Listening In: The Strege family and JP DeGance


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll listening in on conversations about life and marriage, with the Strege family, the first family in the country to adopt a so-called snowflake baby, and JP DeGance, whose work to preserve marriage contributed to a dramatic fall in divorce in a major American city.

John and Marlene Strege were struggling with infertility more than 20 years ago. They thought about in vitro fertilization, but decided that there were moral and ethical problems with that approach. They considered adoption too, but their study of in vitro fertilization caused them to realize that there were more than a million embryos frozen, essentially in limbo, many of them having been abandoned by the in vitro fertilization process. They decided to adopt one of those embryos. To make a very long story short, Marlene and John ended up with a beautiful baby girl, Hannah. You’ll hear from all three of them on today’s program. I first heard about this story because John Strege, who is also a well known sportswriter has turned their story into a book. It’s called A Snowflake Named Hannah: Ethics, Faith, and the First Adoption of a Frozen Embryo.

Marlene Strege and your whole family here, welcome to the program. Your husband John, who wrote the book, said that you’re the real expert on snowflake adoption. Tell me what made you such an expert, how you got in this role in the first place? I mean, other than having a lovely daughter?

MARLENE STREGE, GUEST: Well in 1997, my husband and I had been through infertility treatments and at that time the doctor suggested that we use donor eggs with my husband’s sperm to create a child. And we were uncomfortable with that because that’d been creating a child outside the marriage bond. So I asked the doctor, do you have any embryos that we could adopt, frozen embryos? And he said, well, sure. But nobody ever asked me that question. But I wanted to know what does God think about this? So we contacted several pastors in our church, Lutheran church as well as Dr. James Dobson. He was then with Focus on the Family and everybody confirmed what we already knew in that these were human lives. And if the original family who created them was not going to go back to get them, then yes, they need to be placed for adoption. So that’s what started this whole ball rolling in 1997. We then contacted our good friend at Nightlight Christian Adoptions. He did all the legal background checking, how to even adopt a frozen embryo. Now these are frozen embryos that people go through IVF—in vitro fertilization. They have their children and then they can’t parent any more children, so these embryos—now there’s about a million collecting in our country right now that need homes—but at that time Ron Stoddart then created the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program and we were matched with a family that had remaining embryos, 20 of them. We adopted all 20. Once the contracts were signed, then those embryos were our children. We also completed all the requirements for the state of California for adoption—home study, all that—even though legally we didn’t have to because the legal status of those frozen embryos and still is today is property and not people. Once those embryos though are our children, they were Federal Expressed to our clinic in Pasadena, California and then my body was prepared to receive them and so I became the adoptive mom and the birth mom. So, Hannah is our lovely daughter who’s 21 now and she was the only one born of those 20 frozen embryos that we adopted.

SMITH: And Hannah was the first? It had never happened before.

MARLENE: Up until then you could do donor programs. You can still donor programs today where couples that have remaining embryos can donate them to their doctor, their infertility doctor, and then he provides them to couples in his practice. But you can choose those embryos based on hair color, eye color, skin color of the people that created them. What we have is an open adoption. So the placing family chose us and we chose them just like a birth mom would choose who she wants to parent her children. So, we have an open adoption. Everyone knows who everyone is and has been to Disneyland with her genetic siblings. Unlike a donor program, you would never know if your child was related to other children out there who would be full genetic siblings.

SMITH: Well, that is a remarkable story. And, John, you are a writer. You’re a sportswriter. You’d been a sportswriter for many years and at what point did, or maybe you knew from the beginning, at what point did you say to yourself, you know what? We want to tell the world this story.

JOHN STREGE, GUEST: I never set out on thinking I’m going to write a book on it. I had written sports books before, but it was—Hannah was born at about the same time that a controversy was developing in Washington D.C. because a scientist had discovered a to extract stem cells from embryos which destroy the embryos and they thought this whole held great potential for a lot of cures of some of life’s most debilitating diseases. And so as we progressed through embryo adoption and then this controversy, it almost seemed like God had placed us here for a reason. They needed to put human faces to what we’re talking about regarding embryonic stem cell research. You’re destroying human beings in this research. And as we progressed even further and we started to look back on it, I go this, I think this is a pretty good book and it’s two-fold. Two parts of the book is us having Hannah and inadvertently starting this Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program, but the political ramifications, too. And we see God’s fingerprints all over this story.

SMITH: So, Hannah, we’ve been talking about you. How does that feel? I mean, is that like attending your own funeral whenever you’ve got people talking about you? I mean, how does this hit you as now that you’re old enough to kind of understand all of the issues and does it seem weird for us to be talking about you or is this like a part of your life that you’ve been raised with?

HANNAH STREGE, GUEST: Yes. This is like a part of my life that I’ve been raised with, doing interviews and talking about embryo adoption has been something close to my family for a really long time and I couldn’t be happier to be promoting this. 

SMITH: Well that’s a really remarkable. So, what has happened since—and maybe, Marlene, I should come back to you for that question. In other words, Hannah was the first. How many have followed?

MARLENE: Well, the 700th baby was born actually on Hannah’s birthday this last year. So, on December 31st, 2019, the 700th baby was born through Nightlight Christian Adoptions. There are other organizations that do something like embryo adoption, but Nightlight I believe is the only one that does it with adoption best practices. So, even to this day, human embryos are still property, but they use adoption best practices. So, couples complete home studies, there’s matching, there’s open adoption. And that’s just really everything is child centered and in the best interest of the child.

SMITH: So, 700 is great. That’s fantastic. But you said there were a million.

MARLENE: There’s a million frozen embryos. Now it’s really quite a feat for a human being to survive a freeze and a thaw. Statistically only 50 percent survive a thaw. That doesn’t include the transfer, the implantation, the carrying to nine months. So, that’s a lot for that human being to go through.

SMITH: So let me interrupt you there. So I mean, the fact that Hannah is even here with us is really, I mean, that’s really sort of a marvelous thing, right?

MARLENE: Absolutely. That she’s here, that these 700 babies we celebrate each and every one of them. The other side of the coin is that a lot of people don’t know about this. Still 22 years later, people are like, I’ve never heard of this. And, you know, we try as hard as we can to get the word out, but there’s a couple of reasons why people who don’t believe that life begins at fertilization really don’t want to promote this. And then the other side is that churches sometimes do not feel that this is right before God, so they don’t want to promote this as well. So we’re kind of dealing with those two issues. 

SMITH: So, and John, again, is that sort of why you wanted to tell the story because there’s so much ignorance and misunderstanding about the issue?

JOHN: Well, there’s no question. We knew we’d be doing interviews and we’d help get the word out and the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program and just continuing to try to spread the word, which Marlene does a great job already and so does Hannah, but we need to get it to more people for sure.

SMITH: Yeah. Marlene, you wanted to add something to that?

MARLENE: I just wanted to say that this is a dream come true for women. That you can be both the adoptive mom and the birth mom that you can give birth to your own adopted child is a dream come true. This resonates with women who have gone through infertility and that’s what I hear from snowflake moms across the country that they could give birth to their own adopted child and go through all of that, go through pregnancy, go through birthing and nursing and do all of that and wearing maternity clothes. All those things you’ve dreamed about doing. It’s really amazing.

SMITH: So Hannah, I kind of want to give you the last word here. You’re 21 years old now. You’re obviously, we’ve already heard you speak, you’re enthusiastic about being a spokesperson for this movement and being involved in the pro-life cause. It’s not that you’re not already grown up, but what do you want to do when you grow up? Is this going to be a cause for life for you?

HANNAH: Yeah, so I’m a senior at Biola University in Southern California studying sociology. And I will graduate in December of this year and I hope to pursue social work. So I really want to pave my own way in the social work fields and be an advocate for embryo adoption and in the politics of the pro-life movement and moving forward with these lives.

SMITH: Well, Hannah, what a wonderful word. What a wonderful testimony. Congratulations on the success that you’ve had so far. I know Biola a little bit. It’s tough school. It’s a good school. Congratulations on getting as far as you have so far. And John and Marlene, you know, as the father of four kids myself, I know you must be proud.

MARLENE: Oh, well she made the Dean’s list last semester. So yes, we’re very proud of that. 

JOHN: It’s been a great story to document. One other reason I wanted to document it so she knows what everything we went through and that other snowflakes know, you know, if they want to explain to their kids the history of how this all came about.

SMITH: Well, it’s clear, I’m sure, that y’all went through a lot, but you know, the reward was great. So you can, I can see that by meeting Hannah. So thank you guys for being on the program. Thanks for what you’ve done and what you are doing to advocate for life in, in this in this current culture. So thank you very much.

STREGE FAMILY: Thank you.

SMITH: That was the Strege family—John Marlene and Hannah. John Strege’s new book is A Snowflake Named Hannah: Ethics, Faith, and the First Adoption of a Frozen Embryo. I had this conversation with the Streges at the recent meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m Warren Smith. More in a moment.

[BREAK]

Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on a couple of conversations I had recently about life and marriage. Up next, JP DeGance.

JP DeGance spent the early part of his career in politics working for Americans for Prosperity, The Culture Freedom Initiative, and the Koch Company’s public sector. He said he learned a couple of things during those experiences. First, most of the truly vexing problems in our culture are not political problems, but cultural problems, problems related to family, community, and other societal structures that either have or lack moral and spiritual foundations.

Secondly, he realized that good intentions are not enough. There are hundreds of thousands of churches and Christian ministries in this country that lacked the processes and systems discipline that he learned in his business and public policy career. And that’s where his organization Communio comes in.

Communio has pioneered strategies that work on a regional scale to mitigate cultural problems. For example, a two year project in Jacksonville, Florida reduced the divorce rate there 28 percent. A coalition of churches that worked on this project also saw significant increases in church attendance. I’ll have more to say about these data at the next break. But let’s begin with my conversation with JP DeGance, which I recently had in Nashville.

JP, thanks for being on the program. I’ve guess I’ve known about your work for a long time because you’ve been kind of around conservative circles for years.

JP DEGANCE, GUEST: Yeah, I have been, Warren. Before getting into what I’m currently do with Communio and consulting with churches to strengthen marriages and relationships, I was in politics and public policy from 2002 to 2013. Just came to a realization that a lot of what’s going on in the country from a political side has its origins in the collapse of the family. And I really wanted to apply a lot of the strategy and tools and techniques and technologies that I learned in the public policy world and using it to serve churches, consulting with them to strengthen marriages.

SMITH: Well, yeah, I mean, a lot of our listeners will have heard me and other of my guests say over the years of politics is downstream from culture. Which is, you know, that’s not, I mean, politics can shape culture as well.

DEGANCE: There’s a back and forth, but definitely culture influences politics more than vice versa, although there is a vice versa.

SMITH: Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s right. But that is an interesting take because the political realm that you’ve operated in for so many years is really data-driven. I mean, it’s like, you know, it’s lists and data mining and—

DEGANCE: It’s also binary outcomes, right? You know whether or not you won or lost, right? And everybody knows that. And I think a lot of times in ministry and the world of serving the kingdom, a lot of times we believe that good intentions are sufficient. Actually in a lot of ways to be good stewards of what God’s given us, we should be more focused on outcomes than anyone else because of how serious our work really is. It has eternal consequences.

SMITH: So specifically, you’re trying to build a family.  And so how do you use the ideas that we’ve already talked about to influence the outcomes in the arena of family building?

DEGANCE: Yeah, so what we’ve developed is what we’ve trademarked as our concept is a data-informed full circle relationship ministry and by data-informed we mean using data to diagnose problems in a congregation and in the community and then use that same data to do targeted outreach to draw folks in. And by full circle relationship ministry, we mean designing strategies and best practices around each stage of relationship life. Single, single again, married, engaged, and those in crisis. And we call the development of it is a ministry engagement ladder. So it’s pulling people in based on certain felt needs in the data, inviting them in digitally or through direct mail. Then they come to an outreach event. That outreach event is a 90 percent popcorn, 10 percent spinach around relationships, a fun date night childcare provided. Then you’re invited back. There’s a tail on that that we want to move folks up to the ongoing engagement experience, we call it. That is how a church has activities that you still have you on community and then still yet invited to that next step, which is a growth journey or skills-based ministry to help folks have healthier relationships. And that’s content. We don’t author content, which is great. We think it’s an important thing for us. We recognize there’s a lot of great content that already exists out there and we just need—it usually sits on people’s bookshelves, but when you can help a church have an integrated strategy—so when we talk about politics and campaigns, I was used to working on issue campaigns where you’d think from the beginning to the end an outcome that you are trying to achieve and you’d have an integrated strategy that’s multichannel to achieve your outcome. That’s what we want to help churches think through. What is that multi-channel ministry strategy to produce changes in relationship health and stronger families.

SMITH: Walk me through it. So, I’m a pastor of a local church. I’ve got 350 members or people coming on a regular Sunday morning, which is actually—most people think about the megachurches in this country, but most churches are 100-200 people. So, how do you help a church that’s that size, that’s that small, which is the majority? 

DEGANCE: Yeah, that’s perfect. Those are a lot of the types of churches that we work with today and we work with churches of all sizes. So, the first step is survey. We help them run a mobile survey. Pastor gives a sermon on marriage, says that we’re going to focus on this more. We lead up for the survey that we’ve designed with an academic that helps the pastor really understand how people are doing—the singles and married. So he says, everybody here, we’re going to be focusing on marriages and relationships and really pouring into them and knowing how we can serve them more. And so if you’re in a relationship right now, text this number and if you’re single right now, text this number. They get that mobile survey right away. It takes about 60 seconds to answer and gives a pastor an immediate quick snapshot. We help them push that out through email followup. Typically we’re seeing about 50% completion rates for churches who run it the way that we advise them on.

Then, we model the community and model the churches members and we can provide them with a high level summary, sort of an aggregated report of what percentage of people are struggling right now in their marriage? What percentage of folks are expectant, new parents? What percentage of folks are cohabiting right now with and without kids? Super important to think about cohabitation because it is exploding in size and it’s bad for women and it’s bad for children. A woman in a cohabiting relationship is the most likely to suffer from domestic violence. In fact, the safest woman in America, you wouldn’t know this right now by listening to the media, the safest woman from violence in America as a married woman. And so we’ll help them think through those groups of people. And then design—we do a six hour planning meeting with them. We set out 12 and 24 month goals, really clear outcomes that they want to achieve in ministry. 

SMITH: So give me an example of what some of those outcomes would be. Greater attendance, more people?

DEGANCE: Yeah. There’s, we call them lag measures and lead measures. A lag is something that you can’t directly control, but if you have the right lead measures, will move the lag. So the lag measures are things like more Sunday attendance, increased giving, the big one that we try to push churches on is normalizing marriage ministry by having at least half of everybody under the age of 50 participating in multiple marriage ministry activities in the church over the course of the year. And if you’ve gotten to those three, those are lags, we help them design three leads and those leads are around our ministry engagement ladder, sort of specific activities. So the number of outreach events around relationship ministry, the number of ongoing engagement experiences, and how many people are coming.

And then the growth journey, which is the number of people who’ve moved from those first two into that highest level step, which is skills-based ministry and how many are going to complete it. So if you have really quantifiable goals in each of those leads, you’ll be able to start moving each of the lags. We’re working with the largest evangelical church in Pennsylvania right now and they’ve set pretty aggressive goals on their lead measures. They were trying to get 10,000 members through eight hours or more couples relationship education. They’re about eight weeks in the year. They’ve already hit 67 percent. They did their first outreach event. They had 6,200 people, 32 percent of them were first time ever on that campus. They’ve never had an outreach event so successful. And so the approach of having a systematic strategy and following it works. So we helped that church design that strategy and then we calendar it over the course of the next year and then we help them work their plan and then recalibrate their plan. We think of it as sort of, really, a ministry campaign manager.

SMITH: You’re listening in on my conversation with JP DeGance. We had this conversation in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ll have more with JP DeGance after this short break. 

[BREAK]

Welcome back. You’re listening in today on my conversation with JP DeGance. DeGance makes some remarkable claims about the results he and the groups he’s worked with have had in reducing divorce in Jacksonville, Florida, and in other places around the country. When I hear claims like this, I naturally have a bit of skepticism. So, I decided to check them out. I called Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia, who is one of the country’s leading experts on marriage and was likewise skeptical at hearing some of these claims. So, he and his team did a study and essentially confirmed what DeGance is saying here. Wilcox’s conclusion is that while divorce was already in decline in the region, the areas where DeGance’s team worked, primarily in Duvall County, Florida, saw significantly greater declines in the number and rate of divorce. The entire 40 page study put together by Brad Wilcox and his team is available at the Institute for Family Studies website. To learn more about how they accomplished these remarkable results, let’s return to my conversation with JP DeGance.

Let me ask a couple of devil’s advocate questions, if I could. This sounds really interesting and I’m kind of a data guy myself, so I resonate with that. And I’m also, you know, of the opinion that God gave us orderly minds. He gave us the ability to think logically and systematically. So I’m very much in favor of this kind of a systematic approach. However, I can imagine that a lot of people and including myself at certain times would say, well, what about the Holy Spirit in all of this? I mean, we’ve got a long history in the evangelical church of programs. Some of them have even been really successful. And then we discover that, you know, that the church is rotten spiritually on the inside. They’ve been very successful from a marketing point of view, and the spiritual maturity of the leadership and the people in the pews have been lacking and we see a lot of scandals and things fall apart. Talk to those issues.

DEGANCE: Yeah. Look, the Holy spirit is the author of life, right? And he’s given us our reason and I think God’s providence works through us frequently. And so God’s given us a lot of of these great tools and resources and the Holy Spirit wants to work through those as well. He’s God of everything. He’s God of the universe. That means he’s sovereign over these tools. He’s sovereign over these strategies. He’s sovereign over all that I’ve learned, all that you’ve learned. And so we should certainly be at peace at applying the best practices from anything that is consistent or certainly not inconsistent with the gospel and sanctifying it and bringing it effectively into the church. And I think there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. I don’t think, I would say, inaction, you have a prayer and work are both necessary for success. The old ancient tradition in Christianity is Martha and Mary, one sat at Jesus’s feet, the other one work to make sure everybody, all the guests in the home where we’re taken care of. In a way, you need both. And that’s what I would encourage your listeners on.

SMITH: So talk about some results. You mentioned this Pennsylvania church. How long have you been doing this and what have you seen?

DEGANCE: Yeah. So, we came out of a testing period where we did a big robust test in Jacksonville, Florida. We worked with more than 50 churches from across Duvall County. A lot of Baptist churches, community Bible churches, the largest evangelical church in Duvall County, Celebration Church, was a phenomenal partner. Wayne Linear is one of the pastors there, is just a rock star. And then was a number of the Catholic parishes as well. And we ended up moving almost 60,000 people in the county through a four hour long or longer couples relationship education. We moved more than 28 million digital impressions over a three year timeframe targeting folks who looked like they had a felt relationship need. The divorce rate dropped 24 percent in that three year period.

SMITH: Wait a minute. Let me pause you there. How do you know that? Do you mean divorce rate in Duvall County dropped? 

DEGANCE: Yeah, that’s right. The entire divorce rate in the county dropped 24 percent. There were 24 percent fewer divorce filings in that period. We had independent scholars from the University of Virginia, Florida State University, which is the arch rival to my alma mater, so up until now have not considered it a university, but I guess I begrudgingly have to now because a good scholar there said that there is no demographic explanation for that sharp decline other than our interventions there. And we had a phenomenal local partner. I always tell folks and Live Life Ministries who was actually the boots on the ground while we were providing a lot of the data tools and resources and there was just a tremendous movement across the county as a result.

SMITH: When did that happen?

DEGANCE: 2016, 2018.

SMITH: So what are you doing now?

DEGANCE: So now we’re starting for new citywide initiatives. We’ve been blessed. We’re nonprofit and so we have funders and we have a pay for model where churches can pay for our services in a subsidized or donor subsidize that. But, so we have four city projects—Billings, Montana, the Permian Basin, Midland and Odessa, Texas, big cities in Denver, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas. We’ll be working with large churches in the all those cities, 500 person and above churches in all those cities. And then we’ll have county-wide digital marketing in supportive efforts in those cities. That’s getting started.

SMITH: So, Duvall County, Jacksonville, Florida was sort of the pilot and now you’re rolling it out to some different cities, kinda different geography, different demographics to make sure that the model is actually a repeatable model. And when you expect results?

DEGANCE: Oh, by the end of the second year, early third year, we should start—I mean, first off, you start to see proxy results fairly quickly. So we think at about the 18 month mark, churches are going to start to see bumps in attendance and giving and that sort of thing. Between 24 months and 36 months, you’re going to start to see a county-wide impact on data around family stability trends. We’re also working with individual churches that reach out to us. So I mentioned the one in Pennsylvania that’s not part of one of the big city initiatives. We have churches we’re working with in every mainland U.S. time zone from sea to shining sea.

SMITH: And so the longterm goal is you’re going to do these four cities, you’re going to see some results, you’re gonna learn some lessons, you’re going to tweak the program, and donors are gonna respond to hopefully to the way—

DEGANCE: Over the next five years, we’d like to get to half of the—consider this: Half of the U.S. population lives in the 40 largest metropolitan statistical areas—MSAs. We want to get to half of them in the next five to six years and we want—10 percent of all Christians go to churches of a thousand people plus. There’s about 15,000 of them when you include all Protestant and Catholic churches and we want to get to half of them over the next five to six years. If we do that effectively, we’ll have hit a tipping point where we can actually start shifting marital and family dynamics on a nationwide level. That’s the goal.

SMITH: Well JP, sounds ambitious. Sounds really interesting. We’ll be watching.

DEGANCE: Thank you Warren. Much appreciated. Thanks for having me on.

SMITH: You bet.


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