Friday, June 15, 2007

Men on the Outside (Written June-July 2002)

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher whose thinking still ricochets through history

Chapter 3

Men on the Outside

The Image of Christianity as Un-masculine
Maybe it is because my own initial encounter with vibrant Christianity, and then early formation in the faith, was in a distinctly masculine setting that I have always been a bit puzzled by the prevailing perception that Christian believing has little or nothing to do with red-blooded men. The conventional “wisdom” is that the faith is designed primarily for women and children, or is a spiritual crutch for weaklings – wimps who are incapable of standing on their own two feet in such a demanding world. To me the Christian faith has always seemed the ultimate masculine adventure perhaps because I was introduced to Jesus Christ by some of the finest male role models. Besides, what could be more challenging than giving my all back in the service of him who sacrificed his all for me?

My mentors made sure that my earliest Christian heroes were “muscular” Christians. I was told the tough stories of pioneer missionaries, or men like Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner immortalized in the 1980s movie, Chariots of Fire, because he was prepared to pass up the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal rather than contravene deeply-held Christian principles. It also caught my imagination that he died in an internment camp in China during World War Two because of his selflessness. These individuals were certainly not losers and neither were they life’s also-rans: I found them inspiring role models to emulate.

Yet my sense that Christianity has a distinctly masculine flavor is light years from the image that the faith has within our culture. The general rule-of-thumb that has been evolving for a dozen generations is that only the weak and effete are ever going to get excited about that kind of stuff. I am all too familiar with this way of thinking because it was the mindset of my father, most of the males in my extended family, and the circle of friends with whom I grew up. Oh, there might have been a measure of respect for the church, but high commitment and heavy involvement was not something you would expect of a man who is worth his salt. One of my father’s greatest disappointments was my ordination, and I sense that he kicked himself for the remainder of his life that he had not provided me with more direction when I had been searching around for a career.

This perception that Christianity is somehow un-masculine has been intensifying, and perhaps in the last few years has reached its zenith. From the media to the sports bar the prevailing opinion is that real men not only don’t eat quiche, but they don’t go to church either. What this implies is that if you dig down deep, then at least half the human race should be congenitally non-religious or unspiritual. This is patently untrue. For example, Islam has a strongly masculine flavor, while, as a female friend of mine puts it, Orthodoxy is “very much a guy thing.”

Yet, here in the USA and much of the rest of the Western world, something has been happening that has led to a sickening decline in male Christian commitment and church attendance. While statistics can be notoriously slippery, the accumulating evidence verifies this perception. Then all you have to do is to randomly poke your head around any church door on any Sunday morning, and you will almost certainly see fewer men than women; if careful statistics have been kept by a parish, then these will demonstrate that there were fewer men than would have been the case in 1990. Neither is this just an Episcopal or mainline church problem, but something that crops up in various shapes and forms across the whole spectrum in the West: Protestant, Catholic, and Pentecostal.

I spent getting on for twenty years visiting churches throughout North America, and I do not recall more than a handful of parishes where there was an equal balance between males and females. Most congregations I have visited weigh in somewhere between 60% and 70% female, while increasing numbers have an even smaller proportion of men than that. I do not recall ever having been in a parish where there were more men than women.

This gender imbalance pertains not just to worship attendance, but to the whole spectrum of church activities. Around the turn of the millennium I was at a successful and relatively new congregation in Virginia. As we processed in I glanced around and saw that the balance between men and women looked pretty good for a mainline church, and was encouraged. Then a children’s choir came forward to sing, there was one lone boy among all the girls. The majority of acolytes were also female, and the answer I got to some well-placed questions was that girls were in the majority in the church’s Sunday school.

A week or two after this experience I was attending a diocesan convention where an excellent Power Point presentation was boasting the advances congregations were making in youth ministry. Encouraging as this was, the pictures thrown up onto the screen of a number of burgeoning young groups suggested that only about 1/3 of their active young people were male. This is the next generation, and does not auger well for the future as far as males are concerned.

The statistics, backed up by impressionistic observations like these, suggest that as we look at ministry among males we are facing a monumental crisis that grows more pressing and unmanageable with each rising generation. The blunt truth is that men are melting away, very often because they sense that they are unwelcome, or because the subliminal message has been that they are unwanted. The ambivalence that so many males have about God (and the church) seems to have been hardening, and now they, with the help of prevailing attitudes within churches, have convinced themselves that they do not fit.

I spent several months looking at these incontrovertible facts, and they raised all sorts of question. Most of all, I found myself asking is whether it has always been like this, or whether this is something relatively new.

Exaggeration and Statistics
The only way to answer such a question was to do a bit of amateur sleuthing. I wanted to get my mind around the history behind this phenomenon, because if we are able to understand its origins we might be able to develop a series of strategies that would help us reverse the trend. While my research and question-asking has been far from exhaustive, there does seem to have been a time when things were more fairly balanced, but we have to go back several centuries.

As I dug around and asked a cavalcade of questions I found myself being pushed steadily backward, and it wasn’t too long before I had gone four hundred years to the Reformation. During that era the great Anglican divine, Richard Hooker, observed that women appeared to have a greater propensity to holiness than men. Did this mean that they were just more naturally pious, or were there more women in church than men? It is hard to tell from the context of Hooker’s statement.

It would be a fascinating and extremely valuable research project for a historian to try to discover precisely when it was that men started excusing themselves from the life of the church, and what it is that did the turning off. Was it during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation? Did it have something to do with changing perceptions of the world and manhood at that time or later? Did it have anything to do with the explosion of education that burst in upon the western world with the arrival of moveable type and the printed word? Or was it something else? Right now we can play around with ideas, but otherwise have to surmise.

They did not worry too much about counting numbers and gathering statistics during the 16th Century, so the first observations that might have some vague basis in measured reality start to appear in the 17th Century. By the time Massachusetts had been settled for a generation or two, the Puritan leader, Cotton Mather, was complaining, “I have seen it without going a mile from home, that in a church of three or four hundred communicants, there are but few more than one hundred men, all the rest are women.”

Yet Mather was clearly prone to exaggeration because the parish registers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony do not entirely support his words, but it suggests the male drift away from church had begun. Living on the edge of a vast and unexplored continent, the male absence may have had something to do with the struggle to survive in that harsh landscape, but clearly a trend was being established and helped along by the social and intellectual climate. Within a century or so, barely 40% of worshipers in New England were male, while church activity dropped to around 35% for men as you ventured further and further south.

By the early 19th Century the distinctly American phenomenon of revivals swept the frontiers and pushed their tentacles back into the more settled lands of the East. These were movements of the Spirit, but they were also religious activities that were encouraged along by “marketing.” Not only in those circumstances does it appear that women were more responsive to the message being proclaimed, but the canny preachers and revivalists seemed to deliberately aim their message at females when they realized that they were the ones most likely to respond to the call to penitence and faith. Did this playing upon female sensitivities intensify the feminine image of Christian involvement?

It seems some sort of die had been cast by the beginning of the Victorian era, and patterns of church life have followed a similar trajectory right up until the present. Just as David James and Jay Crouse discovered little in the way of male activities in their parishes on either coast, so the program life of churches the length of breadth of America is today almost inevitably aimed predominantly toward the female end of the market, and at their children. Because women have in the past tended to be more responsive, an assortment of activities from bible studies to aerobics classes are directed at them, while men are more likely to remain on the fringes of parish life. Indeed, women are more likely to choose the congregation in which the family will involve itself, and are the most faithful in their attendance.

Neither is the high profile of women in church a distinctly American phenomenon. Both Catholic and Protestant statistics suggest similar patterns are likely to prevail in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Leon Podles has written extensively about this topic, pointing out that “wherever western Christianity has spread, the church is feminized.” This statement raised a whole new series of demanding questions that require us to dig beneath the surface.

The why behind the detective work
Having got this far in my sleuthing, I was not prepared to leave it there. I felt that I had gathered a few historical facts, but wanted to go deeper beneath surface of what had been going on. After poking around for a few more months, mulling over the evidence and testing suppositions, I came up with a theory that at least seems to make sense of the bits and pieces of evidence I managed to gather. Let me hasten to say that what follows are some ideas that may lack solid substantiation, but having tried them out on scores of people I have yet to find anyone who can improve upon them!

It was Podles’ remark about the western church being feminizing that put me onto the trail that I found myself following. It forced me to ask what Christianity in the West has experienced that had so significantly influences every western brand and flavor of the faith, but which had not been experienced either by Islam or Christianity in the East. The only answer I was able to come up with was the Enlightenment, that rationalizing movement that followed on from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe.

Those of us who live four or five hundred years after the bloody religious upheavals of the 16th Century tend to romanticize what happened during those turbulent years, especially those of us who pay particular homage to the Reformation. Yet when we do so we tend to overlook how unsettled and disrupted those times were, and few lives were left untouched by them. War and misery were visited upon the poor and powerless, while godly men and women on both sides of the affair could very well lose their heads or be burned alive if their convictions clashed with those in control, and they proved to be uncooperative.

In the wake of such turmoil thinkers and philosophers found themselves casting around for an under-girding worldview that would provide a measure of stability in such a wobbly and irrational situation, and which would not rely on what they perceived to be the divisiveness of religion. So it was in the second decade of the 17th Century that Frenchman, Rene Descartes, came up with his famous nostrum, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). Other philosophers followed in his wake, and built upon his intellectual foundation worldviews that were thoroughly secular and had no reference at all to the eternal and the divine. In a handful of generations such views had migrated from the academy into the minds of the general population.

For the next several hundred years, reason and scientific deduction rather than faith and belief were the primary organizing principle around which the western thought world would revolve, with religious worldviews increasingly marginalized, ignored, or even despised. Descartes may not have been aware of it at the time, but by coming up with a system of thinking that put an end the religiously-driven feuding, he was also fixing the intellectual DNA that would shape western thinking for centuries, gradually severing its spiritual and religious taproots.

Other great minds followed in Descartes’ footsteps, and a very different kind of worldview that emerged was sharpened and intensified. The writing of John Locke, the 18th Century English philosopher, played a major role in widening the gap in the western mind between faith and reason, a dichotomy that became deeply engrained in the western mentality – and is beneath the ambivalence toward religion in America’s founding documents. As this gap opened it had significant influence upon the way the genders thought about themselves and each other. It came to be generally assumed men were the rational ones, while women were the ones who were gentler and more sensitive. As a result, it was thought that women were more likely to be comfortable in the realms of faith and believing rather than the rough and tumble of the “real world.”

This might have been a weak thread upon which to base our suppositions about the absence of men if it were only the Enlightenment that had shaped western thinking, but there was much more than that, for it both accompanied and played a part in triggering the Industrial Revolution. If the Enlightenment shook up the way people thought, the Industrial Revolution changed forever the way they would live. Prior to the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, Europe was predominantly rural, its communities clustered around their parish churches. Over the next century or so it was to become the most intensely urban society on this planet, ripping people from their village roots that had for so long anchored them, and given shape to the lives of successive generations.

For centuries the vast majority of Europeans had lived settled lives in small towns and villages, with the clergy and the church playing a key role in all that happened. Then the population exploded as industrialization spawned vast urban sprawls that became the centers of production and commerce, and the church lost its preeminence. The Industrial Revolution was to reshape America somewhat later than was the case in most of Europe.

When people dwelt in villages, the home was not only the place where people lived, but the hub from which they worked, now, with manufacturing requiring efficiencies of scale, work moving out of the home into offices and factories. Whereas everyone had once known everyone else in the community, and had poked their noses into everyone else’s business, the mushrooming cities were anonymous, often dirty places that for the majority of workers and their loved ones promised far more than they were ever able to deliver. Not only did everyone know everyone else when they lived in villages, but they were very often related, too. These rural communities were, in reality, extended family networks. All these links were severely disrupted when the most entrepreneurial (or the most desperate) headed off to the big city and the bright lights.

Work ‘til you drop, or shop ‘til you drop
All this profoundly reshaped and reordered the way men and women thought and related to one another. New roles emerged in all the social classes, but it was the way the growing middle class related to one another that most shaped cultural mores. These new roles were being firmed up by the Victorian era. In the 1830s women like Sarah Stickney Ellis could write successful books that codified etiquette and expectations. Just as the theories of the likes of John Locke had separated faith from reason, these new cultural configurations put up a wall between the sort of lives men and women lived.

In this scheme of things, the realm in which a woman was destined to prevail was the private world of hearth and home. Her arena was the family, education, domesticity, and faith. But men were perceived to be tough, and were the modern equivalent of the “hunter-gatherer” going out into a hostile world and providing for their families in the domain of manufacturing or commerce. The household was no longer the focus of the male’s life, but was the nest which women tended in order to care for and nurture their men-folk and children. Men were “wage warriors,” bringing home the money their family needed, while women created the haven to which their “hardened husbands” would return at the end of a demanding day. While I realize this is a gross over-simplification, it does help provide some of the flavor of what was going on.

This was the era during which the notion of the woman as consumer was born. The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, when writing of the two sexes pronounced, “In their hearts, women think that it is men’s business to earn money and theirs to spend it!” The idea may be a little cheeky, but it got me wondering whether this leading German intellectual might perhaps have been the grandfather of the shopping mall!

If the Enlightenment initiated the way of thinking that set up a barrier in the common mind between faith and reason, the Industrial Revolution provided the geographical and sociological setting in which this approach to living could thrive and prosper. The stage was now set for the development of the world in which we have lived until recently. It shaped the way we thought about communities, families, and work, and provided the arena in which the two genders differentiated themselves from one another.

All this set up an environment in which the Christian church increasingly perceived to be the female domain on the periphery of “the real world.” The churches not only played into this by projecting its self toward women’s sensibilities, but this has intensified as women have moved into a growing share of leadership roles in most denominations. Responding from their gut, men did not need any more convincing that the faith world is marginal and trivial, and they have found little in it which they think will give meaning and significance to their lives. Indeed, many men sense that they are distinctly out of place in church settings – somewhat similar to the way they feel when dragged by their spouse to a women’s dress shop where their presence may be politely tolerated, but they realize that they are not necessarily enthusiastically welcomed.

Viewing this phenomenon in 1988, Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University said in his groundbreaking book, The Restructuring of American Religion, “That women should demonstrate greater commitment, on average, to religion than men do can be interpreted as part of the traditional set of roles which women have played until very recently: mother, housekeeper, guardian of traditional values, participant in voluntary associations, marginal to the labor force, marginal to sources of social status such as education and professional occupations.

The present situation
Clearly there have been trends within the culture, and patterns of church life, that have made it increasingly difficult for men to feel there is a place for them within the life of the churches. This is a situation that has, perhaps, been intensified in the last two or three generations, as society has moved away from the domestic and work arrangements that were shaped by the Industrial Revolution, and women have started playing a far more prominent role both in the workplace, in the leadership of public life, and, of course, in the churches.

Men have become the outsiders, and as they look in on church life they do not see much that interests them, although the more sensitive among them recognize that all may not be well with their lives. The manner in which the Christian message is presented often does little for the male ego, and neither does it address his needs. Not only has church been honed and shaped by women, the majority of those involved, but it is directed toward them rather than at men’s spiritual yearnings and expectations. Furthermore, the message has often been whittled down by the process of privatization that is rooted in the Enlightenment, and appears trivial to the male psyche. While the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about every facet and demand in God’s world, all that many men are often able to see is something that is merely personal and devotional.

The West African theologian, Lamin Sanneh, who teaches at Yale Divinity School, commented recently that the Christian religious heritage has been “privatized and marginalized and commodified.” Its teeth have been pulled and it no longer seems directed at the whole sweep of human experience and endeavor, but avoids the big issues that might catch male imaginations, and over the last couple of hundred years has been tamed and softened.

Such an approach to believing, it should be pointed out, also leaves a large number of women unsatisfied, but by far the greatest proportion of men have been turned off. As a gender men want to be involved in something that is significant and has a greater meaning, and they do not see this in Christianity. During the last 25-30 years this sense of alienation has, if anything, been deepened, as males have watched female preferences prevail in church life to the extent that in many settings the church has undertaken a radical program of recasting even its most sacred symbols in a more feminine light. Thus, it is hardly surprising that men have voted with their feet in droves.

But something else has been going on among men that is even more sinister. While women have been out there eagerly exploring the new challenges and opportunities that have opened up for them, there are signs that males have become becalmed in a kind of Sargasso Sea, no longer sure what their place and role in society ought to be. It is to this that we must now turn.

Friday, June 8, 2007

So what is going on among men today? (Written June 2002)

Rev. David James

Chapter 2

So what is going on among men today?

A Parable from France
When I think of men and how they relate to the church, an image from a vacation my wife and I took in France soon after we graduated from college keeps coming to mind. We were fairly newly wed and were visiting my wife’s former roommate who had married a French mining engineer. It was August, when France virtually closes down for a month of vacations, so all four of us had time to do some traveling together. One weekend we found ourselves in a pleasant market town somewhere bang in the middle of France. The only worship option that Sunday was the Roman Catholic parish, so while our friends slept in we attended Mass.

The large church was about a third full: I guess there were probably a couple of hundred people in the congregation. While waiting for the service to begin, I glanced around and half-noted that males were rather thin on the ground, but gave little more thought to it. The Scriptures were read, a rather unimaginative sermon was preached, the creed was recited and the intercessions were made; then, just as the consecration of the elements was about to take place, there was an echoing metallic creak of ancient hinges followed by the sound of shuffling at the back of the church. Turning around I could see the west door of the church being pushed open, and several dozen men crushing their cigarette ends under their heels before sliding into the rear of the chancel for the sacramental climax of the liturgy.

The men stayed just long enough to satisfy their women folk, and while communion was being administered took their leave – probably to one of the several cafes that lined the square, for a glass of red wine or a steaming hot espresso coffee. It had taken only a few generations for men in France to retreat from being the pillars of the church to being unnecessary extras. There were probably a thousand other parishes that day where the men stayed just long enough to keep peace at home and with the priest before heading for their favorite watering-hole. Today most of the men are gone altogether – and many have taken the females in their families with them.

In France, as in virtually every other country in Europe, the culture that has emerged in the last forty or fifty years is a militantly secular one, with the church on its fringes – and men on the fringe of the church. A similar story could be told in many other parts of the Western world from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and back to Europe. Meanwhile, considering everything, church attendance still holds up in the United States remarkably well, but the statistics are pointing to the fact that increasing numbers of men are looking somewhere else – or, more likely, ignoring their spiritual side altogether.

A Pastoral Disaster that seems not to concern us
It is the number of men who are not involved in the life of the church that should be a grave source of pastoral concern to American Christian leaders, but so many are either oblivious to what is happening, or are assiduously ignoring the situation. Conservative and evangelical churches have changed their tactics for few years, helped along by the Promise Keepers surge which is now past. However, they have begun taking the challenge of reaching men increasingly more seriously, and this can be seen from the offerings that are coming out of evangelical publishers.

However, ministry among men remains little more than a distant or unnoticed blip on the radar screen of those in the mainline churches in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular. If the figures coming from polling organizations like Gallup and Barna even vaguely reflect the reality, the Episcopal Church has the dubious distinction of being the denomination that has the smallest proportion of men among its active membership, and that figure is continuing to fall. (I suspect the departure of men has probably accelerated in the years since I first wrote those words).

Any number of reasons could explain the absence of males, but it does seem that most churches have paid little attention to the needs and challenges that face males. When this is put alongside that deep-rooted male tendency to consider themselves self-sufficient and not needing any ‘props,’ then it is not difficult to see an outline of the shape of our dilemma. Add to this a deepening sense of abhorrence in the masculine world for much of what the church stands for, feelings that have been intensified by the crises that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, and it is not difficult to see where these dynamics might be leading.

David James used to be a police officer. Today he is the rector of a parish in the Pacific Northwest, and over the last dozen and a half years has become a leading proponent of male spirituality in the Episcopal Church. He comments that, “Men are acculturated to see life in terms of action, of ‘making a difference,’ and the church often seems to spend its capital on fighting battles that the average man does not care about.” In a postmodern world, most males care diddlysquat about the petty squabbling that seems to characterize so much of church life today. To the majority of men many of our controversies seem so trivial and unimportant that they would rather get on with things that really matter in life.

The Stastics Behind the Reality
Father James has accumulated an impressive array of statistics to back up his assertions. Virtually every survey that has been made in the last 10-15 years dealing with the issue of men and their attitude toward the Christian faith is rather discouraging. The tragedy is that the churches have paid scant attention to data being generated, and have ignored the grave pastoral concern that all this should be to us.

Here is just a sample of what is going on:

· Men under the age of thirty are the most unchurched population in the United States

· Seventy-five percent of all men in America do not attend church regularly

· Eighty-five percent of all American men used to attend church, but do so no longer

· Thirty-eight million American man have not attended church in the last six months

This presents an enormous collection of challenges, within which are wrapped fascinating opportunities for Gospel people, if we were to pay them careful attention. Apart from the initiatives of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, the on-going work of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, and sterling male ministries in a handful of congregations, the spiritual wellbeing of men seems to be of little consequence to our parishes, dioceses, and especially the national Episcopal Church.

Since 2000 the Episcopal Church has been talking up a storm about doubling its number of worshipers by 2020, yet our efforts at reaching out to the gender that makes up almost half the population are pitiful and all but non-existent. (The much vaunted 20/20 movement has gone nowhere, much to my chagrin. I was part of the task force that worked on an exciting evangelistic way forward, but when it came to it sexuality issues have been considered far more important than advancing the cause of Christ’s Kingdom).

It isn’t as if men are staying away from church because everything in their lives is going swimmingly. The “average man” in America, if there is such a creature, is struggling to work out who he is and what his role might be in today’s world. Much has changed in the last fifty years, and while the place and role of women in society has changed radically, males have been a lot slower to rethink what their role and place is in the world that is emerging.

Furthermore, while men might think of themselves as autonomous and self-sufficient, there are cartloads of evidence that all is not well with the masculine psyche. It would appear that at least fifty million men in America are encumbered (in differing degrees) by some kind of destructive, compulsive, or addictive behavior. These addictions might be to a substance, or to a process, or even to both. Drugs, food, and alcohol are the most likely male substances of abuse while among a complex mixture of processes to which men are addicted, are sex, work, adrenaline, and rage.

This reality translates into an even more depressing set of male statistics:

Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women.

Over eighty percent of homeless single people are male

Ninety percent of those living with AIDS/HIV are men

Men comprise ninety-three percent of all those who are killed on the job.

There are eight times as many men in mental hospitals and prisons than there are women

The tale of woe does not end there, for this is merely the visible face of male self-abuse. Many middle-class males will shake their heads when reading this wearying procession of woes, but are likely to be denying or covering up their own addictions, compulsions, or destructive impulses. These statistics are just the tip of an enormous iceberg, forcefully drawing attention to a simmering distress that percolates beneath the surface. English psychiatrist, Anthony Clare, writes, “At the beginning of the 21st Century it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that men are in serious trouble.”

Traditional male roles and expectations have evaporated in a rapidly changing culture, and to date nothing substantial has emerged to take their place. There is no more poignant an illustration of this than the 1990s British movie, The Full Monty. Set in Sheffield, once the thriving center of the British steel industry, it is a tragic-comedy of a group of unemployed working men whose womenfolk have been able to find jobs in the burgeoning service sector, but who are themselves surplus to requirements now that heavy industry and manufacturing have moved away. The new world being born no longer requires either their brawn or any of their other skills. In the end they take up stripping in a club for an audience of women as a way of earning a living and drawing attention to their plight.

Diminishing Life Expectancy
Some suggest that there may be a link between diminishing life expectancies among men and the deepening sense of masculine lost-ness. While patterns of reduced longevity are most obvious in countries of the former Soviet Union, and parts of Africa where AIDS has taken a significant toll, there is a growing body of research that is beginning to suggest that it is possible life expectancy for men might has peaked in the USA.

The truth is that historically men have not taken particular care of themselves, but as we enter a new century, it is possible that male self-doubt could well be a contributory factor. The National Institutes of Health and dozens of universities studies “have repeatedly shown that male morbidity and longevity are influenced by alterable lifestyle habits and can be improved by stopping smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, eating more nutritious meals, exercising regularly, avoiding occupational hazards when possible, and conscientiously using healthcare facilities.” Yet millions of men have shown little willingness to make the appropriate lifestyle adjustments, and have continued to misuse their bodies.

Men have much to learn from women, who were increasingly taken better care of themselves in the latter decades of the 20th Century. This reality makes itself felt in startling improvements in female longevity figures. Since the 1960s and the birth of the “women’s health movement,” there has been a growing willingness of masses of women to take medical advice seriously, modifying behavior, diet, and lifestyles. Men, scared of being considered wimps, are less willing to take such warnings. As he drains his third or fourth beer many a macho man has been heard to boast, “I haven’t needed to see the doctor in years.” By staying away and avoiding regular physical check-ups, correctable problems become chronic, and these are further intensified by inappropriate diets and lack of regular exercise.

As all males are fully aware, there are generations of masculine socialization behind these attitudes. From the time we are small boys we are discouraged from complaining or even seeking assistance when we know that we need it. What was once just a barroom boast now seems to be robbing males of years that could have been spent doing something constructive or providing for their families and loved ones. Even a casual visit one or two of the nursing homes or elderly housing facilities in your own community, and you will see the disproportionate number of elderly women there is to older men.

A Priest to Men
All this deeply concerns David James, the ex-cop and priest mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. He took an early retirement from law enforcement, went to seminary, was ordained, and has since trained as a psychologist. Fr. James expresses his anxieties in a forthright manner. “Those of us who work with men in the Church have discovered the depths of men’s alienation from their God, themselves, and those they love. The average man is more wounded physically, emotionally and spiritually than he is aware of. And rather than find ways to grieve and heal, he has developed coping and survival strategies that are ineffective, inadequate and ungodly.”

He was already a priest and had completed his doctorate in clinical psychology when he found himself drawn into exploring and understanding the needs of men as they struggle to find their place in this new world being born. The male dilemma became a reality with a face he could put upon it when he was Director of Adult Formation on a cathedral staff in California in the early nineties. While there it slowly dawned on him that there was a pressing spiritual dimension to all that he was seeing.

A particular turning point seems to have been a pastoral interview that he had with a rising young attorney who made an appointment to see him seeking help and support. In so many ways this man’s situation was not unique: he was sensing a lack of meaning in his life, and felt as though there was so much pent up anger inside him that he would soon explode. As the two of them talked, David discovered that this man had been raised by his mother after his father had abandoned their family, and that for most of his adult years he had had few intimate male friends with whom to share his life. Digging deeper they discovered that he was looking for a place where he could share his inner pain and turmoil; he was lonely and hungered for fellowship with other men who were on a similar sort of journey.

This led David James to start poking around, making a pest of himself as he asked an endless succession of questions of whomever he thought could help him get a handle on what was going on. At the same time he was observing patterns of parish life, and it became apparent that while there were plenty of things that men might do around the church, there were few, if any, places where a man could meet with other men to grow in faith. “So,” he remarked with a smile, “in what turned out to be a life-changing decision, I put a note in the bulletin inviting men to a 6.00 a.m. coffee and donut meeting to talk about spirituality. Twenty-five men came the first day!”

All that the guys did together that morning was to talk around the question, “Why are you come at such an early hour on a workday to talk about your spiritual life?” The answers that came back amazed their priest. “The men replied that first of all, the church seemed geared to women and children. Secondly, that they’d spoken to a priest or pastor years ago about forming a men’s bible study only to be met with indifference. Finally, they felt that if they weren’t interested in a vocation to ordained ministry, the official church had little interest in them.”

Just as that early morning men’s group at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta had been the starting point for the altered trajectory of Jay Crouse’s life, so on the western side of the country a few years later, another early morning men’s gathering gave new focus to Fr. James’s ministry. He found himself learning as he went along, and over the next several years a series of groups and retreats were developed by the men of the cathedral which became real “watering holes” for them.

But this wasn’t enough. He says, “To equip myself to better work with the guys I started reading everything I could find on ministry to men… which wasn’t much.”

It was while searching for helpful literature that he stumbled across the writing of Roman Catholic Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. Rohr is a man who has been something of an innovator in pastoral ministry, and by this point had been set apart by his order and the Roman church to work specifically with men. David James gobbled up what Rohr had to say, and then started using Rohr’s books and ideas with men’s groups. To his delight he discovered that Rohr spoke a language that Episcopal men could understand and respond to.

As sometimes happens when you find a “soul friend” through the written word, James got in touch with Rohr and pleaded to be mentored by him as he explored the whole world of men and male spirituality. From that long distance friendship and tutorial relationship came a more substantial face-to-face association, which in turn led to David James not only to share ministry with Fr. Rohr, but also to writing his first book about men’s ministry – one of the first ever written by an Episcopalian.

In his determination to learn more about what got men to the point where we are today, James even worked for several years as a clinical consultant for the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children in Rancho Mirage, California. It was while doing this that he found out just how much damage is done to the heart and soul of boys when their young lives are devoid of discernable male role models. Little by little the pieces slipped into place in his mind.

David James is a man with a clear mission. He has a passion about males and all that they can be in Jesus Christ, and he gets excited and energized by this subject. He has given a lot of thought to all that is going on around us today: “When God created men, he gave us the ability to live with passion, courage, wisdom, strength, purpose, and faithfulness. He planted deep within our soul the gift of our manhood and raised that gift to new heights in the redeeming action of Jesus Christ. Sadly, we’ve not always lived up to this potential, but it is our prayer that each man will hear the Gospel afresh and re-enter life with the freedom to serve all of God’s creation aflame with the spirit of Jesus.”

Jay Crouse and David James, two men at “the pointed end” of the movement to reach men for Jesus Christ, are pioneers for men’s ministry in the Episcopal Church. They both recognize that in society today men are at a crossroads, and that the churches have a message that can help them make sense of the confusing array of emotions that are constantly tugging on their lives, and can provide for them a way of thinking, believing, and acting that will provide them with an anchor as they attempt to reconfigure what it means to be a man in the postmodern, post-Christian world of the Twenty-first Century.

But before we can start identifying ways that we might proceed, it is necessary for us to look at how we got to where we are now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

One Man Can Make A Difference (written in 2002)

Chapter 1
One Man Can Make A Difference

Turning Tragedy to Triumph
A tawny-red dawn had just begun to break across an angry Tennessee sky when I reached Starbucks that morning, but now, as I sat back in my comfortable chair pondering, the clouds had cleared and shafts of golden sunlight streaked the room. A few other early risers had been dribbling in to tank up on their morning caffeine, but I had been so absorbed in a type-written manuscript that I had not noticed them.

What was absorbing me was one man’s account of how, over an elongated stretch of his life, God had set him on an unexpected course so that at that particular time he was in a position to make an extraordinary difference in the lives of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of men. As I considered the possibilities, I sipped my cappuccino, bit into my pastry, and disappeared back into my thoughts.

I had first met Jay Crouse when he turned up in a seminary winter session class I had taught several Januarys earlier. A short, dark-haired man with an infectious smile, Jay was full of perceptive observations about the subject we had been studying, and during that time together he had talked about his concern for the hearts of men. His passion that men have a healthy relationship with God the Father through Jesus, the Son, fascinated me, but until now I had not known the twists and turns that had brought him to the point where he was willing to turn his back on a potentially lucrative career, and setting off into unknown territory.

Now that I had read his story the facts were at my fingertips – and I found myself thanking God that Jay and his family had been willing to make major sacrifices to follow where the Lord seemed to be leading. One of the things that had most fascinated me about Jay’s story was that it had been a tragedy in an Atlanta church twenty years earlier that had unwittingly pointed him in so unexpected and fruitful a direction.

I have always been captivated by the way God is able to take the raw material of human life, be it tragedy or be it crisis, and then to transform it from something unsightly into a thing of beauty. It was a reckless act of homicide that had forced Moses to flee into the desert to escape the wrath of Egypt’s king. Yet forty years later Moses was to lead the People of Israel on one of the most epic escapes ever been recorded. Without that hideous murder, which Moses must have regretted a million times over during what seemed to be the wasted years of exile, there might have been no exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

I had begun to take an interest in the significance of such turning points when, years earlier, an unexpected crisis almost ripped my own life apart. As a result of this experience, I had accumulated a mental storehouse filled with similar accounts of God’s grace bringing blessing out of human failure or misery. The particular tragedy that changed the trajectory of Jay Crouse’s life was the breakdown of the marriage of the pastor of the Presbyterian church he and his wife attended during their first years together.

Jay and Laura were newlyweds, and found the sad circumstances that had led to this heartbreak so difficult to handle that for the good of their own relationship it became necessary to find another spiritual home. So it was that they eventually linked up with a big red-brick United Methodist Church set in one of the pleasant tree-filled suburbs just to the north of the city, the church which also happened to be the congregation in which Laura Crouse had grown up.

Jay was not a Southerner, but grew up in the Buckeye state of Ohio. When he launched his career in business following graduation from college in the late 1970s, he had come south to the boom town of Atlanta. He had been raised in a Christian home, but despite a youthful profession of faith, like so many others, when he got to college he had found that there were just too many other distractions. The spiritual side of his life was put into the deep freeze for a number of years, only to re-emerge at the time of his marriage, and then to intensify with the arrival of the Crouses’ eldest son, John. These changes in his family circumstances had been the incentive that had led them to hook up with that lively Presbyterian church. Then, having settled into this community of faith, their own marital security was threatened by the family disaster that befell the congregation’s leader.

New Year’s Resolution

Not many people keep their New Year’s resolutions, but Jay Crouse is one of life’s exceptions! As their family was put down roots at Northside United Methodist Church, he became aware of a Men’s Prayer Breakfast that met very early on a weekday morning, come rain or shine, before guys headed off to work. He was intrigued. He had never come across anything like this before, so a few months after linking up with the parish, and with some trepidation, he resolved that he would give the gathering a try.

Keeping that resolution was the major turning point in his story. “Those men took me under their wings and led me into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “That wonderful experience gave me a foundation in terms of my own spiritual life and a sense about the power of what happens when men come together in spiritual formation.” Within a few weeks Jay Crouse was hooked, and became one of the regulars who got up early to meet with God over coffee and donuts.

During the next three years, nurtured by a healthy congregation, the Crouses found their faith growing and deepening, with this revolution being most apparent for Jay within the context of the early morning group. As the thread of his life became interwoven with that of the men at Northside, he discovered the richness of male fellowship, the potential and the adventure of being God’s man in today’s world, and the exhilaration that accompanies the challenge to Christian obedience.

The Crouses thought they were settled in Atlanta for the long haul, but this was not to be the case. A reality of today’s world is that often a career advance requires relocation, which is precisely what happened, dragging the family away from all that was familiar in Atlanta, and planting them where they were complete strangers.

Church of the Redeemer
By this point the Crouse family was no longer just Laura, Jay, and John, but two more sons had been added to their quiver. Jay’s new work took them to Sarasota, on Florida’s west coast, and as they came to rest they started looking for another church home. With Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches in their combined backgrounds, these were the natural places to begin, but after a frustrating year they realized they were no closer to finding a congregation where they felt they could really belong. Then a friend said, “Why don’t you try the Church of the Redeemer?”

Jay laughs today about his family arriving at this bastion of high church Anglicanism. “We did not realize that Redeemer was an Episcopal church, but we found that out immediately the service started. It was completely foreign to anything we had ever experienced in our lives before! Although we struggled through the first service, there was something about the church that kept drawing us back. With each visit we became more comfortable, and gradually we became familiar with the liturgy and tradition.”

If it was so unfamiliar to them, why did they stick around? Their answer is a simple one: “We were overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. We felt God leading us to this new church home.” After initial misgivings, Jay and Laura became enthusiastic pilgrims on the Canterbury Trail, and it was not too long before they were confirmed, finding themselves increasingly at ease in the congregation into which God had parachuted them.

But as much as they appreciated their new church home, Jay was realizing that something was missing. He found himself craving the fellowship of those twenty or thirty other men with whom he had met every week in Atlanta. After giving it a lot of thought and prayer he approached the rector with the idea that they might launch a men’s gathering of some kind at Church of the Redeemer. The two of them mulled the idea over together, and, after several discussions, decided to try out the notion of a Men’s Prayer Breakfast. They publicized what they were intending to do, prayed fervently, and wondered what the outcome would be.

Five or six men showed up on that first Friday morning at 7.15 a.m., some of them with the same mixture of trepidation and curiosity as Jay had had several years earlier when he has tentatively tested the waters with the Men’s Prayer Breakfast at their old church in Atlanta. Fifteen years later, a whole procession of men have come and gone, but each Friday morning around twenty guys will appear for the Prayer Breakfast at the Church of the Redeemer, and on Saturday mornings there is an additional gathering for the benefit of the men who can’t make it during the week.

These fellowships have evolved, becoming the core around which a vibrant men’s ministry at the Church of the Redeemer has developed, and Jay Crouse always seemed to be somewhere close to the heart of the action. Jay thought that all he was doing was being a faithful parishioner, little did he realize that the men’s ministry at Redeemer was part of his apprenticeship. When God had led him from Ohio to Atlanta, and then to Florida, there was a much bigger strategy in the divine mind that Jay had fathomed at that point!

A Call to Ministry?
Almost inevitably, it seems, when an Episcopalian starts getting really enthusiastic about serving Jesus Christ, the issue of ordination is raised. During the mid-Nineties this was an avenue that Jay and Laura found themselves puzzling over. After various conversations and much thought, they participated in various programs put on by the Diocese of Southwest Florida, designed to help people Christians discover God’s will for their lives, especially to see if ordained ministry is part of the divine pattern. As the Crouses worked through the process, talked, and prayed, they could not get comfortable with the idea of ordination. Yet even as the idea of the “collar” receded, there continued to be a growing excitement in their hearts about ministry, and a curiosity about what the Lord might be calling them to do.

This was a period when all sorts of things were happening in the churches throughout the USA, and for the first time in several generations men’s ministry was coming to the front burner and getting a lot of publicity. The Goliath of this reawakened interest in ministry among men was the Promise Keepers movement. In its early years Promise Keepers exploded onto the scene and was highly controversial. It appeared like a meteorite out of Colorado, the brainchild of college football coach and Christian layman, Bill McCartney. It was the right thing at the right time, touching a raw nerve among America’s men, and for a while it seemed that nothing could stop it.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Jay and the men at the Church of the Redeemer found themselves caught up in Promise Keepers, and gained much from it. Jay, eager as always to get as much from the movement as he possibly could, undertook all the training opportunities that they offered, and that he could fit into his schedule and budget. But while Promise Keepers had whetted his appetite, enabling to focus on the challenge of making Christian men, in Jay’s case it was just another arena in which his gifts were being focused and honed for what God really had in mind.

As Promise Keepers climaxed with huge gatherings all over the country, there were fresh stirrings in the Episcopal Church in Southwest Florida. Changing leadership, as one bishop retired and another took his place, led to new priorities and a ratcheting up of male-oriented activities within the diocese. When Rogers Harris stepped down as Bishop of Southwest Florida, his place was taken by John B. Lipscomb, a parish priest from Louisiana, and the son of a Baptist minister. At that time Lipscomb was one of the youngest bishops in the Episcopal Church, and brought the perspective of a different generation to the leadership of the diocese.

Lipscomb spent a number of months in Southwest Florida as bishop coadjutor doing his on-the-job-training, as it were, before taking the reins of leadership in the latter part of 1997. During that preparatory time he had had the space and opportunity to observe and learn what was going on in Southwest Florida, so that by the time he was installed as diocesan bishop he was ready to float some ideas about the place of men’s ministry in the life of this community of congregations. In his mind men’s ministry was not going to be “yet another program,” but a well-grounded effort to take the challenge of ministry among men very seriously.

Very quickly one thing led to another. A retreat spawned a task force which then spent a number of months thinking, planning, praying, dreaming, and trying to listen to what God had to say. Gradually the vision for Episcopal Men’s Ministry started to grow, and Jay Crouse was once again in the heart of the fray. He found himself increasingly involved in conversations with the bishop, and out of a deepening friendship and mutual respect they were able to explore what role Jay might play in this venture. What became apparent was a growing realization that this initiative would not have the dynamic needed for success unless Jay was heavily involved in its leadership and direction.

The Challenge Ahead
So, in September 1999 the journey Jay had begun in Atlanta when he had made his New Year resolution about going to the men’s group at his church reached another important milestone. At the start of that month he quit his “day job” and became part of the diocesan team as the first full-time Director of Men’s Ministry. In the months that followed he and the bishop went to work sharing their passion with Episcopal churches, both large and small, up and down the Gulf coast of Florida. Simply stated, it is their belief that raising up men as wholehearted followers of Jesus Christ, and nurturing them spiritually, is foundational if the church is to be healthy and to thrive.

When I was writing this during 2002 and early 2003, men’s ministry in Southwest Florida has not achieved heights of success that are accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets, but is very much a steady work in progress. Little by little a strong beachhead has been established, but clearly it is only the beginning of something much bigger. It has been a little like a stone thrown into a pond, for the ripples are already moving steadily outward from that starting point, and are focusing a growing enthusiasm for ministry among men throughout the wider Episcopal Church – and the challenge is colossal.

For reasons we will explore later, there has been an imbalance between men and women in America’s churches for several hundred years, but during the latter part of the 20th Century the situation deteriorated as far as men and the Christian gospel are concerned. Some polls suggest that on an average Sunday morning less than a third of those worshiping in Christian churches in the United States will be male, and several percentage points were lost during the 1990s alone.

The only way to address such a challenge is to be intentional, and Jay Crouse now finds himself at the forefront of that intentionality. His years in business before becoming Director of Men’s Ministries in the Diocese of Southwest Florida are not being wasted, for the skills he learned about planning and strategizing then are now being put to good use in the diocese – and beyond.

This is what this book is about…