Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
In the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2012, a parish priest, Fr. Jay Donahue, and one of his parishioners, Arlene Milon, launched an initiative that would become the Renew the “I Do” Foundation. Its purpose is to support and encourage successful Christian marriages, with such programs as creative date nights and marriage preparation programs, sending anniversary cards on significant anniversaries and even a program to support the divorced.
It began at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Glenshaw, and has since spread to other parishes in the diocese. And while independent of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, it works cooperatively with the diocese, and its marriage prep programs supplement those of the diocese itself.
Ashley Dillon serves as program director of the Foundation, and is its only full-time employee. She recently spoke about the organization’s work.
Why did you want to be part of the work of the Renew the “I Do” Foundation?
I grew up in a big family. I am the oldest of seven kids. The value of family was always most important. When I went to college, I studied Mental Health, Human Services and Theology. Throughout my studies I became very passionate about Marriage and Family.
I learned that the world is broken because families are broken. Families are broken because marriages are broken and I witnessed this first hand. I thought if I could learn and understand why marriages are breaking, help encourage marriages to thrive and help young adults to better discern marriage—the hope was to help build a thriving marriage culture. I feel marriage and family was the key to forming me into the person I am today and are essential pillars to communities and civilizations. I felt more needed to be done to support them in today's culture.
What do you do in your role as program director?
My role is to manage and grow the programs that Renew the 'I Do' has to offer for young adults, engaged couples and married couples such as The Dating Project and Becoming The One Series for singles and young adults, the 5-step Joy-Filled Marriage Preparation Program and Joy-Filled Marriage Preparation Weekends and early years programs for newlyweds for ongoing growth, fellowship and mentoring.
When you are setting up educational programs for couples, what are some of the things you hope to convey to them to help them have successful marriages?
My prayer is that couples will experience a warm and welcoming environment that inspires them to build a solid foundation on the 4 pillars of marriage (Free, Faithful, Fruitful and Forever); where they can experience a Joy-Filled Marriage and God's love for them. We care so much for their marriage and want to inspire them to not just survive but to THRIVE!
When you talk to married couples, what are some of the typical challenges that you hear they face?
When I work with married couples I learn a great deal about all the obstacles a married couple can face. Most couples are quick to admit marriage is very hard, takes lot of work and is unpredictable. But some of the typical challenges I hear:
- Communication and Resolving Conflict. Men and women handle, communicate and think differently. When you haven't learned that about each other yet it's difficult to navigate through many types of situations.
- Prayer life and Spirituality. Lots of couples I have heard feel something missing in their connection as one and intimacy and find out later on how important spirituality is intertwined with the mental, emotional and physical side of life. Becoming comfortable with your spirituality and sharing it with your spouse is key. It’s also important to be respectful if you’re different in your ways.
- Parenting. Losing focus on your marriage and your spouse’s friendship in the businesses of life and raising children.
- Struggle of Infertility and Miscarriages. This is one I have heard a bit more in the recent years, the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual power it takes to understand and be open to God's plan for your marriage first instead of your plans.
What I love most is hearing the struggles but seeing the commitment of sticking it out together and how much couples grow together in their love and friendship after going through all the obstacles. It's hopeful and beautiful.
What success have you seen in your work?
It's hard to measure success because our goal is to inspire thriving marriages in today's culture and marriage is an ongoing state. But we have seen God's hand work through our ministry. A few to mention:
- Couples have reported through our many date nights and informative studies (such as our Shoutouts) that we have saved their marriages by helping them to focus on one another first and bring dating back into their marriage where their friendship was growing stale. Over the years, with the chaos of life, couples stop dating and forget about the excitement, fun and conversations that stem from dating.
- We also have had a few couples we have worked with who experienced different struggles and we sent them to a group we partner with for counseling. They are all still together and have begun building their families.
- We also have had a few dating/engaged couples attend our marriage prep weekend course and broke off their relationship/engagement knowing this wasn't want God wanted for them.
- We have walked with couples who were previously married, divorced, annulled and went through our marriage prep program to be remarried and now attend our date night events and experience the joy and gift that marriage brings.
What I would most measure as success is knowing that the people and couples we minister to know that we are here to cheer them on and walk with them in all stages. Witnessing couples coming to us looking for x, y or z is a success because they know we are here with them in their journey. It's what I love most about working with couples discerning marriage and the engaged. We are not just here to prepare them for marriage and that's it. We are here after they tie the knot and hope to walk with them throughout all the years of their married life.
What are some of your future plans for the Foundation?
Renew the 'I Do' has grown more than I could have dreamed since it first started. It's a great joy and blessing to see how much Renew the 'I Do' has grown and where God is leading it. We started off renewing the vows of married couples and putting together a marriage prep program that would help couples better prepare for marriage and better understand what they are saying I do to. Now that we have successfully accomplished that we see the need for additional marriage prep weekends, mentoring, date nights and pub nights, retreats for married couples, educational programs for young adults based on Theology of the Body and dating in today's culture, and a state-of-the-art women and teen health and education center, respecting life and a woman's dignity. God's plan for this Foundation is so exciting and keeps growing and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
Do you think for Foundation could be a model for other dioceses?
This Foundation began because we care so much for marriage and the gift that marriage is to couples themselves, the community and the world at large. The bulk of people in parishes are married—how do we inspire them to grow in their faith and thrive in today's difficult culture? We didn't see much being done for marriage in the diocesan and parish level. With all the questions and insight we got from married couples, the need for resources and support, and encouraging young couples to not be afraid of marriage but to see the great joy and gift it brings.
Additionally, walking with couples before and after the wedding is so important as well as celebrating their anniversaries with them. I think what we have created is great but we are always learning, growing and open to new ideas. What we created on a Foundation level can be put in a Parish Renew the 'I Do' Club level as well. We have a few parishes that have started Renew the 'I Do' Club's with a few of the different programs we offer to their unique parish needs.
My wish is all dioceses would have a greater focus on supporting marriages and young people discerning marriage in today's toxic culture. Our dream would be for all parishes to have Marriage Clubs of some sort to offer resources and support or all married couples and to walk more with the discerning and engaged couples. We don't pretend to know it all, but we are happy to share what we have found to work best. We just pray that more is done and offered in all dioceses but especially at the parish level to bring about more thriving marriages! Marriage and families are at the heart of the church, vocations come from marriage and families if we don't focus on supporting and building them up then what will happen?
What else would you like to share about your work?
We couldn't be where we are today without all the love and support from all the couples we have gotten to meet and who have helped us to get where we are today. I would like to ask that anyone reading this to please keep us, the work we do and for all who are working to better the marriage culture across the world in your prayers. We hope to see you at one of our date nights or programs! If you would like to learn more about what we do and would like to start a Renew the' I Do' club in your parish don't hesitate to reach out to us and we will share everything we have and will walk you through it.