The Incredible Success Story Behind One County's Plummeting Divorce Rate Should Inspire Us All | Opinion

Anyone who's experienced divorce knows the tragic consequences. It's hard on the adults, the kids and anyone else connected to it. In an age where common ground is hard to find, there's been widespread agreement in academic and political circles about the importance of family stability in the lives of children and communities across the country. Yet there's also been a real sense of fatalism about our ability to do anything about it. Changing something as important as divorce rates has seemed about as possible as changing the weather to many experts and social scientists.

Then one man on a mission—along with a team of marriage experts and philanthropists—took a run at the problem, deploying diagnostics and old-school social capital to drive some stunning results in a two-year test program.

Divorce rates in Duval County, Florida—which includes the fourth-biggest city in the state, Jacksonville—experienced a stunning 28 percent plunge between 2015 and 2017, according to the Philanthropy Roundtable, the program's initial sponsor.

That's a number that should have prompted headlines nationwide, it's so big. And it's a story communities across the country should be studying, it's so important.

There was even more positive news if you care about God and faith in America:

Two prominent experts in the field of family and marriage—W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and Spencer James, an assistant professor for the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University—studied the work being done in Jacksonville and noted that churches played a pivotal role in driving those divorce numbers down in Duval County.

How did it happen? To understand the answer to that question, it's important to understand the man behind this marriage mission: J.P. De Gance, who spearheaded the initiative during his time as executive vice president of the Philanthropy Roundtable. He is now CEO of Communio, a nonprofit tasked with expanding the program in Jacksonville to more cities and churches across the country.

De Gance will tell anyone he knows that the best thing that ever happened to him was meeting his bride, Christina, back in 2001 at the University of Florida. Both were committed Catholics and met at a post-evening mass dinner with mutual friends the day after their second favorite weekend activity: a home Gator football game. It was love at first sight, and the two married not long after they graduated from college.

"Like many kids out of college, I wanted to improve the country, so I came to D.C. to work in public policy," De Gance told me. "I was focused on what was going on during the 2008 political cycle. We had three kids less than five years into our marriage—a 3½-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old—when we got a phone call that changed our life." De Gance learned that his older sister had some problems she couldn't cope with alone, and she needed help with her four children.

"We said yes thinking this was a short-term situation," De Gance said. It didn't take long for the young married couple to realize the situation would not be temporary.

"I wish I could tell you that I didn't hesitate, but I did," De Gance confessed. "I didn't think we could manage to handle the special challenges of raising four more kids who lost the day-to-day presence of their parents, while we were 28 years old and trying to figure out being parents to our three little kids."

But De Gance's bride did not hesitate. "She said God put these kids in our life for a reason, and it was our calling to step up."

Not long after, De Gance's own faith was put to the test by a close friend who had been an evangelical pastor for many years. "He could tell I was wavering and trying to talk myself into sending the kids away," De Gance said. "He looked me in the eyes with his characteristic intensity and said, 'J.P., you know you are the only chance these kids have.' And then he paused, 'God wants you to do this.' I wanted to say no. But it seemed God had other plans."

The couple didn't have family living nearby, but their church filled the gaps. "We had a great church family," De Gance said. "Friends who were further along in their marriage with older kids took us under their wings. We sought out advice, friends gave us furniture and clothes, and they welcomed our nieces and nephews into clubs and activities in the parish. We needed our parish to help us through it all."

De Gance wasn't finished. "Today, my sister is doing phenomenal," he beamed. "I love her, and I'm incredibly proud of her."

It was that experience that drove De Gance to change his life's work. "God used this personal journey to open my heart and mind to making a major vocational change," he explained. "When you scratch beneath the headlines and 24-hour cable news cycle, it's clear that what truly ails our nation requires work that goes far beyond politics."

De Gance landed at the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of philanthropists and foundations interested in strengthening America's free and civil society. Beginning in 2014, he organized what would become the nation's largest privately funded marriage-strengthening project ever deployed at a city level.

"Instead of just sitting back and cursing the darkness, we wanted to find real solutions," De Gance said. "We raised more than $20 million in risk capital to run pilot projects from 2016 to 2018 in three different metro areas, with churches at the center of the solution."

Placing an emphasis on churches really made the difference, De Gance said. There were some hits and misses along the testing road, but De Gance discovered that churches are best situated to become the catalyst for a healthy marriage culture because they can do what the government can never do: They can love.

"Love and mission allow churches to tap into a network of volunteers and existing staff to run and deliver programs," De Gance explained in a recent opinion piece for the Washington Examiner.

But love alone wasn't the driver of success in Jacksonville. It turns out some modern marketing methodologies were deployed to bring local residents to church that otherwise might not have attended. De Gance and his team developed a predictive model to help identify individuals most likely to divorce in the area. Churches then determined what activities were most useful within their sphere of influence—say, a 5-mile radius—and they then micro-targeted those individuals for direct mail, online advertising or social media outreach.

Man and woman holding hands
An elderly man and woman hold hands as they walk into the Mediterranean Sea in the French riviera city of Nice on October 26, 2016. VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty

"Targeted couples had a high propensity both to get divorced and to accept an invitation to attend an event at a church, even though they were not members," Seth Kaplan, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a piece in National Affairs about De Gance's work in Jacksonville.

Churches that participated reported a stunning increase in church attendance as a result of De Gance's work—between 25 and 30 percent, according to Kaplan. "Given that attending church regularly significantly increases the chance that someone will get and stay married, such figures are likely to have a positive impact on other indicators over time," he wrote.

Micro-targeted marketing and big data analytics have long existed in the commercial and political world, De Gance noted. "But in a lot of ways, the faith sector was still living, technologically at least, in the 1990s," he said.

But it wasn't data and marketing alone that drove the big change in the divorce rate in Jacksonville. The efforts of a local mobilizer, Live the Life, a Florida nonprofit dedicated to strengthening family life, played a crucial role as mobilizer, consultant, content provider and coordinator.

"We have rarely seen changes of this size in family trends over such a short period of time," Wilcox and James noted in their study, which was funded by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

The results of this test program should be big national news. And there is a whole lot of opportunity for De Gance to turn even more churches into agents of change for families and communities across the nation.

"Eighty percent of evangelical churches, 82 percent of Catholic parishes and 94 percent of mainline churches report spending zero percent of their budgets on marriage ministry," De Gance told me.

Which means the opportunities for churches to have more impact on the divorce and marriage front is endless. And an opportunity for churches to grow as they prove their relevance in the struggles of families in their community. And prove that they can indeed be key players in solving one of the most vexing social problems in America: the disintegration of the family.

De Gance's team at Communio is hard at work taking the lessons learned in Jacksonville to three more cities this year, three more in 2020 and, eventually, cities across America.

"Too often, successes are hidden under bushel baskets and local leaders are forced to reinvent the wheel over and over," De Gance said. "Our organization is dedicated to making sure that doesn't happen."

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

The Incredible Success Story Behind One County's Plummeting Divorce Rate Should Inspire Us All | Opinion | Opinion