Culture, Essays

Family, Careers, and Sexuality: Spiritual Trends in College Men of Faith

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Where are the men? How do we get more men involved and engaged in our ministries? I hear these questions time and time again from people across the country in my travels as an educator, minister, and scholar. I hear them from every population: priests, nuns, brothers, pastors, lay ministers, catechists, parishioners, teachers, and coaches. I hear them in every context: parishes, churches, colleges, high schools, and parachurch organizations—even ministries focused specifically on men, from faith-sharing groups to retreats and conferences. Catholics and Protestants alike are struggling to get men (lay and religious) through the door and to keep them there.

Everyone is looking for a silver bullet—a quick fix for a complex and enduring problem—only to be disappointed when an initiative or program that may have worked in another context does not work in their own, or when a program has a strong opening and then loses momentum. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every context has its own sets of unique challenges and opportunities for engaging men in their faith. So rather than reducing men to gender stereotypes and projecting a pre-defined script of how boys and men should act, think, and believe, this essay provides summative content from the voices of men themselves, which serves to complicate previous assumptions and understandings of college men of faith. In doing so, I offer a novel perspective on the faith development of college men that will perhaps shape and provide a framework for future faith-based initiatives.

Background on Research Study

My interest in the intersection of masculinity and faith has emerged from a series of personal, professional, and academic reflections. While in college, I experienced a back injury that abruptly ended my football career and caused me to question my athletic identity and my understanding of what it means to be a man. In a period of darkness and despair, I was moved to renew my then-dormant faith by becoming confirmed into the Catholic Church. I began to explore my faith, spirituality, and religion for the first time since grade school, through various worship, retreat, and service experiences. It was through these experiences that I first identified tensions between being a man and having faith. I felt the pressure to privatize my faith in hyper-masculine contexts, such as on the football field and in the social scene, where restrictive emotionality and independence were considered normative. I felt the pressure to choose between being a man and having faith, as the dominant masculine and secular culture did not allow for this level of complexity, even at a Catholic university.

Through ten years of ministry to college students, I have noticed men struggling to develop and engage their faith, due in part to a perceived incompatibility with the male college experience. To many men I have worked with, faith, on the surface, is simply another restriction in a highly competitive and hypersexual college environment, where men are often expected to win at all costs, take risks, be aggressive and dominant, and never show fear or emotion. To others, faith and faith communities serve as a coping mechanism and healthy alternative to the dominant social scene of sex, hook-ups, and binge drinking. While many men have recognized tensions between their masculinity and their faith, few have adequate outlets to unpack and make meaning of their experiences as men of faith.

Persons charged with inculcating a culture of faith should not be surprised by these ministerial gaps, as guiding scholars of faith development (e.g., Fowler and Parks) have provided merely a scant examination of group-specific meanings of faith and offer little in terms of gender-specific initiatives. For example, many use Parks’ (2000) notion of mentoring communities to animate their young adult ministry, but few nuance the construct of community across various social identities and groups or acknowledge the fact that community may be unrealistic or impossible for some individuals.

Informed by these personal, professional, and academic reflections, I conducted a study of Christian men from Catholic and Protestant traditions at two universities (one faith-based and one secular). The men were selected based on the salience of their faith identity (ranked “very important”), their involvement in a faith-based community, and their ability to add demographic variation to the study (e.g., Christian denomination, race, class, sexual orientation). Each participant was interviewed twice, in order to build rapport and allow time to reflect between interviews. I asked the men a series of open-ended questions, seeking to understand how they conceptualize masculinity and faith independently and how the two identities intersect, inform, construct, and come into conflict with one another. The spiritual trends presented below represent an aspect of the findings of my research and are by no means generalizable to all college men of faith.

Spiritual Trends in College Men of Faith

Three major trends emerged from the study: (a) family and relationships; (b) careers, callings, and vocations; and (c) sex and sexuality. The following sections outline the trends by sharing the stories of the participants in their own words.

Family & Relationships

College men of faith feel a strong sense of gratitude for their parents.

The men in this study expressed tremendous gratitude for their parents—their innumerable sacrifices and how they modeled Christian ethics and discipleship while keeping God at the center of family life. The participants had a keen awareness of how they had been raised in the Christian faith.

Mark shared about how his parents saved money in order to afford Catholic education since early childhood, which instilled strong ethics and values. “I just can’t believe how much my parents influenced and how much they sacrificed for me. . . . They could have put that money in their retirement fund. . . . I’m forever indebted and I hope to do the same with my children.” In a similar way, Jude characterized his parents as models of Christian ethics and teachers of “spiritual truths,” as they lived out their faith through their God-centered marriage. “They’ve definitely had ups and downs . . . [but] they always come back to being centered on God.”

College men of faith imagine themselves as fathers and act in anticipation of becoming emotional, spiritual, and financial providers.

The men in this study anticipated roles as husbands and fathers and shared the desire to be present and emotionally involved in their family. Many participants shared the deep connections they had with their fathers, whom they admired and hoped to emulate in the future. As Gilbert remarked, “As a husband and a father your primary vocation is to your family.” Jude described men of faith “in the context of a family . . . in the context of a flock,” the “spiritual head,” provider of “stable financial support,” and caretaker of the “emotional needs” of the family. He continued, “The nature of just simply being present as a man, as a father, as a husband is so, so important.” Jude talked about how he looked up to his father as an ideal man of faith and shared the example of his father praying the Priestly Blessing over him. T.J. shared about the importance of providing financially and emotionally for a family and gave an example of his father’s unwavering love and support growing up. “I’m not a dad, but I know my dad every day worked to make sure that he was in our lives and really worked at our relationship with each other. It wasn’t easy . . . but it was definitely worth it.”

Anthony focused on caring and providing for his two elderly parents with the minimal salary he would receive as a seminarian and diocesan priest. His identity as “the man of the house” was deeply rooted in Colombian culture and the importance of family. “I’m always looking out for the best interests of my family and the mentality is that if you’re the man of the house in a Spanish household you need to look out not just spiritually but also economically for your family.”

Joseph strived to be a “man of faith,” which he described as a “spiritual father” who is there to “help teach friends, your loved ones, your children about your faith and hopefully [enrich] their faith.” Joseph, who was also considering a vocation to the priesthood, felt a strong call to become a father. “To be a dad is just having this desire to protect and care for others . . . when you’re a dad you care about the person’s mind, their body, their soul—everything.” Joseph prayed often to St. Joseph of the Holy Family and considered Joseph a “good model of what a man should be. . . . He is the person God trusted to take care of Jesus and teach Jesus how to pray.”

Careers, Callings, & Vocations

College men of faith consider majors and careers in light of their faith. They resist and often disassociate with a very individualistic culture of careerism and pre-professionalism, but still feel pressured to be a financial provider for their families.

The men in this study were saturated in academically rigorous and highly competitive campus cultures, which often gave preference to careerism and pre-professionalism and in turn, caused some uncertainty and confusion among the participants. The men in this study worked to reconcile and connect their majors and careers with their faith, since most participants were considering careers that were largely secular in nature. Tom, who was considering a career in academia, talked about the temptation to “build a little empire of oneself . . . the Kingdom of Tom instead of the Kingdom of God.” Luke often wrestled with the question: “Should I work in a homeless shelter or do something to pad my resume?” Joseph provided a cautionary tale of careerism and pre-professionalism:

I think careerism and pre-professionalism are actually really dangerous in that people can get trapped into doing jobs that they feel like they’re supposed to do to be a breadwinner, to be stable. . . . Stability is attractive and making money and being able to provide for your family is very attractive but if it’s not what God wants me to do then it’s not going to be the thing I’m most joyful in and not going to be the thing which gives God the most glory, which is my end goal.

Several men in the study strongly identified with a passage from the Gospel of Luke, “to whom much is given, much is expected” (Lk 12:48), in connection with their careers, callings, and vocations. For example, Jean talked about how it was important to maximize his God-given gifts and “be a success”:

“To whom much is given, much is expected.” If you’re not working hard to develop the gifts God gave you and the opportunities God’s given, that’s also bad, right? It’s not as if there’s a clear cut [path suggesting] you should always do the volunteering thing. You need to balance between making yourself successful and using what you’ve been given too—because you should be a success, right?

Luke echoed the “to whom much is given, much is expected” sentiment and shared similar difficulties in balancing a Christian and/or service-based career with a more financially lucrative and opportunistic career: “How do I balance just wanting to go for a career versus doing everything for God? . . . But at the same time I have the opportunity to do all these things.”

While Jean and Luke tied “to whom much is given, much is expected” to being a success and seizing opportunities, Jude connected his desire to become a doctor to Jesus the Healer:

I see being a healer as connected to [faith] because when people are sick that’s when a lot of the deeper questions come out, you know? . . . I think taking care of a person lends itself to really deep relationships and things that they tell you they wouldn’t tell anyone else. I see that as an extension of being the best human I can be, like how Jesus was a healer.

Mark, who was also pre-med, felt a responsibility to be a provider but was unwilling to pursue a career solely for a comfortable salary. Mark believed that “a solid income provides stability for a family,” but considered limitations of a singular pursuit of wealth. “I mean I have never wanted to make as much money as I possibly could.” In a similar way, Francis, who was an undecided major, talked about “finding a job that’s able to help you and your family and also help others.”

Careerism and pre-professionalism also impacted the participants who were openly considering or had previously considered religious vocations, which included nearly half of the men in the study. These tensions were especially true for Anthony and Joseph, who came from low-income and working class backgrounds. Anthony detailed his decision to become a diocesan priest (as opposed to a religious order), partly due to the fact that he would not be required to take a vow of poverty and therefore, could receive a personal income. Anthony felt tensions between “joy” and “money” in pursuing a vocation to the priesthood, as he was expected to provide financially and be “the man of the house.” As a working-class man, Joseph shared similar questions to Anthony about being a provider for family. Joseph found it difficult to wholeheartedly pursue a religious vocation with cultural expectations to be successful and financially secure in order to provide for one’s family.

Sex & Sexuality

College men of faith generally resist and disassociate with a hypersexual masculine culture, but less than half of participants talked about saving themselves for marriage.

Participants in the study found sexuality and hypersexuality, including sex, hook-ups, masturbation, and pornography, to be deeply ingrained in cultural expectations of men. Anthony provided an overview: “In today’s day and age it’s seen as if it’s normal for guys to see pornography. It’s seen as normal to want to lose your virginity sooner rather than later and be a player and be a womanizer type of guy.”

Participants perceived sex as a full expression of masculinity that is often equated with “success” and winning a “game.” They described the hook-up culture as a “chess game” (Mark), where “manly guys are getting the girls” (Blake) and men go out and get “the right amount of drunk but not too drunk and find the right person” (Mark). Josh suggested a difficulty in being simply friends with women, as he felt pressured by his male peers to have an “end game” that entailed sex. Anthony shared the expectation to “have multiple girls . . . [but] don’t get attached to one girlfriend.”

Many participants yielded to expectations of hypersexuality, rationalizing behaviors as being “young” and “reckless” and/or viewing college as a liminal space where sexual behaviors were acceptable. Two participants shared stories of losing their virginities at an early age. Blake considered losing his virginity at the age of 21 as “me having fun being young.” Francis talked about how he was pressured by his male peers to “just have sex and just lose it” in high school. Participants also considered masturbation and pornography a regular and expected practice among college men. Francis called it “normative,” while T.J. contextualized the pervasiveness, “I would love to meet the guy that says he, one-hundred percent, has conquered lust as a sin.”

Nearly half of the participants in the study remarked about the importance of saving themselves for marriage, which they felt pressured to provide reasoning to their male peer groups. For example, Joseph talked about being teased by his roommates for desiring a less physical relationship, grounded in a hope for a future spouse:

And I think that [sex] is a very definition of success in a relationship. . . . My roommates make fun of me for it because both of them have been in very different relationships that are much more physical. And I don’t know, I really enjoy taking it slow with this girl and it feels right. If this is supposed to be my future spouse then I can wait and we would have our whole lives.

Josh described how he was teased and mocked by his male peers for contemplating abstinence:

Because obviously if you’re a man you’re looked at as like, “Why are you even trying? How could you possibly last?” You’re kind of looked at as, “What’s possibly going on with you to the point where you feel like you just have to neglect sex?”

College men of faith experience frustration, inadequacy, and guilt around issues of sex and sexuality—they feel less masculine due to restrictive sexuality and less faithful due to regretted sexual acts.

Several participants felt less masculine and inadequate as men for not participating in the hook-up culture, which caused much anxiety and uncertainty as they adopted faith and religious principles that focused on intimacy, exclusive and committed relationships, virginity/abstinence, and moderation. Participants often considered Church teachings limiting and restrictive to the college experience and a full expression of masculinity and therefore, causing spiritual struggles related to sexuality. Jean unabashedly shared his frustration, “I feel like Christianity set the bar too high almost and it feels too out of touch with what it means to be male and sexual.” Jude, on the other hand, commended his faith for providing a healthy alternative to a hypersexualized masculinity espoused by his peers.

Several participants engaged in sexual acts that were otherwise normative for college men and the college experience in general, in an effort to moderate and control their sexual urges and to prove a hypersexualized version of masculinity. Since they perceived these acts as antithetical to being a person of faith (e.g., virginity, abstinence, and moderation), some participants experienced frustration, inadequacy, and guilt when they engaged in the hook-up culture, had sex, contemplated sex, masturbated, or watched pornography.

Mark spoke about a “guilty feeling” he felt after a hook-up and the “self-control” he practices because of his faith:

When I hook up I have a guilty feeling. . . . This isn’t healthy for me. . . . I don’t think this is what my faith would agree with. . . . And I think that’s where self-control comes in. I can pray about it, I can work on it, and I can stop things that I don’t want to do. . . . I practice self-control for my faith.

The men in this study also exercised self-control with masturbation and pornography, but considered it a much more futile effort. This was a major source of frustration, inadequacy, and guilt for the participants and was compounded by the fact that it was often difficult to be vulnerable and admit wrongdoing in an abstemious community of faith. Therefore, participants’ feelings of frustration and guilt were sometimes privatized. Jude described masturbation and pornography struggles as “insular,” where people are “boxed into shameful categories.” Francis also talked about his inability to share masturbation and pornography struggles with his faith community: “Any time I do something like watch porn, I don’t like to tell people that. It’s not something that I advertise because . . . it’s something that you don’t do.” Jude was a notable exception, as he had a strong all-male faith-sharing group that could openly discuss sexual struggles with masturbation and pornography, which was a stark contrast to conversations with his male peers that were “awkward” and met with a “blank stare.”

Some college men of faith are ambivalent towards faith and sexuality.

Some participants had more fluidity and, in general, were more ambivalent about faith and sexuality and in their interpretations of sex and sexuality in light of faith and Church teachings. Blake previously associated masturbation and pornography with Church teaching, but no longer felt the level of guilt he once did. He has learned to reframe these acts apart from religion, classifying them as “spiritual energies” and “getting to know my body.”

Francis shared his early exposure to pornography in connection to faith and guilt and his continued struggles and general ambivalence towards sexual urges and masturbation:

So I’ve grown up seeing pornography since I was a little kid and I kind of feel guilty every time I look at it and then I have to feel like I have to go to Church and have to absolve myself of that. It’s something that I’m still trying to deal with even at this time because I don’t try and have sex with everyone on campus. Any time I have those urges it’s like I don’t want to do anything sinful or bad, but it’s just sometimes you just, it just happens.

Josh and Mark shared the experience of feeling ambivalent about sex, hook-ups, and Church teaching during college transitions, but becoming more aligned with faith and Church teaching as they became older. Early in their college experiences, they considered college to be a liminal experience where they could make compromises with their faith and sexuality. Mark shared, “I’m not going to lose my faith. I’m not going to abandon it but I’m going to let myself experience college. I’m going to let myself hook up.” Josh described his perceptions of the college experience influencing his interpretation of faith and Church teaching:

It’s like, “How do I go about it at this stage in my life? I’m in college. In college I’m supposed to have fun.” So I feel like if I let my faith restrict me I’m not enjoying this small part of life. I feel like I have my whole life to live up to those expectations.

Discussion

The men in this study asked big questions of meaning and purpose around faith, love, trust, and commitment, which align with Parks’ (2000) faith development theory. Undoubtedly, participants yearned for “belonging, connection, inclusion, relationship, and intimacy.”[1]  However, the spiritual trends highlighted above reflect the fact that faith is not developed in a vacuum; rather, it is formed in a social and cultural milieu. For this particular group of men, they were immersed in an intensely competitive, very individualistic academic and pre-professional culture, and a hypersexual masculine culture. This juggling act often left the men feeling frustrated, inadequate, and guilty for not living up to both the standards of their faith and religious principles and the secular standards of what it means to be a man.

While the men in this study each had spiritual mentors and were involved in faith-based organizations, it became apparent that many of these resources were inadequate in supporting their holistic development as men of faith. Some resources lacked gender-specific initiatives and conversations, while others were unable to have a robust dialogue about tensions with faith, careers, and sexuality. My sense is that the participants were craving affirmation as men of faith and were desperately seeking more conversations and guidance, yet a combination of internal (e.g., frustration, inadequacy, guilt) and external factors (e.g., lack of resources and outlets) often led them to privatize their faith and struggles and/or adopt a general ambivalence towards the matter.

So where are the men? First, we must ask ourselves who are the men? And what are their struggles? The men in this study often sought out faith-based communities, religious educators, and spiritual mentors when seeking consolation for spiritual tensions and struggles, but many of the resources were inadequate or nonexistent. What are we doing about it?

[1] Sharon Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 104.

 

Daniel A. Zepp

Daniel A. Zepp, Ph.D., is a Visiting Scholar at Boston College. For more information, please visit www.DanielZepp.com.