Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): The Promise and Challenge of Using Volunteers to Provide Community-Based Marriage Education. Creating a Community- and Faith-Based Volunteer Workforce


The goal of the OMI is to strengthen marriages and reduce divorce by encouraging broad participation in skills-based marriage education.  Achieving this objective requires that marriage education programs be widely available and accessible, and that people are aware that these services exist.  Even so, participation in such services is not likely to be high unless people understand their potential benefits.  The OMI staff have implemented two complementary strategies to achieve these aims.  They provide free training to volunteers throughout the state who wish to lead marriage education workshops, and they conducts large community events that provide a taste of the workshop and increase awareness of marriage education services available in the community.  The OMI uses the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) as the core curriculum for marriage education.

The OMI has trained community volunteers from a broad spectrum of backgrounds.  The OMI offers free training in the 12-hour PREP curriculum.  The three-day training is conducted by experts  the curriculum authors.  In exchange for the free training, the trained leaders are asked to agree to conduct four free workshops in their communities within one year of training.  By the end of 2007, nearly 2,000 volunteer workshop leaders had been trained and had conducted 1,500 workshops, including those in the faith community.  OMI workshop leaders are from a wide range of backgrounds[1], including:

  • Clergy and lay leaders in churches
  • Private counselors and mental health professionals
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Social workers offering community-based services
  • Retired individuals and couples
  • Representatives of minority groups
  • Business leaders and law enforcement officials

Community and faith-based volunteers made a substantial contribution to the OMIs overall productivity across the state. Workshops offered by community volunteers accounted for around 20 percent of all workshops offered and participants served.  By the end of 2007, an estimated 7,078 workshops had been conducted overall, serving over 120,000 individuals.  The community sector provided 1,500 of these workshop and 50 large scale community events such as All About Us or Sweethearts Weekends, described later in this brief.  Faith-based volunteers alone provided about six percent of workshops, accounting for just under six percent of total participants served.  (see Table 1).

Table 1
OMI Workshops and Participants, 2001-2007
Sector Workshops
Community Volunteers
Faith 424 7,205
Counseling 198 2,238
General Community Services* 774 1,788
Native American Services 34 2,828
Hispanic Services 70 1,375
Subtotal 1,500 25,404
Public Sector
(includes schools, youth services, TANF agencies, and others)
5,525 90,472
Large-Scale Community Events 53 6,258
Total 7,078 122,134
Source:  OMI management information system.
* Includes social workers, military personnel, and others.

The community volunteer approach has potential advantages, but productivity and recruitment challenges require continual attention.  The OMI is predicated on engaging the public is as a fundamental strategy for creating broad societal change.  Although training volunteers to conduct workshops is expected to lead to greater workshop availability in the community, there may be other advantages to training volunteers that go beyond their potential productivity.  Being trained in the curriculum can result in a greater understanding that change is possible at the individual as well as broad societal level.  Thus, although not all trained individuals will go on to lead workshops, they spread the OMIs message through word of mouth, and may even refer individuals to other available workshops or, OMI staff believe, may use PREP skills in their own counseling work.

Nevertheless, the return on investment in the form of workshops held by trained volunteers is an important issue.  Most workshops are being led by a small proportion of the volunteers trained (see Table 2).  This is due partly to changes in individuals life circumstances among trained volunteers.  For example, some may take on new job responsibilities that reduce their available time for voluntary activities, or they may move out of the state.  A primary reason for variations in productivity, however, appears to be linked to the workshop leaders access to a ready source of potential participants.  OMI staff maintain regular contact with the volunteer network to provide ongoing encouragement and assistance in order to identify challenges and possible solutions.

Table 2
Activity Level of OMI Volunteer Workshop Leaders
Primary Job Classification Trained Leaders Percentage of Leaders
Who Have Led Two or
More Workshops
Workshops Conducted
Faith 493 40% 424
Counseling 277 36% 198
General Community Services* 306 60% 774
Native American Services 38 34% 34
Hispanic Services 80 31% 70
Total 1,194 38% 1,500
Source:  OMI management information system.
* Includes social workers, military personnel, and others.

Volunteers with ready access to a recruitment source tend to be the most productive.  Interviews with community volunteer workshop leaders suggested that for some, recruitment of workshop participants is relatively easy, but for others it is a substantial challenge.  Community workshop leaders who did not think recruitment was an issue often had a single recruitment source, such as clients they encounter in their profession or members of their church.  These connections provided access to a pool of potential workshop participants.  Leaders who described recruitment as a major problem indicated that although they thought highly of the curriculum, they did not feel their training had prepared them to find participants.  These leaders often struggled to cobble together recruitment sources throughout their community, and felt that their inability to find productive recruitment sources severely restricted the number of workshops they offered.  One suggested that OMI staff should be responsible for recruiting participants and assigning them to existing classes in the community.

The OMI staff have recognized this issue and have taken steps to address it.  First, they have begun to be more selective in choosing whom to train.  The training application process requires that potential leaders provide a basic recruitment plan for each of their required workshops and a letter of support from someone in the community.  This process helps individuals and the OMI evaluate both workshop potential and individual training and technical assistance needs.  The leader training now also goes beyond a focus on the curriculum to include some attention to recruitment and retention.  Further, an additional optional day of training is provided so that trainees have the opportunity to teach of portion of the program in front of their peers.

Volunteers offer workshops to individuals from varied walks of life, so they tailor the curriculum to suit varied needs.  The diversity of community settings and formats of workshops have been recognized as requiring some modifications in PREP, particularly to achieve cultural sensitivity and specificity.  Although most community workshop leaders interviewed were positive about PREP, many did not find the curriculum equally applicable to all families.  Some thought it had been created for middle-class, white people.  Although many of the concepts seem to resonate with other populations, workshop leaders often modify the language or emphasis of the material depending on the participants.  Leaders working with African-American families, for instance, wanted to focus on keeping the father connected to the family, since many men did not grow up with the role model of an involved father.  The flexibility of the curriculum allowed workshop leaders to make the modifications they felt were necessary.  The workshop leaders appreciated that PREP could be individualized to their groups, and felt that the curriculum developers encouraged them to make adaptations as they saw fit.  When significant needs are identified, the OMI staff work with PREP to develop more formal adaptations.

Maintaining a volunteer workforce requires sustained effort.  Even when recruitment is not an issue, the OMI found that it must provide ongoing assistance to volunteer leaders to ensure workshop productivity.  For example, some leaders may have access to a group of ready participants, but need help identifying a facility where they can hold workshops.  Other volunteers want to conduct workshops but need assistance building the public speaking skills needed to be an effective presenter.  Management staff also work with workshop leaders to ensure that services are being documented correctly in the online management information system.  Using this system, OMI staff classify trained workshop leaders by their level of activity, and regularly contact those with lower levels of activity to offer assistance.

In sum, building a network of volunteers to carry out the OMI mission is an important activity that poses challenges.  Although some trained individuals are active, many are not, and the OMI staff must continually conduct training to build and replenish the ranks of volunteer leaders.  Substantial effort also must also be devoted to monitoring the progress of volunteers and providing technical assistance.

The faith community seemed like a natural fit and is a source of many volunteers.  With a common interest in strengthening families and marriage, the faith community offers promising opportunities for the OMI.  More than 67 percent of Oklahomans claim affiliation with a church, and 75 percent of first marriages occur in a church setting.  Early on in the initiative, the OMI brought together leaders of every major denomination in the state to join with the Governor to create a marriage covenant and pledge support for the initiative.  A group of clerical leaders publicly pledged support for the OMI in February 2000, and were encouraged to work within their denominations.  Eventually almost 1,500 clergy signed a covenant, agreeing to require marriage preparation for couples who wish to marry within their religious institution, require waiting periods prior to marriage, and develop marriage mentors within their congregations.   The goal of these early strategies was to heighten awareness about the potential for marriage education in churches.  Since those early days, the OMI has gone on to train clergy and other individuals active in the faith community, as well as other volunteers, to provide PREP[2] workshop.

By the end of 2007, approximately 493 individuals trained by the OMI identified themselves as representatives of the faith community, and these individuals provided a total of 424 PREP workshops.[3]  About 40 percent of these 493 individuals led at least two workshops, suggesting that a small cadre of workshop leaders were the most active.  A similar pattern emerged in other areas of the community (see Table 2).

Interviews with workshop leaders in the faith sector confirmed that many are passionate about the potential for OMI workshops to help change the culture of marriage and divorce in Oklahoma.  Some felt that offering workshops was their mission, and they wanted to serve as many people as possible.  Workshop leaders indicated that although the skills emphasized in the curriculum are important, participation in the workshops alone may offer individuals hope for the possibility of change and improvement.

The OMI is implementing three new approaches involving the faith sector.  OMI staff encountered a few challenges to implementation in the faith sector.  For example, they found that religious institutions such as churches and temples rely on volunteers to carry out their missions, and these volunteers often are already spread too thin.  The additional responsibilities associated with providing OMI services may be daunting to already overcommitted organizations.  Nevertheless, the OMI remains committed to involving the faith community in its efforts and therefore is implementing three new approaches.  First, retreats for pastors and their spouses are being conducted to provide them with a clear understanding of the curriculum and at the same time offer information that might refresh and renew their own marriages.  Second, OMI staff have begun to work with specific churches, temples, and other religious organizations to implement in-house services for congregants and community members.  Third, OMI staff are providing mentor and small group workshop leader trainings to encourage the implementation of workshops for neighborhood-based congregational groups.

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