In November 2008, Steve and Leigh Baumann's marriage looked like many others: disconnected.
"We'd been married for about 16 years, and we kind of grew apart from one another," Steve said. "I developed my interests, and Leigh developed her interests, and we lived what they call a 'single married' lifestyle. We were married, but we basically had our own lives."
At that point, the couple attended a weekend sponsored by Retrouvaille (retro-vi, a French word meaning "rediscover"), a marriage ministry for which they now volunteer their time, helping to expand its impact across North America. Their own mission aligns with that of Retrouvaille: to give married couples the joy of rediscovering each other—and their faith.
"There are lots of marriage programs, but there are very few marriage ministries," Leigh said.
The Baumanns see the faith component as integral to Retrouvaille (helpourmarriage.org), which has Catholic roots and a strong Christian emphasis. Begun in 1977 in the Canadian province of Quebec as a French-language weekend for hurting marriages, its materials were soon revised, expanded and adapted to English by Toronto-area volunteers.
In 1982, Retrouvaille began its spread to communities throughout North America, and in 1991, the ministry began expanding internationally. Today, Retrouvaille has active communities in Canada, Central and South America, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the Western Pacific. Although people of any faith or no faith are welcome to participate, a priest or minister serves on the presenting team of each Retrouvaille Weekend, the first stage of its program.
"We have either a priest or minister, and if the minister is married, it would be the minister and spouse," Leigh explains. "They also serve with three couples who present on the weekend, so it is a presenting team."
All Retrouvaille team members, whether lay couples or clergy, believe in God's desire and power to heal and resurrect marriages. Today, the ministry represents many denominations, but all team members share the Christian faith.
And that faith makes a definite impact on participants. Like many people, Steve said, he was close to God during his growing-up years. But after he joined the military, married and got busy with family life, he and Leigh "didn't have time for church" and "only talked to God when we needed Him." Not only did God heal his marriage through Retrouvaille, Steve said, but the ministry "brought me back to God, too. It brought me back to the church. And that was equally important."
Leigh agrees, adding that the faith component sets Retrouvaille apart from other marriage seminars or retreats.
"I think when you really look at what Retrouvaille does in such an unbelievable way, it's that people learn a lot about themselves, they learn a lot about their spouse, and they learn a lot about how to communicate with each other on a level that is much deeper than they ever have," Leigh said.
"That's one thing we find: Whatever faith a couple might be, after going through Retrouvaille, it became so important to us personally that we really had to put God back into our relationship, that He had to be the center," she said. "And that, to me, is one of the most rewarding things to see in couples—sometimes finding their faith, or maybe couples who have been estranged from faith realizing that it is such an integral part."
The organization's logo also reflects this faith factor. The Retrouvaille ring and lifeline indicate the "lifeline" thrown out to marriages to be healed and resurrected. And the cross reflects the healing provided through Christ's death and resurrection.
When the Baumanns experienced their first Retrouvaille weekend, Steve said another element hit him hard.
"This was taught to us by a peer ministry, people who had gone through things we had gone through, and it wasn't just somebody lecturing. ... These were couples who had lived what we lived," he said.
Retrouvaille presenters are not trained counselors, professional speakers or marriage therapists but people who have previously experienced the weekend and its healing power. By sharing their deep personal hurts and struggles as well as the tools used to bring reconciliation and healing to their relationship, they provide hope and help for hurting couples.
"I think that aspect ... is very important, because it's led by couples who have struggled with their own marriages," Leigh adds. "And what they're sharing are the tools they have used to not only get through those struggles or times of misery, but how they really have changed their marriage and turned it around, so they're able to rediscover the love they have for one another. So I think the peer-ministry aspect of it is certainly one of the biggest."
Still another component of the ministry adds to Retrouvaille's uniqueness. The ministry is nonprofit; donations cover all expenses. No one, from presenting couples to clergy to administrative staff, receives a salary or remuneration. There are no offices, no paid staff and no payroll. For the 41 years of Retrouvaille's existence, tens of thousands of couples have been helped, and through their support, the program has continued to help others.
"The people who are doing the presenting, as well as the clergy—we're not doing it for money," Steve said. "We're doing it from our heart. A lot of ministries don't have that."
Because of the lack of paid staff, the ministry has the ability to offer participants another gift: affordability.
"Each community has different accommodations, whether it's a retreat center or a hotel," Leigh said of the weekend. "So what we typically ask for is a registration fee, for couples to sign up to reserve their space."
At the time of the weekend event, Retrouvaille requests an additional donation so each couple can cover their proportional cost, but one of the longstanding tenets of the program, Leigh said, is that "'we do not ever deny a couple the chance to heal their marriage because of financial difficulty.' We try to work with people to ensure they are able to get help for their marriage no matter what their financial circumstance."
Retrouvaille also appeals to what the Baumanns say is a unique target group. The organization's website says it "collectively impacts more struggling marriages and families than any other ministry in the world."
"The thing that sets us apart is that we are for marriages that are struggling and in crisis," Leigh adds. "It really is to help couples put pieces of their marriage back together and really help them to rebuild a loving relationship when they're in a bad place."
Zack and Heather Hamilton agree. High school sweethearts, the two had big dreams of enjoying what they call the "picture-perfect marriage: raising a family together, sharing our faith and retiring in the countryside with our white rocking chairs on the front porch." They never anticipated the marriage breakdowns that moved Heather to file for divorce. At that point, the couple said, "Our once-strong bond had vanished. We essentially turned into roommates who raised our children together. This led to other severe marriage breakdowns that led to 'rock bottom.'"
A Google search for "marriage healing weekends" ultimately brought the pair to a Retrouvaille Weekend in Detroit, a six-hour drive from their Indiana home.
"During the program, we learned how to communicate again with the tools Retrouvaille provided us," they say. "We were able to understand each other and discuss our feelings without judgment or telling each other, 'Your feelings are wrong.'"
Best of all, the Hamiltons say, Retrouvaille has yielded lasting positive results.
"Our marriage has undergone a resurrection, and we have the tools to work through conflict and disagreements," they say. "Retrouvaille has given us back our marriage."
Retrouvaille's statistics reveal most couples live in misery for nearly five years before seeking help, whether through marriage counseling or a marriage help program. Couples of all ages and marriage durations participate in Retrouvaille Weekends, from relative newlyweds to those married more than 50 years. Some couples may be separated or divorced when they attend a retreat. But no matter what life circumstances or marital challenges bring them to the weekend, the program allows them to see they are not alone in their struggles and gives them the tools to build a better marriage.
Despite the ministry's emphasis on marriages in crisis, the Baumanns stress that Retrouvaille does not exist to "fix" marital problems.
"We don't want to know your problems," Steve said. "We want to help you communicate."
A Retrouvaille Weekend, they emphasize, involves real work.
"Sometimes people have in their mind, 'Oh, we're going to go to a marriage retreat. And there's time to go to the spa, and oh, we'll take a swim and walk on the beach and have some fun," Leigh said. But, she emphasizes, "this is not that kind of a weekend. It is a true working weekend."
And with that emphasis comes something that also surprises participants: At a Retrouvaille Weekend, no one except the presenting couples and clergy share—or is expected to share—personal stories.
"The format of the weekend is typically a presentation by one of the presenting couples and the clergy member on a particular topic, and then the couples are given the opportunity to reflect on that discussion back in the privacy of their room, whether it's at a retreat center or a hotel," Leigh said. "And then they'll come back to a conference room, and a different topic will be discussed, perhaps by a different couple on the team."
"Everything's a stepping stone," Steve said, emphasizing the building nature of the presentations.
"It's really a building process as they learn to communicate," Leigh said. "Of course, it builds upon itself through the weekend. And so the crux of that is really learning to understand each other's feelings. That's really the gist of the program."
Throughout the weekend, the Retrouvaille presenters encourage couples to put the past behind them and to look beyond their hurt and pain with the goal of rediscovering each other in a new and positive way. The Retrouvaille Weekend provides tools to help them grow in communication, forgiveness and trust.
But the initial weekend experience is only the start of the Retrouvaille ministry. After that, couples are invited to participate in Post-Weekend Sessions, the next important phase of the healing process. Post-Weekend Sessions are offered in the same area as the original Retrouvaille Weekend over a period of either six or 12 weeks. (If a couple traveled far to attend their initial weekend, they may choose to participate in post-sessions either online or in a community closer to home.)
The second experience "goes a little bit more in depth, and it's sort of a journey of self-discovery and couple discovery," Leigh said. "Post-Weekends look at the family of origin and how that affects what you bring to the marriage relationship, personality styles and conflict management. ... There's a little more casual, relaxed atmosphere, and a little bit more interactive as well.
"A lot of folks who participate will tell you that this is where the real work of the program begins, because they're able to take the tools they've learned on the weekend and really put those into action in a practical way," she adds. "They're going to be able to get back together with the group of folks they did their original weekend program with, to sort of see how everyone is doing and begin to have some support. Friendships begin to form."
The final phase of the program is what Retrouvaille calls CORE (Continuing Our Retrouvaille Experience). This monthly meeting allows for a casual, supportive interaction with 10-20 other couples who have attended the program and continues to reinforce its communication tools. In fact, the Baumanns call it an "ongoing support group," which has proven an additional strength.
"It's not just a weekend and then you're left on your own," Leigh said. "There is a nice continued support group and mentoring of couples that happens."
Steve notes the value of friendships built in the process.
"CORE is probably as close a friendship as you've had with anybody," he said. " ... A lot of the couples, as they go through Retrouvaille, they'll find a couple they get along with or click with, and that couple may become a mentor for them."
Not only has Retrouvaille remained strong throughout its 41-year history, but it has also seen tremendous success. The ministry's most recent self-study (2015) revealed the astonishing truth that of the 5,000-plus respondents who had experienced a Retrouvaille Weekend in the past five years, more than 76 percent are still married to the same spouse. More than 95 percent of these said they were likely to recommend the program to a struggling couple, and more than 97 percent considered it affordable.
These same respondents also shared the top-ranking benefits from participating in the Retrouvaille program (in order): improved communication, learned more about my spouse, learned more about myself, grew closer together as a couple, improved conflict management and improved relationship with faith.
These couples came to Retrouvaille with a variety of critical issues, including fighting/disagreements, married singles lifestyle, extramarital affair/online relationship/pornography, verbal abuse, sexual problems, financial difficulties, in-laws/extended family influences, living apart/travel for work, substance abuse/addiction recovery and working too much/job stress.
In some states, the Baumanns say, getting divorced is "a quick and easy process." But in others, couples must demonstrate attempts at reconciliation before a judge will grant a divorce.
"In those states, sometimes Retrouvaille is considered a program that couples' judges and divorce attorneys will send couples to—when they see that there's hope, and both partners are willing to try," Leigh said.
Not only judges, but numerous counselors and ministers also refer hurting couples to the program, the Baumanns say. After participating in Retrouvaille, "the couple may go back to the counselor, and they're on a whole different level," Steve said.
Pastor Mike and Jeanie Bastien, Retrouvaille community coordinators for the Detroit area, understand Retrouvaille's impact on multiple levels. For more than 40 years, they have served as pastors, evangelists and missionaries and have been a Retrouvaille pastoral couple for the past six years, giving presentations at Retrouvaille Weekends.
"If only we had known of this lifeline in all the years we've been in ministry to help so many hurting and broken families, including our own," they say. "Many couples are in deep despair over their struggling marriages and cannot see a way out of their disillusionment and misery. We were there, too afraid to share our pain with our peers, until we heard about the Retrouvaille program. We attended a weekend and have seen the amazing grace and hand of God touch so many broken marriages, just as He did ours.
"Jesus said, 'Freely you have received, freely give,' and that's what we are doing by giving back to other couples," the Bastiens say. "Not only are the couples restored, but their families are strengthened. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and bring freedom, and Retrouvaille is one ministry God has raised up to bring this to pass in thousands of marriages worldwide."
Marti Pieper is copy editor and assistant online editor at Charisma Media.
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