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Baptists applaud Okla. governor in expanding fight against divorce

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating — long a proponent of reducing the state’s divorce rate, which is the second highest in the nation — asked the Oklahoma Department of Human Resources board of directors March 21 to set aside $10 million in federal TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds to help fight the battle against broken families.

TANF funds are federal block grant funds provided to each state, and marriage is a key component of three of the four goals for that funding, according to a press release from the Governor & First Lady’s Marriage Initiative office.

The Keatings established the marriage initiative last year, drawing together leaders from seven sectors — faith, business, education, service, government, legal and media — to lead the campaign.

Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, heads the faith sector. Jordan led the way when representatives of various faiths gathered at the state capitol Feb. 14 to sign the Oklahoma Marriage Covenant, which calls for premarital counseling to be given to all couples planning to wed.

“No matter what political background one has, there ought to be genuine rejoicing and thanksgiving for a governor who will stand up and put his money where his mouth is,” Jordan said upon learning of Keating’s request for funding. “I think the faith sector should, and will, applaud Gov. Keating for his action.

“This will allow us to make a frontal assault on the divorce issue in Oklahoma,” Jordan continued. “It will intersect the faith community by providing opportunities for the training of mentoring couples and for using the tools that are available to train people to use instruments which will help them discover their compatibility in marriage.”

The church is “the most responsible segment of society when it comes to marriage,” Jordan said, “and whether the money is there or not, the church must rise up and attack the issue of divorce by providing positive examples, by providing better premarital counseling and by providing ongoing marriage enrichment opportunities.”

“As Baptists, we’re going to lead the way in doing that,” Jordan emphasized, noting that the BGCO has a family ministries specialist on its staff. “[A]nd that’s why we are leading the way in the Oklahoma Marriage Covenant for pastors,” Jordan said. “All of that is to help us impact the institution of marriage in a positive way.

“But, when all is said and done, we really ought to be on our faces before God, because all of the secular things we do cannot make up for the lack of spiritual development in marriage and families. That’s why the church has to take such a responsible position on this issue.”

Kent Choate, the BGCO family ministries specialist, whose sole duty is to strengthen marriages and families, said the TANF funds should provide significant opportunities for Oklahoma Baptists to “take part in something that is on the cutting edge in the nation. No other state is doing this. The Oklahoma marriage initiative could be a model for how other states attack their own divorce rates.”

In 1999, Choate helped train more than 100 ministers, staff and counselors at “Prepare/Enrich” seminars to aid those who do marriage counseling. Seminar attendees learned how to administer the Prepare/Enrich inventory, a scientifically developed 165-item questionnaire which assesses relationship strength and growth areas in 15 categories for either premarital or married couples.

Additional Prepare/Enrich seminars this spring will train about 50 more people, Choate said.

The other crucial aspect of improving the quality of marriages — mentoring — has yet to be addressed, but the approval of TANF funds will accelerate that possibility, Choate said.

“We haven’t yet trained any mentors — those older couples who will take a newlywed couple under their wings. That’s another piece of the puzzle,” Choate said. “Up until now, we have been trying to help couples on the front end of marriage through extensive counseling before the bride walks down the aisle.
“It’s exciting, now that the governor has asked for this funding, to see the counseling aspect move to the forefront as well,” Choate said.

Jerry Regier, Oklahoma secretary for health and human services, has been charged with the task of developing and implementing an effective strategy to reduce the divorce rate in the state through the governor’s marriage initiative. Regier was in Washington March 21 to announce Keating’s funding request.

While in the nation’s capital, Regier called on other leaders to help reduce the divorce rate in their own states. “Setting a measurable goal is the first step in achieving your objective,” he said, “and those of us in Oklahoma who are seeing the good impact of our work challenge other states to join us by setting measurable goals for reducing the divorce rate by a set amount in a time certain.” He noted, “It’s difficult to reach an undefined goal.”

Keating, in both his inaugural address and state of the state address, laid out a goal for Oklahoma of reducing the state’s divorce rate by one-third by 2010.

“When we launched this initiative, frankly some people asked [my wife] Cathy and me what business the government has getting involved in marriage,” the governor said. “But, when you look at the consequences of divorce, the better question is, ‘What business do we have NOT getting involved?’

“Divorce has staggering negative effects, both economically and socially,” Keating added. “We cannot continue to ignore its impact. While we have turned our state’s focus and attention to reducing divorce, we must now add our resources and greater action.”

Pending approval of the governor’s request by the DHS board, Oklahoma officials will continue to finalize the state’s action plan. Major components of that plan include:

— A scholar in residence — national marriage expert — at Oklahoma State University.

— Ongoing activities to keep marriage/divorce on the public agenda.

— A marriage resource center.

Said Jordan, “I think one of the most fundamental things that has to return to the church is the standard of one man, one woman for life, and when troubles come, you don’t bail out. Unfortunately in the church today, there is a general feeling that, ‘Well, they’re having trouble,’ or ‘Well, they’re not happy, so the best thing is to get a divorce so they can be happy.’

“But, that goes against everything the Bible teaches,” Jordan said, “and it’s very clear, not only in Scripture but also in society in general, that divorce does not bring happiness … the church must stop looking at divorce as a solution.”

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  • Bob Nigh