With more than 50 percent of American marriages ending in divorce, local clergy are going into the marriage saving business. Their tool? Community marriage policies--a covenant by which pastors of all faiths get together and agree to marry couples only after the couples go through a rigorous program designed to give them the skills for getting along. The goal is for couples to think carefully about marriage prior to tying the knot, hopefully preventing future problems that could lead to divorce. "Divorce is just as high in the church as it is in the world right now," said Dwayne Betsill, who pastors Church on the Hill, an Assembly of God congregation in Turner, Oregon. "The policy allows us to present truths about issues that are going to come into marriage, weeding out wrong relationships before they get to the marriage stage." Betsill and some 40 pastors from the greater Salem area signed a covenant requiring a six-month waiting period and premarital counseling before couples can marry. They're not alone. Groups that favor community marriage policies, such as Marriage Savers, Crossing Out Divorce, Live the Life Ministries and Engaged Encounter, all have the same goal: to drive down the 50-plus percent national divorce rate by equipping couples for happy marriages. Even local and state governments are joining with clergy, a union that is drawing more and more media attention. Last year, Wisconsin's state legislators earmarked $210,000 in federal funds to hire what may be the nation's first government-paid Mr. or Ms. Marriage Saver, reported Tom Heinen in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The move caught the attention of Annie Laurie Gaylor, spokeswoman for the Madison-based Freedom of Religion Foundation. "This is not the business of the state," she firmly stated. Despite Gaylor's contention, the blending of church and state continues to grow. "We're trying to say, 'What kind of foundation do you want?'" Betsill said. With the U.S. leading the world in divorces, American couples need solid footing, he said, adding, "The statistics are grim." U.S. Census statistics show that the number of marriages is 41 percent lower than it was in the '60s when families were less effected by a higher percentage of women in America's work force, more single-family situations, rising suicides among children from divorced families, and growing individualism. Additionally, the cohabitation rate has soared ten-fold, with an estimated 6-plus million couples living together, more than triple the 2.3 million who marry. The number continues to rise despite reports that those who cohabit before marriage have a 50 percent higher chance of separating or divorcing than couples in marriages without premarital cohabitations. Only 56 percent of American adults are married today, down from 68 percent in one generation. "If the family trends of recent decades are extended into the future, the result will be not only growing uncertainty within marriage, but the gradual elimination of marriage in favor of casual liaisons oriented to adult expressiveness and self-fulfillment," Rutgers sociology professor David Popenoe recently said. "The problem with this scenario is that children will be harmed, adults will probably be no happier, and the social order could collapse."
In an attempt to alert couples contemplating marriage to this disturbing trend, Marriage Savers founder and syndicated columnist Mike McManus challenged clergy across the nation to "take the pledge" to initiate a community marriage policy. To date, some 5,000 pastors in 110 cities in 37 states have signed such a covenant. "The movement Marriage Savers has sparked is a mile wide and an inch deep," McManus told over 70 leaders of marriage ministries gathered last summer in Arlington, Virginia, at the group's first national conference. "Divorce rates are plunging in two dozen communities by spectacular amounts. Nationally, divorces are down only 1.3 percent in 19 years. By contrast, they plunged 14 percent in Chattanooga in one year, by 15 percent in Evansville, Indiana, and 21 percent in Dalton, Georgia, also in one year. So they're coming down 11 to 16 times faster than the nation in one-nineteenth of the time. Combining those numbers, divorces in those cities have plummeted 200-300 times more quickly than in the U.S." McManus is not the only one reporting such spectacular statistics. The Rev. Robert Jones, who has been marrying couples since 1968, reported that 87 percent of those who go through the Catholic Retrouvaille program and follow-up sessions stay together. Started in Quebec, Retrouvaille, a French word meaning "discovery," is intended for marriages in deep distress and, as do community marriage policies, involves counseling. Even non-Christians are getting excited.
"I think this is wonderful," Imam Abdullah El-Amin of the Michigan Council of Islamic Organizations was cited as saying. "The Koran tells us we should be involved in cases of marital strife." In his best seller, "Kosher Love," Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes about the conservative practices of Orthodox Jews, among whom divorce is uncommon. "The job of rabbis and priests is to bring peace between husbands and wives," Boteach said. Others disagree, and, like Gaylor, are vocal about their concern over society's aversion to government intrusion into private lives and the possible nightmare of bureaucratic red tape community marriage policies might produce. Even McManus threw in his two cents worth of worry. "There are clear danger signs that this movement is beginning to run on its own, taking root in communities which only partly understand what is needed to make a community marriage covenant successful," he said. "The pastors of some cities are watering down what I believe to be core elements." Whether or not church and state continue to join hands to save struggling marriages or remain spectators of each other's efforts, they both advocate the need for intervention. It's a "marriage" of concern that even has the press buzzing. Community marriage policies provide "two things I consider vital when it comes to helping marriages to work ... stressing the spiritual importance of commitment and offering time-tested how-tos," Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote in his Feb. 15, 1999 coverage of Marriage Savers. The bottom line is community marriage policies are working, and the movement is growing. McManus, whose group expects community marriage policies to spark reforms in 300 cities by the end of the year, believes that clergy support is paramount in helping to turn the nation's divorce climate back to a marriage climate.

"What God has joined together, let the church commit to hold together," he said.

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