Saturday, September 24, 2005

Why Mainline Church Leaders are Ambivalent About Promoting Marriage, Part I

Of all the institutions which could promote marriage, religious institutions are, I believe, in the best position to do the most good. Yet the leadership of mainline churches has not been in the forefront of the marriage movement. There are several reasons for this, including a fear of hurting single parents and a fear of prejudging the question of homosexual marriage. I will return to these issues in future posts.

My research on the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the pillars of the mainline, struck me as revealing another powerful motive for being quiet about promoting marriage: church leaders are much more likely to be divorced.

When future Presbyterian ministers are in seminary their theology falls in a bell curve from conservative to liberal, with most calling themselves some kind of moderate or centrist. And seminarians all across the theological spectrum are equally likely to be married.

In later years, though, there is a dramatic shift, which suggests a strong connection between marriage and a more conservative position. In my book on strengthening the loyalist center of the church, Leading from the Center, I found this remarkable pattern:

“One of the most striking differences among Presbyterian ministers that develop after seminary is the ratio of married to divorced people in different groups. Among theological conservatives, there are 89 married ministers for every divorced one; for those in the center the ratio is 16 to one; for liberals, there are 7.7 married people for each divorced person. An extraordinary extension of this pattern is that for ministers in church agencies or judicatories (that is, presbyteries, synods, or General-Assembly-level bodies), the married-to-divorced ratio is 2.2 to one.”

The church bureaucracy is much more likely to be filled with divorced people. Indeed, I know of a number of cases of ministers who left their congregation following their own divorces, and ended up in church bureaucracy seemingly by default.

There is, I think, a complex relationship between marriage and theology, not all of which I understand now. It does seem clear to me, though, that a church leadership which is full of divorced people, and thus also of the colleagues and friends of divorced people, will be more ambivalent about promoting marriage.


Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who describes himself as evangelical and right of center on most issues, I would say that its a question of value. This is only a guess, but I think that those of use who are conservative and centrist place a higher value on our marriage vows and the commitment that goes with it. I am not sure that this is a complete answer to your question since the Bible belt has a high divorce rate. However I would say that in the South if you are in love you have more pressure on you to get married which might another slightly distorted way of showing how marriage is valued in a culture.

ancho and lefty said...

In addition to avoiding the questions of homosexual marriage and single parenthood, I think mainline churches avoid the promotion of marriage because they don't want to tackle questions about men's roles and women's roles in the context of matrimony- something that many non-mainline churches tackle head-on. (Not that I much like their answers.) For example, in taking my wedding vows I do not intend to tell my future husband that I will OBEY him. Yet the obedient wife seems to be the Biblical paradigm. Just a thought.

ancho and lefty said...

One more thing- if you really want a scary look into the state of marriage in popular culture in 21st century USA, you should go to Joseph-Beth and purchase one of those terrible 450 page bridal magazines. You could use it for a class project when you teach Marriage and Family. You could ask your students to discuss what they learn about marriage from such publications:

For example:

It is really o.k. to spend more on your wedding than on a year of university.

On your wedding day, what is important is not how you feel, but rather how you look.

It would be inappropriate to have fewer than 5 bridesmaids.

Wedding cakes should cost more than a mortgage payment.

Your dress really should set your parents back a few month's salary, you know, just to show that they love you.

It is a good idea to insist on a diamond engagement ring, since there are no ethical dilemmas in the global diamond trade... The size of the diamond engagement ring equals the size of his affection for you!

Aaahhh the rainy season in Central America---so much time to think about things unrelated to my dissertation research!

Gruntled said...

To dee, I think it is not so much that mainline Christians put less value on their wedding vows. Rather, I think they value tolerance more than just about any other commitment. They don't want to criticize non-marriages, even though most members of mainline churches do marry for life.

George Barna has some fascinating research on why born-again Christians have a higher divorce rate than average. But that is the subject for another blog.

Gruntled said...

To ancho and lefty (more lefty, I think), I agree entirely that mainline churches dread addressing men's and women's roles. Ambivalence about everything is one of the maddening aspects of mainline churches. However, even in quite definite churches, with strong and clear statements about differences between men and women, I don't think you will find women promising to obey in their wedding vows very often these days.

Should we infer something happy from the fact that you have been perusing bridal magazines, no matter how icky the magazines are?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what ancho and lefty said about bridal magazines. Some people seem to spend more time worrying about what the marriage ceremony will look like than what the marriage will be like. As the old saying goes you got to keep the main thing the main thing.

Gruntled said...

There is a theory that people who are anxious about divorce give themselves big weddings to try to make their investment in the marriage to big to give up. Probably futile, if true.