JP De Gance, Founder and President of Communio, an organization that works to equip communities and churches to strengthen marriages, families, and faith continues his conversation with NC Family Communications Director Traci DeVette Griggs about Communio’s unique work to strengthen marriages and limit divorces.
TRACI GRIGGS: This week on Family Policy Matters NC Family brings you Part 2 of our 2-part show with J.P. De Gance, Founder and President of Communio, an organization that works to equip communities and churches to strengthen marriages, families, and faith.
Now you mentioned singleness, and I think you’ve said before that good marriages start when people are single. Talk about that a bit.
JP DE GANCE: “A great marriage begins many years before the wedding day,” is one of the things that we tell folks. Dr. Brad Wilcox’s research at the University of Virginia illustrates that, a lot of the decisions we’re making as single people—long before we ultimately find our spouse—are making it harder and harder for us to live a happy marital life. Seventy-five percent of Millennials still say they want to get married. So, twenty-five percent say they don’t want to, which is the highest number ever recorded. But still well over two-thirds/three-quarters of Millennials aspire to get married. So then there’s a nihilism around relationships. It’s important to know that the modal—which is a survey term that means the most frequently occurring within a series of options. So the modal occasion where a couple reports having sex for the first time is before a relationship begins. If that’s the case, what is the church doing to effectively step in there and help folks know that that’s going to make it more challenging for them? Now, we wrestled with this, because how do you do this effectively? There was a great church that we worked with in Florida: Celebration Church. It’s the largest church in Jacksonville, and they were wrestling with this with us. A pastor there named Wayne Lanier innovated because there’s a lot of actual content that’s off the shelf for singles—content on how to date somebody, how to have a good relationship—that is sound advice. Problem is nobody who is 23 years old wants to go to a class for seven weeks to learn to date somebody. So you’ve got a challenge with distribution of the content, even more so than marriage content. What Wayne did was take the core content, and turn it into essentially a 15-minute, 20-minute style TED Talk. Then, they had open table discussions where they had a facilitator at each table. The whole idea was to get young adults to engage in the ideas of sound, healthy dating habits in a Socratic way rather than a didactic way. He started to see that what was happening was folks were coming to the conclusions of, “Maybe we should stop cohabitating.” “Maybe we should stop living together.” “This isn’t the right way to go.”
But it wasn’t because they felt lectured to in a didactic sense; it’s because they were invited into a conversation where they came to those conclusions. We saw something there. That particular ministry was offered to the young adults of that church and it became the most popular program at the church. So now, we’re working to help churches understand that kind of model and replicate it, because we think really helping good sound conversations around this, is what will lead folks in a much healthier direction.
TRACI GRIGGS: There’s a lot of good stuff there that we could talk about. But let’s go on and talk a little bit about the success that you have had in Jacksonville. Of course you had the divorce rate in and around where you guys started these programs drop twenty-eight percent in two years. Were you surprised at that?
JP DE GANCE: Yeah, we didn’t think it would drop that quick, that fast. It settled at a twenty-four percent decline over three years, from 2016 to 2018. This is a county that’s historically the highest divorce-rate county in the state of Florida. It was rated by Men’s Health magazine to be the sixth worst city in America for marriage. You know, we didn’t think you would see that quick movement. But the thing about divorce, more so than other relationship decisions, is the inertia is in the favor of marriage. The challenge is the idea of hope. The idea that if you feel like you’re in a really bad marriage—and it’s a safe marriage—there can be a feeling of hopelessness. Just helping people know that there’s a way to be happy again in marriage has a huge impact, we think. A big part of what we did was really targeting folks with digital messages—about having a happy marriage and hope around marriage—to everybody who fit that predictive score for having a marriage in need. It was serving churches so that they could get widespread distribution of content. The biggest distribution mix was churches that were Southern Baptist churches and actually Catholic parishes, throughout the county. Those were the biggest mix.
TRACI GRIGGS: Wow, so the Southern Baptists and the Catholics partnered together?
JP DE GANCE: Yeah, they did, it was pretty amazing. In fact, it was first time that anyone could remember! The Southern Baptist Convention of Duval County, and the Diocese of St. Augustine—which is what Jacksonville is a part of—co-sponsored a big marriage event. I think it was Gary Thomas that came, if I’m not mistaken, to speak. It was well attended and most of the churches in those communities promoted the event. So it was pretty neat to see.
TRACI GRIGGS: During that time you were with Philanthropy Roundtable, and I believe they funded what they’re calling the Jacksonville Experiment. Now you’re trying to replicate those results in other communities, and you’re in it with a new organization. Tell us about that.
JP DE GANCE: So the Philanthropy Roundtable is a fabulous place and helped to get this whole initiative started. I was the Executive Vice President there. It was members, individual members of the round table—that’s the way it works. Individual members say, “This looks good, we’re going to help with this.” So a coalition of them contributed that $20 million of what I sometimes call “Risk Capital.” because we didn’t know what would move the needle. Tying to do this sort of intervention this quick hadn’t really been done, so we didn’t have a benchmark to work against. Then at the end of it, we realized there’s something here that was effective, and it was beyond the normal mission of the Roundtable. I had a great boss, a man named Adam Meyerson, who really encouraged me, and our work, and helped us spin-off. And we formed Communio. It was originally incorporated in 2017 and operated a lot of the projects of this experiment. Then it became fully separated from the Roundtable in December of 2018, and now the work has begun to replicate. I was just in Billings, Montana—the largest city in that tri-state area out there—and we will be launching a citywide project there. We can’t say the city, but there’ll be a city in Texas that we’re launching in very soon. Then we will also be launching a city in the mountain west; we’re at about fifty percent of the funding there. So we’ll be in all, before the end of the year, launching in three cities. Then individual congregations can actually reach out to us and say, “Look we don’t have the resources to do a full city-wide push, but we’d like to run with your model on our own congregation.” And we do have what we call our “Church Platform” subscription, where we can work directly with churches individually and help them go.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right, so if somebody does have the resources, or they think they could raise the resources for a citywide push, they would just get in touch with you, I’m assuming?
JP DE GANCE: Yeah, they could definitely do that, and I’ll sit down with them. Also sometimes we have funders who don’t have the resources to do it all on their own, but we’ll come in and work with them. They may have the networking where they can pull folks together, and we will do individual meetings and presentations to them. We’re actually getting started with one of the largest Evangelical churches in the state of Pennsylvania, a church of more than 20,000 weekly attendees. They’ve decided to bring us in. A historic Anglican church in northern Virginia that dates back to the time of our founding—a much smaller church—is bringing us in. So there are a variety of ways, both on the individual and the congregational level, and then certainly at the city level.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, before I let you go, I would love to just get a word from you on starting these kinds of initiatives. And I’m not necessarily talking about the marriage and the ministry that you’ve started. But just a word of encouragement that you might have for people out there. People who are listening to this podcast or radio show and think, “Gosh, I really have a heart for X, but I wouldn’t even know where to start. There’s no way that even if I did, I would be able to make even this kind of impact or even close to it.” What words of encouragement would you have for them?
JP DE GANCE: Well, there are a few different pieces of advice I would give. First, is really focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve. And not being afraid of the data, meaning don’t be afraid to try to produce real results and then measure yourself against it. Business guys understand that not all of their investments pay off. And a lot of times I think folks in ministry, either intentionally or unintentionally, shy away from producing or holding themselves accountable to results. So they’re seen frequently as good, earnest people that are trying to do good things, but they’re not seen frequently as sound investment areas by philanthropists. So that’s something I could go on and on about, but those are a couple key pieces of advice.
TRACI GRIGGS: So I guess if they don’t have some of the background that you have as far as analyzing some of this risk, they could find friends, they could pull in experts, they could do research at the library. There are a lot of ways to do that, I would assume?
JP DE GANCE: Sure, and I tell people these four core ingredients to any major successful campaign. I think the first ingredient is you’ve got to define a problem that is significant, which almost everybody can do. And then the second thing is you’ve got to define a solution that’s proportionate in some way to the problem. So in the case of marriage, that’s a big problem nationally, and that was one of the reasons we isolated down to specific metro areas to say, let’s see what we can do at a city level. If you can move it in the city, then you can go much more broadly. So then you have to have a solution that’s proportionate to the problem. And then you need to have a budget that’s proportionate to the solution, or it will lack the credibility to be able to execute it. And then the fourth piece is you really need the credibility to execute it and be seen as a safe vehicle. Now that can be that you have that credibility directly, or it can be that there’s folks that you’re working with that possess the credibility. And it can kind of rest on top of you, that their resume can rest on top of yours, so to speak. But those four ingredients really need to be there.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you. I’m sure there’s somebody out there that that is going to inspire, let’s just assume that that’s the case.
So JP De Gance, thank you so much for being with us. How can people learn more about Communio?
JP DE GANCE: They can go to our website communio.org. It’s the best place to find out about us.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Thanks for joining us on Family Policy Matters, and for your innovative work to make a transformational difference in the marriage culture.
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