3 Reasons a Referral Isn’t Enough

Pastors – Do More Than Refer Couples!

I spoke with a pastor a few weeks ago about the marriage ministry at his church. He was curious about what I was doing and I asked him about what he did at his church. He explained that he had a great therapist that he knew and he had referred numerous couples to him.

That’s great. I hope that every pastor has a therapist that they trust. It’s important to help couples to find help.

But, if all pastors do is refer couples that ask for help, they are missing a huge need. Churches have a huge opportunity to build strong and healthy marriages.

Guess what? To really help build strong marriages, it takes more than a great referral.

Let me give you three reasons why.

1. Most Couples Won’t Talk to Their Pastor About Marriage Problems

There was a national survey of 3,000 individuals that asked how often people are thinking about divorce. The study found that in 30% of the marriages, one or both spouses had thought about divorce in the last six months. About half of those people were thinking about divorce frequently.

That’s a big number. Our churches are full of people that have thought about divorce.

Will they talk to someone? Only about one in eight people had talked to a religious leader about their thoughts. That means for every one person that talks to their pastor, there are seven that haven’t.

That’s a big difference. That’s a lot of couples that have needs.

2. Most Couples Won’t Go See a Marriage Counselor

The study also found that only one in six had talked to a marriage counselor. Most couples don’t go to see a professional.

Before I got involved in marriage ministry I thought that couples would go meet with someone for help. I have learned from experience that most couples don’t seek help, even though it’s available.

This means that there are people sitting in church that aren’t getting help. But, guess what? They continue to come to church even though they are thinking about divorce.

3. Most Couples Want to Work on the Marriage

Here’s the good news. Most of the people that were thinking about divorce wanted to work on the relationship.

The people that thought of divorce less frequently were the most hopeful. Those that thought about divorce more frequently had less hope. For some, they would only work on their relationship if their partner would also work on it.

People thinking about divorce can get out the other side. The study also asked all the respondents if they had ever had serious marriage problems. The majority said yes, but many no longer thought about divorce. That means that most of the respondents were able to work through their relationship issues.

Let me review. Half of couples have thought about divorce. 30% have thought about it in the last 6 months. The others have repaired their marriage.

The top four things that changed were:

  • Commitment – Committed to the marriage
  • Changed attitudes – Adjusted some attitudes that made things better
  • Worked on it – Worked at fixing some problems and improving the relationship
  • Patience – Over time, things just got better

When I look at the top four things couples did to improve, I realize that these are areas that can be worked on by the church.

What’s the Implication for the Church?

Let’s be honest, thinking about divorce is something that comes across people’s minds. This is very common.

Most people don’t admit it and they won’t ask for help, but they want to improve. Just remember that there is a big population inside of your church that is thinking about divorce. About half of them are thinking about it frequently.

That’s a need!

The interesting part of this is that many of these couples don’t immediately take any action. Some studies have shown that couples wait for six years before they decide to do something. During this time, they probably aren’t seeing a therapist, but they are coming to church.

I get excited when I think about the role that the church can play in helping couples to have a healthy relationship. If we want to build strong marriages, we need to do more than refer people for counseling.

We need to address the divorce thinkers. Thinking doesn’t have to turn into a divorce. It can become the motivation to work on the relationship.

If we want to build strong marriages in our church, we need to offer programs that help to address the doubt and fears about marriage.

We can offer hope. We can encourage commitment. We can help people to recognize and change attitudes. We can encourage couples to work on their marriage and to have patience.

The church can be effective with marriage education.

I talk about marriage mentors. Some churches have called these people marriage coaches or marriage champions. Some churches have called them marriage group leaders.

I’m not sure what will work best in your setting, but I do know that having regular marriage education, marriage small groups and the opportunity for couples to be honest can help!

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Don’t be alarmed by divorce thinking — Divorce thoughts are very common. It’s natural to have the thought when the relationship isn’t going well.
  • Most couples have had issues – Many, many couples have had issues in their marriage. It’s normal.
  • Create marriage education events – Equip mentors, champions, coaches and marriage small group leaders.



The National Divorce Decision-Making Project. (2015). What are they thinking? A national survey of
married individuals who are thinking about divorce. Provo, UT: Family Studies Center, Brigham Young University.