The divorce rate is down in Modesto, Calif. — thanks in large part to a "Community Marriage Policy" established ten years ago by the Greater Modesto Ministerial Association.
More than 100 area evangelical churches have closed ranks and established three key requirements for couples who want to be married in church:
(1) an engagement period of at least four months.
(2) at least four sessions of premarital counseling.
(3) learning about the value of marriage enrichment training within the first two years of marriage and mentoring by equipped, spiritually mature couples.
During the past decade, Modesto's population tripled but the divorce rate plummeted 18 to 27 percent annually, said Guy Grimes, pastor of Orangeburg Avenue Baptist Church.
"Most couples spend many hours and weeks preparing for a 45-minute ceremony," Grimes observed. "But we want them also to be well-prepared for the marriage itself to be a long lasting relationship with a lot of quality"
The Modesto phenomenon has garnered attention from the national news media, such as NBC Nightly News which aired a show in April. In his lead-in to the report, anchor Tom Brokaw told viewers, "Almost half of all new marriages in this country end in divorce, but there are those who believe it doesn't have to be that way"
Michael Douglas, a Modesto minister from another denomination, told NBC, "One of my questions to couples when they come in here for premarital counseling is, 'Is divorce an option for you?' If it is an option for either one of those people, I will not marry them until they have worked through that."
Not all couples are happy to hear about the requirements, as evidenced by the experience of Modesto ministers and churches who have received phone calls from people shopping around for a church facility in which to hold a wedding.
After being told repeatedly by numerous churches about the Community Marriage Policy the callers sometimes respond with comments such as, "Oh, you're that way too!"
But the anger rarely persists if a minister has an opportunity to talk with the couple. 'When you sit down and explain to people that we want their marriage to last, very few people are angry at that," Grimes said.
Besides, most of the churches have a policy against hosting weddings by non-members with only a few exceptions, such as former church members or siblings and children of present members.
When the policy was first introduced at the Orangeburg Avenue church, some members weren't enthusiastic about Grimes' desire to participate. "Some responded with comments such as, 'We can't dictate that to people. We have no right to interfere in other people's lives."
Grimes asked them, "Why do you feel that way? Give me some foundation that marriage is
not holy and that we are not responsible for whom we many"
But today, Grimes said virtually all active members of his church appreciate the policy because they've seen the sharp decline in the divorce rate. "The result has been stronger families in our churches," he said.
The key to the success of the policy has been the Modesto ministerial alliance, Grimes explained. "In our community we have a phenomenal experience where about 100 pastors meet together on Wednesday to pray for at least an hour. We do that fifty-two weeks a year, and we go away on prayer retreats.
'We have a kingdom community in Modesto, and the marriage policy is just an outgrowth of that. It wasn't the policy that brought the community together, but it was definitely a byproduct. I would suggest that pastors start building community with each other as partners in ministry"
Or Common Sense?
America's spiraling divorce rate has moved some civil authorities to take action. Four states — Missouri, Michigan, Arizona, and Florida — have legislation pending that would require premarital counseling before granting marriage licenses.
"If we stop one divorce, it would seem to me that it would be worth trying," explained Missouri state Rep. Tom Hoppe, a Democrat from Kansas City.
Source: AP, as reported in The Pastor's Weekly Briefing, March 14, 1997