J.P. De Gance, Founder and President of Communio, an organization that works to equip communities and churches to strengthen marriages, families, and faith speaks with NC Family Communications Director Traci DeVette Griggs about how Communio operates and what they are uniquely doing to strengthen marriages and limit divorces.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. While it may not be apparent on the face of it, we all benefit when marriage as an institution is strong, and we all pay the price when this institution begins to falter. According to research, married people live longer, report higher levels of overall satisfaction, better overall mental health, their children do better in school, and the list goes on and on. Good marriages make strong communities, so when marriages break down, the logic would follow, so do our communities. Our guest today is a man who decided he wanted to do something tangible and effective to make a difference for the families and communities that are being devastated by divorce. In 2014, JP De Gance, along with a team of marriage experts and philanthropists, launched the nation’s largest privately funded marriage strengthening program in Duval County, Florida. The program’s combination of modern diagnostic and marketing strategies helped the county’s divorce rate plummet 28 percent in just two years.
JP joins us today to talk about how they did that and what lessons they’ve learned. JP De Gance, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
JP DE GANCE: Well thank you so much for having me, excited to be here.
TRACI GRIGGS: First of all, the issue of divorce and healthy marriages is huge and perhaps overwhelming for anyone who might feel called to help in that arena. So what made you think you might actually be able to make a difference in the high divorce rate in your own community?
JP DE GANCE: My background was in public policy and working in campaigns. In so many ways, I started to see that the things that I was trying to fix in the public policy process were really so much driven by the breakdown of the family and the breakdown of marriage. I really looked around and didn’t see the kind of strategy that is put into winning say a campaign, or a ballot initiative or a fight in the state capitol. I just didn’t see the same strategy and discipline going into working in the cultural space of trying to strengthen marriages and families. And I got really interested in that in 2013. On a personal level, it became really important to me as in my family there were some challenges that one of my siblings was experiencing. My wife and I were asked to take in four of my sibling’s kids. We did, and it was through that that I started, on a personal level, to experience what really happens when kids lose the day-to-day presence of their mom and dad. And I really became passionate about trying to do something about it in a more businesslike and more deliberate, strategic way.
TRACI GRIGGS: I know that the federal government has been taking on this project for the past decade or so and that has been met with very limited success. Why is it that the current approaches to strengthening marriages and limiting divorces are not working?
JP DE GANCE: The big reason that we’ve concluded is that the feds lack the ability to really love, and churches are uniquely able to love. Now, when you jump into a lot of the advantages that churches have over federal programs: federal programs frequently have to be run by some sort of secularly branded, local, community-based marriage nonprofit, or at least they have to advertise themselves in some way and the programs had to be delivered in some way that’s absent church. The challenge of that is you frequently lose access to volunteers to deliver, and then you frequently lose distribution channels that churches have advantages in accessing. Essentially, at what point do people go to an organization they have never heard of to get help they don’t know that they need? And that really sums up the challenge that the feds have, and why their cost to serve in the federal marriage program is north of $5,000 a person. And we were able to get folks through programs in Duval at under $45 a person.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, so tell us what you’re doing. You’ve already explained that you guys love, and of course the church can love, so what else though? What do you do differently?
JP DE GANCE: A few different ways. One is starting with a diagnostic, right? When you sit down with a pastor, we’ve developed predictive analytics tools that help a church diagnose what’s going on in the congregation and the community around them. So for instance, predictive analytics firms have for years created models for things like, understanding a swing voter or a super voter for a particular candidate. We asked the data scientists to create models that were actually more useful for ministry. So, a model that would be highly predictive of whether or not someone would get divorced was one of the models we had created. And then being able to sit down and help a pastor understand how many of those folks live within a five-mile radius of their campus. All of a sudden that becomes far more deeply personal to the pastor than the abstract understanding that marriage is important. We all know it’s important. It becomes real and tangible when you know that 5,212 individuals within a five-mile radius have a high predictive score for having a marriage in need, and have kids under the age of 10. All of a sudden that’s real and tangible. And knowing how many of those folks might be in their congregation as in sort of an aggregate, that’s incredibly important.
And then being able to help a church reach out, developing a ministry game plan to serve those folks, and then take the next step of being able to use these 21st century tools to run a digital outreach campaign to invite them in to something that’s going on at that church. So now we’re helping that church provide direct value to folks who need it in terms of helping their marriage.
TRACI GRIGGS: So let’s unpack this a little bit. You said there’s a model that can actually predict who is likely to get a divorce. Can you give us some specifics as to what that is?
JP DE GANCE: Yeah, the term “predictive analytics” is frequently misunderstood. This is not Minority Report. It’s predictive, not determinative. And so in the case of marriage, we acquired a list of 40,000 folks who had recently been divorced in the last 12 months. Then the way modeling works is you scoop up the broad consumer products data on folks, and then looked at the married people and say, “Hey, who looks like the folks who had gotten divorced in the last year?” That forms the model that’s then applied to the population, and those who fit with an 80 percent or higher match-rate to that model fit into the score for a marriage in need. And it’s sort of the same process that’s used over and over again by a business, politics, and a number of industries.
TRACI GRIGGS: So then once you identify the number of people that may be in a community that are vulnerable to divorce, then what? So how do you know even what to do to intervene?
JP DE GANCE: Yeah, well, I can tell you we’ve paid a lot of dumb taxes trying to answer that question. One of the ways that we thought you’d do it—and this is not the way to do it—we thought, let’s just help a church start a marriage program, seven-week, 10-week class, and let’s tell these people about it and invite them in. Folks who are listening probably understand why that wouldn’t work. The biggest reason it wouldn’t work is there was no relationship between those people and the church, and a 10-week program is a high barrier of entry. Or a full weekend retreat is a high barrier of entry. So what we began to do is help churches architect ongoing ministry strategy that draws those folks in. Something fun that might be happening that we would help the church organize: a date night event bringing in a Christian comedian where you leave and you feel really good about marriage, and inexpensive or free childcare is provided to parents with kids. That’s a big deal! When you have kids under the age of 11, getting a babysitter can be expensive in a lot of markets. So a church thinking through an offer to invite folks out where they can have a good night together, and then you don’t think of that event as a one-off event. Too many times churches think of that as an annual activity, or a once and done activity. We work with that church to think of it in terms of the launch-point for a continuum of ministry. There was a Lutheran church in Arizona we worked with that used these events three times a year. They would draw these folks in who were at-risk in the community, and then they would also market it to their church membership. Then at those three-time-a-year events, you are told, “You know what, we do this every month, we’re having a fun date night next month, come and join us next month.” And they wouldn’t have to spend as much money at those follow-up repeat events in terms of the marketing and outreach. And it was at those repeat monthly events that they were invited in to take a next step, which was join a life group where they would actually go through skills-based marriage content to improve their relationships. So if you think of each of those steps as: the first step is getting their foot in the door and meeting people and finding out that the folks in the church are actually fun and great people to meet; and then the next step is that monthly step; then that next step was the skills-based ongoing programming. Then at that stage, if you’ve taken those three steps, it’s a short putt to becoming a member of that church. So those churches saw growth as a result. That Lutheran church became the fastest growing Lutheran church in the country, grown by 21 percent over two years.
TRACI GRIGGS: That is really interesting. So you’re reinforcing a really good thing in the community, and you’re also doing what you’re supposed to do as a church and inviting people in and evangelizing. So talk a little more, you’ve gotten into some of what’s in the ministry and the outreach. Talk a little bit more about the content of the programs.
JP DE GANCE: The key part of the content is it has to be skills-based. So oftentimes a church might think, “Well, we’ll have a sermon on it,” or “We talk about it,” or “We’ll come in and someone will hear a talk.” Well, a talk is a little bit like showing up and watching Wimbledon: it’s not going to necessarily make you a better tennis player. Talk is not going to necessarily make you a better spouse. And so a core element of content should be that it’s skills-based. There’s other key ingredients of content: it should certainly help with developing communication skills; shared and mutual expectations of a lifelong marriage are really important that the content helps to establish; and conflict resolution is another one. And there’re obviously a few other key factors, but those are just some of them in the content.
But we’ve learned, Communio does not author or create content. We didn’t think that was where we needed to add value. A lot of times the best content sits on all of our bookshelves not being consumed. And what we realized where we could add a lot of value, is serving churches with insights on what’s going on in their congregation, and then a ministry game plan to leverage those insights to reach new people and strengthen marriages. Then we consult with a church to figure out what’s the right content for them. We work now with 27 different publishers and use content for singles that orients itself towards healthy dating and relationship habits, for marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, and of course, marriage and crisis. We did a survey with the Barna Group, and 94 percent of pastors reported on that survey that they do counseling for couples in crisis. But 57 percent of them said that they feel either unqualified, or only somewhat qualified, to do so. So we know in each of the areas of marriage ministry, there’s a big gap for the church.
TRACI GRIGGS: Talk a little bit more about that gap. What do you mean, what kind of gap?
JP DE GANCE: I’m glad you asked that. We really want to try to understand it because sometimes people will say, “My church does that really well,” and there’s a thought that that’s the case. Certainly there are individual churches that do, but on the whole, what we found in the study that we commissioned with Barna was that 72 percent of churches lacked a substantive marriage ministry. 80 percent of Evangelical churches, 82 percent of Catholic parishes and 94 percent of mainline churches, reported spending zero dollars on marriage ministry. But in that same group of Churches overall, 94 percent of them reported having ongoing youth ministry, and 77 percent of them reported paying someone to run the youth ministry. That model might have worked decades ago when the culture was more supportive and reinforcing of the vocation of marriage. But that’s no longer the case. And I think we can no longer assume that couples know how to actualize a healthy relationship and live the biblical principles of marriage.
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