Marriage First

by Julie Baumgardner

Known as one of the most polluted, decaying cities in the ’70s and ’80s, Chattanooga, Tenn., was a community bouncing back in the ’90s. Caring community leaders dedicated themselves to cleaning up the mess and bringing life back to the city. But as they refurbished the streets and buildings, community leaders stopped to assess what was happening among the residents.

They found more than one-third of the population had been divorced, 50 percent of the annual births were to unwed mothers and 30 percent of the households were headed by single women, many of whom were living below or near the poverty level. Out of a desire to reverse the breakdown of families in their county, a group of leaders from the civic and church communities, along with local businesses formed a nonprofit organization called First Things First (FTF) in August of 1997.

One of those community leaders was Brad Rymer, a local businessman.

“The information we received about the state of marriage and families in our community really shocked me,” Rymer said. “After hearing a certain amount of it, I went home and prayed, ‘Lord use me to help You save marriages.’”

FTF was designed by Rymer and others to be prevention-oriented. Their goal was to reduce divorce, strengthen marriages and decrease the incidence of children having children. They empowered parents by providing classes and seminars throughout the year to teach skills and to educate couples, fathers, parents, stepfamilies and teens about the importance of family and how to stay connected and strong. FTF also houses a marriage and family resource center, which loans books, videos and curriculum to families, churches and other organizations.

FTF made a case for marriage that is counter to the popular—but mistaken—belief that divorce, rather than reconciliation, is best for all concerned. Far too often, no-fault divorce may deal with one set of problems while introducing others that are more serious. The impact on children is devastating. Although many single parents are doing an excellent job, most admit that it isn’t easy and it isn’t ideal.

So far FTF has contributed to a 33.6 percent decrease in divorces filed in the city, a 25.4 percent decrease in the divorce rate and a 26 percent decrease in teen pregnancies. Research also indicates that fathers in Chattanooga are more aware of the important role they play in their children’s lives and more intentional about spending time with them. From seminars such as “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk,” “Discovering the Love of Your Life All Over Again” and “Boot Camp for New Dads” to premarital classes and marriage enrichment date nights, FTF is helping transform Chattanooga with strong marriages and families.

A city that embraces these ideas and proves them successful is clearly one of the best cities in America.

Julie Baumgardner serves as the executive director for First Things First.

This article first appeared in the July 2006 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Adapted from Breaking the Cycle of Divorce, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2006, John Trent, Ph.D. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.