This week, the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Philanthropy Roundtable released a study showing that a Christian pro-family initiative had a measurable impact in driving down divorce rates in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jacksonville Baptist Association and the Roman Catholic diocese united to launch the Culture of Freedom Initiative (COFI) to strengthen marriages and prevent divorces. The three-year initiative ran from 2016 to 2018 and coincided with a 24 percent drop in the local divorce rate.
“Our hard work in Duval County shows that, when churches adopt best practices and leverage Big Data, they can make a real difference in people’s lives,” John Paul De Gance, who ran the initiative and founded the group Communio to bring COFI to other parts of the country, said in a statement. “We are proud to have helped enhance family stability in Jacksonville, and we look forward to working with churches to apply the Jacksonville model in counties across America.”
“When married couples have access to 21st century marital resources, they are better-equipped to work through their problems and remain together, in healthy and loving relationships,” De Gance added.
From 2016-2018, COFI reached more than 11,000 adults per year for aa total of approximately 50,000 people. Partnering with Tallahassee nonprofit Live the Life (LTL) and a range of churches and other nonprofits, COFI also sponsored more than 28 million digital impressions, advertising a pro-marriage message in Duval County. This initiative had a budget of approximately $1.75 million per year — money well spent, apparently.
According to the IFS study, the divorce rate per 1,000 persons in Duval County declined 24 percent between 2015 and 2018. Since comparison data is only available for other counties and the nation as a whole for the 2015-2017 period, the IFS study focuses on that period, when the Jacksonville divorce rate dropped 27 percent. In that same time, the U.S. divorce rate fell 6 percent and the Florida divorce rate dropped 10 percent.
In 2015, Duval County had a divorce rate of 4.1 per 1,000 people, higher than Florida’s 4.0 and the U.S.’s 3.1 percent. In 2017, the Jacksonville rate had fallen to 3 per 1,000, below Florida’s 3.6 and roughly equal to the national rate of 2.9 per 1,000 people.
Divorce rates have been falling across the country, driven in part by the trend of millennials refusing to get married in the first place. Yet even the “refined divorce rate” — the number of divorces per 1,000 married people, as opposed to the number of divorces per 1,000 inhabitants — also fell. This rate dropped from 12 in 2015 to 8.41 in 2017 — a 30 percent decline. The study compared this drop to the data for 29 other large, comparable counties, and only one of them — Erie County, N.Y. — had a larger divorce decline.
“Faith and family tend to be mutually reinforcing,” De Gance said. “Married couples are more likely to attend church; and churchgoers are more likely to form and maintain healthy marriages.”
COFI worked closely with LTL and its chairman, Dennis Stoica. Churches are uniquely positioned to provide all three components that Stoica believes are necessary for marital stability: A vision for a marriage — such as the idea of a covenant or sacrament through which spouses experience the love of God; support from small group ministries, Bible study classes, and various social gatherings; and skills taught and modeled in both formal instruction and informal interactions.
Ads promoting the idea that “marriage matters” helped change the culture of Jacksonville.
“We wanted to ‘normalize’ the idea that people should invest in their marriage at any and every stage of their relationship,” Stoica writes in the report. “So, we continually told couples that it’s never too early and never too late to take part in a marriage enrichment program.”
Thanks to LTL’s efforts with COFI in Jacksonville, Tommy Davis went from the brink of divorce to a reinvigorated marriage to his wife Sondra.
“I’m 1 percent in and 99 percent out,” Davis told Dr. Richard Marks, an LTL counselor who had asked him how dedicated he was to his marriage. “I want you to give 100 percent of that 1 percent for two days, and after that, you can do whatever you want,” Marks replied.
Davis and his wife agreed to attend a HOPE weekend retreat. “That HOPE Weekend didn’t just save our marriage,” Sondra later said. “It changed our lives.”
According to Christianity Today, Communio is taking the program that worked in Jacksonville and bringing it to states like Montana and Texas.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.