Smaller, wiser Promise Keepers

Just four years ago, men were filling 50,000-seat football stadiums for Promise Keeper prayer rallies, where they sang for joy, prayed for repentance and pledged to be better husbands and fathers.

At its peak, when as many as 1 million men fell to their knees on the National Mall during the Stand in the Gap rally in October 1997, Promise Keepers seemed like a national movement with untold potential.


But in the wake of the costly D.C. event and a decision to stop charging admission for rallies, the lay-run Denver-based ministry ran out of money, laid off its staff and seemed on the verge of collapse.

"There was a real time of uncertainty," said Bill McCartney, the former University of Colorado football coach who founded Promise Keepers 11 years ago. "That's when you realize things like this are a movement of God and you can't control or predict them."


Promise Keepers has emerged from its crisis wiser, a bit chastened and with a less ambitious agenda. Rallies are now held in smaller cities such as Jacksonville, Fla., and in more modest venues such as the 13,000-seat Baltimore Arena, where a two-day conference begins today, the second of 16 scheduled for this year.

The sold-out event, "Turn the Tide: Living Out an Extreme Faith," is attracting men from throughout the Northeast. Many who have been to several Promise Keeper rallies over the years describe them as life-altering.

"It's made me a better husband and a better father," said Charlie Taft, 51, of Mount Airy, who went to his first Promise Keepers event at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium in 1996.

"When my kids were small, I was traveling all the time and wasn't a good father to them because I just wasn't there," he said. "Promise Keepers held me to account to go to my children and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry. I can't do anything about the past, but I can be a better father starting right now.'"

For many men, their involvement with Promise Keepers begins and ends with the emotional high of fellowship with thousands of like-minded men.

The challenge has been to follow through on the promises they make at the gatherings, in which they commit to take responsibility in their relationships with God, their families and people of all races.

Following through

"If we had known then what we know now, we would have more effectively equipped the pastors to handle these men when they come out of these events," McCartney said. "A guy comes out of these events and he's red-hot for God. We were slow to respond."


For men like Chris Paris of Frederick, sustaining the fervor has come with the help of a half-dozen guys who have been meeting once a week for the past two years in an accountability group, a follow-up encouraged by Promise Keepers. Members of Grace Brethren Church, they gather every Tuesday night in the home of one of the group to talk about their lives.

"We are a group of friends who can share anything and everything," said Paris, 48, a salesman for a fence company. "We can get into some really deep conversations, personal things most men would never disclose to anybody else. We can pray about it, talk freely about it, help people through problems."

Movement's rapid rise

Promise Keepers began in 1990 with a group of 72 men, who agreed to fast and pray to determine whether forming a ministry for men was the will of God.

In 1993, the Promise Keepers filled their first stadium, the University of Colorado's Folsom Field, where 50,000 attended a rally. "The next year, we filled six stadiums," McCartney said. In 1996, the group attracted 1.1 million men to its stadium conferences.

The national media were beginning to take notice and Promise Keepers had become a phenomenon. Some interpreted it as a threat - the National Organization for Women objected to its call for men to assume stewardship of their households. Others saw it as a shill for the religious right.


But most scholars interpreted it as an expression of America's long history of religious revival that began with the Great Awakening and preachers like Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century, continued with evangelists like Billy Sunday in the first decades of the past century and has as a contemporary example the global crusades of Billy Graham. In short, it is an expression of evangelical Christianity.

'Social evangelicals'

"I call them social evangelicals," said Bryan W. Brickner, author of "The Promise Keepers: Politics and Promises." "Not Pat Robertson new evangelicals, where they really want political power. These guys are about getting relationships right with God, their wife, their children and their co-workers."

Dane S. Claussen, editor of "Standing on the Promises: the Promise Keepers and the Revival of Manhood," sees another influence: the men's movement of the 1980s, with its cathartic retreats and drumming groups. Inspired by authors such as Robert Bly and Sam Keen, the movement encouraged male bonding, mentorship and emotional expression.

"The evangelical Christian message aside, a lot of what Promise Keepers said about men's roles in society was not that much different from what the mytho-poetic movement said," Claussen said. "PK put the issue, the matter of men's issues and men's movements, on both the public agenda and the media agenda the way no other men's organization had been able to do."

The Promise Keepers movement hit its peak with a nationwide event in October 1997, "Stand in the Gap, A Sacred Assembly of Men." Hundreds of thousands of men assembled on the Mall in Washington to pray and pledge to lead better lives.


There, McCartney announced that admission to all future Promise Keepers events would be free of charge.

The group's income soon crashed. By the next year, the 345-member staff had been laid off - albeit temporarily - and McCartney appealed to every church to donate $1,000 to save the ministry.

Now, with admission fees re-established, a leaner staff of about 100 and expected revenue of $34 million this year - as opposed to a high of $117 million in 1997 - the ministry seems back on a more modest track.

Racial diversity efforts

The other ambitious goal proclaimed by McCartney was one of racial reconciliation. The men who ran and attended Promise Keepers conferences were overwhelmingly white, suburban and middle-class or better.

Shortly before Stand in the Gap, McCartney acknowledged that he and the early leaders of Promise Keepers erred by not including more minorities from the beginning, and promised to make amends. By one measure, he has succeeded: the staff of Promise Keepers has African-American, Hispanic and Asian men holding key positions.


As to the rank and file, McCartney says progress has been made, but more needs to be done.

The Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor of West Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church, will be one African-American face on the Promise Keepers podium this weekend. And he is bringing about 40 men from his congregation with him.

'It's doing some good'

"Yes, it's doing some good," Carter said of Promise Keepers' attempts to diversify. "The very fact that the vision is there, the scope of what ought to be done is there, is good because it will agitate those who may be comfortable in their faith to realize we have to do something.

"But those who expect to see dramatic change, for example, seeing things that happened during the civil rights movement, you won't see that," he said. "It's a different kind of movement. The Promise Keepers movement is basically an evangelical movement that is calling men to be true followers of Jesus Christ, and in the process of being followers of Jesus Christ, to be reconcilers."

"Let's watch what happens in Baltimore, because the evidence is in the attendance," said McCartney. "Let's say it's predominantly white. That will grieve the heart of God. Why? Because it's for everybody. It's not just for white guys. That's always been our plea."