Getting married in the Catholic Church typically comes with a significant amount of preparation, designed to help couples as they enter into a lifelong sacramental union.
Couples are often required to meet with a priest or deacon, fill out a lengthy questionnaire intended to identify strength and weaknesses in their relationship, and attend marriage prep classes or retreats.
But support and enrichment opportunities for married couples in the Church are less plentiful after the wedding.
And once children enter the picture, it can be hard to find childcare in order to attend events, even if they are offered.
Jennifer Butch, director of discipleship and evangelization at Christ the King in Oklahoma City — located in a state with one of the highest divorce rates in the country — told The Pillar that two parishioners approached her with this problem a few years ago.
“We have a wonderful marriage prep program, but after ‘I do,’ what then?” Butch recalled them asking. “What are we doing for our married couples to help them grow in their faith together and help them support their families as places where Christ is the center?”
Butch formed a planning team, including the women who first approached her and their husbands, to come up with a response.
In the fall of 2016, they launched Marriage in His Image, a monthly date night event for couples. The event begins with wine and appetizers after the Saturday vigil Mass, followed by a talk and small group discussion.
The programming ends around 7:30. But childcare is provided until 10 p.m., so couples can continue their date at a local restaurant.
“It was very easy,” said Karen Arvidson of her first time attending a Marriage in His Image date night. She and her husband are now part of the planning team.
“We dropped off our kids and were greeted with a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres. … It just seemed like a wonderful service.”
Alex Sanchez and his wife Hilary, parishioners at St. Thomas More in Norman, Oklahoma, attended a Marriage in His Image event after hearing about it from friends at Christ the King. They liked it so much that they decided to start it in their own community, Sanchez told The Pillar.
“Before we left for the evening, Hilary leaned over to me and said, ‘We need this at St. Thomas More!’” he remembered.
St. Thomas More primarily serves students from the University of Oklahoma. But after the parish built a new church, it started seeing an influx of families, said Casey Partridge, who joined the parish staff as the director of marriage and family life to serve that growing demographic.
Sanchez started Marriage in His Image there in 2021. Partridge took over the planning when he started his new role that fall.
Today, the event is thriving at both parishes, which have seen a strong sense of community develop among participating couples and families. Sometimes, Butch said, multiple couples will make plans to go to dinner together after the small group discussion, or simply stay at the church to spend time with any others who stick around.
Fr. Rex Arnold, who has served as pastor of Christ the King since 2021, is supportive of the program.
“Catholic couples need encouragement, formation, support and friendship with other couples,” he told The Pillar.
‘You’re not alone’
In addition to the generous duration of childcare, the talks and subsequent discussions are the central feature of the evening.
At Christ the King, the presentations typically last about 25 minutes and have spanned topics from financial planning to raising adult children to celebrating the liturgical year within the home. The ideas are the fruit of the planning team’s brainstorming and experience.
“We try to have people on the team in different stages of life,” Butch explained. “We get a lot of different kinds of thoughts and ideas from having that wide variety.”
The team, which now consists of Butch and six different couples, meets once or twice a year to talk through topic ideas and to consider potential speakers.
“It’s fun — we have a big meal and we pray together and then we eat, and then we have our meeting of just going through all our different ideas,” Arvidson described.
Sometimes Butch and her team ask clergy to speak; sometimes they ask an expert on a specific topic. Often, however, they bring in couples from the parish or diocese to be the presenters.
“Every parish is full of people with different gifts and talents,” said Arvidson. “And so we do try to purposely tap into ‘who do we know who has this or that [experience]?’”
Partridge likewise looks for couples within his parish to give the talks. Some have been a bit surprised by the request to speak, he said, but he assures them that their lived experience of the ups and downs of marriage are more than enough to offer.
“I always ask them some fun questions when I introduce them, and I really try to just honor their marriage,” said Partridge.
At each table, couples can connect over the topic, as well as their own blessings and challenges.
“You realize, too, you’re not alone in what you’re struggling with,” said Arvidson. “Everybody’s got their struggles.”
And after the small group discussions have wrapped up, the topics set up couples for a meaningful date when they head off to a restaurant for dinner.
“All right, this is your opportunity to go out and enjoy a date night — here are some takeaways that you can talk about on your date night from what the couple spoke on,” Partridge said he tells attendees.
“It’s kind of like the start of a great conversation, then, for just you and your [spouse],” said Arvidson.
‘What are the kids going to do?’
In terms of planning, childcare is the most important element for the event’s success, both Butch and Partridge emphasized.
Christ the King has a Mother’s Day Out program, which offers parishioners several windows of childcare during the week (for a fee). The employees who staff the program are also available for childcare during many parish events, Butch explained, including Marriage in His Image.
Parents must register their children for childcare online prior to the event to guarantee a spot. Butch and her team ask for a $10 donation, both to cover the cost of pizza for the kids and staff and to discourage last-minute no-shows.
At St. Thomas More, university students are the primary childcare providers, whom Partridge pays a small stipend. They typically need eight childcare workers per event, he said, to watch 30 to 40 children.
Per diocesan requirements, all childcare staff and volunteers must have completed safe environment training.
But there is more to providing childcare than having enough qualified staff and volunteers. Space has sometimes been an issue at St. Thomas More; whenever they can, they bring children outside. Relatedly, both parishes have found it helpful to separate kids into younger and older age groups.
And, as Partridge put it: “What are the kids going to do?”
He recommends making sure there are coloring books, board games — or sports, cornhole and sidewalk chalk when they’re outside — to keep kids busy.
Over time, the children of regular attendees become friends.
“I always tell the couples, ‘This is a great opportunity for your kids to see church beyond just sitting in a pew and being quiet,’” said Partridge. “They’re coming now to these events… and they’re becoming friends with other kids at their church, which is so good.”
With childcare and speakers in place, the event is otherwise simple, said Butch.
During the 5 p.m. vigil Mass, one or two couples from her team put out appetizers, wine, tablecloths and other setup needs. Christ the King purchases appetizers from a local catering company, though Butch emphasized that the food need not be fancy. Sometimes they provide a handout to accompany the talk.
And when they first began, Butch said, they started out with a video series (the “Beloved” series by the Augustine Institute), not speakers, which she recommends as an easier way to get the ministry off the ground.
But while the event is what Arvidson called a “well-oiled machine” today, Butch said they have had challenges in the past.
“There are topics that can be touchy,” said Butch. “Natural Family Planning is one of them.”
Butch remembered an occasion when they showed a video on Natural Family Planning without having watched it first. It was not presented “in the most loving way,” she said, and some couples did not return to subsequent events.
“I’m not saying ‘shy away from the tough topics,’” she clarified. “We’ve embraced them, but be prepared that it could be hard for some people, and make sure if you’re going to cover tough topics that your speaker or your video or whatever handles that with love and sensitivity. Because the last thing you want is to have something push someone further away from some of the beautiful teachings of our Church.”
Since then, they have covered NFP again, and the presentation was better received by attendees.
“We’ve actually had a speaker that we vetted that we knew would handle it differently,” she said.
While both Christ the King and St. Thomas More attract plenty of attendees to the event — typically 20 or more couples on any given night, Butch and Partridge said — they would like to see more older couples in later seasons of their marriages.
“I think sometimes because they see ‘childcare provided,’ maybe they think, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me,’” said Butch.
The few older couples who come do enjoy the event, perhaps for different reasons than the parents of young children, for whom it’s a much-needed break. Arvidson said that they are often among those who stick around after the talk and discussion is over.
“They enjoy the company of other people, whereas the ones with younger kids are ready to take off,” she said.
Partridge tries to involve older couples in the ministry by inviting them personally, sometimes as speakers, so that the group — or just the other couples sitting with them at a table — can benefit from their wisdom.
“I try to encourage them like, ‘Hey, we need you, the Church needs you,’” he said. “This is your season of life where we really need to draw on your wellspring’.”
‘We’ve got to do a better job’
Butch hopes that the challenges of putting on such an event won’t discourage anyone from trying it in their own parishes.
“The fruits in the community far outweigh those little roadblocks and stumbling blocks,” she said.
Many of the couples who attend go on to be more active within the parish, she said, both with their time and money.
“We are seeing a more engaged community,” said Butch. “We’re seeing the people [who attend Marriage in His Image] embrace their mission and look for ways to build the kingdom outside of that ministry.”
Sanchez noted that the event has also bolstered the sense of community at St. Thomas More.
“We have met dozens of people and introduced couples to other couples,” he said. “[Marriage in His Image] has given us an event to invite new families to and has been an opportunity for our children to meet and play with other children in the parish.”
Ultimately, of course, the goal is to strengthen individual marriages.
“Our world is a crazy place. We look at the numbers — we know marriage is hard,” said Butch.
“We as a Church — we’ve got to do a better job of supporting our married couples in their walk together. Helping them learn how to pray together and how to have tough conversations and how to face those difficulties — and know that they have the support of their Church in doing that.”
“I really think this is helping marriages in a big way,” reflected Arvidson. “Probably more than we realize.”
This article is part of The Pillar's solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.