by Marc and Julie Anderson
LEAWOOD — This past February, Kelsie Carpenter and Kyle Zimmerman were eagerly anticipating their upcoming wedding, set for May 30 at St. Michael the Archangel Church here.
A physician’s assistant and medical supply sales representative by day, the two were kept busy in their off hours with details like guest lists, dress fittings and catering orders.
On Feb. 5, the couple began another phase of their journey to the altar — that of marriage preparation classes, as required by the archdiocese. For three weeks, the couple drove to Lawrence for weekly sessions.
Because the couple had asked Father Mitchel Zimmerman to officiate at their wedding, the couple was regularly meeting with four other couples at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center where Father Zimmerman serves as director and chaplain.
After three weeks of sessions, Carpenter and Zimmerman had only one session left. Then, the unthinkable happened.
The coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of all public Masses and all in-person activities throughout the archdiocese. Suddenly, they faced the reality not only that their class had been canceled, but that their wedding might have to be postponed as well.
That’s when Brad and Libby DuPont, consultants for the archdiocesan marriage and family life office, decided to try a new approach — Zoom videoconferencing.
The DuPonts admit they were unsure how well the platform would work for marriage preparation classes. Still, with only one session remaining, they were willing to try it, especially if it meant the five couples could finish their classes. That way, the couples would have one less thing to worry about.
So, on Wednesday, March 18, the DuPonts launched their first online session.
At first, Brad and Libby found the approach somewhat strange. Although the content followed the exact same format as their in-person classes, it was definitely different using a computer to deliver their presentations.
“In the beginning, it was like, ‘Wow, it’s weird talking at my computer and trusting there’s someone there on the other side,’” Brad said.
The DuPonts, however, were pleasantly surprised with how well all five couples responded to that first session.
And the transition to the online platform wound up saving Carpenter and Zimmerman time.
“Every week, we were having to drive to Lawrence,” Zimmerman said. “So, it was kind of nice moving online. It was super convenient.”
Besides its convenience, the couple also felt the online platform allowed them to focus more fully on each other.
“We felt that, if anything, it was more intimate with one another because it was just us two instead of being in the presence of a bunch of other couples. So, it was easier to talk about things together by just muting the conversation. We didn’t feel like we were at a disadvantage or anything like that,” Carpenter said.
“Brad and Libby did an excellent job of delivering content and then giving us time to reflect on the topics they brought up,” he said.
“So, there really was no difference,” said Carpenter, “between what we experienced in person and what we experienced online in how they taught the material.”
Even though the couple’s wedding date has now been pushed back to Aug. 28, they know their marriage prep will help them start their life together on a solid foundation.
“It gave us a lot of tools that we will use for the future,” Carpenter said. “We both realize that these are tools we will use in our marriage.”
The new normal, at least for a while
The DuPonts launched their first all-online group on April 1 for 18 couples, most of whom are from Johnson County. It became quickly apparent that one course would not be enough.
“As we checked in with other areas, [we learned that] Topeka and Atchison had more couples, so we said, ‘Let’s get another group started,’” said Brad.
Just two weeks after launching their first course, the DuPonts launched a second course of marriage preparation with another 24 couples on April 14.
From their perspective, the DuPonts said the addition of couples to an online format doesn’t change their approach or the course’s content.
Called “Preparing to Live in Love,” the course focuses on seven topics, including how families of origin influence people’s expectations of marriage; the truth and beauty of the church’s teaching on natural family planning; and the importance of forgiveness and healing between spouses.
“The way it works, is, we send them the handouts via PDF,” said Brad. “So, we can email them the session packet they need and we can also display it on the screen.
“Libby and I do a bit of teaching, and they have time to personally write and reflect, and then they have time to talk and share together as a couple.
“In our experience so far,” he continued, “we still give them the same amount of time to kind of individually reflect as a couple. When they’re done talking, they give us a thumbs up and let us know they’re done.”
The DuPonts said they’ve been surprised by the degree of personal involvement by the couples — and overwhelmed by the number of emails they’ve received before and after the sessions.
“It’s more personal than I thought it would be,” Brad said.
To measure the course’s effectiveness, the DuPonts reach out via email to check-in and ask for feedback from the couples. In her initial email, Libby asked the couples to respond to several questions, including one for a brief introduction of themselves, how they met and how they realized they were called to the sacrament of marriage.
“Because I was trying to compensate for knowing it would be virtual and I wouldn’t get to meet them in person, I think I reached out more in the initial email,” she said, “asking them to share more about themselves and their story.
“It was so nice reading all these beautiful love stories.
“In a large group, I don’t necessarily get a chance to ask that.”
Although there is an audio-only option in Zoom, the DuPonts have encouraged the engaged couples to join by video if they can.
“You know everybody’s on lockdown,” said Libby, “so nobody looks their best right now. I’ve told them that. It’s not a beauty contest, but we want to make it as interactive as we can.
“And that’s been nice to just see their faces and see if we’re losing them or not.”
Ann Baldridge and Eric Thompson both work in Topeka, but Thompson lives about 45 minutes away in Oskaloosa. The online marriage preparation has been, because of that distance involved, a godsend.
With their wedding set for July 17 at St. Matthew Church in Topeka, the couple signed up for their marriage preparation a little later than they had originally planned.
“We just started on [April 14], actually,” said Baldridge. “Ours was supposed to be the last few Sundays of March and the first couple Sundays in April. But that didn’t happen.”
While some of the couples are at least able to “attend” the Zoom meeting when physically together, Baldridge and Thompson can’t even do that because of the distance between them. For the “discussion” part of each session, they have to call each other.
Baldridge said couples are encouraged to write individually for five minutes and then talk as couples for another five to 10 minutes, depending on the activity or topic. Additionally, the couple said they were encouraged to continue their conversations long after the videoconference ends on any given night.
Although the Zoom prep is not what they had envisioned for their marriage preparation experience, Baldridge and Thompson said they understand the need for the format change.
“Given the current circumstances, it made perfect sense,” Thompson said. “Still, every person I know who has gone through marriage prep has done it in person, so it’s kind of strange in that regard.
“I’m glad they, on the spur of the moment, came up with something.”