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Resources from Marriage Savers

Ten Steps to Create a Community Marriage Policy


Hundreds of cities have created a Community Marriage Policy® or as some call it, a Community Marriage Covenant®.0 The result, according to the Institute for Research and Evaluation: divorce rates have plunged 48% or more in seven cities such as Austin, TX, Modesto, CA, Salem, OR, Kansas City, KS – and by a stunning 79.5% in El Paso. Compared to the divorce rates for three years before a CMP was organized in 130+ cities, the divorce rate fell an average of 24% in a decade. See an enclosed memo for details.

NBC, CBS, ABC, Oprah and two PBS Specials in 2002 featured our results, as have hundreds of newspapers. This coverage prompted many to write and ask, "How do you organize a Community Marriage Policy®? I made the speech which prompted 95 pastors, priests and a rabbi to sign America’s first policy in 1986. My wife, Harriet, and I have personally addressed the clergy on the day most of the 176 policies were signed and were involved in the development of them. Some clergy adopted a CMP after hearing about our work. However, if this is to become a true national movement, we cannot visit every city where a CMP is being organized. Therefore, it is important to outline these essential steps – and mistakes to be avoided – so that committed leaders with a vision to equip their congregations to be "marriage savers" with only backup help from us.

Ten Steps

1. Anyone Can Be the Sparkplug.

In only four cities did major religious leaders such as a Catholic or Episcopal bishop take the lead. Usually, the initiative comes from a pastor in a solid, respected local church, such as the pastor of First Baptist or First Presbyterian. In some cities, associate pastors began the program, as in Lenexa, KS and Aurora, IL. The first Canadian Community Marriage Policy® was organized by the pastor of a church with no building of its own. Lay people are often the organizers: a couple in Sioux Falls with a good marriage and another in Colorado Springs; a reporter whose own marriage was coming apart in the Midwest; a woman abandoned by her husband in Kentucky.

Civic leaders have also been sparkplugs. Mayor Bill Hardiman of Kentwood, MI helped launch the Greater Grand Rapids CMP. Judge James Sheridan not only organized 50 churches in Adrian, MI but also convinced all mayors and county judges to require couples to take marriage prep before any civil wedding. Pastoral Counseling Centers led the way in Columbus, GA and Harrisonburg, VA. The Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of Focus on the Family that lobbies on family issues with the state legislature, organized CMPs in Alexandria, Baton Rouge and Shreveport; similar Family Policy Councils took initiative in Minnesota, Iowa and Washington.

2. Read Marriage Savers.

The core idea of saving marriages is simple -- but not obvious, and is new to most clergy. It is this, in one sentence:

Every congregation has couples with solid marriages who really could be of help to other couples, but have never been asked, inspired, or trained to come along side another couple at a key stage of their life.

St. Paul said the job of the pastor is to "equip the saints for ministry," or "train God's people for service." What I ask clergy is this. "What more important ministry or service is there than saving marriages?" Yet what church has trained couples for such a ministry? Precious few.

However, I have written a book, Marriage Savers: Helping Your Family and Friends Avoid Divorce, which provides detail on how some churches are what I call "marriage savers" helping couples achieve one or more of these six great goals:

1. Avoid a bad marriage before it begins
2. Obtain "marriage insurance" as an engaged couple
3. Strengthen existing marriages
4. Save deeply troubled ones
5. Foster reconciliation of the separated/divorced
6. Push down divorce rates on a community-wide basis

    For example, I tell of our personal experience as a mentor couple working with seriously dating, engaged and newlywed couples in our church in Chapters 5 through 8. And in the Epilogue, written two years after the rest of the book, I explain how we trained dozens of mature couples to help us as Marriage Mentors to administer a premarital inventory and talk through the issues it surfaces. In our church, of 302 couples who took marriage prep, 55 dropped out or broke up, but there have been only seven divorces since 1992. That’s a 97% success rate – marriage insurance. Couple mentoring is also the most fruitful way to save troubled ones, as I report in Chapter 10. Some whose marriages once nearly failed, perhaps due to adultery or alcoholism -- but are now healed -- are the most appropriate couples to work with those marriages threatened by divorce for similar reasons. They have earned the right to say, "We made it, and you can too!" I put a spotlight on an Episcopal Church where seven "back-from-the-brink" couples worked with 40 couples headed toward divorce, and saved 38 of them! That's a 95% success rate and a model that has now been planted in six states. Chapter 11 examines how mentors can help the separated, divorced and even those in stepfamilies, which break up at a 65% rate. I report that a United Methodist church which created a Stepfamily Support Group that saved 320 out of 400 couples with stepchildren. (The cost of Marriage Savers is $15 plus $3 postage, if ordered from us.) In fact, Marriage Savers gave awards in 2002 to five churches which had a total of only six divorces in 4-6 years. That’s a virtual elimination of divorce in the local congregation.

In short, if you are to be equipped to create a Community Marriage Policy® you need to immerse yourself in evidence that two steps previously unknown to most clergy, can be taken:

  • Mature married couples can be trained to be Marriage Savers.
  • Clergy from all denominations can be persuaded to pioneer this marriage-saving strategy in many churches at one time.

3. Show a Video to a Group of Clergy.

Most communities have a ministerial association that meets monthly. The easiest way to get the ball rolling is to show them a 39- minute video we have produced called How Your Congregation and Community Can Be Marriage Savers. It can be ordered from us for $25 + $2 postage. This is also the first video of our six-part Marriage Savers Resource Collection. It has three quite different themes which I weave together as narrator:

  • Network coverage of Marriage Savers is excerpted: ABC's Peter Jennings World News Tonight, CBS' "48 Hours," and NBC's Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, plus a separate CBS Special and footage from CNN. These clips put a spotlight on how the Modesto Community Marriage Policy has slashed its divorce rate and inspired scores of cities to create CMPs. The subliminal message of the network stories is Marriage Savers is a national pioneer.
  • Couples themselves describe how they prepared for a life-long marriage, were strengthened by an intervention by mentors called Marriage Encounter or had a marriage saved by one of three different ministries (Retrouvaille, Marriage Ministry and Stepfamily Support Groups). Some outline how they themselves have become Marriage Savers. These are brief clips from a six-part video series we have produced. Cardinal William Keeler, Dr. Jimmy Draper, President of the Baptist Lifeway Resources, and Chuck Colson explain why this approach is needed.
  • Couple mentoring is demonstrated as Harriet and I mentor a young couple in our backyard. We explain how fulfilling and easy the experience is, how we recruit Marriage Mentors and we taped an actual training session in which both newlyweds and mentors describe the process.

4. Create a Diverse Committee of Clergy

Create a Diverse Committee of Clergy to study the issue and draft a local Community Marriage Policy®. The most prestigious clergy from four different sectors of the Christian church must be included: Evangelical and Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics and minority clergy — African American and/or Hispanic. In some cities, Jewish leaders and Muslims are also involved. These sectors tend not to cooperate, and are hard to organize. If the city is a large one, try to involve church executives with oversight responsibilities: a Catholic, United Methodist or Lutheran bishop, a Southern Baptist Director of Missions, etc. If these leaders are involved, they can more easily recruit other pastors from their faith tradition. The Twin Cities Rabbinical Council and a leading imam endorsed the Minneapolis-St. Paul CMP.

5. Schedule a Speakerphone Meeting with Marriage Savers Staff

At an early meeting of the Committee, I can be available to provide a 20-minute summary of the Community Marriage Policy® idea, and answer questions. That gives local leaders direct contact with the person who has sparked the Marriage Savers movement. This step can quell doubts and motivate clergy to give an exciting, energizing vision to declare a "new day for marriage and an old day for divorce."

6. Study Community Marriage Policies/Covenants from Other Cities.

We have enclosed sample agreements which can be adapted by your committee. From our experience, there are some core elements clergy endorse in the most successful CMPs and other elements which are optional. We suggest that a drafted version of the CMP be faxed to Marriage Savers (301 469-5871) for comment before a final version is approved. Some brief comments on key elements:

Core Elements

  1. Time: a minimum of four months marriage preparation. Catholics routinely require 6-12 months from the time of a first meeting of a couple with a pastor and the wedding. There must be enough time for those in weak relationships to improve them or back out without embarrassment.
  2. Require a premarital inventory to give the couple an objective overview of their strengths and areas for growth, and to give Mentor Couples a clear understanding of where to focus their comments.
  3. Meet with an older, solidly married Mentor Couple to discuss the issues on the inventory and to trained in communication and conflict resolution skills.
  4. Strengthen existing marriages of the congregation in an annual retreat such as Marriage Encounter, Family Life's "A Weekend to Remember," and "I Still Do," etc.
  5. Train "back-from-the-brink couples" to mentor those now in trouble, a strategy that can save a surprising 80% to 90% of the worst marriages.
  6. Create a Stepfamily Support Group that can save 80% of these difficult marriages that normally break up at a stunning 65%. Normally, except for large ones this will require the collaboration of several nearby churches.
  7. Cooperate with other congregations to share resources which is important for smaller congregations.

Optional Elements

  1. Promote chastity outside of marriage. This is an optional element because if it is insisted upon, many Mainline and Catholic clergy who think it is unrealistic to expect engaged couples to remain chaste, will not participate.
  2. Encourage a courtship of at least a year. This is another desirable but not essential element. It is not a substitute for at least four months of prep.
  3. Post-marital sessions for newlyweds. We recommend that Mentor Couples and pastors meet with newlyweds in the first year of marriage.
  4. Involve civic, political, business and educational sectors. While it is useful to involve these additional sectors, they are less important than the clergy who marry 76% of all couples and have a commitment to marriage. Some cities which began with this broader approach made religious leaders feel less important, prompting fewer to get involved, a big mistake.
  5. Independent evaluation of CMP's effectiveness. Local university scholars should be invited to witness and monitor the CMP process and report annually on its results, particularly in whether there are fewer divorces.

7. Make the CMP Signing a Dramatic Event.

Media coverage is very important. The creation of a Community Marriage Policy is arguably the most important religious event in any city. When was the last time that Catholics, Mainline and Evangelical Protestants, African American/Hispanic and Jews ever cooperated on something as important as pushing down the divorce rate? Many of the cities with the biggest plunges in the divorce rate had significant positive press coverage, such as Kansas City, KS where one county’s divorce rate fell 53% while it plummeted 63% in another. Meanwhile divorces barely changed in Kansas City, MO. As detailed in a separate memo, only 40 Kansas pastors signed on, too few to have resulted in any lowering of divorce rates. The churches could not have been doing that much better a job in such a short time. The Kansas City Star ran many stories in the Kansas section of the newspaper so Missouri readers in the same metro area did not even know about the Community Marriage Policy. What must have happened is that Kansas readers in tough marriages read of the new effort by clergy to save marriages, and decided to persevere rather than divorce! So the divorce culture continued in Missouri while the Kansas City, KS Community Marriage Policy created a pro-marriage culture. Finally, if pastors know their signing might be seen on TV or in newspapers, more will turn out. Here is how several cities have made the signing a major event:

  • Madison, WI clergy signed their CMP under the dome of the State Capitol. The Lt. Governor and Speaker of the Assembly noted the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars due to failed marriages, and congratulated clergy for their leadership. It was the lead story on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox stations.
  • Louisville resigned its CMP in 2002 on the steps of the County Courthouse where divorce decrees are granted, and where marriage licenses are issued. Clergy pledged to take steps to reduce the courthouse’s divorce business and increase its marriage rate. They then sent 50 couples to be trained as mentors.
  •  Baton Rouge clergy walked from a downtown church to the old State Capitol, where the mayor and other civic officials plus such leaders as the Catholic bishop applauded the step. Rome, GA pastors held the ceremony in a plaza between "the Convention Center where many wedding receptions are held and the County Courthouse where all divorces are granted," as one black pastor put it. "We pastors are standing here in the gap to hold marriages together."

8. Organize Press & TV Coverage.

As a journalist for four decades, I have some PR suggestions. Assume the media is an ally, not an enemy. Sadly, the clergy of most cities do an inadequate job of courting press coverage. If Harriet and I are participating in your signing event, I will write a press release for you. Well before the event, however, a committee of your top clergy should personally call on the editor of the newspaper and meet TV station General Managers to solicit serious coverage at every stage: when you announced your goal and create your organizing committee, in advance of your signing ceremony, and especially on the day of the event itself.

More than half the cities which created a CMP had no reporter or press photographer present on the day of the event, nor any TV coverage. Advance stories are important to help you recruit the widest number of participating clergy. But they are no substitute for covering the event itself in which dozens of pastors attempt to "rewrite the history of marriage and divorce in this community," as one Baptist pastor put it. It is as if the newspapers covered a mayoral race for days, but then did not report the election results. What hard news or results could be reported upon?

How many pastors from how many churches signed the Community Marriage Policy?

How many different denominations were involved?

Why are local clergy taking this step? Do they think it will reduce the divorce rate?

9. Consider Inviting Us to Speak At the Signing.

My wife and I have been invited to more than 100 cities in 1996-2003 to help launch a Community Marriage Policy/Covenant. Larry Ballard, Midwest Regional Director, has also spoken at a number of CMP signings and is a Certified Marriage Savers Trainer. Leading local clergy and public officials usually speak at the signing as well. In Tuscaloosa, AL both the mayor and city clerk spoke in front of the courthouse. We can have lunch with an organizing committee, meet with reporters or possible funding sources to help you raise money. If signed on Friday, we can train mentors on Friday Night and Saturday.

10. Train Clergy and Mentor Couples.

If Harriet and Mike McManus or a member of our staff speak at the signing, we can also train both pastors and Lead Mentor Couples from every participating church or synagogue. Training is from 6:30 to 10 p.m. on Friday and all day Saturday. Participants get four major publications as part of the training. I have written a detailed 183-page Manual To Create a Marriage Savers Congregation to provide step-by-step guidance on how to launch Mentor Couple ministries at five different stages of the marital life cycle.

The fee for training is on a sliding scale so that the smallest congregations can afford to participate. Our honorarium of $1,000 will be waived if at least 12 churches sign on for Mentor Couple training. The costs range from $300 for a congregation of less than 200 people attending on Sunday, $400 for one of 200-500 members, $500 for a church of 500-1000 members, $600 for one of 1,000 to 1,500 and $700 for large congregations of over 1,500.

What God has joined together, let the church help hold together!