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Marriage initiative gains energy at NOBTS

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–For students and their families, the move to a seminary campus brings many new challenges. Seminary families often are faced with tighter finances, smaller living quarters and the stress of theological studies. With the adjustment to new churches and new schools for the children, the combined effect can strain family relationships — especially marriages.

“Coming to seminary is just stressful for your marriage,” said Kathy Steele, assistant professor of psychology and counseling at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “How can a pastor or minister go out and build a healthy church if his own family is unhealthy?”

Steele and a small group of campus leaders at NOBTS who developed a burden for student marriages, began meeting together in May to develop a plan to help strengthen and enrich marriages. Known as the Marriage Initiative group, they believe a focus on strong marriages during ministerial training will result in healthier ministers and, in turn, ministries.

NOBTS provost Steve Lemke agrees.

“No married minister can be maximally effective in Christian service without a healthy marriage,” he said. “We want our graduates not only to teach about healthy marriages but to model healthy relationships in their own marriages.”

The team, which also includes professors Kristin Carver, Jerry Pounds and Ed Steele along with dean of students Craig Garrett, dreamed of creating an intentional focus on healthy marriages at the seminary — a dream that now has become a reality.

“We have committed ourselves to look for ways to strengthen marriages on campus,” Garrett said. “[Marriage enrichment] is a service we hope to provide students while they are here … to give them resources to strengthen their marriages and families.”

As the team studied the issue, God placed a similar burden for campus marriages on the hearts of the leaders charged with planning the Leavell Lectures, an annual event sponsored by the student wives organization on campus.

Rhonda Kelley, wife of seminary president Chuck Kelley and professor of women’s ministry, asked the Marriage Initiative group to plan and lead a campus-wide marriage retreat during the Leavell Lectures. The lecture endowment provided the funding necessary to organize a retreat of this scale.

“God really opened the door for us to have this retreat this semester,” Steele said. “Our hope was to motivate and encourage couples, but not only that, to give them some basic skills that can make a difference in their marriage relationships.”

More than 80 couples participated in the two-day retreat held in early October. Called “A Lasting Promise,” the retreat focused on oneness, communication and expectations in marriage. Retreat presenters shared biblical principles to help couples identify problem areas in their marriages and practical tools to address those problems.

“I’m still hearing comments, people talking about how they’ve really got things to work on,” Steele said. “For us, that was a big focus. We don’t want to just inspire. We want to give tools for successful marriages.”

The organizers were pleased with the participation. Garrett said keeping the registration cost low and the provision of inexpensive child care helped make the retreat a success. For only $7, a couple with children could attend the retreat and receive quality child care at the seminary’s preschool.

The Marriage Initiative group also received help from a timely coincidence — the release of the marriage-focused film “Fireproof.” Not only were student couples encouraged to see the movie, the seminary offered them a chance to see it for free.

Endowment funding was used to rent a local theater, and seminary couples packed the theater for the free screening of the movie. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

“Fireproof highlights so clearly the importance of being obedient to God in how you respond to your spouse,” Steele said. “It’s the kind of movie that gives lots of hope to couples.”

The dean of students office also provided free copies of “The Love Dare,” a 40-day guided devotional book akin to the book featured in the movie.

Just weeks after the retreat, the seminary launched two home-based Bible study groups to continue the momentum that started at the retreat. The six-week studies use The Love Dare and video segments from Fireproof to help participants give proper focus to their marriages.

“We are starting small this semester, simply because of the timing,” Garrett said of the two home groups. “We are looking to expand on that next semester. We really want to see home groups as part of what we do to [strengthen campus marriages].”

Steele noted that the marriage focus is gaining in popularity on campus.

“One of the things that has been exciting to me is to see how many of our faculty couples really feel a passion and a burden to help students deal with marriage issues,” Steele said.
Gary Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.