the shape of leadership

Tying the Knot … or Not?

Biblical guidance for big decisions

Jessica Mumley on May 28, 2024

My husband, Geoff, and I looked at each other wide-eyed as the couple left our home. We’d just finished leading our first series of preengagement  counseling sessions. (Unlike premarital counseling for engaged couples, this was for couples considering engagement.)

The final session included an exit interview. The two shared what they’d learned, and we offered advice regarding next steps. Remarkably, this was the third consecutive couple we recommended not proceeding with engagement. In each instance, the couple had agreed with our assessment.

I told Geoff, “I think we just put the exit in exit interview.”

As painful as it was to watch these relationships end, the counseling had fulfilled its purpose. After all, it wasn’t about moving couples toward marriage, but rather toward clarity.

Through that lens, we weren’t 0 for 3. We were 3 for 3 at helping couples discern whether they were a good match.

For today’s young people, marriage is often a fraught topic. Many are delaying nuptials — or foregoing them altogether.

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia frames this cultural shift in terms of cornerstone versus capstone unions. Marriage was once a cornerstone of young adult development, a foundation upon which to build one’s life.

Increasingly, marriage is becoming a capstone — an achievement following career exploration, identity development, and financial stability.

Delaying or declining marriage can be both wise and biblical. However, accompanying this trend is a concerning rise in cohabitation. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, more Americans aged 18 to 44 have cohabitated (59%) than married (50%).

Many couples are cautious about making serious commitments, while remaining open to having sex outside of marriage. Consequently, they may see cohabitation as a strategy for testing compatibility.

To counter this, church leaders sometimes push young people quickly into marriage. Unfortunately, well-meaning efforts to help parishioners avoid the pitfalls of cohabitation and sexual impurity can have the unintended consequence of setting them up for marital struggles.

Some ministers oversimplify the prescription before marriage to, “Don’t have sex.” After marriage, the counsel is, “Don’t get divorced.”

While both messages are biblical and essential, they are insufficient. Many churchgoing married couples are miserable, despite having followed that advice. There must be more to preparing for marriage and staying married.

It is possible to guide people toward biblical marriage, while also vetting their readiness and compatibility — leaving open an exit door before they make a lifelong commitment.

Brady Bobbink, founder of Western Washington University’s Chi Alpha ministry in Bellingham, sought to do this as he mentored young couples during the 1980s.

“At the time, the divorce rates among Christians were the same as the rest of the culture,” Bobbink recalls. “We had to do something. Too many young couples were going into marriage with mythologies — Disneyland fables about marriage.

“And too many premarital counselors were acting only as cheerleaders, not helping couples discern the strengths and growth areas they will face, nor whether those growth areas were substantial enough that it was unwise to marry at all.”

In 1989, Bobbink and a colleague developed a 10-week curriculum to mentor college couples after they had been dating for a year. Unlike most options available to couples at the time, this counseling happened before engagement.

Creating an environment for prayerful discussion and reflection will result in some couples moving forward in marriage and others realizing that would
be a mistake.

“Already engaged couples might listen to defend their dream of marriage instead of listening to honestly explore compatibility,” Bobbink says. “Once there’s a wedding date, it’s hard to back out. But what if what comes up during counseling is back-out worthy?”

Of 105 preengaged couples he counseled over 35 years, Bobbink reports only 7% of the resulting marriages ending in divorce. By comparison, 40% of all first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

With this model in mind, there are four ways ministers can help couples make wise choices about their future.

1. Offer counseling early. The goals of preengagement  counseling versus premarital counseling differ.

The latter runs parallel to wedding planning. Preengagement  counseling, however, helps a couple determine whether an engagement and wedding should happen at all.

Make clarity, not marriage, the goal of counseling. This requires a personal paradigm shift and possibly a church culture shift.

2. Encourage couples to date through all four seasons. Geoff and I ask couples to date for a full year before signing up for preengagement  counseling. This provides time for the infatuation phase to wear off.

Interacting in different settings over at least 12 months makes it easier to identify potential points of conflict, which become important topics of conversation during counseling.

Given the prevalence of cohabitation in today’s culture, we counsel couples to live separately and abstain from sex until marriage.

In addition to teaching the biblical reasons for this, we explain that the chemical and emotional reactions to physical intimacy can cloud judgment and obscure relational red flags.

3. Adjust language from “when” to “if.” Choose words that suggest marriage as a possibility, not a foregone conclusion.

Cultivate an atmosphere of honesty, curiosity, and discovery. Going separate ways following counseling should be no less acceptable than thinking about rings.

4. Actively assess rather than passively cheering. Bobbink says, “Our job is not to happily talk to couples and then plan the wedding and officiate it. Our calling is to discern the real spiritual and practical wisdom of marrying one another.”

During the final session, the counselor should offer an honest, clear appraisal of a couple’s compatibility and engagement readiness. This should include a mix of objective data and the counselor’s subjective observations.

There are a number of helpful tools available, such as the Prepare/Enrich assessment. These can provide information for discussion sessions and yield insights for the final analysis. Congregations might choose to purchase resources or charge couples a fee to cover the costs.

Geoff and I ultimately give couples a recommendation using the language of a green, yellow, or red light. A green light means the couple is healthy, and we recommend moving toward marriage.

A yellow light indicates there are challenges or incompatibilities that need addressing. However, with more work, the couple might grow to become ready for engagement.

The red light applies to those situations where we see little potential for relational health because of incompatibility, immaturity, or deeply held value differences.

Despite that difficult first round of preengagement  counseling, our second group of couples all received green lights. And each of those marriages are still thriving.

There’s no mathematical formula for success. Creating an environment for prayerful discussion and reflection will result in some couples moving forward in marriage and others realizing that would be a mistake.

What’s important is helping couples slow down before the mighty engine of engagement and wedding planning revs to life.

Amid the quietness of a dating relationship, preengagement  counseling creates space for honesty, self-awareness, and biblical wisdom on the road to considering marriage.


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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