When Mark Gungor gets revved up about the differences between men and women, it's like NASA has just said, "We have liftoff." His speech rockets faster and faster about men's brains being full of boxes and women's brains full of zapping wires as he throws in funny zingers until someone breaks in, begging him to slow down.
That's hard to do when the senior pastor has the heart of a stand-up comic and a patented seminar called "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage."
Gungor, pastor of Celebration Church in Green Bay, Wis., brings his marriage seminar Friday and Saturday to Big Valley Grace Community Church. He'll also throw in an evening for singles on Thursday.
"Most marriage seminars beat up on men," Gungor said. "I don't do that. I try to get women to know how to get men to do what you want them to do. I try to empower women. Say, this is how you understand men. This is how they think. This is how they react. Now we've got something. It's not that complicated.
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"The 'Laugh Your Way' seminar is not about laughing in your marriage. No. It's an event that's very entertaining, very funny. You don't get a workbook. It's not like going to a college class. I call it the perfect seminar for men because you just laugh and learn."
Gungor, 55, said he fell into doing the marriage seminars by default. When he was an associate pastor at his church, the senior pastor said, "Good grief. We have all of these couples with all of these needs. Who wants to help?" No one else volunteered, so Gungor did.
Before long, 300 to 400 people were showing up for his conferences. Then other churches began to call. He does about 30 conferences a year now and has requests from all over the country, as well as internationally. Last week, he had an invitation from Calcutta, India.
"It's been pretty amazing to watch," he said. "No one is more surprised than I am. I haven't even been trained in this area. I think what works for me is that it's very down to earth, very simple. I think marriage problems are the easiest problems to solve in the world. What's hard are the personal problems.
"I got an e-mail today. A man said he was having major marital problems. He's going on and on and at the end, he said, 'My wife has tried to commit suicide 10 times in the last few years.' Well, that's a personal problem. Yes, it affects the marriage. But it's a personal problem. That's when it gets complicated.
"But if you take a typical marriage, when someone isn't an alcoholic or hasn't been abused, it's easy. I show men how to communicate with their wives. More importantly, I teach women how to succeed with men."
How does a humorous presentation help challenging marriages?
"It puts it in context," Gungor said. "Sometimes things get so bad, struggling over the same small issues. Then you get in a big room and everyone laughs at the same thing and you think, 'Oh, his wife must do that, too,' or 'Oh, I guess I'm not the only one who thinks I'm talking to my husband (as if he's) in another state.' People used to learn how to do relationships from their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. No one's learning this stuff anymore. We've had about three generations of wacko dysfunction."
Gungor said he's always been something of a cut-up.
"Only it wasn't funny to people," he said. "My teachers weren't thinking, 'He'll really succeed in life.' Even as a young man, it wasn't ever appreciated. Now that I'm an older man who is balding and gray, it's fabulous and people love it. Go figure."
He said advice about marriages — both secular and Christian — is out there in abundance, yet folks react to his advice as though they've never heard anything like it. He attributes that to a lack of common sense that has nothing to do with faith.
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"If you drive a car 80 miles per hour around a curve that says 40 miles per hour, you'll probably crash, even if you're listening to a Christian radio show," he said. "It breaks the law of physics.
"In our secular culture, we've over-romanticized marriage. Churches overspiritualize the whole thing. If you don't know what to do, you'll struggle."
His top lesson for men:
"I try to show them what women really want. I tell them the one thing women have wanted for thousands of years. It's very simple: They want to be chosen. They want to feel like they matter. If you make a woman feel like she's a mere accessory to your life, even if you make a lot of money, she will slowly suffocate to death.
"I know guys who literally say, 'I'm going to set aside everything else and work on my business for the next five years,' and it's a terrible mistake. He says he's working for her, but she's always last. A guy who consistently goes out of his way to make his wife feel special is one who will have a good marriage for all of his life."
His top advice for women:
"Eighty percent of all divorces in America today are filed by women. The problem that women have is that men don't think like women. No. 1, ask for what you want. A woman doesn't have to tell her best friend, her mom, her sister; they know intuitively. But the reality is that if you want something from a guy, you have to tell him what you want. No. 2, ask more than once. That's hard for a woman. If she didn't want to ask the first time, why should she have to ask him again? Because that's how men are wired. We're not paying attention."
He hopes the conference will help couples.
"I want women to feel safe and validated in who they are. I want men to feel safe and validated in who they are. I don't try to change people. Now I'm not talking about destructive behavior, like abuse or adultery.
"I'm just trying to get men and women to understand the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. If you understand, it changes everything. She'll still be who she is and he'll still be who he is, but the anger and bitterness are gone."
Gungor said he and his wife sometimes argue "over the stupidest things on earth, like everyone else." Mentor couples, he said, have been a big help. "If there's just two of you on the island, you end up cannibals and eat each other," he said. "When you get a third party involved, it suddenly gives you a different perspective. If people would open up earlier, we would save so many marriages."
He knows that most men are dragging their feet to marriage conferences. That's OK with him.
"I encourage women, 'This will be the first conference that your husband will thank you for dragging them to.' The first day, it's the women dragging their husbands. Overwhelmingly, what we've found is the second day it's the men dragging their wives: 'C'mon, we're going to be late.' That may be because I save the talk about sex for the second day, and they want to be there for that. I'm not dumb."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.