With marriage and church attendance on a steep decline overall in the United States, Catholic parishes need to make some radical changes in the way they approach marriage ministry and teach the faithful about relationships.
That’s the message of the new book “Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America,” released in September and co-written by J.P. De Gance, a Catholic, and John Van Epp, a Protestant, who have both worked extensively in marriage and relationship education.
De Gance, a Catholic father of eight, had a successful career in the political sphere before founding Communio, a nonprofit that consults with churches to equip them with strategies and technologies to build up faith and the family.
While “Endgame” is written for both Catholics and Protestants, De Gance hopes the book will motivate both clergy and laity to take a stark look at how the church has traditionally prepared Catholics for marriage and ministered to married couples — and why that needs to change.
“The average priest and church doctrine overall will tell you marriage is the foundation for society, but that doctrine is not translating into practical pastoral ministry,” De Gance said. “Eighty-two percent of Catholic parishes report spending zero dollars on marriage ministry.
“We say marriage is the most important thing, but we are running a faith formation playbook from the 1950s that doesn’t reflect that.”
Recent census data show marriage rates at an all-time low, with only 33 out of every 1,000 unmarried adults getting married in 2019.
De Gance said the drop off in Catholic sacramental marriages — from around 400,000 in 1970 to 137,000 in 2019 — offers a stark picture of where marriage stands in the church and why ministry needs to change.
A decline in marriage affects everything from the well-being of children to the economic well-being of a community, with recent statistics from Pew showing that single people and unmarried couples are among the most economically disadvantaged.
In “Endgame,” De Gance and Van Epp suggest that churches need to look at where they allocate ministry resources. Most churches, for instance, have a youth ministry but don’t offer much when it comes to teaching relationship skills to single people and married couples.
“The Catholic Church keeps looking at the falling away of youth as the problem that needs to be solved, but the only way to solve that problem is to strengthen marriage,” De Gance told Catholic News Service. “The collapse of faith among youth is the smoke, but the fire is the collapse of marriage itself.”
One of the main problems is that churches overall, not just Catholics, only minister to engaged couples or to those in crisis — or all too often don’t offer any type of specialized marriage ministry at all. He stressed that the key to effective marriage ministry is to offer it for all couples at all stages of their relationships.
“The biggest obstacle to marriage ministry is a perception that it is only for those people who have problems,” De Gance said. “If you have a great car, you don’t wait until the smoke comes out of the engine to get it serviced.
“Similarly, if you have a great marriage, you should want to keep investing in the relationship and building the skills that make it great. That kind of approach is going to make a great marriage even better.”
De Gance suggests that Catholic parishes should make marriage ministry a priority, even it means sometimes making a difficult decision to reallocate resources from other ministries.
He also stresses the importance of programs that teach relationship skills to single people so they will be able to make better dating decisions and discern whether or not a romantic partner is future marriage material.
The book offers an account of what well-planned marriage ministry can do not only for churches but for a community as a whole.
Between 2015 and 2018, De Gance worked with the Philanthropy Roundtable to launch a church-based marriage program in Duval County, Florida, which includes the city of Jacksonville, to teach marriage and relationship skills to struggling couples.
Through targeted marketing, the program reached out to both church members and the nonchurched. Over three years, the divorce rate in Jacksonville dropped 24 percent and church attendance in the area increased.
“Endgame” echoes concerns about dating and relationship ministries in an article prepared back in the spring by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
In it, the committee describes the importance of educating both young people and couples at every stage of relationships. The committee stressed the importance of educating youth and young adults about “responsible dating” — how to both form healthy relationships and also discern whether someone they are dating is future marriage material.
It also suggests that parishes must offer ministries not only to engaged couples but also to support newlyweds in the early stages of their marriage.
Ministry to struggling couples is especially important at a time when many parishes also are struggling to get people back into the pews after the pandemic forced many churches to close in 2020.
De Gance cited surveys which show that attendance at Mass is still off by as much as 40% in some parishes nationwide.
In “Endgame,” the authors offer examples of many studies that show that strong families and church attendance go hand in hand.
“A parish needs to add value through its ministry to the hurting,” he said. “Pope Francis talks about the parish being a hospital for hurting people, and at a time when there is so much nihilism and illness in relationships, it’s important to help people to form meaningful, Godly relationships and marriages.”