IN THE PAST five years, the Promise Keepers men's movement has packed football stadiums across the country. Men gather by the tens of thousands, not to cheer for their favorite sports team, but to commit themselves to their faith and service to their families.
The nation is taking notice. Stories in the Saturday Evening Post, U.S. News and World Report and The Economist have reported on the phenomenon of droves of men gathering to sing, pray, counsel one another, and to hear what Newsweek calls the “gospel of guyhood.”
Now it appears to be women's turn. Just as the Promise Keepers pray for strength to be good husbands and fathers, a number of like-minded women's groups—like Promise Reapers and Heritage Keepers—are attracting members.
Inspired by Promise Keeper's movement, the new groups seek to evangelize women in their own right. Organizers argue that, as men come together to reestablish their values and strengthen their relationships with family, Church, and community, it is essential that the same happen for women.
“Women are the other half of the Body of Christ,” says Promise Reapers co-founder Connie Schaedel. “We cannot do one side of the Body without doing the other. We encourage women to pray, to be focused on Scripture and to put the Word into action in their daily lives.”
The idea for a women's ministry stems from Schaedel's own experience with Promise Keepers. At a 1994 rally in Anaheim, Calif., Schaedel was invited to talk about her late husband's spiritual awakening. It was there she recalls, that “God put a burden” in her heart for women, by showing her “what he was doing in the lives of men.” Ayear later, Schaedel, who, living in Georgetown, Texas, and Mary Ann Bridgwater of Houston founded Promise Reapers.
The group copied the Promise Keepers staple of depending on “key men” in a local church to supervise activities. A “key woman,” after receiving approval from her pastor, discerns— through prayer—“what God wants her to do in that particular church,” Schaedel explains. “We don't have a cookie-cutter kind of way to do things.”
On one level, Schaedel sees Promise Reapers as a support group for women trying to adjust to Promise Keepers men's newfound desire to take on more duties at home. There is a danger in simply standing by as men deepen their faith, she says.
“If we don't come alongside, if there isn't a transformation of hearts for women, and if we aren't strengthened as the other half of the Body of Christ,” warns Schaedel, “Satan will have a hay day. Our families will continue to be a mess and the Church will still not be healed or strengthened.”
Schaedel says Promise Reapers is open to any woman interested in spiritual development—regardless of faith, ethnic group, cultural group, or place in life.
There are no participant figures for the women's groups yet, though they are much more modest than the numbers drawn to the men's gatherings. Some 720,000 men—70,000 of them Catholics—attended rallies last year.
Pastor Bob Beckler of the Central Community Church in Wichita, Kan., and his wife, Lori, see their ministry revolving around mentoring in order to pass on “how to be godly women.”
Lori Beckler emphasizes that Heritage Keepers is not so much a “women's movement,” as a “movement of God in the hearts of women.”
“It doesn't matter what your situation is—working, at home, single, married,” she says, “We're just trying to assist women in their walk with the Lord. We're not trying to categorize them in how to do it.”
“We are affirming Promise Keepers and what it has been as a ministry for men,” Beckler says. “But there are so many women out there wanting to be spiritually fed, hungry for spiritual nourishment, too. We're trying to relay to women just how important it is to pass on what God's promise is to the next generation.”
At the most personal level, these women's groups—much like Promise Keepers—strive to change lives. And at the national level, they are hoping to transform society by strengthening men's and women's commitment to family.
“People are really beat up in our society today. We're just drained with worldly demands, and—not intentionally—faith and religion end up taking a back seat. As men step up to the plate to take some of their responsibility, women also want to be nourished. That's why we are here,” says Beckler.
Women's groups in the Catholic Church are not a new phenomenon. The Catholic Daughters of America, the National Council of Catholic Women and their regional spin-offs, such as altar societies or ladies&spos; guilds, have long sought to promote fellowship and social services.
In fact, women have historically influenced the Church in greater numbers than men, supplying approximately 80 percent of the non-ordained service positions in the Catholic Church. But today's growing women's “movements” are shifting the focus from raising funds to raising spirits.
Magnificat, a ministry to Catholic women that originated in New Orleans 15 years ago, is perhaps closest in intent to the most recent wave of ecumenical women-to-women groups. “Magnificat's purpose is to help Catholic women open more and more to the Holy Spirit through a deeper commitment of their lives to Jesus as Lord and to impart the Holy Spirit to one another by their love, service, and sharing the good news of salvation,” explains Mary Ann Silva, coordinator for the Central San Diego, Calif. chapter of Magnificat.
Much like the Evangelical women's groups, Magnificat— and its 40 international chapters—responds to a perceived need among women to experience faith-sharing with other women, as well as to renew their personal faith. “We help women come together in fellowship to see their own dignity, to foster holiness, and to support each other in our Christian walk,” Silva explains. “From the onset, Magnificat wanted to make something accessible to Catholic women in all walks of life and in all levels of spiritual maturity.”
In its desire to encourage Catholic women to daily personal prayer and to “foster a desire to grow in holiness,” Magnificat's explanatory language resembles that of Heritage Keepers or Promise Reapers. Yet Magnificat is distinct in its Catholic identity. Although officially a private association of the Christian faithful, each local chapter operates with permission of its bishop. In its preamble, Magnificat defines its ministry as “dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, an image of the Church, and model for all Christians, especially women.”
Magnificat's name is the verb in the Latin phrase Magnificat anima mea Dominum [“My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1,
46)], which was the response of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth's joyful greeting. The example of Mary and Elizabeth is, in fact, the inspiration for this woman-to-woman ministry.
Magnificat was begun by a group of women involved in Bible studies and prayer groups not specifically Catholic, says Silva. “The idea is to offer something that is really Catholic, that will support the Catholic women to revisit the sacraments, to come together in prayer and support their own faith.”
Unlike the rallies of Promise Keepers, Magnificat's main activity is a two- to three-hour meal gathering four times a year. The meeting offers an opportunity for fellowship, communal praise and worship, a personal testimony given most often by another woman, and a time for intercessory prayer. “It's just their place to be who they are, totally, supported by other women,” Silva notes. “It provides an opportunity for non-threatening intimacy, much like a family holiday when everyone comes together for a meal and afterwards talks and shares their own walks of faith.”
Still, Magnificat shares much with ecumenical groups. Like Heritage Keepers and Promise Reapers, Magnificat hopes to “foster holiness” in women through prayer, fellowship, reading the Scriptures, teaching, witnessing, and serving one another. And if the numbers are any indication of whether women feel a “need” to participate in a woman to woman faith ministry, then the answer is affirmative.
The San Diego chapter of Magnificat, which began five years ago with 65 women, now attracts 350-400 women for every prayer breakfast. In addition, a second chapter has formed in San Diego that averages 250 at each event.
One-year-old Promise Reaper's already has contacts in more than 15 states and Heritage Keepers held its first “rally” this summer in Wichita, where more than 2,100 women gathered to hear speakers and worship in a style very similar to Promise Keepers. The group is planning five conferences in 1997 in different locations throughout the United States.
For more information, write: Magnificat: Marilyn Quirk, 1201 Beverly Garden Dr., Metairie, LA 70002
Promise Reapers: P. O. Box 924887, Houston, TX 77292 Heritage Keepers: Lori and Bob Beckler, 2020 No. Oliver St., Wichita, KA
MarÌa Ruiz Scaperlanda is based in Norman, Okla.