Ministry with Fathers

This Father’s Day week, I wanted to highlight ministries of justice and mission whose core was related to the particular experience of fatherhood. I found this article and simply loved the description of how the ministry “Young Dads” came to be. I will draw your attention to the way in which the leaders of this ministry first “listened” to the community. I also want to highlight the role of prayer and Scripture, as well as the engagement of a passionate advocate to help bridge between the church and a community of people who distrusted the church.

This article originally appears among the Reformed Church in America Resources

The Surprising Launch of “Young Dads”

About 10 months after launching Moms in Unity, we began praying about and exploring how to birth a companion ministry for men. Specifically, we felt a pull toward creating a ministry for dads who were not participating as fathers in the lives of their children.

Consistent with our ministry model of listening to the community before launching a ministry, we gathered a small group of dads. But what we learned was not at all what we had expected. The young fathers did not feel comfortable with us church folks. Likely, they did not trust us. Several of them had strong negative opinions about the church. Some of them thought Jesus was a weak man, while others thought he represented white society’s interests. Others did not trust us either because we lacked a “street rep” they respected or because no one they respected vouched for us.

At one point, Joel, a ministry partner, introduced Tony to me. Tony and his wife were friends of Joel and his wife. Tony was a tall brother who, when younger, held a state-wide ranking in basketball. He understood the world of work and was a dad himself. And Tony had a strong love for Jesus. We all shared together about our ministry idea on several occasions. Tony got what the ministry was all about, committed himself to our ministry model, and agreed to champion our desire to make a difference in the lives of fathers.

Together we fleshed out our ministry strategy and adopted Malachi 4:6 as our motivating Scripture: “He [the prophet] shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I [God] will come and strike the land with a curse” (NIV). We named the ministry “Young Dads” and proclaimed, “You cannot be the man you want to be until you are the father you must be!”

Tony went all over town recruiting young dads. He visited the jail, stopped by barber shops, mixed with brothers on the corner, shot hoops with men, and dropped in at coffee houses. Soon he had recruited a group of guys who wanted to hear more and who had an unspoken hunger to be a great dad but lacked someone to lead them through the landmines to the promised land of healthy fatherhood.

Our twice-a-month meetings were focused on answering the questions “How are you living?” and “How are things with you and your child?” We shared pizzas or other food together. Undergirding it all was our profound belief that these dads were image-bearers of God. Most of them did not believe that, so we held on to it for them, making our case for being image-bearers as we built relationships.

Very early on it became clear that each dad’s relationship with the mother or mothers of his child or children had everything to do with his access to his child. If the relationship was stressed and conflicted (and they often were), the dad felt he had little power to do anything. We knew we had to deal with this massive ministry challenge. We could not succeed with our mission if we did not help dads find a way forward.

Tony primarily, and I a little, began meeting with some of the mothers. We either met one-on-one or included the dad. We did not try to heal their relationship per se. We tried to get them to agree that it was better for their child to have a relationship with both parents rather than one. We tried to get them to agree that their child needed to see them supporting each other rather than fighting with or belittling each other.

In some cases, both agreed. For those men, Young Dads meetings became places where they could talk openly, even cry, over the profound and beautiful thing it was to parent a child. But all of them–the dads who developed parenting relationships and those who did not–faced a challenge they had known about all along, and that those of us in ministry discovered had to be reckoned with. Single moms have to assess the men in their lives by how they support her child-rearing efforts both with money and with other kinds of support. A dad who does not measure up faces the combined wrath of the mother and the power of the child-support system to incarcerate.

A Christian who ran a government program for a faith-oriented non-profit clued me on this challenge. His program was designed to coach and equip men who were looking for jobs. All the program participants had recently completed jail sentences for failing to pay child support. The chart below illustrates the issues he described.

We learned that many men who are caught up in these dynamics feel utterly powerless. When we tried to figure out how to deal with this, we could not find another ministry that addressed the system of challenges many dads face. With a systemic approach, we reasoned, we might be successful in helping more dads be the fathers they had to become.

Letters on the chart above show the points at which Young Dads created intervention strategies.

(A) Mom and dad are in conflict. The ministry assisted the mom and dad in resolving enough of their challenges so that their child could benefit from a relationship with both parents. Often the conflict was complicated and confusing. In some cases, the conflict clearly involved issues between the mom and dad. Sometimes it involved their child. Sometimes access to the child was used as a tool to get something else. Often the non-custodial parent felt powerless.

(B) Dad is required to provide money. The ministry needed to help young dads secure work. We did that in two ways: 1) referring them to job development nonprofits and 2) talking directly to employers, which Tony (mostly) and I did. While we did find jobs for some dads, several of them found their own jobs. They wanted to, they needed to, and they saw work as a way to do extra things with their child and as a ticket to being the kind of dad they wanted to be. A few dads worked two or three jobs at a time to achieve that end.

(C) Mom and child support agency are aligned. The ministry periodically would need to advocate with the child support enforcement office and ask that they not send the dad to jail so long as he worked with us. In some instances, the mother was so impressed with the dad’s engagement with their child, she advocated with us on his behalf.

  1. If the dad is not the custodial parent and can provide the mom with adequate funds, he normally can negotiate access to his child.
  2. Generally, the dad remains under a great deal of pressure to pay child support or face jail. This legal matter is often complicated by powerful conflicts with the mom. The dad may resort to going underground, either locally or by leaving for another state.
  3. As the mom and the child support enforcement agency align, the dad often is put under great pressure to pay child support or go to jail. Dad generally exercises one of the following options (4-6).
  4. Dad goes to jail. This often is an ongoing matter. Often, jail time results in court costs and fines–additional financial obligations for the dad. Depending on the jurisdiction, child support arrears may continue to accumulate while he is incarcerated.
  5. Dad goes underground. Some dads drop out of sight when the mom and the child support enforcement agency threaten to incarcerate them.
  6. Dad gets a job and pays support. If the child support averages are not too high and if the mom is open to it, the dad generally can be actively involved in parenting their child.

The goal: Dad gets along with mom and sees their child. Dad and mom negotiate how and when he can be with and actively parent their child.

Terry is one young dad who found fresh reasons for living during his time with Young Dads. He had four children by three mothers. He made peace with all of the mothers and became the father he always wanted to be with his children. Terry valued work and saw it as a critical means of supporting his children and their mothers’ efforts to raise them well. Terry showed the way to other young dads who became convinced that they could not be the men they wanted to be unless they became the fathers they had to be.