A Florida city saw its divorce rate drop 24 percent in just two years after churches and private organizations teamed up to strengthen local families. And organizers hope to replicate their success in other cities. While divorce rates are modestly dropping in the United States, mostly because people are waiting to get married rather than staying married, there’s more to the story in Jacksonville, Fla.
In 2016, an organization now called Communio (formerly the Culture of Freedom Initiative) launched a privately funded, church-based campaign to boost marriage stability and church attendance in Jacksonville, a city of nearly 900,000 people. The group formed a partnership with about 50 Baptist and Catholic churches and more than 40 local nonprofit groups over three years, sponsoring marriage and relationship education programs, public events, and marketing campaigns to encourage people to invest in their marriages and attend church.
The project, launched by The Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of conservative philanthropists and private foundations, wanted to uncover strategies to strengthen marriages and families instead of just dealing with the fallout when they break down.
“Our hypothesis was … what if we got upstream of that and found ways to boost marriage and family stability and religious observance?” J.P. De Gance, the former executive vice president of The Philanthropy Roundtable and now CEO of Communio, told the Institute for Family Studies. “And what if we could actually use your dollars more effectively in philanthropy by getting upstream of the problems before they manifest themselves in other ways?”
More than 50,000 people in Jacksonville attended a marriage enrichment program from 2016 to 2018, a jump from a baseline estimate of just 300 individuals who completed any kind of marriage enrichment in 2015, according to De Gance.
Communio sponsored evangelistic Alpha courses, Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, Family Life’s Weekend to Remember, and other events. One local Catholic ministry put on an intensive weekend specifically for marriages headed for divorce. One couple, Tommy and Sandra Marks, said they went into a weekend retreat “1 percent in and 99 percent out” of their marriage and came out saying, “It didn’t just save our marriage, it changed our lives.”
The campaign relied on data analytics and microtargeted marketing, concepts that have long existed in the commercial and political world. “But in a lot of ways, the family and faith sector is living, technologically, in the 1990s,” De Gance told National Affairs. “This project is bringing it forward.”
Communio formed a partnership with secular brand strategy and marketing data firms to develop a predictive model to identify individuals in Jacksonville most likely to divorce, become a single parent, or react positively to an invitation from a church, as well as those struggling with anxiety, financial stress, or substance abuse. It used that model to inform churches about the programs that would help most in their local communities and to recruit participants with direct mail and online advertising, mostly through Facebook and Google.
The campaign coincided with a 24 percent drop in the divorce rate in Duval County, where Jacksonville is the county seat, during the three-year program from 2015 to 2018, according to an analysis by the Institute for Family Studies. The institute found the divorce rate fell 27 percent from 2015 to 2017, compared to a 10 percent decline in Florida and a 6 percent decline in the United States during the same period.
De Gance credits the difference to the involvement of churches in the Jacksonville initiative, noting in an editorial published in the Washington Examiner in May that the results of the federal government’s well-intentioned efforts to boost marriage stability pale in comparison to the results Communio saw. He plans to try out new community-wide marriage initiatives in three more cities this year and work to help churches embrace marriage ministry. Less than 20 percent of U.S. evangelical, Catholic, and mainline churches have any budget for marriage ministry, according to a recent Barna study commissioned by Communio.
“The federal government cannot fix marriage, but churches can,” De Gance said. “Filling the marriage ministry gap could fix our nation’s family crisis.”