Josh Noem tried rustic retreats in the woods. He tried combining workouts and prayer. He even tried holding discussions at the local pub. But much to his chagrin, nothing worked. When Mr. Noem was hired as a campus minster at the University of Portland in 2005, he was asked to involve a larger number of young men on campus, but his programs failed to engage more than a handful of students, and many of those who did show up were already regulars.
All that changed in 2007 when Mr. Noem and Thomas Bruketta, then a part-time campus minister at the university, came across an article called “Men, Spirituality, and the Collegiate Experience” by W. Merle Longwood, Mark W. Muesse, and William Schipper, O.S.B., that detailed the origins of a successful men’s discussion group at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Mr. Noem and Mr. Bruketta adapted the plan for their own students. They gathered 11 freshmen recommended by hall directors or professors and pitched the following: A small group would meet regularly for the next four years; each year, the men would discuss a different theme, keeping in mind the concepts of truth, brotherhood, justice and authentic masculinity. The freshmen were intrigued. They called themselves the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in a playful homage to the comic book series.
“By the end of the fall there was a different energy about this group,” Mr. Noem said. “They were asking when the next meeting was. Getting them to attend wasn’t like pulling teeth. They were willing to take on leadership roles.”
The group at Portland, which goes by the nickname LXG, has since grown to include more than 70 young men engaged in nine small groups at the college. For many, LXG was their first contact with campus ministry. Here is how it works: In the first year the men meet regularly—usually every week or every other week—to answer the question, “Who am I, and what do I believe?” In the second year, they discuss relationships. Year three covers resiliency, which Mr. Noem describes as a “code word for suffering.” In the final year they discuss their vocations. The discussions are facilitated by two members of the college faculty or staff, including laypeople and religious. The members also help to organize service opportunities and campuswide events that reach out to other men. Mr. Noem estimates a 75-percent retention rate overall since 2007.
The purpose of the discussion groups, Mr. Noem said, is to provide a safe, confidential environment in which the participants can build core relationships and talk about those things that are “deeper and more authentic” than the stereotypically male topics of sports or women or video games. Spirituality may play a role in these discussions but it is not necessarily the focus, and students of all faiths or no faith are welcome. Mr. Noem said that listening to other men describe their beliefs enables participants to open up to one another in new ways.
“For them to just name their experience puts that experience in the open, and there’s a solidarity that supports them,” Mr. Noem said. “They realize they’re not alone, and it’s O.K. to rely on other people.” Mr. Noem serves as a facilitator for a group and has accompanied those first 11 members through to their graduation this past May. “The big conclusion we had was [that] we’re all dealing with things, and the general tendency was to keep it inside, and they were realizing that that wasn’t healthy.”
A Model to Replicate
Last November, LXG was named an “exemplary program” for “facilitating personal development” by the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, meaning that the program offers a successful model that can be imitated by other colleges.
Gar Kellom, a researcher who served as the executive director of the Men’s Center at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., for nearly two decades, was one of the founders of the student discussion groups on which LXG was based. In 2008 he obtained a grant from the Lilly Endowment and awarded funds to 14 U.S. colleges to help them identify the best practices for increasing male engagement in vocational discernment activities. Some institutions, like the University of Portland and Siena College used some the funds to assist with men’s discussion groups, while others sought to motivate male athletes to spend time volunteering or to train faculty members for new courses or to conduct research.
Mr. Kellom knew that college men needed a bit of motivation. According to a study from the Higher Education Research Institute, 68 percent of male college students are interested in spirituality, but men were less likely than women to demonstrate that interest. Women are also more likely to take part in service learning opportunities. “Men are socialized not to be in touch with feelings or emotions or inner lives,” Mr. Kellom said. “You hear people say, ‘man up’, in other words, ‘Don’t show emotions or feelings,’ and that includes a spiritual side.”
Through approximately 1,000 interviews with men at the colleges that received grants from the Lilly Endowment, Mr. Kellom and his fellow researchers found that the college-aged men perceived their friends as being committed to traditional masculinity, even while they saw themselves as able to go against those stereotypes. “We asked them about participating in men’s groups and they said, ‘I’d be interested in spirituality groups, but my friends wouldn’t,’” he said. “The biggest inhibitor is the misperception of the socially constructed masculinity. Guys are willing to talk, contrary to what others say. They need to get past the inhibitor that it’s not cool to do it.”
Creede Caldwell, 21, of Helena, Mont., was one of the founding members of LXG at the University of Portland. He graduated this year and will serve as a full-time volunteer at a L’Arche community in Syracuse, N.Y., through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Mr. Caldwell said that his small group forced him to be more thoughtful about what it means to be a man. “I had a really good role model for what a man is in my father, but I hadn’t necessarily spent a lot of time in my own life contemplating it,” he said. “What LXG did was give me room to explore the specifics, the basic principles and the actions and gestures a real man would use, rather than fitting into the stereotypical.”
Seeking Out Stereotypes
Sometimes, however, the stereotype comes in handy. One of LXG’s yearly events is called the Manquisition, a kind of mock trial involving cartoonishly macho judges who demand explanations from those men who do not conform to similarly macho stereotypes. The list of defendants at the event (the tone of which is described by Caldwell as “Stephen Colbert meets Monty Python”) has included a priest, a male student majoring in education, a student engaged to be married and a senior who made a quilt for his girlfriend for Christmas. Amid the humor, “defendants” offer moving testaments to their atypical choices and lifestyles.
But, according to Mr. Noem, for the event to be successful it had to attract the kind of college men who might not consider attending the discussion groups. So the posters advertising the event depicted a man fighting a grizzly bear with a chainsaw. “We don’t want to be speaking only to guys who are well adjusted and integrated,” Mr. Noem said. “We want to speak to guys who take this stereotype seriously, so we use that stereotype but always as an invitation to transcend.”
This intention was not immediately clear, however, to some members of a feminist discussion group on campus, who objected to the event and, in general, questioned the need for the men’s discussion groups. So Mr. Noem invited a representative from the feminist group to an LXG planning meeting, which he said has led to a fruitful, ongoing discussion. “We realized we were on the same page about authentic human development and the need to transcend those gender roles that society puts upon us,” he said. “It’s not just women who are oppressed by the false masculine. Men are too, and it’s important to keep that dialogue open.”
Eric Grussing, 22, of Lakefield, Minn., a recent graduate of St. John’s, said that remaining with his small group for four years helped him to feel comfortable discussing issues of relationships and masculinity in a way that was different from the communication style he used with his closest friends. He found he was more open about his own thoughts and opinions and of those around him. “It’s made me more empathetic toward the lives of others,” he said. “The majority of experiences I had before were basically guys just relating to each other on a sports basis or something. When guys are good buddies they can give each other a hard time and be comfortable making fun of one another. But this experience was an opportunity to have more thoughtful conversations about the things we normally bottle up.”
Men who restrict themselves to macho male stereotypes often suffer from it, said William Schipper, O.S.B., the director of campus ministry at St. John’s University. “The male script is that you’re only supposed to be strong and independent, but that’s not always a healthy script,” he said. Father Schipper has helped to organize and facilitate the men’s discussion groups at St. John’s since 1997. “Men can also be very restrictive when it comes to physical touch with other men,” he said. “Often it has to do with homophobia and the desire to convey the message: ‘I’m not gay.’” Father Schipper said this fear can rob men of the fulfillment of the “basic human need for human touch that is sustaining and positive that doesn’t have to be sexual.”
The confidential discussion groups can help young men to gain a personal perspective on larger social issues. “Human beings in general, when they see a face and they look someone in the eye, are much more accepting than when it’s in the theoretical,” Father Schipper said. “I’ve had students at various stages of the discussion come out to the group and talk about their experience of being gay,” he said, adding that he has witnessed only acceptance and support in the students’ reactions. “You have to realize they’re in a group that has become close,” he said. “In this context, the students have more of a personal investment.”
The effects of these discussion groups can extend beyond the regular meetings. Brandon Morgan, 19, a sophomore at the University of Portland, is in his second year of LXG. He has become close friends with the other men in his group, and he says they often discuss the issues and experiences they have had through LXG, outside the group setting. He said that one friend who had not been a part of LXG during his freshman year has decided to join one of the groups in the fall. “We didn’t try to convince him,” said Mr. Morgan. “He just saw how close we’d become and all the fun we were having and he didn’t want to miss out on that experience.” Mr. Morgan hopes his friend will find the program as beneficial as he has thus far. “It’s been an enlightening experience to see who I actually am instead of who I think I am or who I show to the world.”
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