The decline of the Promise Keepers

The thoroughly creepy organization is in a bit of a crunch. So much so that they’re reaching out to women–but still treating them like children to be governed:

In the 1990s, the evangelical men’s ministry the Promise Keepers packed 50,000-seat football stadiums and even stuffed the Mall in Washington, D.C., with close to 600,000 sweaty, Jesus-loving males. Marshaled by Bill McCartney, a former University of Colorado football coach, the group took the evangelical world by storm. But P.K.’s star fell as rapidly as it rose, particularly after McCartney departed the organization in 2003 to establish a group that brings Christians and Messianic Jews together. Now McCartney is back, and he’s trying very hard to resurrect the Promise Keepers.

The men’s ministry never really stopped drawing crowds, but the numbers of attendees did dwindle. The organization once operated with a $117 million budget, but it dipped down to $34 million in 2001, according to a New York Times article.

Insert Nelson Muntz laugh here.

In 2003, the year McCartney retired, about 172,000 men attended 18 arena events, according to the Washington Post. While many ministries would be thrilled with those numbers, they were nowhere near the figures the group had enjoyed at its high point. In an attempt to stage a comeback, the Promise Keepers are reaching out to two unlikely groups: women and Messianic Jews. During the group’s glory days, its approach—singling out men as spiritual creatures, with a side helping of masculinity—seemed to surprise and delight evangelicals. While celibate men were used to a life of scrutiny in the Catholic Church, the religious existence of the unchaste male had been largely neglected. Here, finally, was a ministry that paid them attention. Evangelical men ate it up. Or, at least, they did for a while.

“Promise Keepers is not a men’s ministry. It is a ministry for men,” Raleigh Washington, the group’s president, said in defense of their invitation to women. Women, many of them volunteers, have always attended rallies, but they’ve played a secondary role. Much has been made of the organization’s overall stance toward women and its expectation, some argue, that women continually take a back seat. The Rev. Tony Evans advised men on how to reclaim their leadership roles: “The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role.’ … Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back.” But as Bartkowski has noted, herein lies part of P.K.’s genius and one reason for the group’s success. By mixing authoritarianism with a dash of gentleness, P.K. offered men—indeed, entire families—a combination of patriarchy and egalitarianism that is likely to continue even now that P.K. has made a formal invitation to women. The ministry plans to include women by focusing on what men should do in relation to them—honor them, respect them, etc. But the question is: What incentive will women have to hover by the football benches? To stand by their men?

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