Reformed Quarterly Volume 10, Issue 1
Paul Heidebrecht is vice-president of Christian Service Brigade in Wheaton, Illinois, an organization devoted to providing churches with programs and resources for men and boys. A seventeen-year veteran with Brigade, Heidebrecht holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Winnipeg, an M.A. in Christian education from Wheaton, and a Ph.D. in history of education from the University of Illinois. In addition to his responsibilities at Brigade, he has also been a visiting lecturer at Wheaton and the University of Illinois. A frequent contributor to numerous scholarly publications, he has also authored several books, including Time to Go Home: Turning the Hearts of the Fathers to Their Children. In the following interview Heidebrecht discusses our country’s new interest in fathering and how churches can encourage it.
Q. What do you think is the most important issue concerning fathering in this country today?
A. We have a new generation of fathers — the baby boom fathers. These are men in their thirties and forties who seem to show a much greater desire to relate to their children in a personal way — to be friends with them and have a better relationship than they had with their dads. But, frequently, these men do not have many of the skills and habits which are essential for good fathering. They are under pressure to give more time and energy to their occupations. They have not really made the personal adjustments at home that would enable them to be involved in childcare. We notice that, while men say they would like to be more involved, they don’t actually follow through. They act more like their fathers than they care to and are looking for some practical help. They need the structure of a program which will hold a small group of men accountable to each other. The church can provide this and should capitalize on this very strong interest among men regarding good parenting.
Q. What are some obstacles to effective fathering?
A. The biggest obstacle still remains the amount of time devoted to things other than a man’s family. The pressure to excel and move up career ladders makes all relationships secondary to the goal of “getting ahead.” A man derives his self-esteem from his work; as a result he has a difficult time keeping his job in perspective and sharing himself with his family.
Frequently, only later in life does a man realize that work and career cannot be the basis for his identity. He learns that life is more than vocation, and it is very related to family, which becomes more important to a man in the second half of his life. What many men don’t understand is that they cannot wait until they are fifty years old to begin devoting themselves to their families. They need to make commitments to their children early, building friendships while the children are young if they want relationships with them later. It’s worth making sacrifices now to pay off later.
Q. How does Christian Service Brigade encourage good fathering?
A. We try to provide very tangible, practical ways for men to have successful experiences with their children. We structure activities in which a man can enjoy his children and be a spiritual leader, doing things most dads would like to do but often don’t get around to. We also work in partnership with other fathering ministries; Dave Simmons (RTS ’87) with Dad the Family Shepherd is one of our close allies.
Brigade began as a ministry of Wheaton College students in the late 1930s to young teenage boys in the Chicago area. What began as an evangelistic leadership training program grew into a national movement working exclusively through churches at all ages — even preschool. We have weekly meetings of men and boys (some daughters attend) involving some sort of game, project, achievement, or skill activity, plus a devotion led by the fathers, Scripture memory, and discussion. In addition to church-based programs, we sponsor a number of summer camps and weekend retreats.
Q. What tools are available to help men be better fathers?
A. One of the most exciting tools is a personal fathering profile, developed this past year by the National Center for Fathering, a research group begun at Kansas State University by evangelical scholars who are researching characteristics of good fathers. The profile is an instrument which helps a man measure his own effectiveness as a strong father, measuring his ability in four dimensions — nurture, involvement, awareness of the children and their life, and consistency.
This device has the potential to open up incredible insight and change by pinpointing areas in a man’s relationship with his children which require growth and development and areas in which he is already effective. The point is not to make the father feel like a loser; it seems the entire culture today is telling men they aren’t good fathers. We are convinced there are already a lot of good dads out there, and we need to encourage these men to strengthen what they are already doing.
We are looking for ways churches can use this profile because men cannot use it without supervision. It is meant to be done in the context of a small group where men can work together, share with each other, and hold each other accountable. Therefore, it will be available only through organizations who are involved in fathering. We can either administer the test or work with someone in the local church.
Q. How crucial is the fathering issue?
A. I don’t want to say that solving this problem will cause everything else to fall into place, because I think a man’s relationship with his wife is of equal importance. Fathering and marriage are intimately connected; a man who is not developing a close intimacy with his wife is likely to be doing the same with his children. We focus on fathering because we feel that as a man becomes a better dad, he becomes more sensitive to other relationships.
Q. What kind of impact do you think Brigade’s activities will have on the Christian faith in the future?
A. The most immediate result will be church enrichment. By enabling men to be spiritual leaders with their own children, the church will gain more men who can be involved in and lead other activities. Many of our dads are on the fringes of the church; they sit in a pew and are not leaders. Involvement in Brigade is often the beginning of personal ministries and greater involvement in the church. In the long run, we will see the effects as today’s children become dads. I hope it will strengthen the family and help our children realize the high priority of family life, a priority over career and job.
Good Reading on Fathering
Bly, Stephen. How to be a Good Dad. Moody, 1986.
Dads Only published by Paul Lewis, P.O. Box 340, Julian, CA 92036.