Steve Thomas and Don Neufeld— Mennonite Men, authors of Living that Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith

“Living” with Don Neufeld and Steve Thomas

~ing podcast Season 3, Episode 8
Full Episode Transcript

Season 3, Episode 8: “Living” with Don Neufeld and Steve Thomas was released on February 21, 2023. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

Do you wonder what it means to be a man? Do you desire to grow? Want something more? Long for a life that matters? Seek to make a difference in the world? In this episode we’ll be talking with Herald Press authors, Don Neufeld & Steve Thomas, and learn more about these questions and how they connect with themes from their new book, Living That Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith. This resource is available now from Herald Press.

Don Neufeld, Steve Thomas, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
It’s season three of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus?

Don Neufeld  00:09
You can’t expect women or minority groups to do the work for us – you need to do the work.

Steve Thomas  00:14
They break the silence over say the pain, shame or burden, or struggle that they bear and open up to each other with vulnerability and creating a safe space for deep and honest conversations,

Don Neufeld  00:28
Challenging men to do the work of considering how best we can be healthy men in different roles in our lives.

Ben Wideman  00:35
Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Hello, friends. Welcome to another episode of ~ing Podcast, here. We are excited again to be joined by a couple of MennoMedia’s Herald Press authors. I’m joined today by Steve Thomas and Don Neufeld. They are co-authors of a brand new book called Living That Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith. We’ll get to that subject matter here in just a minute. But Don, and Steve, for those who don’t know you, how do you introduce yourselves these days?

Don Neufeld  01:23
Well, I am professionally a social worker, which I have been doing now for over 30 years. In the last 12 years or so as a private practice therapist. And one of my specialties is working with men. And that’s some of the roots of where this book has arisen from, okay? I’m also currently a theological student working on my Masters of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel University in Waterloo.

Steve Thomas  01:49
I’m the US coordinator for for Mennonite Men, following 33 years of pastoral work. And in my pastoral work, men’s work has been a particular interest that I’ve tried to introduce in my congregational settings.

Ben Wideman  02:04
Well, thank you both, again, for joining us. I thought we could start really setting some context here. It’s it’s not a surprise that our world today is somewhat polarized or politicized. You both come from different sides of the US/Canada border. And I thought it would be an interesting sort of starting point to talk about masculinity in general. And when you’re, when you’re speaking on behalf of an organization called Mennonite Men, I’m guessing that there are some, some questions, some concerns that people have. How do you talk about something like masculinity? When, when gender and gender identity is so… as polarizing, I guess, these days? I’d love to hear you just begin at that point.

Steve Thomas  02:48
Yeah, these are sensitive issues, over which there is so much polarization and misunderstanding, suspicion with one another. And the men’s work that I’ve been doing. I’ve sensed that within, you know, congregations, you know, over some of the the differences and divides, that are that are caused by some of these sensitive issues around sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation, partnerships. And, you know, and I’ve observed also that there are, are probably some differences on each side of the border. As Don and I have been engaged in conversations over these years and have had the occasion to do a couple of things together, I’ve noticed some differences between how this plays out this side of the border in the US, compared to on the other side of the border and in Canada.

Ben Wideman  03:45
It’s… it’s fair to say the church has been at the center of, of long histories of patriarchy and prioritizing men over women, things like that. So I’m guessing there’s some history that you’re also sort of challenged by not just the current political context, but but the baggage that we carry as people of faith as well.

Don Neufeld  04:04
Definitely, from my experience in my social work practice and also as a observer and participant in the church world, the complexities of masculinity and how men have behaved or misbehaved through the through the years and how the church is implicated in promoting supporting, covering, in some ways, but also thankfully, in increasing wages, challenging those assumed structures and questioning the long held beliefs about man’s place and privilege. The dilema that I have felt through the years though is that that conversation is also labeled men or characterized men on mass, but also each individual as being the… I’m suspicious, or problematic, or part of a movement that is, in some ways nefarious. And yeah, that is really difficult when I sit across from men who are hurting,

Ben Wideman  05:13

Don Neufeld  05:13
And I hear their stories and feel their pain, and especially with some younger men now in their 20s, who are feeling so alienated and disillusioned about their future. And so the need for rich and meaningful conversations that are positive and affirming of men, so that the conversations are safe for men to actually enter into, versus an atmosphere where we are the them in gender conversations, we are in some ways, feel uninvited, and if we’re in the room, we feel I have felt personally, the need to, to either bow my head and shame or, or if I am in any way supportive or defensive of men in their lives, then I’m seeing as part of the problem, that just is not a helpful conversation space going forward.

Ben Wideman  06:15
I like that we have just wrapped up a series here on in podcast, looking at the significant undertaking of the anabaptism at 500. Project, celebrating our traditions 500 years and in, in taking on a project like that the folks who have been putting it together have said repeatedly, we have to both celebrate who we are where we’ve been, but we can’t hide away from where we’ve also struggled as well. Right? It doesn’t make any sense to you, especially talking about masculinity to pretend that toxic masculinity isn’t a thing. But it also doesn’t mean that we we throw it up completely right and say, you know, men are evil or something like that to kind of hold both, I imagine is a challenge to to be in this kind of space. But I think that brings us to this project that you have undertaken. This book called Living That Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith. Can you tell me a little bit about why the two of you decided to write a book like this?

Steve Thomas  07:27
Well, this book project follows our first one, Peaceful At Heart. So Don, why don’t you describe, uh, Peaceful At Heart, which formed something of a basis for for this current book project.

Don Neufeld  07:40
Peaceful At Heart grew out of a vision that I had of bringing Anabaptist men together into conversation about what role peace and larger Anabaptist theological themes might have in contributing positively to visioning a healthy masculinity. And so that was a collection of 15 different authors. More of a… more thought pieces or on… a on a bit more of an academic level, have conversations about various, various aspects of masculinity.

Ben Wideman  08:18
That came out a few years ago?

Don Neufeld  08:19
That came out in 2019.

Steve Thomas  08:22
In this in this book, book project follows as as a handbook for men’s groups. So we make frequent reference to peaceful at heart for what Don described as, it might feel more academic, as it’s intended for more of a serious reader. And this particular book is is designed for, for those who maybe aren’t so serious, have time for or inclined to read more longer chapters. And so part of the intent of this book was to create a user friendly resource for men who maybe are inclined to read or are too busy to read, and designed to be a book for leaders to facilitate conversations with men.

Ben Wideman  08:22
Okay. So is this the sort of book that you would need to be a part of some sort of men’s group to really find the value there? Is it something you can you can read and appreciate on your own?

Steve Thomas  09:24
It is, it’s designed in such a way that it can be for both individual reader who wants to read on their own as well as for for group use. And so I think both applications are intended for this. In in the… as a pastor, as I’ve started seven different men’s groups over the years. You know, I’ve been looking for a good resource as a kind of a primer to jumpstart conversations for men and men’s groups and congregational settings. Over the years have been using a book by Richard Rohr, that has been kind of a primer on male spirituality. But the last three groups that I use this particular work in, it fell flat. And as much as I love the book, there was a sense that we need something that made us more Anabaptist in perspective. And so peaceful heart was meant to, to fill a gap in the, in the in the literature on men’s studies between kind of evangelical expressions of masculinity, visa vie mythopoetic, which is been largely influential, influential my life, and to to have some things more distinctly Anabaptist in perspective. And so this book is really meant to to help frame and prompt conversations in congregational and men’s group settings, but hopefully for for individual readers as well who were interested in looking at, and our perspectives on what it means to follow Jesus and to be for God’s peace.

Ben Wideman  11:02
What it means to be a man changes throughout human history… throughout even, even society to society have different definitions. Is it important to begin conversations like these with clarifying what masculinity is?

Don Neufeld  11:36
Well, I think it’s important to start with the humility of saying, we can only touch on a much broader topic and that, you know, Steve and I both been, well past midlife in as, as white men, we have one perspective and even between us is a different perspective. So we acknowledge that from the beginning, and we put this out as a invitation to to add to our conversation primers, as opposed to giving a final answer on what masculinity is. But I think it is important to acknowledge that what traditionally was understood as masculinity is, has evolved, and in many ways today is both suspect and is almost passe in conversations, especially with younger generations who are, in some senses, moving the dialogue on gender to a very different place, which, for some is going to be an important conversation. And our book likely won’t necessarily be effective in those settings. But for many men, the ways in which we approach masculinity is still something that is meaningful. And I believe going forward, there will always be men who will lean into more maybe binary understandings of their themselves as men. And that’s not to dismiss those who who don’t fall into those categories. But it’s meant to be a resource for those who find meaning in that way of being in men.

Ben Wideman  13:19
It strikes me that we, those of us who identify as men, bring the ways we have experienced masculinity throughout our lives, whether that’s fathers, friends, relatives, and we pick and choose the elements of that masculinity we’ve experienced to, you know, live out in our own lives as well, too. So it’s it is quite fascinating and complicated, I guess, to just set a baseline for who we are, as we begin begin conversations like these.

Steve Thomas  13:51
Yes, it is very complicated how we understand men and masculinity, the way I think about it, that males are born, but men are made, and that, that the idea of being men is largely a social construct. And so, rather than thinking of terms of masculinity, singular, Don and I, in our work really tried to promote the idea of masculinities as he was referring to that. It all depends on where you’re situated, and that what it means to be a man what it means to be men what masculinity means. Very significantly across cultures. And so we acknowledge in our in our particular book here, living that matters we’re writing out a certain perspective but we want to believe that some of the the touchstones that we’re using was regarding following Jesus being in community and working towards Shalom, God’s Shalom… Are… you know, what has some universal kind of appeal.

Ben Wideman  14:55
I’m glad you mentioned that Steve. This is a book written from a, a faith perspective. And can you tell us a little bit about how you bring in scripture or church theology as Anabaptists? How do you weave that into a book about masculinity?

Steve Thomas  15:11
The mission of Mennonite men is to engage men to grow, give and serve as followers of Jesus. And so this book is meant to be a resource to help men grow in their faith in life, as followers of Jesus and being followers of Jesus as a as a, as a theme for your particular podcast series, as I understand it. And so this fits in very nicely. And so in our book, we make frequent reference to scripture, believing that we’re kind of we’re, it’s that the scripture is important in our faith tradition. So there’s frequent reference. At the same time, they’re also that’s held together with other perspectives, from other faith traditions, and in the sciences, for example. And so we, while our book is designed in simple one, two page spreads with 70 chapters, so it’s kind of quick and easy and short, to prop conversation. We make frequent references, who resources so there are deeper dimensions. As for how we use our Anabaptist resources, as reference to our Anabaptist confessions of faith, our hymns, so frequent references and voices together, and then some and then Anabaptist kind of writers over the years. From the beginning, you’re thinking of like Hans Denck, for example, to all the way to Noel Moules, in the UK, a progressive Anabaptist thought leader. So there’s quite a range of Anabaptist references.

Ben Wideman  16:43
You’ve both talked a little bit about sitting with men who, especially younger men, who are struggling with what it means to be a man in in the world today. In that difficult space, where where are you finding hope? What what gives you hope as you undertake this kind of work?

Don Neufeld  17:01
Well, I think the the hope comes from this conversation becoming more explicit. Earlier you suggested Ben, that we choose those aspects of masculinity which fit, I would suggest that masculinity as the dominant genders, something so much of society for so long, masculinity is just the water we’ve swept we’ve swum in, and then men have not had to do much deliberate thinking about what it means to be men, it was just assumed, yeah. So our interest in this continent, this project, and it’s specifically called honest conversations. It is about bringing that experience of being men into a more explicit thought and joint conversation both amongst men. And in that sense, men as men, we need to do our work. We can’t expect women or minority groups to do the work for us, we need to do the work. So this is about challenging men to do the work of considering how best we can be healthy men in different roles in our lives. So hoping that men join that conversation and that this might be a resource to inspire and broaden that conversation is where I find hope.

Steve Thomas  18:28
I find hope in what I observe what happens when men actually come together in conversation, where maybe they break the silence over say the pain, shame or burden or struggle that they bear and open up to each other with vulnerability and creating a safe space for deep and honest conversations. becomes a source of oh, you too. Me too. I struggle with this and have a sense of, of men who are not to use the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, in his classic book believes must obtain cynic. We’re not writing to perverse sinners, and we realize that we are men who are on a journey really seeking wholeness and healthy expressions of being met with other men in community that leads to God’s peace. And so I find great hope of what happens when when men actually engage in deeper conversation and confide with one another and share their common struggles and aspirations.

Ben Wideman  19:39
Well, I want to say thank you. This is such important work that you’re doing especially given the history of, of ways that masculinity has been abused and into, to be willing to enter into a space like this. Which, as we started by saying can be so polarizing, I think is important work and certainly seems like something that you’re doing with grace and humility. So I thank you both for taking the time. Friends. I hope you’ve enjoyed our conversation today as well. And I really hope you check out this new book, Living That Matters: Honest Conversations for Men of Faith that was recently published by Steve Thomas and Don Neufeld. Friends, thank you so much both for being here with us on in podcasts. Over the last 40 years, the era of mass incarceration has seen the US prison population rise by 500%. There are nearly 2 million people behind bars and statistics show that at least one in four people who have gone to jail will be arrested again within the same year. MCC and MC USA are partnering in a new webinar series Beyond Incarceration, to hard look at dismantling the prison system and building healthy communities. Join us next week on ~ing Podcast where we will learn more about this new series. 

As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at