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A minister’s marriage can strengthen marriages in the church, prof says

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–When student families come to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary they typically fall into two categories: newer-married couples, often with small children, who feel a calling on their lives and leave their parents and siblings to go to seminary and couples later in their lives who leave behind careers, children and grandchildren to pursue their call into ministry.

In both cases, the move to seminary provides an interesting and often dramatic dynamic in marriage relationships, one that is important to be addressed, said Jim Headrick, NOBTS associate professor of pastoral counseling, occupying the Baptist Community Ministries Chair of Pastoral Care and Counseling.

“If we don’t fortify these marriages when they are placed in our hands here, then we are missing an opportunity,” said Headrick, who is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Louisiana, and with his wife of 38 years, Linda, is a seminar leader in marriage enrichment conferences across the United States. “We need to teach our students how to have healthy marriages before the storm hits and they’re on their own.”

More than that, Headrick believes that ministers with healthy marriages serve as models from which church members can learn to develop healthier marriages, which ultimately affects the health of the church.

“Healthy churches encourage healthy families,” agreed NOBTS President Chuck Kelley. “We know that putting our focus on equipping students to grow healthy churches means emphasizing how important healthy families are.

“Good marriages and strong families are not an accident. They must be intentionally cultivated and nurtured,” Kelley said. “In both classes and chapel, we will do all we can to emphasize the importance of healthy families for Baptists in general and for Baptist ministers in particular.”

With the generosity of Harold and Barbara O’Chester, NOBTS alumni who serve at Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, and have for many years led a marriage retreat ministry, seminary students have an opportunity once a year to focus attention on what the Bible says about building healthy families, Kelley said.

Named the Harold and Barbara O’Chester Lectures on the Minister’s Family, the chapel series challenges students, staff and faculty to give attention to creating a nurturing home environment.

This past February, an entire conference was built around these lectures. For only $5 a person, seminary couples were given the opportunity to attend a romantic weekend seminar, with dinner, joint sessions and break-out sessions for men and women, during which the O’Chesters candidly taught from their years of marital experience and obvious devotion to one another.

In the same way, Headrick and his wife lead a part of their marriage enrichment seminar at least once in the Introduction to Pastoral Counseling classes, required for all master of divinity students in the pastoral track.

Marriage enrichment is not just about counseling, Headrick emphasized. It’s about the relationships, and preparing future ministers on how to minister in their churches.

“We aim to ‘enrich’ marriages, make good marriages better,” he explained, saying that he always asks pastors, staff and their wives to attend their conferences to learn how to hold the conferences themselves. At the seminary, when spouses are asked to come to the class, Headrick underscored that the effort is to shepherd the shepherd.

“We all have material from our marriages from which we can teach others,” Headrick said, explaining that pastors and other church leaders can lead their own seminars using their own words and life experiences.

“We’ve all been down the bumpy road and can share from our own experiences,” he said, noting that even the time in seminary provides opportunity for marriage-strengthening examples.

Seminary students have constraints on their marriages unlike other couples, Headrick stated. Not only are there adjustments to a new area, the associated financial pressures with paying educational costs, and the time pressures of completing assignments, there is the added pressure, particularly for women, to build new friendships, he said.

“Men come to seminary and don’t understand why their wives are depressed, why they are crying and upset much of the time,” he maintained. “What they don’t understand is that women need friendships in order to thrive. So many things flow from women’s friendships: accountability, emotional support, and prayer.

“When women feel isolated, which is the case when they first come to seminary, they struggle.”

It is because of these issues that NOBTS offers various opportunities for women to connect with other women. A recent Joint Women’s Meeting offered women, married and single, the opportunity to do crafts and mingle with faculty wives, staff members and other students.

Other campus-wide recreation events include a Baby Fair for families with children 3 and under and a Family Fun Day for families with children of all ages. These events bring families together for mutual support and encouragement.

In addition, several events are sponsored by the Student Wives Fellowship, an organization designed to provide encouragement to women on the campus through Bible study, fellowship and planned activities. Some of these activities include mentoring groups with faculty wives, a Valentine’s banquet and the annual Annie Elias Leavell Lectures.

Held each fall on the New Orleans Seminary campus, these lectures were established by Landrum P. Leavell II, NOBTS president emeritus, and Margaret Leavell Mann in honor of their mother, who was a minister’s wife, to bring outstanding Christian women to speak to student wives. Recent lecturers have included Susie Hawkins, wife of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annuity Board president, O.S. Hawkins; Nancy Sullivan, wife of Florida Baptist Convention’s executive director-treasurer, John Sullivan; and Dorothy Patterson, wife of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, Paige Patterson.

Also, free student wives classes are taught by Rhonda Kelley, the wife of Chuck Kelley, and other faculty wives who share their gifts, education and experience to train and encourage other women for their place in ministry alongside their husbands. With this year’s classes centering around the theme, “The Minister’s Wife: Living Well,” this term’s class is “Marriage and Family,” taught by the Headricks.

This class is very important because statistics show us that ministers and their families are crashing because the calling in ministry used to be primary to the family relationships, Headrick said.

“Years ago in a town where I was serving, there was a pastor who was called by a larger church,” he related. “In this situation, the wife explained that she did not feel peace about the offer, to which the pastor responded, ‘I want you to get ready to go with me or I will pray for God to kill you and give me a wife who will go with me.'”

The professor continued, “Unconcerned with his wife’s feelings in the matter, the pastor did move on to the larger church and, before long, his marriage ended.”

Outside of a person’s relationship with God, the marriage relationship must take priority before ministry, he advised. “Pastors can prepare the greatest theological messages, but if you don’t deal with the basic relationship needs, what good is it doing to do? We have to facilitate the redefining of what’s happening in families and how to make it positive.

“What would happen if the Lord got in control of marriages and the church became known for healing marriages?” Headrick proposed. “The church would become relevant and impact the whole community. They probably would no longer be plateaued or declining.”

In addition to the student wives classes, the seminary offers degrees that work in the biblical and practical arena, and not just the theoretical, Headrick noted.

One degree is a master of arts in family and marriage counseling degree, which prepares graduates to serve as Christian counselors in church-based ministries, social service agencies, marriage and family therapy ministries or other Christian ministries. This degree fulfills the academic requirements in most states for Licensed Professional Counselor and for clinical membership in the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. The MAMFC also meets the course requirements in many states for licensure in marriage and family therapy.

Another degree is the master of divinity with a specialization in pastoral care, which prepares graduates to serve as military and hospital chaplains, pastors, social workers, church staff members in pastoral care and counseling, and related areas wherein a license in counseling is not required.

The Introduction to Pastoral Counseling course, a core course in the master of divinity degree, is designed to introduce students to the field of pastoral care and counseling, and teaches a Bible-based, reality-focused, five-session counseling model. Specific clinical issues considered in the class include marital and family distress, depression, grief and spiritual direction.

With the master of social work degree recently approved by NOBTS’ trustees, graduates will be able to minister out of a Christian context, and to apply spiritual resources such as the Bible and prayer in the practice of social work. In addition to a special emphasis on spiritual needs, the social work degree focuses on services to individuals, families and groups in relation to social, economic and psychological forces that affect social well-being. These kinds of ministries often require adherence to federal and state standards, and there is great need in these ministries for persons who have the MSW credentialing and licensure to perform such tasks.

For more information about the seminary’s degree offerings, contact the Office of Student Enlistment at 1-800-662-8701, ext. 3303; [email protected]; or www.nobts.edu.

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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