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October 27, 2001
Column #1052

(Fourth of a 5-part series)

CHURCHES CAN VIRTUALLY ELIMINATE DIVORCE

     Is it possible for a church or synagogue to virtually eliminate divorce? 

     Yes, if the congregation trains a network of Mentor Couples who create a safety net under every marriage. Consider Killearn United Methodist Church in a suburb of Tallahassee.  Outwardly, it looks like any large successful church with four services every Sunday, two traditional and two contemporary, that are packed out with 2,500 members.

     Since January, 1999 it trained 25 premarital Mentor Couples, who prepared 75-100 couples for marriage, only one of whom has divorced. And six ''Marriage Savers'' couples whose own marriages once nearly failed, worked with 20 troubled marriages, only one of whom divorced.

     That's only two divorces in three years for a church with thousands of members.

     Or consider Bread of Life, an inner city church in Kansas City, KS with 150 members, led by Pastor LeRoy Sullivan who started as a street evangelist. Located in such a poor area, he bought a square block for his new church for only $750. Since Bread of Life trained eight Mentor Couples three years ago, there have been no divorces in the church. None. 

     In other words, money and size has nothing to do with a near zero divorce rate. 

     What matters are couples such as Susan and Robert Johnson, married 31 years in
Tallahassee. Their marriage nearly came apart years ago when he had an affair. ''We were able to pull out of that and maintain our marriage,'' he recalls. ''We felt like we had a lot to offer to couples in a similar situation. We can offer hope that even after adultery, it is possible to pull marriages back together.''

     Every church has couples like the Johnsons, but has not appreciated them as the marriage-saving treasure that they are, or trained them to tell their stories of hope.

     Most clergy assume professional credentials are essential to help a marriage heading to divorce. However, many of those therapists with the Master's degrees are ineffectual with troubled marriages. Or worse, they actually recommend divorce!

     Rev. Bob Tindale, senior pastor of Killearn UMC, has a different view. ''Crisis couples can be given hope if they sit down with someone who can say, `We've have been there and we made it.' That is an incredible thing to say to someone, particularly if there's been an affair,'' where the injured spouse says, ''I don't believe I can get through this.'' 

     ''But the mentors say, `Yes you can. We have been there, and made it,' which is more than I can say. It gives hope. And there's serendipity. Mentor Couples tell me how much they get out of helping: `It keeps our marriage fresh as we help another relationship.'''

     Jerry and Beverly Smith have had a similar joy mentoring three couples who were
preparing for marriage. Oddly, all three had in-law problems. One engaged couple was expected to call one set of parents every day. Another couple had to sit with the proud parents in church and go out to lunch with them every Sunday. 

     ''We were surprised by their level of interference,'' said Beverly. ''We encouraged them to be bold enough and assertive enough to express dissatisfaction. The young couples were pleasantly surprised to find their parents backed off.''

     Richard and Elizabeth Albertson have helped 10 couples at Killearn UMC prepare for marriage. In their final session, after talking through many issues surfaced by the FOCCUS inventory, Richard tells couples, ''I want you to make a commitment that if you ever get in trouble, before you call a lawyer, will you call us? Three of the 10 couples have done so.

     In one case, ''the man was bulldozing his wife, shutting her down. She had moved out, but we got them back together. Just sitting down and talking with us, or my talking to him privately and Elizabeth meeting with her was enough to get them over the hump.''

     The Albertsons have been the architects not only of Killearn UMC's mentoring program, but of mentor programs in 60 churches who created a Tallahassee Community Marriage Policy that has pushed down the county's divorce rate to its lowest level in a decade, saving hundreds of marriages a year.

     Four churches have been particularly successful. Why? ''Our approach is comprehensive. It is for the whole marital life cycle - from premarital or marriage building, to enrichment of existing marriages, saving troubled marriages, and repairing the lives of those hurt by divorce, even the children,'' Albertson says. 

     An 8-year-old girl said, ''I learned the divorce was not my fault.''

     One result: Albertson (RichAlbert@aol.com) told Pensacola clergy this week how to start a Community Marriage Policy.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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