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By starting intentional conversations, experts say religious leaders can better serve young singles and couples in their congregations.

In the fall of 1980, two young, single Catholics arrived on the campus of Georgia Tech University to begin graduate programs. Both regularly attended church services and events at the Catholic student center hoping to find connections in a new place.

Their paths crossed on an October Sunday when the community priest, Father Mario, introduced Paul and Patricia, and the two exchanged polite hellos.

Later that month, they met again at a Halloween party. Patricia, impressed by Paul's costume, got up the nerve to strike up a conversation. She remembers thinking, "Father introduced us. He must be OK."

Three years later, they were married. And by Father Mario, no less.

The story of Paul and Patricia Reardon's romance is striking at a time when more than one-third of marriages start online. Their story also sounds quaint as more Americans leave behind institutionalized religion, lessening the role of religious leaders in romantic relationships and making their experiences fodder for reality television shows like "Match Made in Heaven" and "It Takes a Church."

It's not that ministers should fancy themselves matchmakers, said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College. But they should recognize their ability to guide the love lives of congregants by creating an environment where they can find new relationships and strengthen existing ones.

"Religious leaders have a huge opportunity to set up places where young people can meet each other and learn to know each other in healthy and supportive ways," she said.

The matchmaking minister

In terms of religion and romance, Coontz, who serves as co-chair of the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families, said there's no straight line that takes relationship culture from the church-centric vision of courtship and marriage of past generations to today's chaotic mash-up of online dating sites and specialized relationship therapists.

Instead, trade-offs between ministers and secular advisers have come in waves.

"The big romantic advice givers of the 18th and 19th centuries were ministers, but they didn't do individual counseling," Coontz said. "They wrote the religious equivalent of self-help books" and emphasized chastity before marriage and appropriate gender roles.

However, by the early 20th century, women were entering the workforce, and old-fashioned ideas about their responsibilities for cooking, cleaning and child-rearing fell out of favor, she said. Counselors without a religious affiliation became popular because they addressed individual couples and the specific circumstances that would make each marriage work.

But the 1940s and 50s brought with them a resurgence of religious counseling. "Members of the clergy began to look at the science and psychology (of relationships) and use them" to help the people in their churches, Coontz said.

The tide turned one final time in the 1960s with the sexual revolution. Ministers were increasingly viewed as out-of-touch, and it became the norm to save relationship questions for mental health professionals.

In the 21st century, "some people might still go to pre-marital counseling, but when they (seek help during their marriage), they tend to go to the people who have credentials," Coontz said.

This final shift can be seen not just in the behavior of couples, but also in the kinds of conversations religious leaders start in their congregations, said Lore Ferguson, a freelance writer whose article "Church: Set Up Your Singles" was recently published by Christianity Today.

"We spend so much energy on marriage reconciliation, dealing with divorced couples and couples working through conflict," and much less on addressing what it means to be single and Christian or how to build healthy relationships, she said.

Ferguson, 33, attends The Village Church in Dallas. Although she feels comfortable opening up about her dating joys and concerns with fellow church members and leaders, Ferguson said most ministers could stand to improve their romantic counseling strategies.

A minister's office door should be open, physically and metaphorically, she said, and congregants should feel comfortable reaching out for advice even about the silly little things that cause stress in romantic relationships.

"Religious leaders can probe and ask questions," Ferguson said. Even if they don't have all the answers, they can offer faithful advice.

Religion and marriage

One of the major storylines emerging from the American religious landscape in the last decade is the rise of the "nones," or men and women who aren't affiliated with a specific religious community. In 2012, Pew Research Center reported that one-fifth of Americans — and one-third of young adults under 30 — were part of the group.

This trend away from church membership has weakened religion's influence on American public life, and made it even less common to turn to religious leaders for romantic advice, especially for nones. A 2013 study of American marriages found that only 4 percent of couples met at a place of worship.

Research has also shown that religion is no longer a predictor of a successful relationship between two members of the same faith, a shift that is related, at least in part, to relaxed moral norms in many religious communities, Coontz said.

"Religion has ceased to play the role that it used to play," she said, which was to keep couples together whether they were happy or not due to teachings on divorce.

Newer research has found that religious beliefs are now indirect predictors of marital bliss. They can bond a couple if partners seek to understand each other's personal faith and participate together in faith-related events.

One study, published last month in the Journal of Family Issues (paywall), found that couples who talk about God together report higher levels of marital satisfaction compared to those who keep personal beliefs quiet.

The findings illustrate the importance of communication at all stages of a relationship, a lesson that religious leaders are equipped to teach, whether through official pre-marital counseling or casual conversations, Coontz said.

Salma Abugideiri, a licensed counselor, said that many religious singles operate under the assumption that it's enough to find someone nominally associated with their faith whom they're attracted to, rather than questioning if their actual beliefs and practices are compatible.

Religious leaders can correct that attitude, she said, and push individuals to think through the kind of believer they want to be and, in turn, the level of faith they expect from their partner.

Matchmaking in Islam

A founding board member of the Peaceful Families Project, a national organization focused on ending domestic violence in Muslim families, Abugideiri co-wrote the book "Before You Tie the Knot" with her community's imam, and it highlighted how crucial conversations about religion are to building healthy and strong relationships.

In the Muslim community, marrying someone who shares a commitment to the faith is highly valued. But as a minority population in the U.S., Muslim singles often have a hard time connecting, a situation Abugideiri said has put increasing demand on local imams.

"Muslims struggling to meet an appropriate match, particularly young professionals, are turning to their imams for help," she said. "It's not part of the job description, but it evolved out of a need."

Part of the work of the Peaceful Families Project is to ensure that imams understand that their part-time matchmaking duties include leading conversations about religious commitment between potential partners, Abugideiri said. The imam is in the position to know firsthand the spiritual life of at least one of the singles, information that should guide his effort to find a match.

Although it's tempting to think of this singles surplus in the U.S. Muslim population as unique, Ferguson shared a similar assessment of the Christian community. Church leaders should use their intimate knowledge of single members' spiritual lives to bring people together who share the same beliefs and convictions, she said.

"People who know you and know that you're deeply committed to your church or belief system can say, 'I know this other person who is, too,'" Ferguson said.

Nurturing strong relationships

After breaking up with her fiance last year, Ferguson has been open with her church friends and religious leaders about her experience. She said she's grateful for the variety of people willing to walk with her in her singledom, listening to her thoughts and answering her questions.

"So many singles feel like complete islands," she said, and church should be a place of community.

Adopting a more intentional attitude around romantic relationships doesn't have to involve overhauling communities activities, Coontz said. Like Ferguson, she believes a casual, "my door is always open" attitude would go a long way toward reasserting the role of religious leaders in love advice.

"In general, couples just need to talk things through," and ministers can be valuable listeners and advisers, directing the conversation to religious convictions and caring for the spiritual lives of each partner, Coontz said.

The Reardons illustrate how relationships grounded in faith can flourish through continued church involvement. Over the last 31 years, they have participated in couple's Bible studies, individual retreats and watched their oldest son go through premarital counseling at their local parish.

"The Catholic Church has been an important touchstone in our marriage," Paul said.

Neither believe that Father Mario was scheming to start a romance by introducing them that October Sunday; he was just connecting young people, they said. Sparking love was an added bonus.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kelsey_dallas