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February 17, 2001
Column #1016

MODESTO'S VALENTINE: DIVORCE RATE PLUNGES 47.6%

     On Valentine's Day four years ago, Curt Seigfield received a call in Arizona, where he was living with his parents, from his estranged wife in Modesto, Cal. They had been separated for six months because Debbie discovered her husband was so addicted to gambling he had squandered $50,000 of family assets. And he concedes ''There was a lot of deception and lying.''

     Nevertheless, Debbie said, ''I forgive you and I want you to come home, and begin working on these issues. I will stand by you no matter what.''

     What moved on her heart was not a new compassion for him, but the taking of a course called ''Reconciling God's Way,'' created by Joe and Michelle Williams at Big Valley Grace Community Church. First, Debbie realized the Bible gives only one reason for divorce, adultery, and Curt had not been unfaithful. Second, she says, ''I came to the point where I cared more about what God wanted, and got my eyes off what my husband was doing.''

     God ''hates divorce,'' says Malachi. Therefore she had to hate it too. Yet, ironically, when she told Curt she would stand by him, no matter what - he began to change. They have now not only rebuilt their marriage, but are leaders in the course that has reached 793 people since 1997.

     Reconciling God's Way is a small reason why Modesto's divorce rate has plunged an astonishing 47.6 percent in 15 years. The deeper reason is that 95 pastors signed America's first ''Community Marriage Policy'' in 1986, pledging to take steps ''to radically reduce the divorce rate among those married in area churches.'' 

     No other American city has slashed its divorce rate in half. If the nation could achieve that goal, nearly 600,000 marriages a year would be saved.

     And 134 other cities have adopted a Community Marriage Policy (CMP), patterned on Modesto's pioneering model. In only three years, divorces have fallen 19 percent in Chattanooga, 31 percent in El Paso and 32.5 percent in Kansas City, Kan. and its suburbs. The divorce rate is falling faster in these cities than in Modesto. 

     I should say, at this point, I've been involved in these efforts, and am not disinterested. I made a speech which challenged Modesto clergy to create the CMP, and now direct Marriage Savers (marriagesavers.org) which helps clergy adopt reforms to cut divorce rates.

     What reforms? As Modesto clergy put it, ''It is the responsibility of pastors to set minimum requirements to raise the quality of commitment in those we marry. We believe that couples who seriously participate in premarital testing and counseling will have a better understanding of what the marriage commitment involves.''

     Therefore, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy agreed to require a ''minimum of four months'' marriage preparation that includes a study of biblical doctrines and the taking of a premarital inventory, such as FOCCUS or PREPARE. Either can predict with 80 percent accuracy who is likely to divorce. A tenth of couples who take this step break their engagement. Studies show that those who do have the same scores as those who marry and later divorce. Thus they are avoiding a bad marriage before it has begun.

     The inventory also provides a way that older, solidly married couples can mentor the younger couples, talking through the issues they have identified as being areas of conflict. In my home church, for example, since 1992 we trained 52 Mentor Couples who have helped 308 couples prepare for marriage. Of that number, about 50 broke off before a wedding. But there have been only six divorces of more than 250 who married in eight years.

     One core principle of CMPs is that the churches pledge to take steps to strengthen existing marriages in churches. For example, hundreds of couples are taking a course in Sioux Falls, S.D. called ''Ten Great Dates,'' sparked by a video series by David and Claudia Arp. Churches are providing babysitters while their parents enjoy fun exercises that help them rediscover each other.

     Another commitment of clergy is ''to create a Marriage Ministry of mentoring couples whose marriages once nearly failed to work with troubled marriages,'' as Peoria pastors put it. Finally, churches pledge to reconcile the separated and to help stepfamilies be successful.

     Every Sunday, 100 people attend Reconciling God's Way, with the men and women on opposite sides of the room. Each gender faces similar issues and both sexes feel freer to talk if their spouse is not present. In fact, the course has developed two manuals, that are being used across the nation by thousands of hurting spouses and by a same sex Support Partner to help hold them accountable. To order a set for $27, call 209 578-4357.

     The clergy of Modesto meet weekly for prayer. Clearly, those prayers are being answered.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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