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January 23, 1999
Col. #908

THE NEW POLITICS:  SAVING MARRIAGES

TALLAHASSEE -- A week after being sworn in as Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush did something no governor had ever done: praised 64 pastors of his city for setting aside their differences as Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and AME Zionists, to create a Tallahassee Community Marriage Policy aimed at pushing down the area's divorce rate.

"We have a 60 percent divorce rate in Leon County, and 35 percent of the most precious, innocent children come into the world without fathers as out-of-wedlock births," he said. "These problems can be solved if we make commitments, community by community, that the institution of marriage is important.

"Therefore, I applaud the pastors and priests who are here today to begin to save marriages. You can see a dramatic reduction in the divorce rate. We will see a whole lot of love in its place. I hope it will be a model for the rest of the state."

What the clergy agreed to is requiring engaged couples to undergo rigorous premarital preparation that includes at least five counseling sessions over three to four months, the taking of a premarital inventory such as FOCCUS or PREPARE that can predict with 80% accuracy who will divorce and classes on "a biblical understanding of morality, marriage and divorce." The churches will "promote sexual abstinence outside of marriage" and "encourage retreats, classes and marriage enrichment opportunities designed to build and strengthen marriages."

Their most important reform is to "train mature married couples to serve as mentors to those who are engaged, newly married, experiencing marital difficulties, or remarried." Rev. Bob Tindale, pastor of Killearn United Methodist Church, who has recruited 50 mentoring couples, said "We confess that we have not done the things that needed to be done.

The problems of marriage are not sociological. They are a failure of those of us religious leaders."  He added, "Mentoring is a tool we have frankly not used before, and I am excited about having couples who can stand with those preparing for marriage, and share on a real life level. Others who have had severe problems can come back and share honestly with couples who are now in the same boat. They can share their very lives with those who have no hope at all."

The man who inspired him is a parishioner, Richard Albertson, head of "Live the Life Ministries," who organized the Community Marriage Policy (CMP). He told the clergy: "The divorce revolution has failed. Judith Wallerstein's research of children of divorce reports that even after 25 years, that their parents' divorce is the central event of their lives. The solution is to strengthen marriage. Married people do better in every way. They live longer, are healthier, happier and have a better sex life!"

Tallahassee is the 98th city to take this step. This week, Ventura, Cal. will be the 99th and Culpeper, Vir. will be the 100th on the day after Valentine's Day.

With what result? Consider the impact of Rev. Jeffrey Meyers of Christ Lutheran Church in Lenexa, Kansas. In May, 1996 he persuaded 40 pastors in two Kansas counties across from Kansas City, Missouri to adopt a CMP. In 1995, the counties had 1,530 divorces. By 1997 the number plunged to 1,001 a 34.6 percent drop in two years!

How is that possible? Forty churches is a small percentage of area churches. The story got good coverage in the Kansas City Star. My theory is that people in difficult marriages read the stories, and were encouraged to persevere rather than divorce. And the Lord blessed the marriage savers.

In the same years, divorces rose modestly in Kansas City itself and in a suburban county.  Why? First, all of the CMP churches are on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. Second, the Star's stories about Meyers' marital pioneering appeared in Kansas, not in Missouri.

In at least 17 other cities which have adopted CMPs, divorces are dropping at least 10 times faster than they are in the nation as a whole. In Eau Claire, Wis., they fell by 7% in a year, and by 14 percent in Chattanooga. Compare that with the 1.3% decline of the United States over twelve years, falling only from 1,178,000 in 1986 to 1,163,000 in 1997.

I must confess a personal involvement. My wife and I have helped 70 of the 98 cities to create Community Marriage Policies via a non-profit group called Marriage Savers which Gov. Bush praised as "helping people all across this country." On Jan. 28, we will address the Wisconsin Assembly because Speaker Scott Jensen says, "I am hoping that will build interest in a proposal I'm developing to help initiate Community Marriage Policies around the state."

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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