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Ron L. Deal, M.MFT., Originally published by Family Information Services, Minneapolis, MN, 1998


The American family has been in decline for the past 40 years. During that time church leaders across the country have come to recognize the need for both remedial and preventive efforts within the church. Family life ministry, in a nutshell, tries to strengthen all forms of family so as to empower the individuals within those families to love and serve the Creator of all things. In other words, family life ministry is about discipleship and equipping families to "tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord" (Psalm 78:4). Whether your ministry to families already exists, or if the foundations for such a ministry are just now being established, it is important to have a written philosophy for the ministry.

In this article I will share with you my philosophical understanding of the goals, intentions, and purposes of family life ministry (FLM). Hopefully this will deepen your understanding of this ministry. It also provides a theological rational for the financial priority this ministry should be afforded. Share these statements with your family life committee or church leadership so they can catch a vision of the importance of this ministry and what might be developed.

Family Life Ministry: A Conceptual Overview

FLM is comprised of preventive and therapeutic efforts designed to strengthen the family. Interventions are driven by a theological understanding of family life originating from a study of the biblical text, family systems theory, and family life cycle theory (the developmental stages that all families experience). Specific strategies can be developed through a congregational survey or family needs analysis.

A Philosophy for Family Life Ministry

The following is a list of the basic tenants of family life ministry followed by a brief discussion of each statement.

  1. FLM is primarily preventative. The purpose of FLM is to equip individuals and families with relevant Biblical truths and healthy family skills so as to empower them to successfully deal with the challenges of family living and faith development. While therapeutic efforts are important for those experiencing mental or emotional unease, prevention of individual and familial distress must be viewed as the primary goal. Truly an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. (See the poem at the end of this article.)
  2. FLM needs to encourage and empower families as the primary context of spiritual formation. God has always relied upon the family to be the primary source of faith development in children (see Psalm 78:1-8). Yet, most parents are perfectly willing to hand that responsibility to the church. Parents must be held accountable for their influence while the church strives to empower them with the tools necessary to build their children’s faith through the teaching and demonstration (modeling) of God’s word.
    In addition, empowering and strengthening family life in general has dramatic impact on faith development because family provides the ecological context for the spiritual formation of its members. It is so much easier to discover and know a loving God in a nurturing, stable, loving family.
  3. FLM is focused on building family strengths and detouring unhealthy dynamics. All too often, "family enrichment" programs focus on negative or "dysfunctional" family patterns. Families need to be told what is healthy, shown how to live what is healthy, and given opportunities for implementation of what is healthy.
  4. Educational and enrichment programs should be developed with an awareness of the developmental tasks and crisis points of the family life cycle. Knowing that families experience predictable developmental crises, preventive efforts can help families bridge the crisis, without becoming stuck and unhealthy. For example, programs can address adjusting to a new marriage, the transition to parenthood, preparing for adolescence, marriage after retirement, and death in the family. These developmental crises are predictable—we might as well help people navigate the transition.
  5. Therapy should be available for those in crisis. As families float their canoes down the river of life, prevention attempts to help them navigate away from the rocks and hazards, and toward smoother streams of godliness. Therapy is for those who find themselves devastated on the rocks at the bottom of a waterfall, in dire need of an EMT. Both are necessary for they serve a different population with differing needs. Remedial efforts for those experiencing individual, marital, or family distress can be made available via lay counselors, licensed therapists, and/or support groups.
  6. FLM seeks to develop a strong social support system for families. The church is a family of families that provides belonging and nurturance to its members. Many family programs will bond families together building a web of strength and support.
  7. FLM needs to be contemporary and relevant to today's families.Ministry leaders must constantly stay in tune with the changing American family relative to culture, type, and structure, especially within their local community. For example, stepfamilies remain largely overlooked in the church yet, within the next decade, will be the most predominant family form in America (Deal, 2002; see Therefore, premarital education programs, for example, should have sections specifically addressing the tasks of remarriage, and parenting programs should incorporate the unique aspects of stepparenting.
  8. FLM must serve both traditional and non-traditional family types. A narrow view of "family" easily excludes non-traditional types of families such as single-parent families, stepfamilies, households with multi-generations, childless couples, grandparents raising grandchildren, and single adults. Efforts should be made to minister to a variety of family types.
  9. FLM should make specific effort to reach out to the community at large. Indeed, family ministry is excellent outreach ministry. Educational classes or seminars make great "bridge events" which bring persons to the church and provide opportunity for further contact and/or bible study.
  10. FLM maintains a perspective approach to ministry as well as a programmatic one. Holistic family ministry seeks to examine the entire life and activity of the congregation to assess the impact on family life. Measures are taken to ensure that the work and programs of the church under gird and enhance rather than compete with family relationships (Garland, 1995).
  11. FLM needs to challenge and support fathers to take responsibility for the spiritual direction of their family. The task here is to help fathers shepherd their flock, and lead them toward the Good Shepherd. When a father is functionally absent, FLM will support and equip single-mothers for the task of single-parenting; when necessary, extended family and/or the church will be encouraged to serve as mentors.
  12. FLM needs to be integrated into every other aspect of church life. The New Testament writers continually blend theology with family life, and so it should be in the church. The family is the laboratory of Christian living and is, therefore, the primary source of faith development and Christ-centered living (Money, 1987).
Recommended Resources and Organizations on Family Life Ministry
  • Association of Marriage & Family Ministries: a tremendous organization equipping churches, lay leaders, and ministry staff to organize and maintain a local family ministry.
  • Center for the Family, directed by Ken Canfield, Ph.D. Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA. 90263, Web page:
  • Drive Faith Home, directed by Kurt Bruner,
  • The Center for Family Life, directed by Dr. Charles Sell. 2065 Half Day Road, Bannockburn, Il. 60015, (847) 317-6710. Publish a family ministry newsletter, offer resources and books relevant to family ministry, and sponsor an "Effective Family Ministry Workshop."
  • Family Gain practical training in marriage and family enrichment programs.
  • Journal of Family Ministry, published by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Road, Louisville, KY., 40205-1798, 1-800-264-1839. Diana Garland, Ph.D., editor.
  • Garland, D. (1999). Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide. Downders Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Hebbard, D.W. (1995). The Complete Handbook for Family Life Ministry in the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
  • Morris, B. (1993). The Complete Handbook for Recovery Ministry in the Church: A Practical Guide to Establishing Recovery Support Groups Within Your Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
  • Sell, C. (1995). Family Ministry (2nd Edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.
  • – Christian resources for church and home from author and stepfamily educational specialist Ron Deal.
A Fence or an Ambulance
Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant.
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
Full many a youthful peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, "Put a fence 'round the top of the cliff."
Some, "An ambulance down in the valley!"

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city.
A fence may be useful or not, it is true;
But their hearts became brimful of pity
For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff.
And the dwellers in highway and alley,
Gave pounds or gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

"For the cliff is alright, if you're careful," they said,
"And if folks even slip, or are dropping,
It isn't the slipping that hurts them so much
As the shock down below, when they're stopping!"
So day after day as these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would their rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell from the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked, "It's a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
When they'd much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this nonsense," he cried.
"Come neighbors and friends, let us rally.
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley!"

"Oh he's a fanatic!" the others rejoined.
"Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He'd dispense with all charities too, if he could!
No, no, we'll support them forever.
Aren't we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us, shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence
When the ambulance works in the valley?"

But a sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer.
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will still be the stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They'll scorn all pretence and put up a fence
Round the cliff that hangs over the valley.

Better guard well the young, than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
To rescue the fallen is good, but 'tis best
To prevent other people from falling.
Let us close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon and galley.
Better put a strong fence 'round the top of the cliff,
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

Joseph Malius, 1865
  1. Anderson, R. S. (1997). Spiritual Formation as Family Therapy: A Social Ecology of the Family Revisited. Journal of Family Ministry, Vol. 11, No. 4, 10-27
  2. Deal, R. L. (2002). The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
  3. Garland, D. (1995). Strengthening Families and Churches in Turbulent Times. Journal of Family Ministry, 9, 5-21.
  4. Glick, P.C. (1989). Remarried families, stepfamilies, and stepchildren: A brief demographic profile. Family Relations, 38, 24-28.
  5. Hebbard, D. W. (1995). The Complete Handbook for Family Life Ministry in the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
  6. Money, R. (1987). Ministering to Families: A Positive Plan of Action. Abilene, TX: ACU Press.

Ron is Founder and President of As For Me And My House Ministries, LLC, which provides marriage and family training and family ministry consulting to church leaders. He and his wife, Nan, speak on a variety of family topics together including marital communication, parenting, and sexuality (see family seminars). Nan serves as Vice President of Ministry Outreach for As For Me And My House Ministries/Smart Stepfamilies.

Together, they manage a specific arm of As For Me And My House Ministries called Smart Stepfamilies, an education and consulting ministry that empowers stepfamilies toward healthy living and equips churches to minister to the unique needs of stepfamilies. Ron is author of the book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and creator/presenter of the Building A Smart Stepfamily seminar which is presented in churches throughout the country. Currently Ron is serving as Stepfamily Educational Consultant to Focus on the Family, is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center , and is an adjunct faculty member of Talbot School of Theology's doctoral program in effective family ministry. Ron is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with nearly 20 years experience in local church ministry. Ron and his wife Nan are also members of the National Advisory Board for The Association of Marriage and Family Ministries

Ron's national radio appearances to address the needs of stepfamilies include "Focus on the Family" (and numerous FOTF broadcasts), "FamilyLife Today," "HomeWord" with Dr. Jim Burns, "America's Family Coaches" with Dr. Gary & Barbara Rosberg, "Live the Life" with AACC president Dr. Tim Clinton, "Josh McDowell radio," and many others. National TV appearances include "Reality Talks" with Dr. Kevin Leman, "A New Harvest," "At Home Live," and "100 Huntley Street" and "Marriage Uncensored" in Canada. He has written feature family and ministry articles addressing a variety of family matters for a number of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family, HomeLife, The Family Room, and Christianity Today.

On a regular basis Ron trains family ministry professionals at the Association of Marriage & Family Ministries conferences and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference, the national Smart Marriages, Happy Families conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family. He and Nan have three boys.