Fr. Rob Ruhnke was honoured for his significant contribution to families

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Fr. Rob Ruhnke (middle) with friends Bruce and Julie Leinberger

(Washington, DC) Our own Fr. Rob Ruhnke was honoured last week for “significant and lasting contribution to families” through For Better and For Ever, his marriage preparation sponsor couple program. The National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM) presented the coveted award during a banquet at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

“Fr. Rob continues to expand the reach of For Better and For Ever through translations and updates for multicultural, non-Catholic and secular audiences. It has become the most widely used program of its kind in the Americas,” explained Colleen Gerke, NACFLM president. “He exemplifies the mission of NACFLM by his commitment to the sponsor couple method of marriage preparation and awareness of its diversity enables family life ministry to provide accompaniment to couples and families.”

Fr. Rob Ruhnke with
the award he received recognizing
his contribution to families

Seminarian Huy Vu is already collaborating with the Vietnamese community, which is coping with an increase in divorce rates. “He’s learning from the ground up, just like I did,” Fr. Rob said. “He will be ordained to the priesthood in two years, but he is already considered a valuable member of the For Better and For Ever resource team.” According to Fr. Rob, For Better and For Ever was conceived four decades ago just like many folks: a happy ‘accident.’ Way back in 1975, the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was confident that the Engaged Encounter Program that the staff and volunteers had developed was the best marriage preparation program in the USA. “There was only one problem: we knew we could never provide enough weekends to accommodate all the couples who would like to take part,” he said. “We began an intensive search for ideas and programs we could use to create a ‘second-best’ option, and eliminate the other programs we believed were simply not worth recommending to parishes in the archdiocese.”

Colleen Gerk, NACFLM president, presenting the award

After months of discussions with those considered marriage preparation leaders, Fr. Rob and his staff met with the key lay volunteer couples who were facilitating the Engaged Encounter and Pre Cana programs. One of the volunteer couples asked, “Why have we not tried the ‘sponsor couple program’ created by Msgr. Edmond Carmody, the Family Life Director of the Archdiocese of San Antonio?” “I knew the ‘we’ was really ‘me,’” Fr. Rob explained. “I had thought a great deal about Carmody’s ‘experiment,’ but I kept imagining all the things that could possibly go wrong if we sent an engaged couple to meet with a married couple in their home without anyone – like me! – to supervise. If things went badly, the bishop would hold me responsible because I would have assured him that we would offer the best possible program we could provide for the thousands of couples we could not accommodate in the fully booked Engaged Encounter weekends.”

The “unplanned” moment came as Fr. Rob began to answer the question and was interrupted with, “How do you know it is likely to go badly? What do you know of Carmody’s experience at this point, and why he is continuing the experiment?” After a pregnant pause, Fr. Rob suggested that they meet with Msgr. Carmody. They did, and the rest is history.

Lay couples were encouraged enough to set up a pilot program in Houston, and the first sponsor couples were from Holy Ghost Parish and St. Francis de Sales Parish. Each of them sponsored an engaged couple. “The feedback from both the sponsor couples and the couples preparing for marriage was so positive that I began to believe that my fears were unrealistic,” Fr. Rob said. “Though I could not yet prove it, there was something about the process of sponsorship that helped both the engaged and married sponsor couples take more personal responsibility for their calling to the vocation of marriage and family life.”

That unplanned challenge of one couple in 1975 was the beginning of a journey. In 1980, Roger Marchand, a former Liguori Publications staff member and Fr. Rob’s personal friend, took an interest in the program as a possible product to be published. “I was skeptical because I could not imagine how training could be provided for parishes all over the country, but Roger assured me that we would solve that challenge by creating video training materials. Fr. Norm Muckerman, who also worked at Liguori Publications in those days, dubbed the program “For Better and For Ever” when it was published in 1981. Although Roger Marchand died unexpectedly in 1985 before the video training materials were produced, For Better and For Ever was selling very well, and no one was complaining about Fr. Rob’s Training Manual. Liguori Publications was very pleased that sales continued to grow, but as a publisher hoped to stimulate sales with an updated version. The best was yet to come: the second edition. Published in 1989, the second edition was an effort to incorporate key ideas from the fields of psychology and adult education and theology that had – up to that time – never been adequately addressed in marriage preparation programs. “The most glaring missing piece was a way to deal with each person’s Family of Origin and its likely role in the success or failure of a marriage,” Fr. Rob explained.

Fr. Rob Ruhnke (second from left) with the For Better and For Ever Resource Team, including (from far right, back row)
Huy Vu and Fr. Dick Mevissen, during this year’s annual gathering. Provincial Superior Stephen Rehrauer ( fourth
from right, back row) participated and lent his support to the ministry

Although Liguori Publications thought it was time to update For Better and For Ever, Fr. Rob was still researching and developing a plan to address Family of Origin. “I was not convinced the 1989 edition was good enough, but it was a beginning,” Fr. Rob said. Then in 1995, he had an ‘Aha! Moment.’ “How could I be 55 years old with a ton of experience and ideas about marriage preparation and suddenly have a totally new idea? Well, I imagined myself as a pastor, sitting at my desk, when the parish secretary escorts a young couple into my office. They explain that they are not married or engaged to be married, but want to speak to me because they understand that I have a lot of interest in marriage preparation. They ask what they should study together to learn whether it would be wise for them to marry! “This was as important as the unplanned moment in 1975, but this time I did not react by becoming defensive. It was more like my first experience of seeing a film in colour rather than in black and white. Of course! That is what we should have been doing all these years, rather than hiding the content of marriage preparation programs and only offering them as content in our talks. To the imaginary couple in my office, I said: ‘I know now the book I have to write to provide the help you are looking for.’ In real life, that book is the current edition of For Better and For Ever.”

by Kristine Stremel