Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Would you build a house without tools?

Building a marriage is not for amateurs

Imagine buying the perfect lot on which to construct your dream home, having the basement dug and poured, watching the building materials delivered to the site, and then trying to construct the building yourself — without tools!

That is not far from what happens with a lot of marriages. The couple is pretty sure it is going to be an enchanting life together. They spend lots of money getting the enterprise launched. And then they discover they don’t know how to build the relationship, much less keep it strong and healthy.

The State of Minnesota, and some Lutheran clergy, decided there should — and could — be a better paradigm. For their part, state leaders passed a law directing that soon-to-be-marrieds could have $70 of their marriage license fee forgiven if they received 12 hours of pre-marital counseling.

Karen Stevensen

Minnesota state leaders passed a law directing that soon-to-be-marrieds could have $70 of their marriage license fee forgiven if they received 12 hours of pre-marital counseling.

Cognizant of the “forgiveness clause” connected to the licensure fee, four Lutheran congregations in Bloomington, Minnesota, created a two-step program a decade ago to help engaged couples receive the relationship-building tools they need. They deputized one of their own, the Rev. Karen Stevensen, a trained and certified marriage counselor, to create a six-hour, one-day curriculum to help launch good marriages for couples in their congregations. Her course, combined with six hours with the pastor, gives a couple the 12 hours needed for the fee rebate. (The Saturday course costs each couple $100, but with the $70 rebate, they end up paying $30.)

Stevensen, whose clergy spouse Grant serves St. Matthew Lutheran in St. Paul, told Metro Lutheran, “The pastors of Transfiguration, St. Stephen, St. Luke, and Christ the King congregations — and I was one of those pastors — thought we were seeing too many divorces. We wanted to do something proactive.”

What resulted was Stevensen’s day-long immersion for couples. Over ten years the four parishes have seen their unique program expand to 35 congregations, all over the Twin Cities. (See “Pre-marriage workshop churches,” below.) To date, only the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is being served, although Stevensen says LCMS, WELS, and other Lutheran church members would be welcome.

What goes on in these tool-building sessions? On her website, Stevensen delineates the curriculum. Couples will:

* create a vision for a shared life;

* learn about intimacy and boundaries;

* understand how patterns of communication work;

* develop a satisfying way to work through conflict;

* increase self-awareness and one’s ability to share; and

* identify family-of-origin patterns.

Stevensen, a graduate of Augustana College, Sioux Falls, holds a masters degree in social work from the University of Illinois. A licensed independent social worker, she works weekdays providing counseling to couples in crisis. That creates a rich mine of information for stories she can tell her Saturday pre-marital participants. The vignettes help them anticipate what to expect, what to avoid, and how to escape common relationship landmines.

“Typically, couples use an adversarial model for dealing with conflict,” she says. “I teach an empathy model.” To illustrate, she tells of a couple that was at odds over something seemingly as simple as how to close up a loaf of bread once the twist tie is off.

“The husband told me he was sick and tired of being nagged for putting the twist tie back on the once-opened bread bag. His wife thought his refusal to close the bag in a way she would have preferred was an example of him wanting to control her. When pressed, he revealed that his father deserted the family when he was a youth. He asked his mother whether they were going to survive economically without Dad around. She said, ‘Yes, if we’re careful, don’t waste anything, put the twist-tie back on the bread bag so nothing spoils, things like that.’ When the spouse heard this story, she wept. She had never asked about his rationale, and she had never been prepared to listen.”

How hard is it to get young adults to show up for a six-hour premarital marathon on a Saturday? Stevensen says, “For the gals, not so difficult. They typically say, ‘Sure, talking about feelings will be fun.’ But for the guys, not so much.” They’d rather be golfing or cleaning out the garage. But, she says, once they get to a session, it’s usually the case that the men are glad they came.

Here is a testimonial one male participant provided to the session leader: “I honestly only went for my fiancée, but I ended up thinking it was great.”

Couples seem to enjoy the hands-on nature of the workshop. About half the session is spent with couples interacting with each other. Stevensen makes short presentations; the couples, talking together, explore how what she says works in their situation.

The ELCA’s Minneapolis and St. Paul Area synods are co-sponsors of Stevensen’s workshops. Individuals interested in signing up can get more information through her website: www.karenstevensen.com.

Pre-marriage workshop churches

These ELCA congregations in the Twin Cities have supported and participated in Karen Stevensen’s Saturday pre-marriage workshops. (The first four listed were the first to host the sessions.)
Transfiguration, Bloomington
Christ the King, Bloomington
St. Stephen, Bloomington
St. Luke’s, Bloomington
Bethlehem, Minneapolis
Westwood, St. Louis Park
Faith-Lilac Way, Robbinsdale
Peace, Bloomington
Mt. Carmel, Minneapolis
Faith, Coon Rapids
Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis
River of Joy, Lakeville
Our Saviors, Minneapolis
Jacob’s Well, Minneapolis
Spirit Garage, Minneapolis
Christ the King, New Brighton
First, St. Paul
Hope, St. Paul
Living Waters, Lino Lakes
Prince of Peace, Roseville
St. Matthew’s, St. Paul
St. Timothy, St. Paul
Incarnation, North Oaks
Holy Cross, Oakdale
Light of the World, Farmington
Luther Seminary, St. Paul
St. Michael, Roseville
Galilee, St. Paul
Amazing Grace, Inver Grove Heights
Spirit of Truth, St. Paul

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