Happy ever after?

"Twenty ministers, representing almost all of Oak Harbor's churches, met around an altar Wednesday to say I do to an agreement they hope will strengthen the bonds of holy matrimony.After a year of discussion, the ministers and their churches have agreed not to perform marriages without first providing couples with premarital counseling, a process that could take as long as six months. The agreement also stresses the need for sexual abstinence before a Christian marriage.Signing a written agreement on how Christian marriages should be performed is a historic step for local churches, said Clint Webb, pastor of the First Baptist Church. This is the first time in Oak Harbor that the churches have come together to do something in unity, Webb said. I'm very excited about taking this stand.It was time for the churches to make a stand, he said, because marriage is being destroyed and devastated in our communities.Ben Norris of the Church of the Nazarene agreed. When the divorce rate is over 50 percent for new marriages, couples have a better-than-even chance of not staying married. It's up to us to do all we can to make marriages succeed.The united policy should have a strong effect, Webb said, since he estimates that 80 to 90 percent of local marriages are performed in the churches.The agreement is intended to ensure that marriages performed in Christian churches are firmly based on Christian principles. It will also mean no more quick marriages in the majority of local churches. People call and ask if they can get married on Saturday, and want to know how much it will cost, First United Methodist Church pastor David Lura said. It's like they were buying tires. We want people to prepare for marriage. The intention is to set a standard, a number of ministers said, while the details of how pre- and post-marital counseling is carried out will be left up to the individual churches.Pastor David Jenkins of the Faith Temple Christian Center said his practice is to meet with engaged couples for six counseling sessions spread over three months. His classes cover everything from finances and in-laws to child-rearing. We try to touch on every area possible, he said, so that at the end they know more about each other than they can learn in courtship. Jenkins, and most of the other pastors, provide counseling without charge, although a few churches have fees. The question of sexual abstinence is likely to be handled by individual pastors on a case-by-case basis, Jenkins said. But he feels it is time ministers and churches made a stand on an issue that has always been preached, but lately, not much else.Most of the ministers interviewed said their practice was not to proceed with counseling and a wedding if couples were not willing to agree to abstain.People do live together, Norris said, and I do address that issue up front. The Christian principle doesn't question your morality, but it does ask you to forego sexual relations until you are married. We give them the Biblical standard, and then they have to make a decision. If they couldn't agree, then I couldn't conduct a ceremony.The intention, pastor Ron Willis of Family Bible Church explained, is not to say that people who have been sexually active shouldn't be married. Rather, We have to uphold the word of God. We tell couples that God offers grace and forgiveness. If you want to honor God, then you stop having sex until you are married. Many Oak Harbor churches already require premarital counseling and sexual abstinence before performing marriages. This will affirm what I'm already doing, Tad Southard of the First Reformed Church said. But the fact that most of the other churches have agreed to the same standards is important support, he said.He has found that most couples welcome premarital counseling. Ben Dotson and Jennifer Jones, who met with Southard on Thursday for the seventh and final counseling session before their marriage in August, did.It brings up issues that you might not think of, Dotson said. After going through it, I know for sure it's the right decision. I think it's really important for all couples, Jones said. The marriage agreement also covers other issues. It states that marriage is an agreement between a man and a woman, which means that same-sex marriages will not be performed. It also calls for after-marriage counseling, ongoing education on marriage and family relationships in the churches, and commits the churches to maintain Christian standards for marriage and to recognize God's forgiveness when people fail to live up to those standards. We're not in the job of performing weddings, David Templin of the Whidbey Presbyterian Church said. Plenty of people can do that. We're in the job of building marriages.Other churches are welcome to sign the marriage agreement, Webb said. For more information, call Webb at 675-3032.---------------------------Making a pactThe Oak Harbor Community Marriage Agreement covers these points:* A statement on God's place in Christian marriage;* A commitment to work toward strong and joyful marriages through premarital counseling, sexual abstinence before marriage, post-wedding counseling at six-month and one-year anniversaries, and by providing constant education in the churches to support successful marriages and healthy families; * A statement on upholding the high standards of the Christian gospel and affirming God's grace and forgiveness. Factoid:Marriage and divorce in Island CountyIn 1999, Island County issued 537 marriage licenses. In the same period, it received 385 divorce filing petitions."

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