Barnwell pastor and his wife have been helping couples for more than 25 years

“To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge myself to you.”

Pastor Ken Catoe and his wife, Lynn, have not only taken those vows seriously during their 46 years of marriage, but they have also led other married couples to understand the keys to a successful marriage.

“Marriage is designed for a lifetime,” said Catoe, who has been pastor of Hagood Avenue Baptist Church in Barnwell since 1992. He married Lynn, his high school sweetheart, on Dec. 18, 1971. The Catoes now have two adult children, Nathan Catoe and Deanna (Adam) Grubbs, and two grandchildren, who all live in Barnwell.

During their previous ministry at a church in Rock Hill, Catoe had “couples coming by in crisis,” including one couple that was literally on the way to a divorce attorney’s office. “I came home so frustrated,” said Catoe, who wanted to find a “proactive” way to try to save marriages. “Let’s do something for good marriages before they get in crisis,” said Catoe of how the annual marriage retreat was born. “Marriage is too good to let go.”

Ten couples attended the first retreat, including one couple the Catoes later learned had been one step away from divorce before the retreat. The retreat proved to be a lifesaver for their marriage.

“Whatever God did at that retreat saved their marriage,” said Catoe. “That’s where the fire started for me.”

A retreat was held the next two years at the church in Rock Hill until the Catoes moved to Barnwell. They continued the ministry at Hagood Avenue Baptist. “It’s his passion,” said Lynn of her husband.

Though the retreats are physically demanding and draining, Catoe said they are worth the work because he loves being married and hates seeing couples in trouble. “Marriage is fun,” said Catoe, who said he couldn’t imagine going through life without Lynn. That’s not to say there won’t be ups and downs. The Catoes have had struggles during their marriage, including health scares, but they did not let those issues break apart their marriage.

Ken Catoe portrayed “Dr. Real,” a character inspired by Dr. Phil, during the 2014 marriage retreat.

A few years ago, Catoe portrayed “Dr. Real,” a character inspired by Dr. Phil McGraw of the advice-offering television show, “Dr. Phil.”

While each retreat varies in location and theme, the key goal of equipping couples with necessary tools and knowledge to tackle real issues has not wavered.

Finances and communication remain two of the biggest issues in marriages, said Catoe. Approximately 80 percent of American couples who divorce cite financial stress as a contributing factor. That’s why the 2017 retreat had a finance theme.

Catoe said he believes marriages can be saved regardless of the issues couples face. He said he has seen many marriages saved, including those involving cases of infidelity. “If they have a strong faith, I don’t care what’s going on, it can be fixed,” he said, adding how it also takes work and a willingness to fight for one’s marriage. He said statistics show that if couples can stick through the difficult times for five years, then they can get through anything.

According to the Bible, Catoe said husbands are tasked with one job, which is to “love your wives.” Meanwhile, wives are called to “respect your husbands.”

“If they’ll do those two things, there’s not much they can’t handle,” said Catoe.

Since life often gets stressful and busy with children, work and other responsibilities, Lynn said the annual retreat is a great time for couples to refocus in a relaxed setting, such as Savannah, Charleston and Myrtle Beach. This year’s theme was “Celebrate Marriage” in honor of 25 years of annual marriage retreats at Hagood. While the flu kept some away this year, approximately 35 couples, ranging from newlyweds to senior adults, attended the January retreat in Hilton Head.

Catoe has three goals for all couples who attend the retreats. This includes having fun, spending quality time together, and carrying away “one little nugget of truth” about their spouse and marriage, he said.

Though the Catoes lead the retreats, they also get a lot out of them. Lynn said the retreats might be the secret ingredient to their marriage, because they are always talking about marriage. “Keep learning each other,” said her husband of the importance of couples constantly learning and growing. That has been especially true for the Catoes recently. When Catoe went to the doctor for a heart catheterization in November 2016, he expected they would find some blockages and would simply put stents in to fix the problem. However, it turned out not to be that simple, because he ended up having to have triple bypass surgery. He spent a week in the hospital due to bad coughing spells.

Two weeks after coming home, Catoe had a rough night of coughing and felt a severe pain after one last cough. “Suddenly something was horribly wrong,” he said. An immediate trip back to the hospital revealed that the coughing caused the wires from his bypass surgery to cut his sternum. Since his sternum was gone, doctors had to create a protective cover over Catoe’s heart by separating his pectoral muscles and pulling them over his heart. This created a long recovery period, and there are still some things he can’t do that he is used to doing. But he has never lost his faith or his love for his wife.

Some people have asked the Catoes why God would allow them to endure something like they did. While Lynn admits you can get tested while spending 26 days in the hospital’s heart unit, “God stayed with us the whole time.”

Lynn was also at her husband’s side the entire time. “She was the perfect illustration of what marriage should be,” he said. “Her presence allowed me to recover. I have no idea how I would have made it without that precious woman.”

The fact that Lynn stuck by him does not surprise Catoe. Their love has been constant since the sweethearts met at Kershaw High School more than 50 years ago. Lynn has been by her husband’s side as they moved in order for him to earn two degrees and later minister to various churches. Before the couple came to Barnwell, they spent eight years in ministry in their hometown of Kershaw and seven years in Rock Hill.

Before his final surgery in December 2016, Catoe asked the surgeon if he would be able to lead the marriage retreat in five weeks. The surgeon told Catoe to keep his eye on the prize. “I did not want to disappoint those couples,” said Catoe, who was well enough to lead the retreat. One week later, on Jan. 29, 2017, he returned to the pulpit where he shared his testimony during a sermon titled “When Life Slaps You in the Face.”

He previously considered Philippians 4:13 his favorite verse, but “sometimes your life verse changes because life changes.” His granddaughter led him to 2 Corinthians 12:8-10: “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In addition to his wife, Catoe said he is blessed with another relationship. He’s been pastor of Hagood Avenue Baptist Church for more than 25 years, which is a long time for Baptist preachers. “I call it a good marriage,” he said.

Jonathan C. Vickery is managing editor for The (Barnwell) People-Sentinel. Republished with permission.