For too many married couples in America, "I do" degenerates over time into "I did, but I wish I hadn't."
Many people and organizations have criticized the nation's high divorce rate for decades. But now churches are bringing a program tackling the issue to the central Kenai Peninsula.
On Sunday -- Palm Sunday -- about 30 churches will officially sign the Kenai Peninsula Marriage Savers Covenant during the community praise and prayer service at 6 p.m. at Kenai Central High School Auditorium.
"Frankly, it will help our community," said Chuck Thornton, the associate pastor at Peninsula Grace Brethren Church and the chair of the Marriage Savers steering committee.
The initiative, based on a program garnering praise in other parts of the country, will involve clergy and volunteer mentor couples working with other couples considering marriage, building lives together, weathering marital difficulties, considering divorce or starting blended families during a subsequent marriage.
"Our commitment is to help radically reduce the divorce rate among those married in our churches," reads the introduction to the covenant.
Thornton cited information the national Marriage Savers organization collected showing that 75 percent of marriages are performed within churches and that more than half of marriages end in divorce.
The organization's Web site quotes studies showing that about 60 percent of U.S. marriages eventually fail, and that the nation's divorce rate tripled between 1960 and 1980, then leveled off "mainly because the marriage rate has plummeted."
Thornton looked up data about Alaska. It showed that the number of marriages declined and the number of divorces rose between 1995 and 1998, the most recent year for which statistics were available. For 1998, there were 65 divorces for every 100 marriages in the state.
The decline in the number of marriages also showed up on the Kenai Peninsula records. Based on the state averages, Thornton estimated that about 300 couples per year divorce here.
Other pastors discussing the matter with him estimated that 50 to 60 percent of the people in their congregations have experienced divorce. Thornton has seen the pain divorce causes even among his own relatives.
"I have had a growing concern about this area," he said. "There must be something we can do around here."
He learned about the Marriage Savers from a friend who is a pastor in Modesto, Calif. That town was the first to adopt what organizers call a Community Marriage Policy, starting in 1986. Since then, the divorce rate in Modesto has declined more than 35 percent, he said.
"They saved an average of a thousand marriages a year," he said.
A Maryland Presbyterian couple named Harriet and Mike McManus gathered ideas from Modesto and other projects such as Marriage Encounter groups into a program they call Marriage Savers, which incorporated in 1997.
Thornton began researching the program last year and got the green light from his senior pastor to focus on it. In October, he presented the Marriage Savers concept to his church's elders and won their support. In November, he formally introduced it to other Protestant clergy on the central peninsula at a ministers' fellowship lunch.
Five other ministers have joined him on the steering committee: Paul Kupferschmid of the Kasilof Community Church, Stuart Churchill of the United Pentecostal Church, Stephen Brown of the New Life Assembly of God, Brad Cason of the North Kenai Chapel and Jim Duncan of the Soldotna First Assembly of God.
They plan to gear up the Marriage Savers program over the next year or so. It will integrate with and expand current projects such as retreats, premarital counseling and adult Sunday school classes relating to marriage.
"We've already been working on some facets of it," Thornton said of his own church.
He has been contacting area churches and estimated that about 30 are ready to sign on to the covenant. The plan is to expand the network to include other churches, non-Christian congregations and other parts of the peninsula, he said.
The pastors' covenant includes commitments to:
n Help couples prepare for lifelong marriage, not just plan a wedding;
n Help couples avoid divorce and, if it is unavoidable, to weather the experience;
n Set a four-month waiting period prior to a wedding, including at least four sessions of premarital counseling;
n Help troubled marriages and enrich new marriages through professional assistance;
n Encourage chastity outside marriage;
n Promote Biblical teachings on morality and marriage; and
n Encourage cooperation among churches and participating organizations.
After churches sign on, one of the first steps will be to recruit couples who have kept their families together through the years and challenges to serve as mentors to others. Thornton knows people in his own congregation who already volunteer to advise others.
"We've got some people who have walked through some deep waters helping younger couples along," he said.
He plans to attend a training session in Florida in June to help with the next phase.
Thornton stressed that Marriage Savers is flexible and allows each church to plan its own details.
"We are not forcing any church to do things a certain way," he said. "In no way are we asking any church to forgo its Biblical and theological commitments."
He also stressed that Marriage Savers is not limited to church-going Christians. He offered that anyone interested in either helping implement the program or benefiting from its services can call him at 262-6442.
"This is not just for church people," he said. "It's for people."
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