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Basic Training

What really goes on at a weekend marriage seminar? The inside story on two very different approaches

More than ten years ago, my husband and I attended a Marriage Encounter weekend. The experience was a positive one, so I was interested when the editor of Marriage Partnership asked me to report on two contrasting approaches to marital improvement—the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment and FamilyLife Conferences.

I hadn't heard much about either organization, so I didn't know quite what to expect. I thought the FamilyLife event would be more oriented to '50s-style Ward and June Cleaver marriage, while the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment would have more of a '90s feel. I was wrong, but in ways I never expected.

Mass Scale Marital Improvement

FamilyLife Conferences don't do things on a modest scale. Rows and rows of chairs—almost enough to accommodate the crowd of 1,600—are set up in the ballroom of a Hyatt Regency Hotel in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. This conference was booked to overflowing, though an identical event was held just three weeks earlier, and the conference staff is negotiating with the hotel for an emergency third edition for the following month. Why the overwhelming demand?

The most significant reason is FamilyLife's high-profile status as a division of Campus Crusade for Christ, which in the past 46 years has touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. With so many people aware of Campus Crusade's work, they can feel comfortable with the style and content of a FamilyLife Conference. The group assembled in the Hyatt ballroom is diverse: newlyweds and elderly people; pregnant women and people using wheelchairs; interracial couples of every combination.

FamilyLife offers the material in its characteristic left-brain way, utilizing outlines and charts.

FamilyLife doesn't hesitate to promote itself, getting its name out through a daily radio program, ongoing neighborhood HomeBuilders groups, a bimonthly magazine and a ceaseless flow of books and tapes. When you spot FamilyLife Dental Floss in your neighborhood pharmacy, you'll know it's time to surrender. Resistance is futile.

Not that some of the men in today's audience aren't trying. "Usually, [attending the conference] is the wife's idea," says Crawford Loritts, one of the weekend's speakers and the director of Campus Crusade's Legacy division, which promotes evangelism and discipleship in the black community. "Men tend to be less emotional, and women have more freedom to express themselves. But the weekend ends up connecting to both [spouses]."

Indeed, when I ask couples why they are here, it's always the wife who speaks up first. Tyus Lewis says she and her husband, Jerald, came "to work on our communication skills." Jerald just studies the carpet with a cryptic smile.

What does he think of the event? "It's fine. Everything's nice. I'm okay," he says. His wife points out, "You can tell I'm the verbal one here." To my direct question, "Were you dragged here?" Jerald puts one finger on his chin. Finally, he says, "I'm here. I'm here."

The husbands may have thought a weekend in a hotel without the kids would signal other activities, but the wives are certain that first things come first. As another conference speaker, Michael Easley, would say later, "Guys, if you want to understand your wives, write this down: 'Talk equals foreplay.' I can't explain it, it's just the way it is."

The weekend is organized as a quick-paced march from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. Though Saturday evening is free, Sunday morning is spent in separate gender-group meetings rather than in worship. FamilyLife does much of its work in same-gender settings, with women speakers addressing only the all-female gatherings. I asked if the organization limits woman speakers to that role. Crawford Loritts, whose wife, Karen, is a FamilyLife speaker, told me it's a matter of the wives preferring the smaller, all-female crowd. Michael Easley told me FamilyLife was in a sensitive spot: Though they have no objection to women speaking to a mixed audience, some of the churches that supported the organization at the beginning did, so they kept women speakers in woman-only settings.

Conference sessions follow a content-packed outline. From a pool of 52 trained speaker couples, two couples are assigned per weekend to staff each of the 100 or so conferences held every year. Between September and December of 1996, 30,000 people attended FamilyLife events, which include full-length conferences and shorter, church-based seminars devoted either to marriage or parenting.

The speakers follow assigned outlines, personalizing them with anecdotes and favorite illustrations. The conference avoids input overload by handing each participant a thick, step-by-step booklet with plenty of charts, humorous illustrations and blanks to be filled in. If you're looking to spend a weekend in a completely orchestrated experience, this is it.

An Emphasis on Oneness

The conference material begins with an examination of the Five Threats to Oneness. The solution also involves five steps. Just before lunch on Saturday, the conference introduces explicit spiritual content by taking the audience through a gospel presentation and presenting prayers to receive Jesus as Savior and the Holy Spirit for empowerment. As Crawford Loritts explains, "There are numbers of non-Christians here, or people in split marriages. We don't want to make them defensive before we can connect."

Other sessions cover communication, conflict, roles for men and women, and leaving a "legacy of destiny," in which children grow up to be responsible Christians. The treatment of the differences between men and women is probably the most controversial element. FamilyLife takes the view that Scripture calls for mutual submission, not male domination. Yet the organization teaches that men and women have different roles, with men exercising servant leadership while women are their husbands' helpers.

Karen Loritts connects the phrase "I will make a helper fit for him," found in Genesis, to Jesus' statement that the Holy Spirit will be sent as a "helper." Likewise, the conference booklet stresses that "A husband is never called to force his wife to follow his leadership. Rather, he is challenged to earn that response by being a man of integrity, compassion, and competence."

This is mine-field territory. If it's not feminists insisting that any talk of gender differences means women are crushed under the heel of male supremacy, it's hardline preachers confirming the feminists' worst fears of male tyranny. FamilyLife hammers away at both stereotypes. Karen Loritts exhorts women not to believe those who would find scriptural support for male domination. "Let's not attribute things others have said to God," she says. "Show me in Scripture where it says you should let your back be a walking board. Show me where it says a wife should be a punching bag or put up with verbal or mental abuse."

There is room in the FamilyLife scheme for women to have careers, though they are advised to take seriously the needs of children and consider taking life in "seasons," some of which will accommodate work outside the home better than others. As a one-time feminist, I'm sensitive to hints of female subordination. FamilyLife handled that prickly issue with wisdom and graciousness.

There is no opportunity for question-and-answer time during the weekend, something that would turn to chaos in a group this large. But spouses are instructed to dialogue with each other. Sessions are followed by "projects" that often give couples a ten-minute assignment to write privately, followed by a 20-minute opportunity to read what the other has written and discuss it. And because a weekend is fleeting, there is a concerted effort to plug couples into ongoing HomeBuilders groups.

A Study in Contrasts

A few weeks after the FamilyLife Conference, I flew to Georgia to attend the annual gathering of the state chapter of the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME). After being one in a multitude of 1,600, I wasn't prepared for all the attention I received.

ACME uses a more casual, 'relational' approach.

"It's too bad your husband couldn't be here," says Marcy Reed, a longtime ACME member. The conference has only been underway 45 minutes, but it's the third time I've received this condolence. What a contrast to the massive FamilyLife event! At that conference, no one knew I was there. My registration had been lost (though the fee had promptly appeared on my credit card statement), no nametag had been prepared, and the leadership seemed uninterested that a reporter was attending their conference. Not so in Georgia. The group's all abuzz that I'm here.

We are gathered for a two-day conference, and the approach is low-key. Only 35 couples are here, most of them old hands. When a game is played later in the evening, the goal is for each team to collect the pieces of a photo of a long-time Georgia ACME couple and identify them. This is not easy for those attending their first event.

Both ACME and FamilyLife grew out of the 1970s marriage-improvement boom, which emerged alongside the era's self-help groups and "I'm OK, You're OK" ethos. Both groups teach skills for improving communication, resolving conflict and strengthening the marriage relationship. Though ACME's approach is formally based on the work of David and Vera Mace, these skills differ little no matter who designs them. The style of presentation varies greatly, though. FamilyLife offers the material in its characteristic left-brain way, utilizing outlines and charts. ACME uses a more casual, "relational" approach.

But the differences don't end there. Judging from a stack of printed resources, FamilyLife materials are clearly about marriage. In contrast, ACME materials are not so much about marriage as they are about the marriage enrichment movement. They seem preoccupied with an inward, organizational focus—rather than an outward focus on the task of helping couples. The back page of the ACME newsletter, for instance, includes a reference to a column in a previous issue: "If Marriage Enrichment is so good, why do so few couples choose to be involved?"

It's a fair question. The authors suggest that couples think ACME is only for problem marriages, that they want to avoid facing conflicts, or they are simply too busy. This theory, however, doesn't explain why such concerns fail to dissuade the thousands cramming FamilyLife events. But organizational challenges aside, ACME still reaches an important segment of the market. Many couples prefer an intimate, friendly setting over a crush of 1,600 strangers. Indeed, one of the emphases of marriage enrichment is getting couples involved with each other, utilizing the "couple-to-couple dynamic" where each pair can learn from the experience of others. It is hoped that after a retreat, participants will continue in monthly or quarterly enrichment groups of five or six couples.

At the ACME conference, getting to know other couples is the obvious first step. But blending newcomers into an established group is never easy. During mealtime, large tables are crammed with boisterous old friends, while a new couple sits alone. On the other hand, because so much of the conference is composed of old friends, the event has a relaxed, friendly tone.

In contrast to FamilyLife, ACME emphasizes joint presentations by both husband and wife—no matter who's in the audience. At all sessions, the presenters stand at the front of the room and model couple dialogue by trading comments back and forth, often looking at and speaking to each other rather than their audience.

At 9 o'clock, the evening's entertainment begins. A charming skit introduces a complicated game about marriage customs around the world, which sends teams rushing for clues and reuniting to choose the best answer. Groups are assembled to mix those who have been married for different lengths of times. This process reveals that half the participants have been married longer than 15 years.

On Saturday morning the workshops get underway. Georgia ACME President Couple Karen and Kevin Jeffrey offer an abbreviated version of the basic marriage enrichment weekend. In addition, there are two morning workshops followed by two afternoon workshops. Of these four, the one that filled quickest is "Managing Your Time and Relations," taught by Pat and Zellie Earnest. Zellie defines the session's objective as "developing a process for couples that will help us decide where we want to be, and how to get there, in a way that honors each other's needs and maintains life balance."

This human-potential-movement lingo is characteristic of the weekend and sounds eerily like the way people talked when I was in seminary 20 years ago. I wonder how well it translates to '90s couples. Long-time members Wanda and Nathan Andereck tell me there are three ACME chapters nearby (of about 30 nationwide). I ask if they see the number of participants growing each year as old-timers continue and newcomers join. Nathan's face falls. "No. It fluctuates."

The husbands may have thought a weekend in a hotel would signal other activities, but the wives are certain that first things come first.

Sarah Catron, ACME co-executive director, told me "hundreds" of local groups are in operation, but she couldn't provide a definite number, explaining, "we don't require it to be reported." While the Anderecks seemed to think the total number of participants had stalled, Catron was hopeful that times were changing and that ACME would see an increase.

"There is a growing awareness that there are some useful things for marriages," she said. "Thirty years ago, going to a parenting class was taboo."

ACME plans to continue offering a wide array of short and medium-length events, requiring less time commitment than a full weekend. This approach caters to busy couples, but I question whether time pressure is the primary problem. Instead, I wonder if ACME's approach appeals more to people with a particular personality type. Nathan Andereck says, "Generally, more verbal people come. The kind of people who are attracted to the helping professions—teachers, nurses, pastors."

I ask him about ACME's teaching on male headship. "If that works for you, that's great," he says. "But from the beginning, we've had strong feelings that women's rights are to be respected."

In line with this, ACME materials describe "traditional" marriage as a relationship in which men "dominate their spouses, making decisions for the family." The alternative is "companionship" marriage, in which couples "establish common goals, plan together and share the pursuit of common interests." A third option, the type of servant leadership that FamilyLife espouses, is not on the radar screen.

Marriage by Objectives?

As a Christian, I was interested in the level of importance ACME attaches to the role of faith. I believe spiritual unity is foundational, not just one of many important aspects of a well-rounded marriage. Based on its nonsectarian charter, ACME officially steers clear of spiritual content. But individual couple leaders are free to present spiritual material.

Sarah Catron explains, "This is not part of what we would promote, but we would help a couple look at spiritual aspects and handle that however it helps them."

So does ACME view the spiritual dimension of life as just one more thing couples should have clear communication on, no different from topics like money management or child rearing?

"How a couple defines the central meaning of life is obviously more essential than how to manage money," Catron tells me. "But among the leader couples' listeners there may be a fair diversity of spiritual orientations, so it's important to be very sensitive to make sure they do not offend."

The last workshop I visit is titled "Humor and Fun in Your Marriage." It's a delightful theme, to be sure, but one perhaps too slight for a two-and-a-half-hour block of time. In the third of their four points, leader couple Ed and Sylvia Robertson explain that they "keep lists of places that humor was a place of learning for us, and give names to them." These become codewords that can help in communication. To cultivate humor, they maintain, you must "set a goal and make a plan!"

"Whatever happened to spontaneity?" the wife in a couple new to ACME had wondered in a private conversation earlier in the day. "They're making it harder than it is. It's too much like managing by objectives."

I had to agree, though I'm glad ACME is there for those who relish this sort of careful self-analysis. Others would prefer a different approach, and if they don't mind large crowds and anonymity they should consider a FamilyLife Conference.

Ultimately, however you approach it, you'll never regret a weekend devoted to enriching your marriage—whether it's among thousands, in a much smaller group, or just the two of you getting away to an enjoyable destination. For those who have already absorbed plenty of teaching, a marriage event may be the most powerful when it is experienced by only two. I'm picturing a favorite bed and breakfast with the beauty of nature right outside the window. I'll only be a minute. I need to go make a reservation.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a commentator for National Public Radio, a columnist for Christianity Today and the author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (HarperSanFrancisco).

Who Do You Call?

The organizations featured in this article offer a
variety of programs to help strengthen marriages.
For information about events in your area, contact:

FamilyLife Conferences
P.O. Box 8220
Little Rock, AR 72221

The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment
P.O. Box 10596
Winston-Salem, NC 27108

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Commitment; Marriage; Relationships
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

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