Grace Marriage program takes off in Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., expands to other dioceses

Renea and Jonathon Estes are pictured in an undated photo with their children Luke, Mason, Chaney and Chapel. Renea Estes is a marriage ministry consultant with Grace Marriage and serves as a Catholic liaison for the program in the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky. (OSV News photo/courtesy Estes family)

By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead

OWENSBORO, Ky. (OSV News) — After taking off throughout the Diocese of Owensboro, a marriage enrichment program is expanding to other dioceses and parishes around the United States as leaders seek ways to embrace the Vatican’s proposal of a catechumenal model for marriage formation.

The program, called Grace Marriage, is for “making a good marriage even better,” according to Danny May, the Diocese of Owensboro’s director of marriage and family life, who helped provide the supplemental Catholic content for the curriculum, which was originally written from a nondenominational perspective.

“We don’t just want people to get married — we want them to stay married and have joyful marriages,” said May, explaining that parish marriage ministries tend to be limited to two areas: wedding and marriage preparation, and support for marriages in crisis.

But initiatives like Grace Marriage bridge the gap between premarital formation and trying to repair the damage of daily stresses and bad habits that have chipped away at a marriage.

“Marriage enrichment is what you do to keep a marriage thriving,” May told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro’s diocesan newspaper.

In January 2022, the western Kentucky diocese was one of the first five dioceses in the United States to receive a $50,000 matching grant from the Catholic Marriage Initiatives Fund.

The diocese had already been offering Grace Marriage prior, but thanks to the grant, it has been able to expand to 13 locations — growing from 11 couples in the pilot program to 175 couples to date.

And while the Diocese of Owensboro was the first to begin offering the program to its parishes, other dioceses that have since gotten involved include the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana, the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, and the Diocese of San Bernardino, California.

Several parishes in Louisville, Kentucky, and a parish in Minneapolis also utilize Grace Marriage in their ministries.

May joined the Owensboro Diocese in December 2017, at a time when his office was undergoing a critical shift from being called the Office of Family Life to the Office of Marriage and Family Life.

Having marriage as the key component in his office’s objectives just makes sense, said May, explaining that “the heart of the church is the family, and the heart of the family is marriage.”

“We need to focus on both marriage prep and enrichment, and that’s directly from Pope Francis,” he said, referencing the catechumenal model for marriage formation described in the “Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life” document issued by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

Grace Marriage could not have come at a better time.

When May first learned about the marriage enrichment program, several local Catholics had already been involved with it, finding in Grace Marriage a resource that had been virtually absent in most parish life ministries.

By the time he sat down with Grace Marriage co-founder Brad Rhoads, May discovered that Rhoads had already read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) to better understand Catholic perspectives on marriage.

Rhoads and his wife, Marilyn, founded Grace Marriage in 2012, after witnessing the breakdown of marriages and families in their respective fields — his as an attorney in the courtroom and hers as a counselor with a master’s in social work.

“On some level, everybody struggles,” Brad Rhoads told The Western Kentucky Catholic during an interview at the Grace Marriage headquarters in Owensboro.

He said the program helps couples realize that “we’re imperfect people who have struggles, but we’re built on the rock versus built on the sand” by having their marriage grounded in Christ.

He said the program stands out because it is ongoing — as opposed to most marriage coaching programs that have a beginning and a conclusion.

Instead, Grace Marriage sessions meet on a quarterly basis for several hours. The sessions include some video presentations and small group conversations, but prioritize time with the husbands and wives talking one-on-one through discussion prompts and workbook questions “because most of the time that’s not going to happen” amid life’s busyness, said Rhoads.

“Unless you fight to stay close together, life will quickly divide a couple,” he said. “It takes intentional investment.”

Renea Estes — today a marriage ministry consultant with Grace Marriage who serves as a liaison to Catholic communities — and her husband, Jonathon, were among the first local Catholics to engage with the program.

After hearing about Grace Marriage from a friend and attending sessions in 2018 at a Baptist church, the Esteses encountered several fellow Catholic couples who loved Grace Marriage. Together, they agreed that “we need this!” in the wider Catholic community.

The Esteses met with May and Owensboro Bishop William F. Medley, and soon after the diocese decided to launch a pilot program in 2019 to see how it would be received.

“Then it took off,” said Estes.

She left the corporate world during COVID and began working with Grace Marriage in 2021 to specifically work with Catholic clients — and has seen the initiative bear fruit for the many parishes and couples she has encountered.

“We provide the tools and materials for them to be able to add this ministry to their parish,” she said. “It can be lay-led and doesn’t have to take a lot of time or budget from the parish, other than having the parish help promote it.”

Estes said Grace Marriage’s adaptable nature has made it accessible for parish life.

Many parishes’ groups meet on Saturday mornings once a quarter, though one new group plans to meet every Saturday for a month, based on parishioners’ preferences. Some groups are limited to registered parishioners, while others share a group across a county or parish cluster.

Several parishes are already heading into their third or fourth year of Grace Marriage, and May is encouraged to see that “they still want it.”

Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green will soon launch its second year of Grace Marriage.

Carolyn Fusting, who with her husband, David, helped establish Grace Marriage at Holy Spirit, said the sessions provide the opportunity “to be around other couples who want to build up their Catholic marriages.”

David Fusting said that in terms of growing a healthy marriage, “I don’t think we’re meant to do that alone. Grace Marriage provides that opportunity to listen to others’ examples and stories. We’re meant to thrive in community.”

Carolyn Fusting said Grace Marriage works because it is practical, such as helping couples learn to work through “the everyday struggles.”

“If you’re having a bad day, you can be compassionate and bring grace to (your spouse’s life), rather than griping back at them,” she said. “If we can do that, we’re going to live our married life more Christ-centered.”

Rhoads is pleased to see how Grace Marriage has taken off in the Owensboro Diocese and beyond.

“When people make time for their marriage and dedicate time to enjoy it — when people invest in it — they find there is more there than they realized,” he said, adding that the ages of participants are “surprisingly consistent among both younger and older people: we’ve seen people married for 60 years and people married for one month.”

He said his hope is to teach the new generation of married couples “a new way to do marriage.”

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