Because 50 percent of divorces happen in the first five years of marriage, Willow Park Church (MB), Kelowna, B.C., is “deliberate about making our most valuable resources help couples have a good start,” says Henry Sawatzky.
“The vast majority of [church] resources tend to be used up where they are least effective: with marriages in crisis,” says this marriage and family therapist. “We wanted to turn that on its head.” About five years ago, as part of his vision to help marriages through preparation, enrichment, and intervention, Henry – then pastor of marriage and family – started Willow Park’s marriage mentorship program.
In most churches, engaged couples meet with the pastor, but often those conversations end with the wedding. “Every church is full of couples who are really doing well,” thought Henry. “What if we take those couples who have a heart for helping couples, train them, and out of a relationship, pass those tools along?”
Mentors must be married at least 20 years. Using an online relationship inventory called Focus as a conversational starting point, mentors meet with new couples five to six times before the wedding and every four to six weeks for the first year of marriage. Henry estimates between 100 and 150 couples have already come through the program.
Mentors since the beginning, Cindy and Brian Schellenberg say their mentees have become extended family. “They just like knowing someone cares; there’s someone who’s going to ask them the hard questions, and ask if they’re okay,” says Cindy. Couples tell her “the biggest thing they got out of it was realizing they were normal, that everyone struggles…and that doesn’t make for a bad marriage.”
Participation is a prerequisite for getting married in Willow Park, but couples with no connection to the church community or its facility have requested mentors. As far away as Kamloops, Cindy reports, a minister told one couple he’d marry them after they joined Willow Park’s program. As demand has grown, so has the team of volunteers; some 17 mentors are currently active.
Though Henry is now in full-time family practice, he continues to train and support mentors. “Of the four years I was at Willow Park on staff, this is the single thing I was able to accomplish I’m most proud of,” he says.
“It’s kept the generations connecting,” explains Cindy. “In a large church, that can be difficult.” “We’ve had couples who didn’t have a relationship with parents they could turn to,” says Henry. “They’ve been able to ask [their mentors] advice about things like birth control, or how to manage a budget, or where to look for a job when the economy is broken.”
“It’s strengthened our marriage,” says Cindy. As Brain and Cindy share their life experience with younger couples, “it reminds us how special our story is.”