Marriage Encounter Believes in Happily Ever After

By Kathy L. Gilbert

Gary and Lisa Morris
Gary and Lisa Morris had been married for six years when they turned to each other and asked, "Is this all there is?" A UMNS photo by John Goodwin
"We knew we loved each other, but we were starting to feel disillusioned about marriage," Lisa says. That is when she noticed an article in the newspaper about a program called Marriage Encounter.

"We really needed to see other people who loved each other," she says. After that first weekend, they were a changed couple. They have become involved as volunteers to host Worldwide Marriage Encounter United Methodist weekends in Tennessee and have been happily married for 31 years.

Worldwide Marriage Encounter United Methodist is part of an organization that includes 12 denominations. The weekends are held all over the world, with more than 1,500 events each year. The Roman Catholic Church started the program in 1965. More than 7,500 United Methodist couples have participated since 1976, when the United Methodist portion of the program began. 

Marriage Encounter is a program for healthy marriages, emphasizes Mary Jane Pierce Norton, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. Worldwide Marriage/Engaged Encounter United Methodist is affiliated with the agency, which is based in Nashville, Tenn. Engaged Encounter is for couples considering marriage.

"It is not a workshop on marriage; it is much more personal," says Jo Victor. She and her husband, Tim, are the national executive lay couple for the United Methodist Church. Eunice and the Rev. Earl Higgins are the national United Methodist clergy couple.

A weekend away

A Marriage Encounter weekend starts on Friday afternoon and ends on Sunday. Three lay couples and one clergy couple present the program to couples at a retreat or hotel. The presenting couples talk about personal experiences and give those attending time to reflect on their marriage in the privacy of their rooms. All the presenting couples are United Methodist, but the weekends are open to anyone.

"Many people worry that when they attend a weekend that they will have to share openly and bare their souls to others. This is not true on a Marriage Encounter weekend," say Ken and Dee Worthy, in an e-mail message for this story. The Worthys are a volunteer couple who host Marriage Encounter weekends in North and South Carolina.

Presenting couples talk about feelings, setting priorities in marriage and managing anger, among other topics.

"We talk about everything from finances to sex to death," says Tim Victor.

Lisa Morris says the weekend is all about leaving the world behind and concentrating on the marriage. Couples are urged to reflect on themselves as individuals, as a couple, as a couple and their relationship with God, and finally as a couple with God and the world.

"To sit and listen to people talk about their relationships and then reflect on your own may sound kind of boring but is a wonderful experience," she says.

"For Eunice and me, it was the best thing that ever happened to us as a couple," says the Rev. Earl Higgins. "I am a clergyperson, and most of my life centered on church and other things rather than family and home. It helped us realize how important our marriage was."

Each couple will have a different experience, the Worthys write. "We usually tell people to go in faith that their marriage will undergo a marvelous transformation."

Marriage Encounter also helps build a bond with the United Methodist Church, Jo Victor says. "I see couples that go on these weekends not just coming back renewed in their marriage but on fire for the United Methodist Church."

"Marriage Encounter is a volunteer group of people who have felt led, usually as a result of their experience on a weekend, to see that this ministry continues," say the Worthys.

Couples are invited to make a donation at the end of the weekend retreat, but no one is turned away because of lack of funds.

"We would support anything that is really designed to enhance and strengthen marriage," says the Rev. Higgins. "We tell couples the wedding is just one day, marriage is for a lifetime." 

This United Methodist News Service article was originally released August 8, 2002.

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