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Marriage and Social Justice: Ideas for Churches

Following up on my previous post “Marriage and Social Justice,” what can churches do? While I’m applying for an MS in Marital & Family Therapy, I’m not an expert quite yet. Nevertheless, here are a few preliminary ideas:

Evaluate what you have.
Get the help of those with appropriate training in your church (or bring in experts from outside) to evaluate how your church could improve various structures, programs, etc. to better include people from different kinds of families, as well as to best equip these people to move toward healthy, stable relationships. Be sure to consider lifespan development and what specific age groups, as well as other population groups, may need.

Make marriage a priority in your outreach budget and hiring decisions.
As you reach out into your church’s neighborhood or a low-income neighborhood in your community, consider hiring (alone or with the help of partnering churches) a therapist and/or family life educator to offer services to individuals that otherwise wouldn’t have these resources.

Help families care for their children.
Consider sponsoring a daycare center for low-income families. If subsidized by your church, parents who otherwise would struggle to find affordable childcare will have a quality option—and you have the power to make certain this is a place where children are loved and educated well by intelligent and compassionate caregivers. This helps families (especially single-parent households) economically, but also lets your church be a part of nurturing children whose family life (and world generally) might be pretty unstable.

Be pro-active in caring for teens and young adults.
Consider, especially, the needs of teens and young adults as they try to understand their families of origin and the possibilities for their own relationships. This might include forming a special small group for college students coming from divorced or dysfunctional families or developing new and better ways of talking about sex and relationships with teenagers.

Try to remain flexible and refrain from judgment, even as you advocate against certain behaviors.
Foster an environment of support that challenges people without judging them. This is especially needed for single parents, cohabitating couples, divorced individuals, etc. Do whatever needs to be done to make certain these people are integrated into your church as a whole. For example, consider whether “couples” small groups are really the best way to structure the majority of your adult Bible studies or whether it might be useful to purposely include any cohabitating couples at your church on a marriage retreat (after all, couldn’t their relationship also use some extra investment?). Dealing with the ethics of various situations is always tricky, but whatever you do, be sure you are creating spaces for people to grow in positive directions.

Acknowledge difficult topics.
You may need to offer teaching and resources relating to abuse, rape, infidelity, sexual addiction, and the like. It’s easier to pretend these issues aren’t in our churches, but since they are, to care for people well, we need to help them deal with them spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.

That’s just a start… anyone else have ideas to offer?

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Marriage and Social Justice

Do you ever read statistics about marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood and wonder where these changes are taking place? Sure, we know more and more families in our communities who part ways at some point, but it’s not like a whole third of our kids’ friends were born out of wedlock!

Let me suggest (especially if you’re white or fairly well-off) that you are looking in the wrong neighborhood. There is a ridiculous correlation between race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other such factors and lower rates of stable marriages. Take a break from this blog and catch up with these eighteen quick and easy graphs: http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/2008update.pdf. Take special note of the various ways in which race, gender, and the like affect results.

It’s clear that practices relating to marriage are changing. Can you believe the number of cohabitating couples has risen over 68% just from 2000 to 2007? That’s crazy! There are certainly larger cultural issues going on here. However, when we note, in particular, the ways in which white families and black families differ, how can we not see marriage as a social justice issue?

I’m not trying to say single parents can’t be good parents. I’m not saying all marriages are worthy of continuing. And I’m certainly not saying that families or individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds should be shamed. I do think, though, that we need to consider the sociological factors that are leading to these differences and the inequalities represented by those factors. (For example, stress about money can put a strain on any relationship.) We also need to consider the various inequalities—especially for children—that these family outcomes create.

I don’t think we often consider marriage and family issues related to social justice. For one, many would see marital status as better able to be controlled than income or neighborhood—so if you’re a single parent, we think that’s your choice (read: fault) and not our problem. Secondly, I think we who care about social justice often shy away from the topic of marriage, due to Focus on the Family connotations. An obsession with marriage seems likely just to alienate people or to connect us with the reactionary sort of conservatives we wish would stop trying to represent Christianity.

I think we’ve got to stop seeing things this way. There are some very destructive cycles going on in our culture at large, but especially within certain communities. We can’t force anyone to get married, stay married, or certainly to have a good marriage. However, we can start learning about the ways in which social inequalities and marriage and family outcomes are linked in a mutual reinforcing cycle, and we can start using our own skills and resources—individually and as churches—to remedy the situation.

I think we need to better educate and counsel on topics relating to sexuality, marriage, and parenting, especially focusing on the neighborhoods and communities hit hardest by family brokenness. There are many people with no or few models of healthy behaviors and relationships, which I think makes it difficult for them to envision possibilities. I think that with more people to walk alongside them, more information, and professional therapy, teens and young adults from all backgrounds can better heal from their own family pain and move towards happy, committed relationships in adulthood.

We absolutely must have a more pro-active stance.

Specific ideas for churches to come. :o)

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Those Sexy Protestants

The other day in class, I was reading Wikipedia articles to refresh my memory on Katharina and Martin Luther. I’m not entirely sure how I got on the topic, besides that I wanted to make certain that Katharina had indeed been a nun prior to marrying Martin, as some of the ex-monk reformers married nuns, while others didn’t. This information is very significant, because Jeremiah and I have discussed being a monk and nun for Halloween, and to make this seem less disrespectful, I wanted to be sure we had a real historical monk-nun couple we could refer to. “See, we’re not just promoting bad behavior among monks and nuns, we’re representing a real monk and nun that had a romance going on!” Who can argue with people trying to teach church history?

This raised, in my mind, for the first time, a deep irony within the Protestant tradition. How odd it is that we are just now beginning (and I mean beginning) to more openly discuss sexuality from a Christian perspective. While sex was certainly not the most important issue for the reformers, it seems the Reformation made a point of saying, “Catholics have got this wrong.” Because they believed sex was a good thing, priests should be allowed to marry. Hence, for the first time in a long while, the theological leaders of this time had wives. While I’ve heard some negative gender-related quotes from Martin, and I’m not trying to lift up his marriage as any sort of modern-day ideal, I do feel like for his time, he and Katharina were in some sense progressive. This seems to be a part of our heritage to celebrate.

We, as Protestants, at once point in time, intentionally embraced sex as something good, the source of differences in Protestant requirements for ministers (marriage is allowed), as well as our openness to birth control today. How ironic that we don’t proudly own that, and how sad that we have made so little progress in developing serious theological reflection on gender and sexuality over the past few centuries.

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Re-envisioning Engagement (Part 3)

Yes, I’m finally concluding this series, as promised long ago!

In my first post on engagement I argued that engagement should be seen (generally, but especially among Christians) as a state of being increasing almost married rather than firmly still not married. In my second post on engagement, I argued that engagement’s purpose should not be to plan an elaborate wedding. And now, finally, I will conclude by arguing that engagement’s purpose is also not to act as a marital insurance policy.

If one has decided engagement isn’t for wedding planning, it seems a common view is that engagement is a time to figure out that the relationship is definitely right. I’m not in any way trying to be critical of those who have gone through the painful process of breaking off an engagement, of course, so please don’t misunderstand me. For those that have had good reason to break of engagements, I applaud you for your thoughtfulness and courage.

More generally, however, if we go into engagement thinking this is still a tentative commitment, I think we’re approaching engagement and commitment in the wrong way. If you aren’t sure you want to be married, don’t get engaged. It makes life easier. While most aren’t going into engagement thinking it’s quite the trial-and-error process that cohabitation has become to many, I do think engagement is taken much less seriously than marriage itself and perhaps, without making it the equivalent of marriage already, the seriousness might need to go up a notch for many.

Due to the perception that engagement is somehow quite distinct from marriage, it seems many treat engagement, if not as a trial period beyond dating, some sort of time to guarantee the success of the marriage. The easiest example of this is premarital counseling. Time to do premarital counseling is often cited as a good reason for the length of engagement, as if the counseling will be vastly different before marriage versus after. Personally, I find that hard to believe. You will be the same people with the same issues before and after, so unless you are still thinking that something bad you discover in counseling might make you back out of the marriage, I don’t think creating time for counseling should be a major factor in delaying marriage, either. If you already know you want to marry someone and aren’t treating engagement as the trial period dating should be, I see no reason to not to start counseling ASAP, as well as get married ASAP–with the two possibly overlapping. In fact, it seems it might be more useful to have some sessions before and some sessions after, as you will probably have plenty of adjustment to do post-marriage.

I will admit my thoughts here aren’t as developed as they were for my first two posts… but I felt I should write the third as planned. In all of this, it seems the purpose of engagement is simply to get things together, to begin the transition. So you figure out your housing arrangements and your bank accounts and what, if any, ceremony you’re having, but it doesn’t need to drag out so you can make certain this is right or do something magic now to “prepare” for a good marriage (hopefully you were preparing the whole time you were dating by building a healthy relationship!) or to make the ceremony extravagant. The focus should always be on the fact that you’re becoming more and more married and wanting to make certain you are appropriately transitioning–which in my opinion would include increased emotional attachment and commitment, despite the fact that others won’t “recognize” your commitment until your wedding. One of the most frustrating things about engagement to me is this emphasis, even in jest, on hanging on to being single for a little while longer–and it just seems that’s not the point of the whole thing. I think the more you are able to transition now, the less potentially stressful adjusting you’ll have to do (to not being autonomous, etc.) later. And that, I think, is what the church should be helping engaged couples do: to help them understand and adjust to marriage as smoothly as possible.

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Re-envisioning Engagement (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

In addition to understanding engagement as a dynamic state of being increasingly “almost married” (notably, lodged between two other dynamic states), I think we would benefit from changing at least two other elements of our view of engagement.

First, I want to contest the common view that the purpose of engagement is to plan a wedding. I think a wedding at its best is a celebration of a good thing in community. However, it seems that both the time and money required to have a wedding–or at least one that that competes with the contents of bridal magazines or our childhood fantasies–delay most marriages.

I find it telling that in a different time and culture engagement and marriage were often done quite differently. My grandparents married in the early 50s, when they were in their 20s. Mimi and Granddad met in June and started a relationship nearly immediately. They soon started talking about marriage, declared their plans more officially in December, and were married in a pastor’s home in February, with only my granddad’s family attending. (Hers lived in Chicago at the time and couldn’t make a trip to Kentucky.

While many people at the time had weddings, they did not. And according to my grandmother, this was not at all uncommon. I suppose we don’t know when most people today would get married without so much hoopla, but I find it telling that a year-long engagement is “standard” primarily because of the time needed to plan a wedding (just Google “engagement length” and check out the forums where women are comparing timelines) and that some people even opt to wait multiple years to marry to gather sufficient funds for the ceremony of their dreams.

When I asked Mimi if she thinks the rising popularity of cohabitation has contributed significantly to the lengthening of engagement, she replies with a hearty yes. People had shorter engagements and simpler ceremonies in the past, she believes, because it was culturally unacceptable to move in together or have sex without a marriage license.

I think it’s legitimate to have opinions about what you want your wedding to be like, and I don’t think it’s bad to spend time and money on some of the elements that are more important to you. However, I find it unfortunate that we put such a focus on weddings that few people feel they can get married without one of sufficient granduer. This not only creates a culture of weddings which marginalizes the have-nots (something we as Christians should avoid), but also encourages people to wait longer to get married for questionable reasons. Is a fancier ceremony really worth delaying your marriage for several more months? For some, perhaps, it is–and it’s not my place to judge them–but I feel shorter engagements would be better for many couples.

Weddings are a cultural practice, so they will undoubtedly be influenced by our cultures. We feel societal pressure to do our weddings in certain ways, and it’s not an evil thing to take part in this part of culture by following many of these norms. But we don’t need to follow every cultural convention, especially as we, as Christians, seek to do life in a way that aligns with kingdom values. And since these values include things such as chastity, commitment, generosity, and giving up status, I see a lot of pros with creating a culture of simpler, sooner weddings.

In my opinion, if you’re committed to each other and want to be married, it makes sense to go ahead and be married–and I believe we as Christians should do a better job supporting that.

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Re-envisioning Engagement (Part 1)

I will eventually get better at blogging again–I promise!

I’ve never been good at being normal, so it’s probably not a surprise that I’m not a typical bride. What feminist could be? What you may not have realized is that I’m so atypical, I actually hate being engaged. And I appear to be the first woman ever to feel this way. A few Google searches have found very few results with “engagement” and “frustrating,” “hate,” or “sucks” in the same sentence, save a few complaints about military engagement in various locales.

As a teenager I frequently picked out my own birthday presents, which I don’t think is a rarity in and of itself; however, I also frequently talked my mom into letting me receive certain gifts early for one reason or another. Given my history, I openly admit, part of my disdain for engagement is a simple lack of patience. However, I also, over the past several months, have been reflecting on the significance of marriage and how it “ought to be done,” and I think some genuine criticisms can be made of how engagement/marriage work in our society, especially when viewed from a Christian perspective.

First, I would like to point out that engagement is a fairly invisible state outside of the marketplace. While temporary, everyone that is married was once engaged, yet you’d hardly even know it. Engagement seems to be nothing but a special subset of dating, tacked on at the end of the courtship process, and certainly distinct from marriage itself. Perhaps this distinction is less sharp outside of religious circles that ban cohabitation, but within evangelical Christianity, there is a clear divide. For example, churches often feature various activities for married couples, but only a few churches make certain their language is inclusive toward other committed couples. While I could write an additional post or two about the consequences this has on our evangelistic efforts (if a non-Christian couple that lives together isn’t welcome in a couple’s small group, too, what does that say about your church’s hospitality?), I want to focus here on the fact that this excludes Christians who are seriously dating or engaged who may very well be “closer” to marriage than not. And would it be such a bad thing for these couples to also be included in couples’ activities? Biblically, older men and women are instructed to mentor the younger, and many churches still emphasize the value of relationships between older and younger married couples, specifically. I argue that it would be valuable to let those relationships begin developing between couples that are married (be it for a year or for forty) and those that are still on their way, rather than waiting until vows are officially said.

In fact, it seems that Christians that heavily emphasize waiting until marriage to have sex have a tendency to heavily dichotomize engagement and marriage. The online magazine Boundless, written for college students and singles in their 20s puts it as such: “OK, congratulations, you’re engaged. What do you do now? There is really only one concept to keep in mind when it comes to engagement, and it’s quite easy. It’s simple and it should guide you in every decision, thought and act until you are standing before God, the people and the pastor on the big day. Ready? You are not married yet. Now, depending on logistical or other circumstances, cultural backgrounds, length of relationship, things other Christians might have told you, there’s another way to put this: Ready? You are not married yet. Remember that if you get nothing else out of this column.”

I acknowledge this is true, and I’m not arguing to charge Christian sexual ethics. But I do think that this demonstrates the oddity of how we talk about engagement and marriage. We insist that marriage is a good thing and bad-mouth those who are unwilling to formally commit themselves; however, when two people are ready for that commitment, we expect a long waiting period, during which–rather than helping them make mental, emotional, and practical transitions towards marriage–we will emphasize, verbally and non-verbally, that they are not at all married, no matter how married they feel or how married they want to be. To me, rather than putting a not in italics it would be much more useful for us to consider engagement a time of being increasingly almost married.

In this way, I believe, engagement becomes a legitimate state between dating and marriage, rather than simply the end of dating. Engagement is seen as a true between state that begins on the dating end of the spectrum, but quickly moves closer to marriage. Besides these questionable ways of talking about engagement, I think it’s notable that there seem to be many more books about dating or deciding to become engaged or marriage itself than there are books about the engagement process. While relatively short, it is engagement is quite common, making it odd that there is such a silence. To me it sometimes feels the only people in-tune with the existence of engaged people are wedding vendors–and this seems unfortunate. Shouldn’t we as a society, and especially we who are Christians, “see” engaged people and address them at that many diverse places they are at?

… to be continued…

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Field trip to the local mosque!

One of the things I’m constantly thinking about as I’m at seminary is Sunday School/Church School/Christian Education/whatever one’s church calls it.  While obviously classes and discussion groups for people of all ages meet at most churches, I have a particular interest in youth and young adult programming.  This past week, I’ve been thinking in particular about the role our churches should play in introducing kids to other religions.

My dad called this weekend, and I was telling him about my world religions class, which includes visits to Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu places of worship.  What did it bring to mind for him?  Unitarian church youth groups.  For those of you that are unfamiliar, I’m not the world’s expert on Unitarianism, but essentially, it’s an all-paths sort of place where various religions are seen as legitimate ways to reach God–in my own ignorant generalization, I think of it as almost a sort of Western Ba’hai faith.

I think we evangelicals do ourselves a disservice by not copy-catting our Unitarian friends.  It seems we think that just because we don’t affirm every path as equally effective, we think we must focus solely on our own.  But where does that leave us?  At best, sweetly ignorant, at worst misinformed and even bigoted towards those we don’t understand.

The way I see it, the concepts I’m learning in my world religions class aren’t too difficult for a high schooler to understand.  Besides learning basic factual information about what others believe and how they practice their religion, we are learning about different theologies of religions–ways in which Christians throughout time and from different traditions understand people of other/no faiths.  There are about four basic categories we’re using to describe the various positions, and it’s clear that most people at my school fall in one or two of these camps.  One of my favorite aspects of the class is its nonjudgmentalism toward these various positions.  While people in the class have, on average, conservative to moderate views, we’re discussing each of these positions as views of potentially legitimate Christians.  We’re not automatically labeling anyone a heathen–we may disagree with them, but hey, there may be others right in the class that we disagree with as well.

I feel this would be a useful approach for evangelical churches when discussing the topic with high school and college students.  Besides learning about specific religions, talk about how Christians of various theological persuasions have made sense of our pluralistic society.  Don’t just tell them what your church thinks about Buddhists or Mormons; tell them about how all sorts of Christians do.  They’ll know you obviously disagree with some people’s views, and they should be encouraged to look critically at all of the views–even the one that your church espouses.  At the end of the day, knowing the breadth of Christian options they have and knowing more about the histories, beliefs, and practices of other religions seems more likely to encourage them to authentically develop their own faith (which may even end up theologically similar to your own!).

I think there are milllions of small things like this that we can do to encourage young people to be intelligent and honest when it comes to matters of faith–and that, I believe is one of the most powerful ways we can equip them for college and life beyond.  Instead of whining all the time about how many people lose their faith in college and are incredibly embittered towards the church we may have teens coming home and thanking us for how much intellectual freedom we gave them.  Some might still convert to another religion become agnostic, but even if that happens, I think they’ll appreciate our desire to help them make their own decision.  And that would do wonders for the church’s relationship with the outside world.

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