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Sidebar: What I learned about men in the United Church

By Gary Paterson

In my three years as United Church moderator, I visited churches across the country and noticed that there aren’t a lot of men in our congregations. There is sadness and some wistfulness about this reality. And lots of questions: Where are the younger men? How might the United Church speak to men’s concerns? What are those issues?

Long gone are the days of the patriarchal cliché: “Men in the pulpits, women in the pews.” And gone are the days when men found a home on the property or finance committees, showing up on the occasional Saturday to do some painting and hammering. Most men know this is a very good thing. But the question remains: what now?

Some people talk about the “feminization” of the church, but it’s not always clear what that means. Is it that leadership is now shared among women and men? That the activities of many church groups are felt to be more appealing to women? That men prefer to “do” and “act” rather than “share”? That “muscular Christianity” (whatever that is) has disappeared? Sometimes it’s difficult to raise such questions for fear of coming across as sexist. And though it may often be sexist, it’s a conversation that still needs to happen.

Men miss the company of other men and wish there were more guys in church. Men’s groups, while not as common as in former times, are still sprinkled across the church. Sometimes they’re just a chance to rub shoulders, to catch up on “stuff.” But sometimes they’re also an opportunity to share deeper concerns and questions.

More gay men are finding a home in our congregations. The United Church is one of the few denominations to affirm that the variety of sexual orientations is a cause for celebration. So we have more than our “statistical share” of gay men in leadership and in the pews, in big cities and in small communities — which is good news.

There is more discussion about men’s spirituality — not a lot, but these days a conversation about male spiritual archetypes no longer draws guffaws. Catholic author Richard Rohr’s description of the two spiritual movements in a person’s life — the first 40 years “getting it all together”; the next half, figuring out how to “let it go” — has particular resonance for men, who too often feel defined by their achievements and accomplishments, and are therefore less comfortable with the “letting go” part of the journey.

In August 2014, I attended Rendez-vous, a national United Church event that drew over 450 youth and young adults. More young women than young men, perhaps a ratio of three to one, but still, lots of enthusiastic guys. One of the speakers was Wab Kinew, a CBC journalist, author and the son of a residential school survivor. He talked about his annual participation in a sundance ceremony, an Indigenous spiritual celebration that includes dancing, feasting, singing, praying, fasting and time in a sweat lodge. It culminates in a ritual where young men are tethered to a pole by a rawhide rope attached to pegs piercing the skin of their chests. They dance until the pegs tear loose, which can take a while. Kinew shared how holy this ceremony was for him: a time of connection with his Creator; a personal sacrifice, not just for himself, but for family and community.

The Rendez-vous crowd was riveted, filled, I thought, with a yearning for such a ceremony in their own faith tradition, a ritual that demanded something of them. These young people wanted to pray with their bodies, to stretch their physical limits. They wanted to be asked to sacrifice. Am I crazy to think this is a “guy thing”? Or maybe it’s a young person’s hunger for an experience that tests and changes them? One thing I know for sure: confirmation doesn’t do it!

Recently, I participated in a planning session for the 2016 Banff Men’s Conference, an annual gathering for United Church men. In the midst of the conversation, one man said, “I wish my son would attend the conference. He’s in his 30s, married, kids, interesting job. He’s a good man. I invited him to come, and he said, “Why? Why do I need faith? My life is full; I’m happy, busy. Tell me what would be different if I were to go to the conference, or to church for that matter?”

Maybe that’s the real question. Men aren’t staying away from church because they’re hurt or angry or they
disagree with the position the church has on this or that social issue. Maybe men — and women — are absent because church is irrelevant. It doesn’t ask much of them, and it doesn’t make a difference.

That’s a hard thing for me to write, and I know it’s only part of the picture. But the church has a responsibility to discover new ways of sharing the Gospel with a younger generation of men, presenting a life-changing invitation to follow Jesus. How we are going to do that is a challenging and exciting question.

Very Rev. Gary Paterson is a former United Church moderator.

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