I’m sure many church leaders would agree they would love to meet the needs of every family, but to say there are obstacles to meeting this goal is an understatement. What church has the staff, the funding, the expertise, the time? In fact, many churches provide only premarital preparation and perhaps an occasional enrichment program for married couples, such as a fee-based retreat.
Half of marriages are failing within churches, just as they are outside of churches; 75% of divorced couples remarry. So, in addition to supporting first-time marriages and assisting couples in crisis, large numbers of divorced, remarried and step-families bring their own unique needs. Some marriages struggle with financial problems, others with sexual problems. Other families are challenged with raising a special needs child. What minister or priest is qualified, equipped and prepared to meet all the needs?
In 2002, Eric and Jennifer Garcia were volunteer church leaders in Arizona running a marriage mentoring program with 150 couples as mentors. They trained other churches to run similar programs, but they realized as they sought to expand services that they lacked the expertise, funding and staff to properly serve everyone. So Eric decided to call the association he was sure existed—the one that would provide expertise to ministries trying to serve church families and strengthen marriages. He was astounded that no such organization existed.
Eric called John Trent, bestselling author and founder of StrongFamilies, to ask him to recommend an organization that could help, but Trent told him, “No one is doing that.” Trent suggested they create an organization that would proactively equip the church.
So Eric, who had been looking for help, started wondering if he could be part of the solution. His wife, Jennifer, had concerns and initially balked at the idea of launching the organization. Eric and Jennifer were committed to “doing life” together and he wanted her full support before moving forward. “She knew from me building three companies I could make anything happen. Whether God was involved was another story,” Eric says. But when her concerns were all addressed, she gave the idea the thumbs up. Thirty leaders were flown in from around the country to launch Association of Marriage and Family Ministries (AMFM). Today, more than 100 volunteer partners provide support all over the country under the AMFM umbrella.
AMFM works with church leadership, mostly lay leaders, rather than end users. Eric says the church must be healed relationally before it can effectively impact the culture.
“Text messaging is the millennial generation’s definition of intimacy,” says Eric. He adds that cohabitation is rising rapidly “because young people have no model for what positive marriage looks like.” He explains the biggest wound in the culture today (fractured families) provides the biggest opportunity for the church to serve its people.
Eric gets the attention of pastors and priests with research on the impact to churches when one family divorces—80% of the time both spouses leave the church. The church loses all the family’s volunteerism and financial offerings, and also loses its spiritual influence on the parents and children. “The more you see families fractured, the less we see them in church,” says Eric.
The problem, says Eric, is with viewing marriage enrichment as a silo, or singular ministry. He says families are the backbone—the heartbeat—of the church. Without families, there is no church.
AMFM is reaching out in new ways to broaden its ministry, gathering resources for African-American churches, Hispanic churches and Catholic churches, since he feels the need to support and heal the family affects all churches equally. Rather than a ministry-in-a-box approach, AMFM customizes support based on the folks in the pews, whether they are young families or retired couples.
“Providing only marriage prep is like buying a new car and never getting an oil change, never cleaning it, never doing maintenance,” Eric says. The Garcias strongly believe that healthy marriages produce strong families, which create vibrant churches that impact the communities they serve and the world that we all live in.
Church leaders are invited to contact AMFM to discuss their marriage ministry needs.
Would you use skills-based training from a public organization or faith-based support for your family? If you attend church, do you feel your church offers adequate services to support families? Should the faith community do more heal relationships within its own walls?