Story by Edwin Manuel Garcia / Feature photo by Brad Barnwell
Alex Partyka grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but stopped attending for 12–13 years, when partying got the best of him, including almost daily drug highs. He realized he wanted to change his life, but didn’t know how, so he prayed about it. He says his prayers resulted in a miracle involving a 30-day jail sentence.
Returning to the faith in his mid-30s, he felt something was missing to fortify his spiritual walk. “I just knew I needed fellowship and needed to meet some people,” he says.
However, he wasn’t sure how to make that happen.
He found the answer one Sabbath morning in 2014 while sitting on a pew at Chesapeake Conference’s Triadelphia church in Clarksville, Md. Scanning the church bulletin, Partyka came across an announcement: “Triadelphia Men’s Ministries Breakfast.” It was free, he thought, so why not? He attended the Sunday morning buffet, and, in subsequent meetings, shared his testimony, identified a spiritual mentor and received valuable advice.
Partyka is one of hundreds of active members in the Columbia Union Conference whose spiritual lives have been enhanced by Men’s Ministries groups—adults of all ages who meet weekly, biweekly, monthly or at annual retreats who bond over shared experiences, study the Scriptures and help each other overcome struggles, many times over meals.
Members of the Triadelphia ministry, who gather at a restaurant in a hotel in Columbia, Md., started meeting in 2014 and gather most every second Sunday for breakfast. The fellowship, typically ranging from 15 to 25 people, starts at 8 a.m. for prayer, food and socialization, followed by a 20-minute devotional and closing with a discussion period.
It is during those discussion times that Tony Williams, one of the leaders, became Partyka’s mentor.
“I think that by sharing with other men, it makes it easier for me to relate to [others with similar issues],” says Partyka. “The experiences that I’ve been through and the life that I had been living is not something that I wanted to share with a lot of people in church, but Tony was very non-judgmental from the beginning. I felt like I could trust him. ... Knowing he accepted me after everything I had been through made me more confident [about] being involved in church. He encouraged me to take positions and get involved in things.”
Partyka adds, “As men, we each have different problems we’re dealing with in life, but because we’re sharing with each other, we can encourage each other.”
Williams, Partyka’s mentor, grew up with an abusive father, but had uncles, a grandfather and an academy principal who took an interest in him and spent time with him. He now “looks back and sees that the Lord intervened,” Williams says. “In 2006 when I thought about all of this, [I realized] I wanted to give back. ... I feel a little bit like it’s an opportunity to share like the way my uncles shared with me, kind of life returning the favor or returning God’s faithfulness to me to share with [Partyka].”
The group finds opportunities to serve through volunteer projects such as clearing trees off a widow’s property, helping a family move or shoveling snow.
In addition, Williams says the group has spawned several men’s book studies that have discussed topics ranging from the life of David to pornography. “It’s tough being men in this sin-filled world where everyone wants you to be like the world.”
Williams also appreciates the ministry’s potential for witnessing. “There are three to five non-Adventists who come to this breakfast quite regularly,” he says, adding that Partyka has brought several unchurched friends. “I’d love to see some of these men make decisions for the Lord, but that doesn’t have to happen in my lifetime. ... All things work together for the Lord, and this might be a stepping stone.”
Williams is also one of three laymen, who, in 2006, helped start Maryland Men of Faith (MMOF), a daylong Sabbath conference that inspires, encourages and challenges nearly 200 men from the Columbia Union and beyond to incorporate Jesus into their lives and grow into His likeness.
Modeled after the Michigan Men of Faith, the assembly, which is sponsored in part by the Chesapeake Conference and takes place at the Mt. Aetna Retreat Center in Hagerstown, Md., features seminars that encourage men to improve their lives at home, church and the workplace.
Williams hopes the group will continue challenging and encouraging participants to be better men. He shares an anecdote from Arnold Moore, one of the co-founders: “Normally you walk into the house and you kick the dog. Now, you walk by the dog, and the dog says ‘You’ve been to Maryland Men of Faith.’”
Other groups around the union gather to pursue similar goals.
The Dedicated Man
“We’re seeing that men in general, for lack of a better term, are losing their way or getting swept by a wave,” Clifton Fitzgerald says. “If God has made you the head of the household, you have to be right with God, you have to carry out your mission, and, to do that, you have to be well equipped.
Richard John of Potomac Conference’s Community Praise Church in Alexandria, Va., and Fitzgerald of Potomac’s Restoration Praise Center in Bowie, Md., are firm believers that a large, annual weekend retreat can provide a deeper, more meaningful experience than can be accomplished by multiple, local groups.
Prayerful conversations, along with 16 years of par- ticipation and leadership in Men’s Ministries meetings whether it’s verbal abuse [or] physical abuse. We’re ‘not supposed’ to talk about this without being judged by our peers. But when you offer a safe place and have pastors or therapists as your presenters,” John says, “you’d be surprised at the amount of men that speak up.”
The retreats offer confidentiality, so men can publicly express what’s burdening them without the fear of embarrassment or of being judged by others. Video recordings are not allowed.
Fitzgerald says he’s seen numerous manifestations of God’s grace in the short time the ministry has been operating, even as it applies to his own life. “Men are made up differently, and when men start dealing with men, you have to see past the bravado and see the little boy crying inside. This ministry has helped me see that,” he says.
John says that Men’s Ministries has made a big impact on his life. He’s been married for 21 years, but 10 years into his marriage, he returned from a retreat, woke up his wife and apologized. He says the retreat opened his eyes to the way he was living.
“It saved my marriage. It saved my relationship with my daughter, with my brothers,” he says. “Now when I see my own brothers, the men at church, I say ‘Happy Sabbath’ and will stand and listen to them. Before, that wasn’t me. I realize how bad we need each other. ... I am truly not the only one going through this.”
Future plans for The Dedicated Man include continuing to grow the conference and promoting the ministry to members at Hispanic churches.
Way to a Man's Heart
Back at the local level, men’s groups have found success due to shared interests among its members.
A common thread at the Men’s Ministries program at Potomac Conference’s Richmond Brazilian Community church in Virginia is its immigrant culture and food. The group was started last year by Thyago Ferro, who led a men’s ministry in Brazil and now finds himself adapting to an adopted homeland, which can be chal- lenging to navigate.
“As an immigrant church, a lot of these people live within the community and several don’t speak English. That’s the reality, so they rely on people who have been here longer to guide them,” says Andy Vasconcellos, who emigrated from Brazil long ago and is an active participant of the ministry.
Word of the ministry spread quickly at the small church—more than half of the 60 or so men in the congregation showed up for the inaugural breakfast in September and attendance has remained steady. “Anytime you mention food, the answer [to attend] changes very quickly, anytime you have food the answer is ‘Yes,’” Vasconcellos says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that during the monthly Sunday morning breakfast at the fellowship hall, the socialization part of the Bible study covers topics such as: How to Obtain Health Care; The Best Time of Day to Make a Trip to the Social Security Office; and How to Access the Department of Motor Vehicles.
As time goes by, more men have started to open up about insecurities related to family life and work situations, Vasconcellos says. As a result, they are getting to know each other on a deeper level.
The group is making a difference, encouraging more men to get involved in church. Even though he has a full schedule, attending helps him slow down and notice the needs of others. “I realized there are guys over there asking for prayers for certain situations. If I had not gone, I would not have known that,” Vasconcellos says.
Sometimes greater communication and openness between participants can lead to an immediate solution to problems. Vasconcellos shares a prayer request made by a man who was afraid of being laid off because business was slow at his company. “Right then and there I knew of someone who was looking for an employee, and I was able to get them connected.”
“When people spend time together,” Vasconcellos adds, “they generally tend to love each other.”
Deeper Than Football
At Chesapeake Conference’s Spencerville church in Silver Spring, Md., men gather every other week in the youth room to watch “Monday Night Football” and other televised sports projected on two large video screens. The agenda this past season included dinner at 7:15 p.m., followed by an hourlong study based on a video called, Stepping Up: A Guide to Courageous Manhood, then the game. The men also hold a special breakfast seminar series once a quarter.
“There’s something really important about men having camaraderie, backing each other up, having information, supporting each other,” ministry leader Paul Rivera says.
“The role of men is terribly, terribly important in our society. Fatherless homes abound, especially in minority communities, and there’s a domino and ripple effect that is undermining and harming our community,” says Rivera, whose eldest of three children is 15. “I wanted to be a really involved father, and I also wanted to encourage other men to be involved in their family. That’s part of the reason I got involved in Men’s Ministries: to equip, inform and advise other guys. ... I just want to encourage men to be involved and make a difference.”
The group is currently in the process of building a mentorship program with Spencerville Adventist Academy (Md.).
Avoiding Loneliness Is a Team Effort
Ten years ago, Art Calhoun was a youth class teacher at Mountain View Conference’s Toll Gate church in Pennsboro, W.Va. He missed having interaction with adults, so he started a Men’s Ministries program.
The group delves into books of the Bible for the study portion of the biweekly get-togethers. Its participants, about half of whom are not members of the church, chat for about a half hour on current events, things that are happening in their lives, and offer each other solutions to problems such as home repairs. They also enjoy volunteering and have worked on projects together like building a wheelchair ramp for a church member.
Half of the attendees are active church members, says Calhoun, something that helps them avoid loneliness. For others, the group fills that goal of fellowship.
Benefitting the Entire Congregation
Eli Rojas, who leads Men’s Ministries, Family Ministries and is the Ministerial director for the Chesapeake Conference, wishes men’s groups were more prevalent, but he knows this takes a huge commit- ment from leaders and are difficult to sustain.
The groups most likely to thrive in congregations are those that are united or tight knit, noted Rojas, based on his nearly 30 years as a local minister. When men are emotionally close, Rojas says they are better able to connect with each other on intensely personal issues, such as addictions or problems with their marriage.
The advantages of having a men’s ministry program are enormous.
“There are studies that show that when men are actively involved in the church—and that’s what Men’s Ministries does—their families are better, and it just benefits the entire congregation,” Rojas says.