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Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is, and his email address is Growth Counselling for Marriage Enrichment was published in 1975 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.

Chapter 9: A Growth-Centered Program for Your Church

All such [self-actualizing] people are devoted to some task, call, vocation, beloved work ‘outside themselves.' 1. -- Abraham Maslow

Each of you has liberating and healing power over someone to whom you are a priest. We all are called to be priests to each other; and if priests, also physicians. And if physicians, also counsellors. And if counsellors, also liberators. There are innumerable degrees and kinds of saving grace. 2.

-- Paul Tillich

Many church activities are irrelevant to the deep needs of people in our society. They involve people but are essentially a waste of time, a waste of valuable opportunities to help people utilize their God-given potentialities. In contrast, churches which become centers for personal growth and social change are lively and exciting places. For them to become so, five things must occur:

1) Laity liberation takes place as more and more persons in a congregation discover their own unique ministry to persons and society, thus affirming the priesthood, pastorhood, and prophethood of all believers. This means a liberation from the spiritual impotence of the passive, follow-the-leader self-image of most lay persons, and to claiming one’s God-given power as an instrument of caring, growth, and justice in the mutual ministry to persons.

2) A network of liberation-growth groups for people at each life stage and crisis is gradually developed in the congregation. Lonely, hungry, boxed-in people -- laity or ministers -- can become enliveners only as they experience inner freedom and growth in a nurturing community.

3) Each growth group and event is also designed as a training event in order to equip participants to use their new insights and strengths to improve their community and help others grow.

4) The growth groups network is part of an ongoing program of systematic recruiting, training, and coaching of lay persons in their ministries of personal growth and social change.

5) The pastor has the vision and skills to inspire and coordinate the overall growth-group/training program or to mobilize others who can do this.

Those churches which are using this model of ministry have demonstrated that a congregation can increase dramatically the effectiveness of its personal caring, marriage enrichment, and social change ministries in this way.

Training Lay Marriage Enrichers

We must train lay marriage enrichers because: (1) Theologically, ministry belongs to the whole people of God, and psychologically, competent ministry requires training. (2) It’s one effective way to develop the spirit of a mutual ministry among families in a congregation. (3) It’s the only feasible way, in most churches, to provide the facilitators for the sharing, support, and nurture groups its people need. (4) Training is one of the best ways to help people grow -- that is, by helping others to grow! In growth counseling, to help means in part to transform helpees into helpers. (5) Training lay colleagues in the ministry of caring can be one of the most enriching and important aspects of a pastor’s work. It helps prevent the effectiveness-diminishing loneliness of the "go it alone" model of ministry.

Is lay helping really effective? A leader in the training of nonprofessionals, Robert Carkhuff, summarizes the available research evidence which, though not conclusive, indicates that trained lay helpers "function as effectively or more effectively than professionals in the helping role." 3.

Enrichment Events as Training Events

The trainer’s own philosophy of growth -- that an indispensable aspect of personal growth is reaching out to nurture growth in others and to change society -- is basic in integrating enrichment and training. This philosophy should be emphasized at these points and others during growth groups: in the publicity inviting participation -- for example, "This retreat will have a double purpose, to provide opportunities for us to enrich our own marriages and to discover our capacities to strengthen and encourage each other"; during the establishing of the group contract, near the beginning, when the discussion focuses on the nature of marriage growth; during the evaluation -- for example, "How did we support and encourage each other’s growth?"; in planning follow-up meetings -- for example, "How can we continue to support each other’s growth?"; and in planning for outreach -- for example, "How can we use our new skills to help others grow in our church and/or community?" The questions lead logically to making plans which offer opportunities for further training, as in the models outlined below.

Couples as Marriage Enrichers 4.

Here are two models which have been used in church enrichment programs to provide ongoing mutual growth support: (1) Before the end of a retreat, each couple chooses another couple with whom they agree to meet regularly as peer consultants or coaches of each other’s growth. (2) After a workshop, the small sharing groups agree to meet at regular intervals for follow-up growth work. Leadership rotates among the couples. Occasional mini-workshops for all these groups are held with the facilitators who co-led the initial workshop.

There are some approaches to outreach beyond the group itself that involve the selection and training of lay befrienders. Individuals and couples who clearly have aptitudes as growth facilitators are offered the necessary training and coaching to become co-leaders of youth, young adult, or other enrichment groups. The presence of a significant degree of these characteristics indicates that a person probably is a natural growth facilitator: warm caring, nonphoneyness, robust esteem (of oneself and therefore of others), accurate understanding (empathy), nonmanipulative outgoingness, and honest acceptance of others -- the ability to listen and speak the truth in love. Satisfying personal relationships and a growing faith are also important in a lay trainer. These are flexible guidelines, of course, pointing to a growing, life-affirming person. Such persons learn growth facilitating skills quickly. They also enjoy the learning!

The training of growth facilitators, whether lay or professional, should include four elements: First, experiencing several ongoing growth groups and enrichment workshops under the leadership of various competent facilitators in order to learn facilitating methods by experiencing them makes the growth perspective one’s own and continues one’s own growth. Second, mastering working concepts and tools of small group leadership -- and of crisis helping and grief facilitating -- by reading key books and by participating in the group leadership training workshops often sponsored by denominational or other groups. Third, co-leading a growth/enrichment group with a more experienced facilitator, who can give direct feedback. Fourth, ongoing coaching by an experienced trainer, using tape recordings of group sessions one has led (recorded with the group’s permission); coaching -- including peer-coaching -- should be ongoing in order that one can continue to enhance leadership skills. These same four training elements are essential if you are a minister or other counselor who desires to maximize your skills as a growth facilitator.

Young adult and middle-years couples may be selected and specially trained to be available for enriching shaky teenage marriages in two ways -- as catalysts in preparation for marriage groups and/or linked with teen couples who desire a young but more experienced couple as peer "consultants." Couples can be introduced to each other during the premarriage interviews or retreat. Substitute grandparent programs, linking solid middle-years couples and couples with young children, are another significant mutual ministry.

Individuals and couples who have coped constructively with major crises can sometimes be linked with those going through similar crises, such as the death of a child, the birth of a handicapped child, divorce, or early death of a mate. This approach uses the Alcoholics Anonymous principle, that your pain equips you in unique ways to help others in similar pain. The principle can be implemented in small AA-like mutual support groups, such as divorce recovery groups, or on a one-to-one or couple-to-couple basis.

The Key Role of the Minister

The minister’s leadership is crucial in helping to inspire, provide the theological resources, envision, plan, and operationalize the systematic program required to transform an ordinary congregation through lay training into an exciting people development center. Many ministers lack training in enrichment skills and/or in the coaching methods by which such skills are transmitted to others. If as a pastor you have not had an opportunity to learn either kind of skill, you have several options: Arrange to get the training you need (perhaps your church will provide a sabbatical leave); or ask your church to employ a "minister of group life and lay training" (with academic and clinical training in pastoral care and counseling); or employ a part-time pastoral counselor or accredited chaplain supervisor to coordinate lay training; or simply find a competent supervisor in your community and get your own on-the-job training as a trainer by having him or her coach you as you do lay training. Whatever the minister’s skills it is wise to involve qualified mental health professionals, teachers, and counselors in one’s own church or community as trainers or resource persons in the lay training program.

The "backup principle" is basic in any such program. Persons at each level of expertise will train and support a wider group of those with less expertise. For example, laity with special aptitudes and training are involved in training other lay persons. The minister can undergird -- and be on call to coach -- a number of lay trainers and growth group facilitators. The minister, in turn, is backed up by a person with more extensive training in interpersonal skills, such as a pastoral counseling specialist or a psychiatrist.

The "Dangers" in Marriage Enrichment

Most people have heard of a couple who "joined a marriage group and then got a divorce." In such cases, one of two things usually occurred.

On the one hand, the enrichment group may have simply made the couple aware of -- though it did not cause -- their long-standing marital misery or barrenness. This awareness often motivates the constructive action of either getting out of a mutually destructive marriage or of getting counseling.

On the other hand, some people have been hurt by incompetent leaders, either lay or professional. This danger can be reduced drastically by (1) choosing leaders who are non-manipulative, and warmly caring, and who believe in marriage; (2) encouraging the fullest use of the backup principle and of ongoing growth groups and coaching groups for all facilitators; (3) helping couples with severely pained marriages to get professional counseling instead of joining enrichment groups; (4) keeping growth groups growth-oriented, not pathology-oriented. (5) choosing leaders who are relationship-oriented, not just individually-oriented. Finally, remember that the only way to avoid all risks is to avoid working with people. The potential gains are more than worth the minimal unavoidable risks.

Growth-Action Groups

Ongoing growth groups should be encouraged to move beyond the types of enrichment and outreach described above and to help create more growth-enhancing organizations and communities by becoming growth-through-action groups. The bridge between personal growth and social change might be called the Gandhi-King principle, recognizing the superb ways in which Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King balanced and integrated personal renewal and effective social change. This principle is simply that personal growth and social change are two interdependent sides of a unified, effective ministry. There are social change issues which are logical extensions of the focus of every personal growth group. For example, marriage enrichment groups can become involved in creating a marriage education program in church or community. Young parents growth groups can start enlightened nursery schools. Consciousness raising groups can logically focus on changing the sexism that is deep in our society. A divorce recovery group can work for more humanizing divorce laws. The facilitator’s role is to raise this question: "How can our group translate the personal liberation that’s been experienced into helping create a more liberating society?"

Enriching the Enricher

After a growth workshop for lay counselors, one woman wrote: "I had reached the drained feeling. The sessions have been my ‘support community’ and I return home revitalized, refreshed, renewed, and feeling I am a person and have a place in the universe." Keeping the growth facilitators growing is both difficult and essential, for both professionals and lay persons. So, find or create your own growth-support group, one in which you are not the leader. This is your most vital group. It’s worth whatever effort it takes to find three or four other couples who will commit themselves to regular sharing and mutual growth support. Also, continue to attend workshops, retreats, and training seminars in order to refill the inner springs of your creativity.

Designing a Workable Program for Your Church

The payoff from this book will come to you if you use the ideas it has stimulated to improve your own work. If you’ve had any "aha!" experiences during the course of the reading -- moments of awareness that certain approaches could be useful in your situation -- I encourage you to build on these insights. Here are four practical steps which you may find helpful in developing your program:

Drawing Together an Enrichment Program Team

All you need is two to eight people who can see the exciting possibilities of an effective growth program and who will work with you as colleagues in creating the program your church requires. Activating existing committees -- e.g., in family life -- may be effective in this connection.

Sizing Up the Unmet Needs in Each Area

What kind of enrichment groups are needed -- preparation for marriage, new marriages, single young adults, depth parent education, training facilitators? Turn back to Chapter 3 and review the list of growth counseling and enrichment groups to stimulate your awareness of needs and of the methods to meet them. Arrange your list of needs in order of importance and urgency.

Devising a Plan to Meet One or Two High Priority Needs

Start small, perhaps with just one marriage enrichment group; let others emerge from that experience. Draw in resource people, trainers and facilitators, to help in every way possible. You may need a lay "coordinator of marriage and premarriage enrichment" as your program develops.

Evaluating Experiences

Through evaluation of each group, retreat, or training event much can be learned. Decide which other need you’ll tackle next and how.

Encourage your facilitator couples to join The Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment (ACME).

A Humanizing Network

Family therapist Virginia Satir asks this searching question:

"What would happen if . . . the idea of developing human being was considered so important and vital that each neighborhood had within walking distance a Family Growth Center which was a center for learning about being human, from birth to death?" She answers her question: "Human potential is infinite. We have barely scratched the surface." 5. As I reflected on her words, an exciting awareness dawned in me. The potential and the beginning of such a humanizing network already exist! They exist in your church, and in the schools and community agencies of your neighborhood. By gradually developing a vigorous growth and enrichment program, your church can become a significant participant in the new, humanizing network of growth opportunities that is helping more and more people to find "life in all its fullness" (John 10:10 NEB) at each age and stage of the journey.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the future is uncertain. New problems will doubtless arise. But the future is also open! Fresh winds of change and creativity are blowing through society and church. We now have effective methods to help create a better church and a better world for the human family. My hope for you is that you will be blessed with a vision of your place in creating this world, and with the imagination, openness, and courage required to make this vision a reality. Most of all, I wish for you the joy of discovery -- discovery of your God-given inner riches and your capacity to help others make the same discovery.



1. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 301.

2. Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Scribner’s, 1963), p. 115.

3. Robert Carkhuff, Helping and Hum an Relations, vol. 1 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969), p. 1.

4. Couples who may be interested in becoming marriage enrichers should know about ACME (The Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment, 403 S. Hawthorne Rd., Winston-Salem, N. C. 27103), a national group established by David and Vera Mace to unite couples in fostering mutual growth and to support effective enrichment services in the community.

5. In Herbert Otto, ed., The Family in Search of a Future (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970), p. 59.

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