Q: How should the church counsel or advise when a couple within the congregation is headed towards divorce?
There are no easy answers to this question. Every marriage is unique, and the factors contributing to the end of a marriage are also unique. We do know the truth of God's plan for covenant commitment in marriage. We don't necessarily know the truth of what happens between a husband and wife in the privacy of their own home.
The most important thing we can offer a couple heading for divorce is to listen.
Show them we care for them as two people, not just as a "marriage to save." Listen to their stories and honor their trust by keeping what they share confidential.
Encourage the couple to seek professional help. Despite rumors to the contrary, marriage and family therapists are trained to improve marriages. They don't recklessly encourage divorce. Even if one spouse won't go to counseling, encourage the other to go - although this is not the ideal situation, it can still be helpful.
Support and pray for the couple. Offer them practical help such as childcare so they can spend time together working on their relationship.
If previous or present abuse in the home is discovered, don't ignore it or dismiss the claim. Some of the nicest people have committed domestic violence. Don't ever tell victims of spousal abuse that if they would just submit to their spouse the abuse would end. Help them find a safe place and protection.
Take care not to preach. A husband or wife who has reached the point of considering divorce hurts enough already. Using Scripture as a whip may simply drive them from the church. They need a place of refuge and grace.
Don't take sides. Listening can take place without getting caught up in blaming one or the other for the conflict between them.
Perhaps we're asking the wrong question to focus on our response to divorce. By the time the word "divorce" is spoken, minds are often made up. It may be too late. We need to ask ourselves how we care for relationships from the beginning, to consider our responsibility for each other and for the marriages in our Christian community.
Judi Schwanz is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Holiness Today, July-August 2010