Marriage Encounter retreats build faithful marriages
May 20, 2021
“My marriage has never been easier,” said Kat Zeller.
“I didn’t know it was possible, but every day I fall deeper and deeper in love with my husband, Quentin.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
In 2010, Quentin and Kat Zeller were on the verge of separating. In fact, Kat had moved out of the family’s home.
After attending a few marriage counseling sessions, Quentin suggested they take part in a Worldwide Marriage Encounter (WWME) weekend experience.
“I was nervous; we were in a bad spot for a long time. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and I had doubts it would do anything for us,” Kat said.
At the time the Zellers said they were living a single married lifestyle.
“So much resentment had built up around that,” Kat said. “We had two small children, and we didn’t know how to be a married couple, to be partners. We didn’t have God at the center of our lives and we definitely didn’t have God at the center of our marriage. We were just trying to do it on our own.”
Today the Zellers have been married for 15 years and are raising five children ranging in age from 6 months to 14. They are both middle school teachers with the Grand Island (Nebraska) Public School District, and attend St. Leo Catholic Church in Grand Island.
While WWME is not necessarily geared toward fixing “broken” marriages, it can and does help couples like the Zellers reconnect and reaffirm their commitment to one another and to God with the help of the Holy Spirit.
WWME does this by helping couples learn how to communicate more effectively, said Julie Bannantine. She and her husband, Sandy Parlier, make up the ecclesial team and are servant leaders for region nine of WWME, which covers Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana and their home state of Colorado.
“Our goal is to give couples enhanced communication tools to regain the joy in their marriage,” she said. “In your career you go to all kinds of training to improve your job performance, but when we get married, we think it’s going to be perfect without doing anything.”
That’s simply not the case, Parlier said.
“I was the strong silent type and I came to realize after our first marriage encounter experience, that is not what Julie needed,” Parlier said. “She needed a friend, someone who would communicate their feelings to her.”
Parlier said they were so absorbed in their careers, raising their two children and tending to the daily tasks of running a household that their marriage took a backseat to all the things they thought they had to get done every day.
“Marriage is more than just getting things done, it’s about relationship,” he said.
To nurture that relationship, WWME teaches couples how to listen, how to share their feelings, how to dialogue about the challenging topics that they encounter – raising children, paying bills and dealing with the everyday stressors of life, said Janelle Benson. She and her husband, Pat Benson, a deacon at St. Michael Parish in Central City, help lead WWME retreats.
“We hope that it brings couples back to when they were first dating, staying up all night to talk about their hopes and dreams. For whatever reason, we kind of lose that intimacy as we get older and life gets busy,” Janelle said.
“A lot of married couples just don’t have the skills to talk to and understand one another,” said Father Anthony Weidner, pastor of St. Michael Parish in South Sioux City, who also helps lead retreats.
“Some couples only stay in their marriages because they think that is what God wants,” Father Weidner said. “They see it as this heavy cross to bear, but God wants them to be joyful and blessed.”
Marriage is a covenant relationship between the spouses and God, Father Weidner said. When a couple puts God at the center of their marriage, it is supported and enriched by his grace.
“In turn, when they say I love you, it means you matter to me. How you are emotionally, physically and spiritually matters to me,” Father Weidner said.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, Deacon Benson said, WWME leaders quickly pivoted from the in-person weekend experiences to a virtual format with a variety of experiences offered through Zoom.
It’s a move that has proven fruitful, the Bensons said.
“Some people really like the virtual experience, they save on travel and lodging, prepare their own meals and can take part over the course of a weekend, or sign up for sessions that take place over several weeks,” Janelle said. “All we ask is that, if they have children, they make child-care arrangements for them so they can fully participate in the experience.”
Each presentation builds on the other, so it’s vitally important the couples remain focused, especially if they are participating remotely, said Bruce and Veta Hungerford. The Hungerfords are community coordinators for WWME and former state leaders who live in Long Pine, Nebraska, and attend Holy Cross Church in Bassett, Nebraska.
Once the couple has taken part in a WWME experience, they can continue to nurture their relationship through the online resources found on the WWME website or by taking part in local sharing groups, Veta said.
The Hungerfords, who encourage couples to form local sharing groups, said the support a couple receives from something as simple as connecting with other WWME couples is priceless.
The Zellers agree.
“The network we’ve built from our WWME circle has been the biggest help for us,” said Kat. “I go to them with frustrations, questions, even simple stuff, like needing help finding a babysitter.”
The Zellers said their group tries to meet monthly.
The biggest benefit, they said, is the friendships they’ve developed with other faith-filled couples who are all committed to the sacrament of marriage.
“Society today almost paints the picture of marriage as being disposable,” said Bruce Hungerford.
“It’s pretty fragile and we want to do what we can to put a faith-filled foundation under marriage,” he said. “That is what WWME does.”