How do you prepare for the sacrament of marriage in the time of pandemic? We sat down with Ms. Bridget Bagshaw, coordinator of the diocesan marriage preparation program, to find out. Adaptation, hope, resilience and joy: these are some of the key words that sum up her experience of accompanying over a hundred couples in their journey towards marriage in the past year.
As we begin the process of deconfinement and face the summer with great expectation, we want to share this “good news” with you. It is a witness that we have repeatedly heard throughout this year: by responding in simplicity and courage to the circumstances that life throws at you, God will help us to bear fruit in surprising ways: even in marriage preparation sessions over Zoom!
Let’s go back to March 2020. Faced with so much uncertainty about Covid-19 and the lockdown, it would have been easy and even expected to shut down the marriage preparation program until things settled down. What made you decide to pivot to an online program almost overnight?
We had just begun the March session with 13 couples. We had met once in person and still had three meetings remaining. I, like everyone else, assumed the lockdown would be short lived. As a marriage preparation certificate is required to get married in the Catholic church, the couples would need to complete this program for their spring and summer weddings. I thought it was not fair to cancel on them.
My husband, who is the co-host the marriage preparation sessions, is very tech savvy and always up for a challenge. Within a few days, he set up the online platform for the following sessions. The generous team of volunteer couples and priests who give the presentations to the engaged couples were also very instrumental in the transition. They stepped up to the plate graciously. We all learned together how to welcome and accompany couples in the new online forum.
How was this new online format received by the couples?
Back then, we were all new to the online format. None of us were used to spending hours on our computers in front of a camera as we are today! We encountered a few technical glitches such as the video conferencing provider dropping us mid-course and unclear audio but the couples were very understanding and forgiving. Many enjoyed the ease of taking the course from home, and the new sense of camaraderie that the online format fostered. They also appreciated that the materials were now handed out in digital format so were now more easily accessible.
Over time we learned what worked best when leading sessions with 32 couples! For example, we invited couples to just speak up when they wanted to intervene, rather than using the more formal hand raising function on Zoom. This allowed for a freer exchange of ideas and perspectives. We also made it a point to do what we call a “check-in” at the opening of each session where we ask all the couples how they are doing and if they want to share something. It eased the tension and created a welcoming atmosphere. We did not do this before in our in-person sessions, but it is something that we hope to incorporate going forward.
I hear you saying that the shift online has been a challenge but also a blessing. Is that true?
Yes! One of the major challenges we encountered was the course schedule. A full day on a Zoom call is very challenging, especially on the weekend. The delivery had to change from a talk/presentation style to a more interactive one, for example, with more of time for questions and answers, the use of breakout rooms and incorporating short videos to break up the monotony of being in front of the screen. We are still learning!
For those of us presenting, we have all been enriched because we have had to redo our presentations. We had to learn the tricks of the trade so to speak and tweak our presentations to adapt them to this new reality! Change is always challenging but it is also so enriching. I believe we have all grown from the experience. We have all had to step out of our comfort zones, and this always leads to growth.
How many couples did you accompany this year? How many course hours were given over Zoom?
Great question! We offered 10 sessions this year, and met 110 couples. We gave over 180 hours of training on Zoom this year.
You met many couples this year who desired to get married in the Church despite so much uncertainty about numbers of guests and safety measures. Could you give us an idea of a couple who is preparing for marriage in 2021? Are they different from the couples you have met in the past?
Many of the couples are taking the period of preparation more seriously. They seem to be more engaged in the process. We see this in the questions they ask and in the experiences they share in small group discussions. They realize the importance of having God by their side and they want to get married in the church. They are looking to us to provide them the necessary skills to navigate the adventure ahead of them. Why this change?
Perhaps it is due to the fact that they have had to wait longer to be married or they have had to postpone their weddings. The pandemic has made them see how fragile life can be. Those couples seeking marriage preparation this year seem to truly desire it, whereas before we sometimes encountered couples who felt forced to take the course, and who perhaps didn’t want to be there.
Will you continue with online format in the fall of 2021?
With so much uncertainty around the de-confinement and still not really being able to plan too far ahead in the future also the ease of the course being offered online we decided it was a more prudent step to take.
Any last thoughts you would like to share with someone who might be thinking about taking a marriage preparation course at the diocese?
How about I share with you some testimonials from couples who have taken the online course this year:
“Wonderful job! It blew our expectations out of the water. We weren’t really sure going into it but it was extremely interesting and thought provoking and I think will bring us closer together. Great job as well keeping it interesting.” (January 2021)
“This course is an investment in your marriage and in your partner. It helps prepare you for areas of marriage you may have not considered before and for us discussing these areas made our union stronger.” (March 2021)
To learn more about the From this Day Forward marriage preparation program, please visit our website: http://bitly.ws/eacK
Registration for 2021-22 will be available online starting July 1. For more information, please contact the Diocesan Centre for Marriage, Life and Family at firstname.lastname@example.org