Like many good Baptists, Kathee Wheeler thought marriage was forever. As the wife of a Baptist minister, she led marriage conferences with her husband and lived by what Jesus taught in the Bible: that "what God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

But when they couldn't overcome a crisis in their marriage, they resolved it the way a growing number of Baptists have: They got divorced.

Wheeler, who lives in Durham and has remarried, says that however painful and tragic, divorce happens.

"It comes to the best of people," she said. "Nobody's exempt."

That's a reality the Southern Baptist Convention has reluctantly begun to recognize. Stung by studies that show nearly 30% of all adult Baptists divorce--a higher rate than most other Christian denominations--the convention is gearing up to fight what it considers a national tragedy and a threat to the future of the traditional family.

At its annual meeting in New Orleans this week, the convention is expected to unveil a report calling on families to pursue lives of "moral purity and marital fidelity." Believing, as the old saying goes, that "a family that prays together stays together," it will recommend that families spend an evening a week praying and reading Scripture. And as a symbolic gesture, it will recommend that the Sunday after Valentine's Day be set aside as "Covenant Marriage Day," an occasion for married couples to renew their vows in church.

On the heels of past convention declarations that wives must submit to their husbands' leadership and that the position of pastor is limited to men, Baptists have planned a less divisive program this year, with emphasis on the family.

"The single greatest issue affecting America today and the well-being of our nation is the family," said the Rev. Tom Eliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., and chairman of the family life committee report. "Our primary responsibility is to develop a strategy to encourage churches to live up to God's standards as a family."

Many Southern Baptists welcome the move, saying that the convention has denounced divorce for so long that it has unintentionally perpetuated an embarrassing paradox: The Bible Belt has the highest rate of divorce in the nation.

In several states--including Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee--divorce rates are about 50% higher than the national average. North Carolina's divorce rate was 4.8 for every thousand people in 1999, the last year for which state figures are available. That's better than most Southern states, but higher than the national average of 4.1.

Baptists, who make up the largest religious group in the South, have been hit especially hard. A 1999 study by Barna Research Group, based in Ventura, Calif., found that Baptists divorce more often than Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Mormons. Only last year, one of their best-known pastors, the Rev. Charles Stanley of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, divorced his wife after years of reconciliation efforts.

But there is no better indication of the frequency of divorce than the number of Baptist churches that have begun support programs geared toward adults who have separated. A Wake Forest-based company that sells churches a 13-part video series--typically shown to small groups of divorced members--says Baptists are its biggest customers.

Steve Grissom, president of DivorceCare, said 7,000 churches have bought his package, more than half of them Baptist.

Grissom, himself a Baptist, said one reason for the high divorce rate is the premium that evangelicals place on the institution of marriage. Baptists see marriage as part of God's plan, and therefore the norm for all people. As a result, Baptists marry early and often remarry if they get a divorce.

"The people who attend a church like that are committed to marriage, whereas in society couples live together without getting married," Grissom said. "When a couple living together splits, they're not counted as part of the divorce rate."

Baptist leaders say they're alarmed by the erosion of the institution of marriage. Census figures recently released show that less than a quarter of all U.S. households consist of a traditional family.

Churches are responding in numerous ways. Many pastors already require potential marriage partners to undergo several counseling sessions before the wedding. Increasingly, churches also are pairing newlyweds with a mentoring couple who have a successful marriage, and asking couples with troubled marriages to seek reconciliation.

Now they also want to reach out to those already divorced.

"We want to be family-friendly, whether it's a single-parent family or a nuclear family," said the Rev. Ruffin Snow, pastor of Tri-City Baptist Church in Conover and a member of the Southern Baptist Convention's family life committee. "Rather than curse the darkness, we want to turn on the light."

It's not clear what those initiatives toward divorced families would include, though many churches have started practical ministries such as car-repair and home-maintenance programs aimed at single mothers.

Baptist leaders say God ordained marriage as part of the social order, which is why they must uphold it. In doing so, they are not only faithful to God, but they are providing people a formula for happiness.

"Jesus Christ can not only forgive you of sin and give you eternal life, he can help you have a lifelong happy marriage," said Danny Akin, the academic vice president and dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Shelton Johnson, who divorced his wife of 18 years after living a life of a "workaholic," agrees. Soon after his divorce, he joined a Baptist church and has since remarried. A good marriage, he said, "begins with putting the Lord first in your life and not your selfish self."

"The problem is the lack of the Lord in your house," said Johnson, a member of Bethesda Baptist Church in Clayton. "If you put the Lord first, your problems disappear."

But Kathee Wheeler said good communication helps, too. She said an inability to share information, thoughts and feelings was the reason she broke up with her first husband, to whom she was married for 32 years.

"A lot could probably have been resolved if he had talked to me and told me what he was feeling, but he couldn't," said Wheeler, who is 54 and attends Ebenezer Baptist Church in Durham. Wheeler said she learned a lot about communication, mainly through church programs designed to help divorced people prepare for a new relationship. For many, that's a welcome step forward.

Naomi Ford, who was divorced in 1971, said she felt judged by fellow church members after divorcing her alcoholic husband.

"I felt I had to sit in the back of the church with a 'D' on my forehead," said Ford, a Baptist who lives in Raleigh and works for DivorceCare. "Now it's changed. They're realizing the need to minister to divorced people. It makes me feel good to be a Southern Baptist."

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