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Okla. religious officials endorse marriage covenant

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–In a step aimed at preparing couples for marriage, strengthening those unions and reducing the state’s soaring divorce rate, representatives of several religions gathered with Gov. Frank Keating and his wife, Cathy, at the Oklahoma State Capitol Feb. 14 to sign pledges to work toward that end.

By signing the Oklahoma Marriage Covenant, participants promised “to God, to my family and my community to encourage couples to remain steadfast in unconditional love, reconciliation and sexual purity, while purposefully growing in their covenant marriage relationship.”

Anthony Jordan, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma executive director-treasurer who serves as chairman of the faith sector for the Governor and First Lady’s Marriage Initiative, led the way at the ceremony in the Blue Room by signing the document first. Representatives of other Protestant denominations, the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Temple B’Nai Israel and the Islamic Society of Tulsa then added their signatures.

“We could not be more pleased that Gov. and Mrs. Keating have created a climate for Oklahomans to join together in reducing the divorce rate in Oklahoma by one-third by 2010,” Jordan said at a news conference held in conjunction with the event. “Since 75 percent of all first marriages are performed by faith leaders, it is appropriate that we step to the forefront in combating the epidemic of divorce in our state.”

The covenant outlines specific minimum requirements for faith leaders who work with couples seeking marriage. “Our goal is to encourage faith leaders across our state to sign the covenant; therefore, at least these minimum requirements will be practiced in each of our communities,” Jordan said. “We hope to bring faith leaders together in giving a united front in requiring and providing adequate preparation for marriage, regardless of religious affiliation.”

The minimum requirements call for faith leaders to ask the following of couples in advance of their wedding: a preparation period of four to six months, four to six marital preparation sessions and using the preparation period to strengthen the couple’s spiritual formation. The covenant also asks the faith leader to encourage the training of mentoring couples to assist young couples during the crucial first years of marriage.

“In communities across America, there have been notable examples of divorce rates being dramatically impacted when faith leaders give a united effort in preparing couples for marriage,” Jordan said. “We see this as a first step in confronting the issue of divorce. It will certainly require greater efforts by the faith community to provide continuing opportunities for strengthening existing marriages as well. Indeed, each sector of our community must give its best in undergirding marriage and family life.”

Jordan cautioned the faith leaders present not to be content with just signing the pledge themselves, but challenged them to go back to their communities and encourage other leaders in their faith to sign the covenant as well.

As for Oklahoma Southern Baptists, Jordan said the new initiative will be driven by directors of missions in the state’s associations.

The Oklahoma marriage initiative was launched by the Keatings in March 1999, enlisting the help of church and community leaders in a coordinated effort to strengthen marriages and reduce divorce in Oklahoma.

“Cathy and I have been blessed to have been married for more than 27 years. For us to be a stronger society, we need to emphasize the survival of the marriage contract,” Keating said. “We need to emphasize the preparation for marriage … that young people can accept the responsibilities of marriage and family with maturity.

“This is something that requires all of us as Oklahomans to address. So, it was with pride and commitment that I declared Feb. 13, 2000, ‘Sanctity of Marriage Day’ in Oklahoma.”

“I think it’s very appropriate that we have gathered here on Valentine’s Day for this occasion,” Cathy Keating added. “It’s gratifying that so many religious leaders representing a spectrum of faiths have come together to do their part for the marriage initiative. It’s vital that religious leaders in our state emphasize how important it is for marriages to endure. Oklahomans need to approach marriage as a lifelong commitment.

“As more and more ministers sign this covenant, Oklahomans contemplating marriage can be assured that they will receive premarital preparation to gain a richer understanding of all that marriage involves,” Cathy Keating said.

In addition to Jordan, faith leaders signing the covenant included Ted Kersh, pastor of Village Baptist Church, Oklahoma City; David Packman, rabbi Temple B’Nai Israel; James Kastner, vicar general of the Diocese of Oklahoma City; Gary Bender, pastor, Lawton Bethlehem Church; David Melbourne, district Youth Alive coordinator for the Oklahoma Assemblies of God; Don Hebbard of the Institute for Marriage & Family at Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond; Steve Green, First Nazarene Church of Oklahoma City; Bishop Carlton Pierson, senior pastor, Higher Dimensions Interdenominational Church; Sandra Rana, Islamic Society of Tulsa; and Ken Gardner, pastor, Corn Mennonite Brethren Church.

Nationally, there were about 4.2 divorces per 1,000 people in 1998, according to federal figures. Aside from Nevada, where quick divorces are easily obtainable, no other region of the United States has a higher divorce rate than the Bible Belt. The rate was 8.5 per 1,000 people in Nevada, 6.4 in Tennessee, 6.1 in Arkansas and 6.0 in Oklahoma and Alabama. By contrast, the rate was less than 3.0 per 1,000 people in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.

Jordan has bemoaned the fact that the highest divorce rates are in states in which Baptists have a great presence. He has pledged to work with Kent Choate, BGCO family ministries specialist, to “drive down the number of divorces in our state. The devastation and destruction left in the wake of divorce is mind-boggling.”

“It is time to declare war on divorce,” Jordan wrote in his weekly column in the Baptist Messenger last July. “We do not accomplish this by ostracizing and condemning those who have gone through the trauma of a failed marriage. We do so by becoming proactive at the beginning of the marriage.

“Pastors and churches must help couples have a wedding, but more importantly, build a strong foundation for a marriage. Remember, after a wedding comes a marriage.”

Choate has coordinated several marriage ministry training workshops in the state through a partnership with Intimate Life Ministries in Austin, Texas. As a result, more than 60 couples are trained to be leaders of an ongoing marriage ministry in their churches.

Also, more than 100 leaders in Oklahoma last year were trained to use Prepare/Enrich, a premarital and post-marital counseling tool.

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  • Bob Nigh