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  • Churches were the heroes of Jacksonville, Florida, and the two biggest players in Duval County were the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Diocese. Tweet This
  • I think the preponderance of the evidence is really clear that the Culture of Freedom Initiative had a nice-sized impact in driving that divorce rate down in Jacksonville, Florida. Tweet This

In 2016, the Culture of Freedom Initiative, a project of the Philanthropy Roundtable, brought together local nonprofits and area churches to launch an aggressive, three-year campaign aimed at strengthening marriages in Jacksonville, Florida. As a new IFS report released today shows, divorce declined in Duval County during that time period by more than 20%—significantly more than the rest of Florida and similar counties across the nation. JP De Gance headed up the Jacksonville marriage campaign, and he is now the president and CEO of a new faith-based nonprofit, Communio, whose goal “is to empower churches to become community change agents that can strengthen marriages and families at scale.” De Gance spoke to IFS about Communio and what made the Culture of Freedom Initiative in Jacksonville so successful. 

Alysse ElHage: Tell us about Communio, a new nonprofit you started, which was formerly the Culture of Freedom Initiative. 

JP De Gance: The Culture of Freedom Initiative (COFI) is something I started as a project at the Philanthropy Roundtable, when I was the chief operating officer and then later the executive vice president there. And COFI’s purpose was to find replicable philanthropic strategies that could strengthen families, marriages, and faith. The idea was that most philanthropy is oriented towards ameliorating the problems that come from family breakdown and the collapse of religious communities. And our hypothesis was, well what if we got upstream of that and found ways to boost marriage and family stability and religious observance? And what if we could actually use your dollars more effectively in philanthropy by getting upstream of the problems before they manifest themselves in other ways? And we did this successfully in Jacksonville, Florida.

So Communio became the distillation of those things that worked well under the Culture of Freedom Initiative. And we pulled it into a tightly organized business model. And the way we describe Communio is that we’re a nonprofit that consults with churches to bring big data tools and relationship ministry best practices to strengthen marriages within a congregation. And then we use marriage and relationship ministry as a growth tool for a church to reach out to the community and improve the family stability of the community around the church. 

ElHage: As you said, the Culture of Freedom Initiative is really where Communio’s work began. You launched a three-year marriage enrichment campaign in Jacksonville, Florida (and the Duval County area) from 2016 to 2018, as well as in two other U.S. cities. Tell us about the purpose of these projects and how this campaign started.

De Gance: We originally launched the marriage campaign in Dayton, Ohio, Phoenix, Arizona, and Jacksonville, Florida. In Dayton, we couldn’t find a way to distribute our work at scale for a reasonable cost. So, we ended our work there at the end of 2016. And in Phoenix, where the population size was five times larger, we never hit the scale, and we lacked the narrow focus needed in programming to move the needle. So, we focused significant energy on the Jacksonville/Duval County area.  

In Duval County, there were different indices we wanted to move: increasing marriage, decreasing divorce, decreasing out-of-wedlock births, and increasing regular church attendance. And the Jacksonville program leaders, specifically Live the Life, said, let’s put all of our chips around lowering divorce; we know what to do there. So that's what we did.

Also, we did not start the whole initiative with the assumption that churches were the best and only vehicle to work with. We knew churches were going to be important. We thought that is what was missing from the federal marriage initiative, so we knew churches had to be a part of this. What we later realized is that churches are the best at strengthening marriages. And the reason, using secular social science arguments, is that churches are sticky in a way that nobody else is sticky. And when you show up to your local Boys and Girls Club, a secular NGO, there isn’t a deep membership who is passionate about forming personal relationships outside of the programs that exist there. But with churches, that’s a huge part of what they do. So, if you go to a ministry at a church, you’re going to meet somebody, and they might invite you over for dinner. You might be invited back to join one of their small groups. You might be invited back for a service. You’ve got a deep reservoir of your membership passionate about forming one-to-one, life-changing relationships, which produces the stickiness that churches have over other NGO’s. So, in Jacksonville, churches made the difference.

What we realized is that churches are the best at strengthening marriages. And the reason, using secular social science arguments, is that churches are sticky in a way that nobody else is sticky.

ElHageFrom the outset, you worked with both Catholic and Protestant churches in the Jacksonville area. How did you bring the religious community together around the issue of marriage, and how central were churches to the campaign’s success? 

De Gance: Churches were the heroes of Jacksonville, really. We had a phenomenal advisor in Dennis Stoica, chairman of Live the Life Florida. And he argued strategically from the onset that we should think of the religious marketplace strategically. And the two biggest players in the religious marketplace in Duval County were the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Diocese. And so, thanks to Dennis, our anchor partner hired a pastor from the Southern Baptist Convention and hired a Catholic married couple who was a well-known commodity in Catholic family life ministry. And what that did was, those three folks in those two religious communities had a lot of credibility, when they showed up to those specific churches and allowed for really rapid adoption of an in-church marriage ministry model. And one of the fruits of it was for the first time that anybody could remember, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine actually cosponsored in 2017 a major event on marriage. 

The other thing that I think was really important is there was a focus on professionalizing crisis intervention. So while the churches were running ongoing marriage enrichment, folks who have serious problems would surface at those events. They needed more help than you can get from say, a 10-week or a weekend enrichment activity. And so…folks who really had ongoing challenges would be directed into more intensive programs like Live the Life’s Hope Weekend for couples expressing the greatest level of marriage difficulty. We counted that in the first year at the end of 2016, half of the divorce rate drop could be entirely accounted for in the pre and post surveys of individuals who went through Hope Weekend—these couples went into the Hope Weekend saying they’re heading for divorce, and then after the weekend, saying their marriage was saved. 

ElHageIFS has a new report that examines the impact of the Jacksonville marriage campaign, and the fact that during the three-years that the COFI marriage campaign was operating, the divorce rate dropped significantly in the Jacksonville area. Tell us about that decline and why you believe it can be attributed to Communio’s efforts?   

De Gance: Divorce declined in Jacksonville by 24 percent. We obviously think it was directly attributable to our work. You’re talking about 58,912 individuals who went through a four-hour or longer programming in the market from 2016 to the end of 2018, of which close to 40,000 of it was direct led programs on marriage enrichment or marriage in crisis. By way of comparison, prior to starting our effort in Jacksonville, we baselined activity and counted just about 300 individuals completing any form of marriage enrichment in the county during all of 2015. 

When you talk about proof, I wouldn’t say we can prove that we did it like you can prove that gravity exists. But I think the preponderance of the evidence is really clear that we had a nice-sized impact in driving that divorce rate down in Jacksonville, and we are taking the success of the Jacksonville model and launching new community-wide marriage initiatives in three more cities this year. 

ElHageIn addition to the importance of churches to the campaign, what were some of the key reasons this initiative worked to strengthen marriages in Duval County?  

De Gance: First, we illustrated to churches that this is a gap in ministry, and that they need to fill that gap, and that we can resource them on how to do it. The data helped with that because we can actually show a church that there are thousands of people in Duval County who fit a high predictive score for divorce. So, the micro-targeted data actually was also used diagnostically to motivate action on the part of churches. 

The second factor is the actual use of this new marketing technology on behalf of a ministry and the digital campaign we launched, including a website. And I think that was a huge thing. Regarding the digital messaging we did, thanks to the creativity of Dennis Stoica and Live the Life, we had a website where all of the churches could promote their programs on the site. So you could basically post a local program at your church on some marriage enrichment. And then we would get eyeballs to it by spending dollars driving eyeballs to the site. We also sponsored billboards and radio advertising on both Christian and secular radio in the market. 

I think a third factor was freeing a church up to where the church can make the decision regarding marriage enrichment content and programming. Churches want to come to us and say, “okay, what would you recommend in terms of marriage education?” And so what we realized, through this experiment, is there was a gap in the marketplace of being an open-handed consultant to churches that didn’t monetize content, and that we could provide a real value by bringing big data tools to churches that they didn’t previously have access to, and combining it with an expertise that’s narrowly focused into relationship and marriage ministry. That didn’t exist. And as a consequence, what we’re finding is that it’s easier to get churches to adopt marriage interventions and new ministries when you’re not showing up first selling a content mousetrap.

Editor’s NoteLearn more about the Jacksonville marriage campaign and hear from JP De Gance, W. Bradford Wilcox, and others today at AEI’s launch of the IFS report, “Can We Strengthen Marriage? Lessons from the Culture of Freedom Initiative in Jacksonville, Florida.”