Part 1: The Men America Left Behind

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series that takes a scientific approach to study the value and impact The Crucible Project has had on men who are thirsty to live with more integrity, grace and courage. It is based on work of Crucible brother Ryan Poling, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology.

In February of this year, the American Psychological Association’s Monitor magazine published a feature story called “The Men America Left Behind.” The article discusses changing economic and social realities and how men are struggling emotionally, relationally, and even physically in the midst of these changes. “For as long as America has been a country,” the author writes, “the straight white American man has been king of the hill. But as society changes and culture evolves, the ground beneath that hill is growing shaky.”

Shaky ground. Unclear expectations. Fuzzy roles. As men, we are aware that things are changing, but we aren’t always sure what to do about it. Where do we fit in this changing socio-economic reality? What does it even mean to be a man anymore?

Ask a female in her early twenties if she is a woman, and she will probably say yes without much hesitation. Ask a male in his early twenties if he is a man, and he will likely say yes, but with far more hesitation.

What explains that difference?

I’m passionate about healthy masculinity and male identity development. I’m also passionate about The Crucible Project and have attended and staffed numerous weekends. So, when I began my doctoral studies in clinical psychology, it seemed natural to study the effects of The Crucible Project retreat for my dissertation work. In a series of blog posts over the next few weeks, I will share a bit of data, a bit of research, and a bit of speculation on the effects that our container is having on other men who might have been on shaky ground, living with unclear expectations and fuzzy roles.

Think of this upcoming series as a science-theory “smoothie” with an extra scoop of protein powder. Yes, there will be some academic fix-ins mixed in, but I promise this smoothie will be anything but bland and tasteless. So…let’s start chugging! Based on my own experience of attending and staffing, I’ve felt the power of a Crucible weekend from both sides. Like Jacob after his wrestling match in Genesis 32, I have seen men walk with a different walk after a retreat. My intuition was telling me something powerful was happening on our weekends, but I knew I couldn’t draw conclusions without numbers and data. So, like any good scientific researcher, I established some constructs to study and sought to gather data and run the numbers.

The Constructs

In academic-speak, my dissertation is an “outcome study,” which simply means I’m measuring the outcome of a particular intervention or program. This intervention happened to be The Crucible Project, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to apply an outcome study design to the weekends.

First, I had to determine what I wanted to study and how to analyze the data.  I started with the vision of The Crucible Project: to “…create a world of men who live with integrity, grace, and courage…”  Those three characteristics align nicely to authenticity, willingness to forgive, and assertiveness which are constructs that have been studied quite a bit in the research literature. And there are some good, established pencil-and-paper surveys out there to quantify these traits. So that’s what I decided to study and measure: How does the weekend affect men’s assertiveness, authenticity, and willingness to forgive?

The Process

With the constructs in place, I decided to survey men at three different points: Before they came to a Crucible weekend, immediately after a weekend, and two months after their initial weekend experience.

A quick note on surveys in psychological research: In order to be accepted into wider use in research, a measure needs to be “run through the gauntlet.” Researchers give the survey to hundreds of people, paying careful attention to demographic differences, item content, validity, reliability…and many other factors. There is an entire field of study (called psychometrics) that deals solely with the theory and technique of creating psychological tests, surveys, and other measures. That’s probably more than you wanted to know, but the point is that these surveys have some muscle and depth. They aren’t the kind of surveys you see on Facebook that tell you which Disney Princess you are.

The Results

It will come as no surprise to any man in the Crucible community that the data shows the weekend really seems to work. All of my hypotheses were confirmed, and study participants showed statistically significant improvements in assertiveness, authenticity, and willingness to forgive.

But the good news doesn’t stop there. Throughout this next month, I’ll be unpacking some of my research and speculation about a few topics that I feel to be important in helping men face their shadows and develop a richer sense of what it means to be a man.

Based on the data and research that I see, there are strong signs that The Crucible Project is fulfilling its mission to help men of faith live at deeper levels of authenticity, passion, and power. However, it also is important to realize that my study, like any scientific study, has limitations. For reasons I won’t bore you with, my relatively small participant pool means I won’t carve my conclusions in stone. However, my findings are the first empirical evidence that something good is likely happening on these weekends.

It’s exciting to see how Christian ministries such as The Crucible Project and national scientific bodies such as the American Psychological Association are focusing on the challenges modern men are facing. And, there is still much work to be done. Indeed, “the journey continues!”

Next Week: We’ll talk about authenticity and how being authentic can help men face the fire and find their gold.

 – By J. Ryan Poling

Ryan’s initial Crucible weekend was in August 2006. He is completing his doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Fuller Seminary Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA, and is currently on internship at Salina Regional Health Center. He holds Master’s degrees in Psychology and Theology, and he was also Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He lives in Salina, Kansas, with his wife, Erika, and their bunny, Bailey.

Photo Credit: Gustavo Devito via Creative Commons.