Constructing and Applying Christ-Centered Masculinity to Interpersonal Relationships
The Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network (PADVN) was formed in 2001 as a ministry network of the Presbyterian Health, Education, & Welfare Association (PHEWA). PADVN was created to continue the work of the PC(USA) Societal Violence Initiative Team, a major initiative of the General Assembly Council. PADVN was charged to take a lead role in implementing the policy statement approved by the 213th General Assembly (2001), Turn Mourning Into Dancing!, and to keep the issue of domestic violence awareness and prevention at the forefront of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
During its first decade of existence, the PADVN focused on supporting victims/survivors of domestic violence and their families and on raising the PC(USA)’s awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence. There is a noticeable silence surrounding these issues in too many churches, perhaps because church leadership have made the assumption that “that doesn’t happen here.” The statistics, however, beg to differ: one in every four women in the U.S. will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime. That means that any congregation of appreciable size will include victims/survivors, family members, and/or perpetrators among its members. When faced with this reality, the Church can began to see its great responsibility to stand with and support victims/survivors and their families.
I believe that virtually every man would benefit from the opportunity to explore his own masculinity as it is expressed within the context of intimate spouse/partner relationships, as a parent, and in many other arenas of life.
However, as a pastor, one question continued to surface in my heart. Statistically, more than 85% of domestic violence is directed by a male towards his intimate female partner. I kept asking myself: isn’t it also the Church’s responsibility to develop a ministry directed toward male perpetrators that would challenge these men to change their whole understanding of relationship and confront their destructive behaviors? The question remained in my heart long enough that I started to realize perhaps this task was mine to do.
As I began to develop a curriculum that addressed this target audience, I soon realized that it is not just perpetrators of domestic violence who struggle with developing healthy relationships. The need is much larger than that. I believe that virtually every man would benefit from the opportunity to explore his own masculinity as it is expressed within the context of intimate spouse/partner relationships, as a parent, and in many other arenas of life. I also realized there is no such curriculum or forum within the church designed to help men address these issues.
One of the societal messages that defines how we ought to express our masculinity discourages men from sharing and exploring our feelings together, including the successes and failures that impact our relationships. When men struggle in relationships, more often than not we are encouraged by other men to ‘tough it out’, or ‘just try harder’. Many men are never provided a structure of accountability and a safe place to gain new insights or explore other solutions. As a result, we are often unable to effect positive and lasting change in our relationships. Men in many different contexts – not just those who are perpetrators of domestic violence – are never afforded the opportunity to critically examine their behavioral patterns and to learn from them. As a result, the mistakes keep reoccurring.
And so began my journey to develop this curriculum: “Men in the Mirror: Constructing and Applying a Christ-centered Masculinity to Interpersonal Relationships.” The primary goal of the curriculum is to effect change in the context of a man’s own life and relationships as he grows as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Rather than ask a leader to serve as the ‘expert’ on relationships, it encourages both the leader and each participant to focus on the relationship skills that Jesus demonstrates within the context of his own life.
This curriculum is not meant to instill messages of condemnation and shame in participants.
This curriculum is not meant to instill messages of condemnation and shame in participants; instead, the men in the group study scripture together to learn from Jesus’ relationships, discuss how to change their own perspectives and behaviors, and check in with each other in pairs to discuss the changes and difficulties each is facing with his own relationships. Ultimately, participants in “Men in the Mirror” are motivated by the desire to grow in discipleship. The course is built on a system of accountability and together-ness, encouraging personal dialogue with a trusted partner throughout is thirteen sessions. Each class session provides the repeated opportunity to check in with and share privately with that same person.
The core question behind the curriculum is, “What does it mean to be a mature, healthy, Christian man?” In every society, males of all ages hear and internalize a variety of messages about the definition and “appropriate” expression of their masculinity. Some of these messages may have positive impacts on their development and sense of masculine identity, such as messages encouraging reliability, accountability, and decisiveness. Other internalized messages have destructive implications for a man’s well-being and the well-being of those with whom he shares relationships. I would count among these messages that define masculinity in terms of emotional disconnectedness, authoritarianism, and a level of independence that leads to isolation. Often times, even positive messages can have a damaging shadow-side if they are not balanced and discussed in open, honest conversation. Internalized messages of identity left unexamined can create deeply engrained patterns of relationship problems that men will continue to struggle with for the rest of their lives.
I firmly believe that the lack of a strong forum within the Church in which men can explore together those qualities, values, and practices that make for positive relationships plays a role in the prevalence of domestic violence. The void its absence leaves plays a part in the breakdown of healthy dynamics within families and towards significant others. In addition its absence tends to marginalize the relevance of the Christian community in men’s lives. I believe that the solution lies in naming this need and talking openly with one another about relationships. By studying the dynamics exhibited in Jesus’ relationships with the people he encountered in his lifetime, I hope that my curriculum “Men in the Mirror” can help fill that void as it sets out to explore and address the values that impact men’s relationships. Ultimately, I hope that it gives Christian men the opportunity to critique their own relationship skills and grow in their discipleship to Jesus Christ.
For more information, and resources, check out:
- The PHEWA (Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association) Homepage
- The PHEWA Community Page
- The PADVN (Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network) Homepage
AUTHOR BIO: Kevin Frederick earned his Master of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a Master of Arts in Christian Education from Union-PSCE and his doctorate in relational ethics from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has served as a pastor and associate pastor in churches in Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina and is currently the pastor of Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese, NC. Kevin has volunteered with programs addressing domestic violence for the past twenty years and has served as member and moderator of the Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network, a volunteer network of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA). He has taught numerous workshops on this topic in Central and South America and across the United States. He and his wife, Mary Jane have two grown children, Eleanor and Sam.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!