2013 6 November

Banff Men’s Conference- Moderator Gary Paterson

Posted in Steinbach United


[Photo: Gord McKenna / Flickr][Photo: Gord McKenna / Flickr]

Blue sky, crisp air, snow on the all-surrounding mountains; Tim (my spouse) and I had arrived for the Banff Men’s Conference (BMC), an event which has been happening for 59 years – that’s a lot of history, a lot of tradition! One hundred and eighteen men gathered for the weekend, Oct. 17-19, 2013: one from Ontario, one from Manitoba, lots from Saskatchewan, the majority from Alberta, and a handful from B.C.

Good opening worship, with fine music. There’s something special when men sing together! It sure helps when the musicians play the hymns in a lower key, so you don’t sound all squeaky on the higher notes. You should have heard us sing a perennial favourite, “How Great Thou Art.” We had some fine harmonies going.

Stephen Kakfwi, former Northwest Territories Premier and Dene Nation President, was this year’s theme speaker. The BMC has a record of great presenters: last year it was the Rev. Bruce Sanguin on Evolutionary Christianity and “Rediscovering Awe”; a couple of years ago, it was Brigadier-General Peter Holt on “To Seek Justice and Resist Evil”; in 2008, Dr. Amir Hussain (a Muslim) spoke on “Two Faiths, One God.”

Stephen Kakfwi spoke very personally of his time in Residential School, its impact on his life and on his family; it was a story of pain and healing, but not a story of guilt. He lifted up a line from an old Dylan song,  “Mr. Tambourine Man” – “Take me… far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow…” – which was in so many ways what his life’s journey was about. He was determined to be vulnerable and build bridges, to offer forgiveness and friendship and the possibility of new beginnings. It was powerful to have a man be so open and personal, talking about feelings and hurt, about relationship problems, and it brought out a similar response in many of his listeners… a reminder of why it’s important for men to get together, telling honest stories about their own journeys.

Something he shared really struck home personally – he talked about how so many children in our multicultural country have friends of all colours and nationalities, but rarely are Aboriginal children part of those friendship circles. So heartbreaking! I thought of how that was true for my own kids; and for my grandchildren; and in fact, other than through the church, it’s probably true for me – which makes me incredibly grateful for the community that is found in church. But doesn’t that say something very painful about our society, and the distances between us?

In the midst of worship, singing, theme presentation, small group discussion, workshops (like “Yoga for Men,” or “Men’s Health,” or “The Spirit of Open Source – and Modern Technology” ) there were also a couple of key meetings where the future of the Banff Men’s Conference was discussed. And these conversations raised questions about the church’s national organization for men’s ministry, theAOTS (As One That Serves), and about men’s groups in local congregations.

These were challenging discussions. The numbers attending the BMC are declining; gone are the days when three or four hundred men showed up every year. And we were older, much older – only a handful of the participants were under 50. And the same story of declining numbers and aging membership was true for those still involved in AOTS.

Inevitably we ended up looking at larger concerns, such as:

  • There are fewer men involved in the life of the United Church. Why? And what might change that?

  • What is the appeal of the evangelical men’s movement called “Promise Keepers”? Theologically we are worlds apart – but there’s something about the energy, and the wrestling with what it means to be a man in today’s world, particularly with all the changes in gender roles.

  • What challenges does our church present to young men? Might there ever be something like a United Church of Canada “Vision Quest”?  Or an “Outward Bound” for the spirit? Or opportunities for service that are demanding and exciting?

  • Are the days of men doing the “maintenance work” in the church over? Can we talk about “men’s spirituality”? And what do we mean by that? At the same time though we heard stories of various congregational men’s groups – at breakfast, or lunch, or on a day-long retreat – that were doing precisely that, talking about spirituality and being men, and linking the two, which sounded really exciting!

Lots of questions; no easy answers – but an important discussion to have. And who knows how the BMC might speak to those concerns, and what changes might occur.

By the way,  next year’s Banff Men’s Conference is actually going to be at Canmore – which is little strange perhaps, but it’s a question of cost and finances. And we’ll still be in the mountains! The theme speaker will be Rev. John Pentland of Hillhurst United Church in Calgary – take a look at their website to catch a glimpse of a growing and exciting congregation.  Appropriately, he will be talking about “Transitions.” Why not check it out?