by Marc and Julie Anderson
LEAWOOD — For seven years, Dan and Gretchen Carrigan of St. Michael Parish here have shared an unusual ministry: They provide marriage prep to couples in which at least one of the spouses-to-be has a child from a previous relationship.
The ministry was not something either ever anticipated doing; instead, the ministry literally found them after their first marriages ended in divorce.
Married in November 2014, the Carrigans’ love story began 10 years earlier with their first date. At that time, both had young children — Gretchen with three, and Dan, two — and they didn’t even tell their children they were dating until four years into their relationship. But those years were full of the families getting together often for meals and activities.
By the time they started their marriage prep, therefore, the couple had already navigated a lot of issues facing blended families.
Mike and Dorothy O’Boyle, a couple with a blended family themselves and members of St. Michael Parish, directed their marriage prep. At one of their sessions, the O’Boyles asked for participants to share their stories and/or ideas for successfully blending families.
“By nature of having dated so long, we had already navigated a lot of stuff,” Gretchen said. “We shared our story, and after that class, Mike and Dorothy reached out to us.”
Dorothy told the couple that their experience was instructive, and that if the Carrigans were willing, sharing it could benefit other couples.
The invitation resulted in the couples pairing up as the O’Boyles ministered to other couples who, like the Carrigans, were blending families in some way or another.
Although the O’Boyles continued to lead the courses, the Carrigans were there to share strictly from their own experience.
“We’re not experts. We’re not licensed, but we lived through it,” said Gretchen. “We can share what worked for us.”
Eventually, the O’Boyles decided to step back from the ministry and asked the Carrigans if they’d consider taking over. Now, for the past two or three years, the Carrigans have been one of, if not the only, lead couple in the archdiocese helping to prepare couples like themselves for marriage. And it’s a ministry they both said they find rewarding.
The Carrigans prefer a one-on-one approach, simply because it’s easier to tailor sessions to the couple’s specific needs. For example, they said, a couple with children in grade school is different from a couple in their 60s with grown children. To date, they estimate they’ve met with or mentored 50 to 60 couples.
“Every story is different,” Dan said. Blending families creates unique challenges — from navigating relationships with the ex-spouses and the children’s grandparents, to disciplining children or even developing relationships with adult children.
The Carrigans said successfully blending families depends on a solid marriage, one built on communication.
“Communication is key to everything,” Gretchen said.
The couple also have a saying — a motto of sorts — to guide their decisions.
“It’s God, spouse, then everyone else,” they believe. Which also means that they think a united front in any marriage is one of the keys to success.
“We communicated and agreed early that whatever decision we were handling with the children we would agree [on] behind closed doors and then not waver from that,” she said.
“Again, we don’t have all the answers, but we’re just being honest,” she added. “What worked for us may not work for somebody else, but if they could take away one thing that helps, then we’ve done our job.”
Both of the Carrigans said they feel called to their ministry and believe their story can help others realize they are not alone.
After their divorces, both were in unique positions within their own large Catholic families of origin, families in which no one had ever gotten divorced.
“My family loves me dearly, but they’ve never divorced or had a blended family,” Gretchen said.
And it can be tough.
Dan feels their mentorship of other couples like themselves has been appreciated by the couples they serve.
“They feel more comfortable because we’ve been through it,” he said simply.