About eight years ago, Rev. Scott Swanson attended a weekend-long class, part of his training to become a spiritual director. At the time, he was in his late 30s and fathering young children. The training was part of his evolution as a United Church minister; he’d served a three-point charge in Manitoba, explored prison chaplaincy and was working in congregational ministry on the West Coast. He was expecting new skills, in other words. Instead, he found himself and his work transformed.
The workshop leader split the students by gender one evening and sent the men off to practise the kinds of deep conversations they’d foster when accompanying others on their own spiritual journeys. To Swanson, speaking with other men in this way was totally new.
“I was amazed at the energy in the room and the feelings in me I’d never experienced before,” he says from his home in Langley, B.C. “At that point, I realized there’s something about men getting together as men for deep conversation that is really special, really empowering and really healing.”
What did they talk about? He doesn’t remember. Content wasn’t the magic here; it was the energy of an all-male room that captured his attention and his imagination.
It took him years and several more “aha” moments to make it happen, but last July, his pioneering men’s ministry project, Manifest, officially kicked off.
Now, it has a Facebook page and a website (www.manifestonline.org). It has a clear vision: “Manifest is a faith-based, theologically progressive initiative committed to shaping better men by helping them do their own soul work and participate in their own healing — for their own benefit and the benefit of those around them.” It has a tagline: “Better men for a better world.” And it has a couple of groups meeting already at churches around Vancouver, plus a few stand-alone weekend retreats planned for this spring.
Swanson is currently creating a resource for men’s ministry that can be used in congregations or independently; it will be available on the website soon. Researching men’s spiritual needs comes next, hopefully, if funding comes through.
What Manifest doesn’t have is stability. Finding money to sustain the project has been challenging, Swanson notes, though verbal support has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The Westminster Presbytery ProVision Fund is supporting part of the project’s first year, and he is waiting to hear back on other applications. So he works part time as the interim minister at Sunnyside United in Surrey, B.C., and part time launching Manifest. Figuring out how to foster innovative ministries is new both to him, he says, and to the wider church.
For liberal Protestant Christians, this kind of men’s ministry is really new. Swanson isn’t aware of anyone else doing it. The Promise Keepers, Every Man Ministries, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, the Men’s Prayer Force and other man-centred Christian initiatives tend to see gender conservatively.
“What they [some men’s ministries] want is to take things back before feminism,” Swanson says. “Women are making huge strides in lots of areas, and men are losing the inherent privilege they once had. As a gender, we haven’t figured out what to do about that. So the question is, if that’s not the kind of masculinity we’re going to have, what is?”
The question isn’t theoretical. It’s pressing. Men, Swanson says, are socialized to be providers, but the strained 21st-century economy means that the option to be the sole providers for their families isn’t available to them. Also, traditional models of masculinity condone violence: most prisoners are male, as are most murderers (and most of the murdered).
“Men who are dead or in prison are the collateral damage of an ideology that says masculinity is about being strong and powerful. It’s just a social construct,” Swanson says. “Yes, men are in trouble in a lot of ways. As a society, we need to be concerned. The work men need to do can’t come at the expense of feminism and the good work feminism is doing.”
Less isolation, more connection. Less feeling of failure, more emotional availability. Understanding masculinity in terms of social class, race, gender identities and sexual orientation. These are some of Swanson’s goals for fostering men’s spirituality. He’s open to ideas, to partnerships and to other models of doing this work. This is just the beginning, he says. “I sure hope this ministry is not limited to my imagination.”
Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.
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