses. Then together, the couples discuss various topics, including effective communication, conflict resolution and financial unity.

All couples who participate in marriage mentoring at River Valley complete an online survey that discloses areas in which they are struggling as well as potential growth areas. The survey encompasses 10 categories, which the mentor couple works through, starting with communication. For example, if a husband and wife argue over finances because one is a spender and one is a saver, the mentors use a visual model called “Rounding the Bases” that allows the couple to think of dealing with an issue in terms of a baseball diamond. First base involves identifying the issue. Second base is validating that issue. Third base is working toward an agreement. Once they are both satisfied with the agreement, they’ve reached home plate.

“The baseball diamond is a great visual for everyone,” says Johnson. “My husband and I will often come across an issue and say, ‘We need to round the bases with that.’”

This process began in 2010 when Johnson became familiar with the Dare to Be Different (DARE) marriage mentoring program. DARE utilizes the round-the-bases model to empower couples to solve issues on their own.

“Our mentors are not therapists who are trained to fix people,” stresses Johnson. “They’re facilitators there to provide tools that aid in the process of healing.”

The mentoring aspect of the ministry has received overwhelmingly positive feedback. “I have a whole file of evaluations from folks who say that this process saved their marriage,” says Johnson.

Marriage seminar nights are offered to anyone in the community. In the past, the church has hosted two different three-hour seminars. One is called “Love and Respect,” a seminar by author Emerson Eggerichs based on Ephesians 5:33. The other is called “Becoming One,” a seminar by Pastor Jimmy Evans that focuses on becoming one in heart, mind, soul and flesh. Both are designed to demonstrate how husbands and wives can reap the benefits of a holy union.

Johnson and her husband have traveled to Spain and Thailand to train couples in the mentoring process, at the urging of Lead Pastor Rob Ketterling, who is passionate about the ministry. In fact, he has his pastoral staff complete the marriage health assessment every other year. If any of the pastors are struggling in any of the growth areas, Ketterling makes sure they get help.

River Valley has more than 80 trained mentors, yet church leaders are careful not to burn out their mentoring couples. As a result, they ask volunteers to mentor only a few couples per year.

The ministry is very popular, and that’s a good thing, says Johnson. So often in today’s society marriage takes a backseat to children, careers, sports and hobbies. People get swept up in the bits of pieces of life and lose sight of the big picture.

“Our marriages should come right below our relationship with Christ,” says Johnson. “When we put our priorities in the proper order, our quality of life improves dramatically.”

Apple Valley, Minnesota
Senior Pastor: Rob Ketterling
Twitter: @RobKetterling
Founded: 1995
Affiliation: Assemblies of God
Locations: 7
Weekend Attendance: 6,319
Fastest-Growing: 47
Largest: 75

Read about more Real Ministries for Real Marriages »

Christy Heitger-Ewing
Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is a contributing writer for Outreach magazine. In addition, Christy pens the “Now & Then” column in Cabin Life magazine. She also writes regularly for Christian publications such as Encounter, Insight, and the Lookout. She is the author of Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat.