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Nonprofit combines deep ministry knowledge with “big data” to strengthen marriages, with incredible results


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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 10/22/20

Communio's intervention reduced the divorce rate in one city by 24%. What's their secret?

When you stop to really think about it, the amount of information that corporations have about us is almost unbelievable. If you mention a product you’re considering buying, ads for it start to pop up on all your devices. Companies resell and package our consumer spending habits to marketing and analytic shops. Political data analysts can predict who you will vote for, pretty accurately, based on the information about you available online.

Not only does “big data” know most people’s names, phone numbers, birthdays, and home addresses, but companies can also access information about income levels, relationship status, internet search history, and purchase history, among many other personal details. Thousands of organizations use this information to market their products more effectively, with no goal beyond getting you to spend your hard-earned cash.

But what if this information could be used for a better purpose? What if churches could use the available data to understand deeply the needs and concerns of their parishioners, and tailor their ministries accordingly? What if 21st-century tools of analysis and marketing could enable Christians to reach those in need, bringing them help and a supportive community?

That’s the vision behind Communio, a consulting nonprofit that uses the most up-to-date tools and strategies to solve human beings’ oldest longings: for God and for authentic, loving relationships. Communio focuses on marriages in particular, equipping churches with “data insights and ministry best practices” in order to “foster healthier relationships for singles, those preparing for marriage, married couples, and those in marital crisis.” (The organization uses data insights reported only in the aggregate, along with de-identified data, to help churches diagnose ministry opportunities in their community and inform their outreach.)

The organization has seen incredible results in only a few years since its founding. An 18-month test with 33 churches produced a 23% boost in membership and 28% increase in giving. On top of that, “over a three-year span, we reduced the divorce rate by 24% in Jacksonville, Florida,” said J.P. De Gance, Communio’s founder and president, in an interview with Aleteia. Independent scholars examined Communio’s intervention and described their process.

Communio doesn’t look on the surface the way you might expect of a marriage ministry. The organization doesn’t offer marriage classes or books itself. Instead, it helps local churches learn and understand the needs of their unique communities. “We function the way a campaign consultant might work with a local candidate,” De Gance said.

The political comparison is no coincidence: De Gance worked in policy before transitioning to this new ministry. “I came to D.C. to try and save the country through public policy,” he said, “but so much that’s going wrong in our country is far outside legal structure. And at the heart of that is the collapse of marriage and the family. I wanted to apply what I learned in the public policy world, and sanctify and adapt it for service and ministry to the Church.”

Why focus on relationships especially? Because they affect so many other things. “The single most important mission for the Church in the 21st century is a renewal of the Sacrament of Marriage,” said De Gance. So much of what the culture prioritizes “completely runs against what will make for happy and thriving men and women, marriages and families. The Church is uniquely situated to bring change here.”

De Gance explained that successful marriages strengthen a church community, and vice versa. “The collapse of religion needs to be understood as a collapse of marriage,” he said. He explained that young adults from married homes are 78% more likely to attend church than peers from unmarried homes. “It’s critical for churches to focus on strengthening marriages if they’re going to be successful in spreading the Gospel.”


Read more:
What if marriage prep included the first 10 years of married life?

The question of how to help marriages thrive became personal for De Gance 13 years ago, when his sister’s marriage was failing, so she asked De Gance and his wife to take in her four children: “My wife and I saw up close and personal what happens when kids lose a mom and dad, and the wounds that exist.”

Since that time, De Gance has been making good on his word to strengthen marriages all over the country. Communio’s success in Jacksonville was part of a coordinated pilot program in three cities, to figure out what strategies are most effective. “We found out a lot of things that don’t work,” he said candidly. “We did market research and message testing, and leveraged consumer product ‘big data’ tools to model and understand who was at risk in a city. The goal was to help churches impact marriages in the community.”

Communio achieves this goal by offering a full-service consultancy that supports churches in offering what they call a “data-informed, Full-Circle Relationship Ministry™,” which means helping churches provide “vision, skills, and community to individuals at each stage of a relationship – leveraging 21st century tools of predictive analytics and microtargeting to reach out to those in your community most likely in need of help.” Then Communio helps churches choose relationship ministry resources that are the right fit for their parishioners’ needs. De Gance said,

We work with more than 35 content providers to help parishes find the tools that are best for them. Access to excellent content isn’t really a problem; there’s amazing content that exists. The question is how do you get it in the hands of the folks who most need it. We help churches find a way to reach the people on the margins or peripheries, both in the parish and in the surrounding community. We help churches make relationship ministry normative for everyone in their church, and even go beyond the membership of the parish and attract people into the life of the church through relationship ministry.

Offering resources at every stage of the relationship is a critical part of Communio’s strategy. Unfortunately, there’s a widespread perception that relationship ministry is “exclusively for people who have problems,” and that’s “the single biggest barrier for a church to be effective” in strengthening families, De Gance said.  “There is a perception that doing something intentional for your marriage is signaling to other people that you are having problems. If you can’t deal with that perception, you can’t effectively reach people.”

While social media pressures couples to project a flawless image, almost one-quarter of married, active churchgoers self-report as struggling in their marriages. “Churches need to communicate that marriage ministry is for everyone,” De Gance said. He also emphasized that churches can do a lot preventatively, such as establishing a singles ministry that supports healthy dating habits and prudent discernment of marriage, guiding engaged couples in learning communication and conflict resolution skills, and offering support and ongoing formation for newlyweds navigating the early years of marriage.

It seems all very well to talk about the need for ongoing and excellent relationship ministry, but what can be done during a pandemic, with so many churchgoers under quarantine? “Some think you have to wait for life to return to normal before ministering to couples, but I couldn’t disagree more with that,” De Gance said. Right now, when pandemic stressors are hurting marriages, is when ministry intervention is most needed.

De Gance encouraged Church leaders to think creatively about how to help marriages during this time. He cited the example of a church that planned an outdoor, socially distanced date night for couples. Other resources include Communio’s at-home date night kits and an online video series promoted by the USCCB.

Communio is currently undertaking four city-wide initiatives, in Billings, Montana; Midland and Odessa, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; and Denver, Colorado. Church administrators and pastors can contact the organization for a free consultation.

Read more:
The Ministry That’s Saving the Most Troubled Catholic Marriages

One quick, easy, and free way to care for your marriage is simply to pray for it, and for your spouse! For inspiration, turn to these 9 saintly couples for intercession in strengthening your marriage.

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