success stories

Posted April 25, 2004

Study finds divorce drops
where clergy band to strengthen marriage

By Catholic News Service

A new study says divorce rates have dropped in U.S. counties where clergy have banded together to implement the Community Marriage Policy, a program to strengthen marriage preparation and increase marriage support in their congregations.

Divorce rates nationwide have declined in recent years, but they declined at a faster rate in the counties where the first 114 marriage policies were adopted, said an executive summary of the study, released in Washington in April.

"The crucial ingredients are mentor couples -- found in any congregation -- who are trained to provide rigorous marriage preparation, ongoing enrichment of existing marriages and guidance and support for couples in crisis," said Michael McManus, author of a syndicated column on ethics and religion and originator of the Community Marriage Policy formula.

The study was conducted by the Institute for Research and Evaluation in Salt Lake City with funding support from the U.S. Department of Justice through the National Fatherhood Initiative.

In the counties studied, the average rate of divorce dropped more rapidly in the first four years after local clergy committed themselves to a Community Marriage Policy program than it had in the five years preceding the program.

Researchers tested control counties -- pairing each of the studied counties with another county in the same state which had similar divorce rates and other similar demographics in the five years before clergy in the studied county entered into the marriage preparation and support program. They found divorces declined in those control counties as well, but the average rate of decline slowed over the next four years while the rate of decline accelerated in the studied counties.

Projecting the different rates of decline to seven years, the study concluded that while typical counties were experiencing a 9.4 percent drop in divorce rates over that time the average drop in the divorce rate was 17.5 percent in counties where a Community Marriage Policy existed.

McManus and his wife, Harriet, formed the nonprofit organization Marriage Savers in 1996 to help clergy around the country form Community Marriage Policy groups.

"Nine of 10 Americans marry in a church," McManus said in a statement. "This gives clergy great access to couples. Yet most churches are simply wedding factories."

Priests, pastors and rabbis who commit to the Community Marriage Policy agree to insist on at least four months of marriage preparation in which couples take a premarital inventory, talk through relational issues and learn communication skills from trained mentor couples.

They also commit to sponsoring annual enrichment retreats to help couples renew their marriages, couple-to-couple mentoring programs for couples in crisis, reconciliation programs for separated spouses and stepfamily support groups for those in second marriages with children.

McManus, a Presbyterian layman, said of the policy, "I had the Catholic common marriage policy in mind . . . in a four-month preparation period during which couples take an inventory.

"But we go beyond most Catholic churches to have a parish-based strategy for enriching existing marriages, saving troubled ones with back-from-the-brink mentor couples (and) helping the separated to reconcile and stepfamilies to be successful."

The Community Marriage Policy had its origins in Modesto, Calif., in 1986 when McManus, in a speech, challenged the city's clergy to reduce the divorce rate in area churches. A rabbi and 94 priests and ministers in the area committed their congregations to the program. Stanislaus County, of which Modesto is the county seat, had a divorce rate of 0.6 percent, or six per 1,000 residents, in 1986. In 2000, its rate was just over 0.3 percent, about half what it had been before.

The summary of the new study pointed out that the Community Marriage Policy is generally adopted at the city level, but annual divorce statistics around the country are gathered only at the county level.

Thus a statistically significant change in county divorce statistics in those counties containing cities with such policies suggests that the real change within the cities is more dramatic, the summary said.

The impact of the change in a city on the county divorce rate, it said, would be diluted by the unaffected divorce rates in other communities in the county where churches did not band together in a comparable way to strengthen and support marriage.

The study reported that, as of January 2004, clergy in 183 cities and towns around the country had pledged themselves to a Community Marriage Policy. Only those that had a program in place by 2000 were included in the study.