Saddleback’s Discipleship Model for Married Couples

By Guest Contributor

legsIf I were to ask you to define aspects of spiritual health, what would you say? Your list may vary, but most people would include Bible study, prayer, ministry, evangelism, and some level of accountability. All of these are important elements of our spiritual growth, but when was the last time you heard someone say that their marriage was vital to their spiritual health?

We don’t often think of marriage in this way — as a discipleship rather than fellowship issue. In fact, many of our churches are organized in a way that constantly breaks couples up along gender lines to help them grow. I believe that men’s and women’s ministries are vital to helping people grow due to the level of accountability they can generate, but we are missing a huge piece of the puzzle if we don’t do anything to help couples see their marriages as part of their spiritual journeys.

It’s no wonder we have couples in our churches that appear to be growing spiritually but are headed for divorce because they can’t get along with each other. If we can help couples to understand the role their marriages play in their spiritual growth, they will see the issues that arise in their marriages as opportunities for growth instead of more reasons to leave.

So how do we help couples understand the role their marriages play in their spiritual growth? Here are some of the things we are doing at Saddleback to help couples make this shift:

1. Connect marriage to your discipleship process.

The compartmentalization of different segments of our lives is one of the biggest problems we have in the Church today. Most of us know people in our congregations who appear to have a close relationship with Christ until it is discovered that they lead secret lives. Just because people know biblical principles doesn’t mean they know how to apply those principles to other aspects of their lives, such as their marriages, families, or work lives.

If we want to see people integrate biblical principles into their lives, we have to help them see how those principles play out in the real world. When it comes to marriage, we need to be intentional about connecting what we teach about marriage to the discipleship process of the church. This will give people the vision and skills they need to see their marriages at the heart of their spiritual growth.

At Saddleback, we are doing this by taking the five purposes and applying them to marriage. As we do this, we are helping people to see that these five principles are not just related to their individual lives but should impact every aspect of their lives, including their marriages. In doing this, we are helping people see that marriage is not just a fellowship or relational issue, but rather it is firmly planted in the middle of our life development process. Just as all five purposes need to be balanced in an individual’s life, those same five purposes need to be balanced in the life of a healthy marriage.

2. Provide a process for marital education.

To help couples understand this and get the training they need to make this happen, we have a process here at Saddleback for marriage that mirrors our life development process (C.L.A.S.S.101-401).

We offer our Married Life Essentials Class once a month, with each class covering one of the five purposes as they relate to marriage. Each class is stand-alone, so couples can start wherever they are. We repeat each of the five classes throughout the year. These five core classes help our couples get the big picture of what a healthy marriage looks like, and they leave the event with a discussion piece they can do as a couple to start integrating those principles into their lives.

From there, we have our Married Life Skills, which are skill-based retreats based on the same five purposes. We have five retreats — one for each of the five purposes — that give couples the skills they need to make those five purposes happen in their marriages. These retreats are done both on and off campus, so anyone can get them.

Finally, we have our Married Life Transitions events, where we talk about how marriages change at each of the major transitions of life, including newly married, new parent, parent of grade school kids, parent of teens, and empty nest. We use these events not only to educate but also to help couples connect to small groups, because we know that couples in small groups have a built-in support system, and they grow best in that context.

You’ll notice that in this process, success is based on how many people we educate, not just how many we gathered in a room. This is a process, not a program, because our concern is with educating, equipping, and training; the only ongoing places I want couples to be for the long haul are small groups. Success is how well we educate and equip couples with the skills they need to have a healthy marriage, not how many people we can get through the system. After almost five years of doing this, we have seen thousands of people who have been trained and still more who keep coming.

3. Encourage spouses to be the primary spiritual partners.

At a men’s retreat, I had the opportunity to talk to the men about marriage. I asked how many of them wanted to see their character molded to look more like Jesus Christ’s. Of course, every man was fired up from the retreat, so I got a resounding cheer of agreement.

Then I asked them, “Why is it then that we go out and find a group of guys who don’t know anything about our wives or families and ask them to help us grow as we practice ‘controlled disclosure’ and only share what we know at some level is acceptable?” The group fell silent.

Then I asked them to think about the last time they asked their spouses to tell them where they needed to grow in character. I got a loud, agonizing “Ohhhh,” because each of them knew how real they would have to be and how painful true accountability is.

If we want to see couples in our churches view marriage as vital to their spiritual health, we need to encourage them to see their spouses as their primary accountability partners and give them the tools they need to help one another grow to be more like Jesus Christ. As long as we separate couples and divide talks on marriage along gender lines, we will never really help couples change their views on marriage.

4. Set up your communities strategically.

One of the best things I ever did was spend time with our men’s pastor, Kenny Luck. He and I do ministry together even though we minister to seemingly different groups — I work with couples and he works with men. Kenny and I knew we had a problem. We had men who, although they were in a couples group already, had joined a men’s group for accountability — and no one in the men’s group knew their families. This of course can lead to a guy complaining about his wife in the men’s group and the other men just letting him do so without challenging him to change his behavior.

We decided to change the trend and start telling married guys to get into couples groups with their wives and then gather with the men in their couples groups for further accountability. This has allowed us to help men see their wives as their primary spiritual partners, then a men’s group can add another layer of accountability. This has enhanced the growth and environment of our couples groups.

We also gained the added benefit of simplifying people’s lives and forcing them to be real with one another. Can you imagine if a guy in a couples group complains about his wife to the other guys? They would say, “Hey, that doesn’t sound like your wife, but let’s go talk to her together.” That certainly forces a different level of honesty!

We are still working on new ways of changing people’s minds about marriage. We now work closely with both our men’s and women’s ministry to help integrate more and more of what we do to help people see their marriages as part of discipleship. It is hard work to change people’s minds about anything, but it is worth the effort if marriages are reconciled and lives are changed. Based on what we have seen so far, I would say the hard work is worth it!

Todd Olthoff serves as pastor to couples and small groups at Saddleback Church. If you have any questions about the ministry to couples at Saddleback Church, you can contact him at and view the details of the ministry at

Photo by Karen Long

Guest Contributor