Summary: A Christian response to fathers being excluded from their children’s lives.
Today is fathers’ day. While I would prefer it was celebrated on the Feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of fathers, I am grateful Amanda and Maria are making today memorable for me.
To mark fathers’ day, I will be speaking about the Church and pastoral care for men, specifically those whom I call excluded fathers: men who have little or no involvement in the lives of their children.
Their number of excluded fathers in Aotearoa New Zealand is substantial. Calculations made in the 1990s using family court statistics indicated around 20,000 of our children lost all contact with their fathers every year. To put that into perspective, I understand only about 3,000 of our children lost their fathers to the Second World War. Yet the horrendous social cost to children who don’t have involvement of their fathers in their lives is well documented. They are more likely to have substance abuse issues, get into trouble with the law, be the victims of abuse themselves, or get pregnant.
Quite rightly, we place great value on mothers, but our perception of fathers has taken a battering. While the wholesome world of the 1940s American comedy ‘Father know best’ may seem quaint today, current popular stereotypes of fathers are even more out of touch. At best these misconceptions are irresponsible. At worst they are destructive.
Fathers are routinely portrayed as walking out on their families, when most divorces are initiated by women, and let me make it clear I am not blaming them. There are many factors involved, with probably the main one being that there are often more incentives these days for couples to separate than to stay together.
Fathers are often labelled as ‘deadbeats’ who deliberately avoid making financial contributions to their children’s upbringing, yet the overwhelming majority of fathers who do not live with their children not only pay their child support, but they pay it on time. About three quarters of the incredible child support debt sometimes reported by media is actually penalty, or penalty on penalty.
Finally, fathers are frequently demonised as being violent or abusive, yet in reality, men are at least as likely as women to suffer from domestic violence. We rightly condemn domestic violence against women, but domestic violence against men is generally ignored, or at best, excused or heavily trivialised.
As well as saying men are selfish and violent, popular culture also portrays men as being useless and irresponsible; and these negative messages are reinforced so regularly that many people blindly accept them without thinking, and even the Church is guilty of buying into such stereotypes. I personally know several men who had been actively involved with the Church, but had their ministries terminated for no other reason than because their marriages had failed. The rationale seemed to be that if they could not hold their families together, how could they be entrusted to hold leadership roles in the Church?
It is not just the Church that has failed excluded fathers. Society as a whole has failed them, and in doing so it has also failed their children. It is therefore should be no surprise that many excluded fathers seek relief through alcohol or other drugs; and even suicide. We are quite rightly concerned about youth suicide, but the group in society that is most at risk from suicide is fathers who have lost their families. Now don’t get me wrong. Yes, sadly there are some fathers who are not good fathers, just like there are some mothers who are not good mothers, but in both cases they are a tiny minority.
Based on my experience of men’s ministry, I researched and wrote a pastoral guide for the Church: In the name of the father: pastoral care for excluded fathers. Now this is not about competing with or detracting from issues faced by - and the pastoral needs of - mothers and other women. It is about ensuring that the pastoral needs of all who need help are addressed by the Church. I distributed this paper to the Church throughout the country and I am grateful that it is being used as a resource by various denominations. I have some copies with me today for anyone who might be interested.
The programme can be concisely summarised by the principles of surrender, restoration and sharing. Surrender is an excluded father’s acknowledgment of his powerlessness and his acceptance that a power greater than himself has control of the situation. Restoration includes taking a spiritual inventory; being willing to make amends; and actually making such amends whenever possible, except when to do so would harm others, and this includes unreservedly forgiving others who may have harmed him. The final step is sharing his experience, strength and hope with others, to help them find the peace he will have discovered for himself.