The roads of Brad Rhoads’ life run on parallel tracks. The attorney practiced law full-time for more than two decades, yet as he devoted more efforts to marriage ministry, he felt the Lord calling him to transition to make that his full time work.
Brad began serving as a lay pastor of marriage in his church in 2012 in an attempt to proactively help marriages rather than pick up the pieces after they were broken. He worked with his church’s youth ministry for 10 years. As the teens grew up and began to marry, they saw the fruit of his decades-long marriage with his wife, Marilyn, and asked him to conduct their premarital counseling.
From Law to Ministry
While still practicing law, Brad discovered a coaching program that taught him to devote one day a quarter to intentionally planning his business. He noticed a correlation between the marriage classes he and Marilyn were leading and the business-coaching model that had been so beneficial to his law practice. Brad crafted content to develop a program to use those proven business practices to help couples intentionally build their marriages.
“It is so easy to make a difference in couples’ lives if you catch them before they encounter crisis,” he said. “You have to give marriage off the top time, not the leftovers, because there never are any leftovers.”
In 2012, Brad piloted a marriage-coaching program with 10 couples. All of them wanted to continue after the first year. When his congregation heard about it, almost 1/3 of the church of 350 signed on.
While he divided his time between ministry and law for a while, Brad realized his heart truly called him to be a marriage champion. He became an ordained pastor, and he and Marilyn expanded the program, now called Grace Marriage. The need became so apparent that Brad left his law practice in 2015 to devote his full professional attention to it. Grace Marriage has now spread to more than 120 churches, reached 5,000 participants and has been featured on Focus on the Family.
Marilyn holds qualifications in her own right, with degrees in psychology and social work. She was professionally employed as a counselor before leaving her practice to raise the Rhoads’ five children. The couple leads marriage retreats, writes marriage wellness materials, provides leadership training and leads quarterly marriage groups.
Grace Marriage draws its name from Romans 6:14, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace."
“We long to be consistent, kind and thoughtful, but that’s not our natural reaction,” he said. Grace Marriage helps couples model grace and forgiveness rather than withdrawal and consequence for each other’s inevitable failures.
“We teach them to extend grace and pursue their spouse when they are struggling, like Jesus,” he said. “To consciously think, ‘How can I be of most help,’ moving toward them, rather than becoming frustrated with their shortcomings and criticizing or pulling back.”
Unpacking the Grace Marriage Framework
Grace Marriage is structured so couples meet for half a day once a quarter. Each session includes a new participants’ guide with fresh material to stimulate conversation.
Lessons start with a biblical concept. Couples will think, take structured time to hear and be heard, and write down what application and implementation would look like in their lives. People are 42% more likely to do something if they write it down, Brad said.
Couples create time and space to have conversations they otherwise wouldn’t have —becoming intentional about planning the direction of their marriage— just like they’d purposefully plan their finances.
“Grace + intentionality = transformation,” he said. Later, participants meet as a group and share their insights to allow others to benefit from collective discovery, he added. And best of all, couples are encouraged to plan a get away to remember to enjoy time together.
Brad recalls that his marriage was not always healthy. As a young husband, he felt the pressure to provide and immersed himself in his career. His uncle dragged him to a Promise Keepers meeting, where he realized his mistake. “I was broken. I had taken a beautiful Christian woman and treated her poorly for a year. I told Marilyn everything would be different from this point.”
Now Brad and Marilyn personally practice what they teach others through Grace Marriage. They plan a getaway every quarter and intentionally write down wheat they want to do together.
“Struggles are inevitable. Satan has a way of making us feel alone,” Brad said. “But it is a lot more normal than we realize. We hope to create a culture where it is normative for couples to focus on each other – to realize that marriage tending is better than crisis care.”
What the Church Can Do
Brad’s vision is that every Bible-believing church would include a marriage ministry. A Communio study showed that 72% of churches don’t. He pleads with pastors to no longer view marriage ministry as optional.
“If you are in a church that doesn’t have an ongoing marriage ministry strategy, you need one!” he said. “Shepherding includes shepherding marriages. Discipling includes discipling marriages. If we are proactive and intentional, fun becomes a norm. We can change the paradigm of marriage, not just doing millions of complacent marriages. You don’t find many people coming into crisis counseling who say they are intentional about their marriage. Unless we change the way church and individuals do marriage, we will see the decline of marriage until it is gone.”
Brad correlates the breakdown of marriage with family dysfunction. “Home influences a child more than weekly church programming,” he said. “We pour thousands of dollars into children and youth while leaving the marriage space empty.
Where to Start
Grace Marriage makes it easy for churches to begin or build on existing practices. The ministry creates and provides curriculum and equips lay leaders to help a church on-ramp a Grace Marriage program. They will provide all the collaterals to launch: messaging, email templates, tablecloths, social media, and promotional videos that churches can personalize. Church support specialists are prepared to help a church walk through the process of getting started.
“We know a lot of things that work and a lot of things that don’t work,” Brad said. One of their new offerings has been to re-configure into six one-hours sessions to be a better fit for churches that use a small group model involving large sanctuaries with less classroom space. They’re also planning to add content from various experts like Dr. Juli Slattery, a highly respected speaker in the field of physical intimacy.
New, Online Platform
The ministry launched Grace Marriage at Home to offer a virtual platform. Brad compares the subscription-based electronic coaching product to the “Peloton for your marriage.” Each video session includes 10-15 minutes of teaching, time for structured communication and a downloadable worksheet to help direct thoughts to apply the concept. Topics will address things not usually mentioned from the pulpit, including biblically informed messages about sex and intimacy taught by leading experts.
Every two weeks, the site drops a date night idea ranging “from JV to Major League,” Brad said, “depending on how creative they want to be and how much fun they want to have.” Date ideas include: recreate your first date, cook a fancy meal together by candlelight, ride along with your spouse while golfing, or choose your own date, with the freedom to be selfish. His goal is that couples look forward to each installment more than their next Netflix episode.
Grace Marriage is releasing a book titled The Grace Marriage, co-authored with Brittany Tarr Cragg. The book is about living out God’s grace in marriage and includes real life examples of how God’s grace is played out in the marriage context. “We no longer live in frustration because grace will set us free,” Brad said.
Brad dreams of adapting Grace Marriage concepts to a seminary course to teach pastors to be wonderful spouses, how to live well, and to set boundaries.
“Many ministry marriages are stagnant and dominated by ministry — flat marriages and lonely wives. The pastor’s wife should be the most well-loved woman in that church. The sheep rarely pass their shepherds,” Brad added. The response of seminary students has been, “We don’t hear this often. There’s this huge push toward academic and theological excellence, but not much push for excellence in the home.”
Grace Marriage has something to offer marriage champions on any end of the marriage ministry spectrum —whether you are an individual looking for an inspiring date night idea through Grace Marriage at Home, a church inspired to ramp up a marriage ministry or anything in between. To learn more, visit Gracemarriage.com.