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A Quick Question

What ever happened to the 
Promise Keepers?  

The quick answer: 
 A slow and unfortunate decline!

The longer answer:   The Promise Keepers, "PK" as it was popularly called, emerged from the obscurity of a small 1991 gathering of around four thousand men at its first conference in Colorado to fill stadiums throughout the nation for several years during the 1990s. By 1997, PK supporters estimated at 800,000 strong filled the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for “Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men.” That PK event was voted the second most–newsworthy story of 1997. Now, just a few years past that triumphant march, this very same organization is struggling to reinvent itself. When these facts are considered, 1997 seems like eons ago.

Signs of decline

Careful observers of PK could notice telltale signs of the movement’s decline soon after Stand in the Gap.  Just four months after that event, the organization laid off its entire office staff because of its dwindling finances. Armed with the catchy slogan, “Open the gates in ‘98!” PK had decided to drop its conference admission fee of sixty dollars at more than a dozen venues across the nation. The donation–only strategy of fundraising was designed to attract a more economically and racially diverse group of men to PK conferences. PK had long promoted reconciliation among men from different racial, socioeconomic, and denominational backgrounds under the banner, “Break Down the Walls.” Yet, the most significant breaking that took place in 1998 was the financial sort. PK was in desperate need of cash.

The organization’s cancellation of its long–planned millennial march was another sign of its decline. Dubbed “Hope for a New Millennium: Light the Night,” that event was billed as the follow–up march to Stand in the Gap, and was introduced to PK faithful there on the National Mall in 1997. The goal was ambitious—have PK men across America descend on capitol buildings in each of the fifty states at midnight on January 1, 2000. This “Y2K” reprise to 1997’s Stand in the Gap was anticipated to lend even more visibility to the movement. Yet, by early April 1999, the millennial march fell prey to the Y2K bug. Caution apparently being the better part of valor, PK leaders told men to remain home with their families to face what was expected to be a precarious transition to the new millennium. Many wondered if the event had been cancelled primarily because it would have been an embarrassment, a testimony to the falling fortunes of PK.

PK lost much of its newsworthiness soon after laying off its staff and canceling its millennial march. In the blink of an eye, the high–profile media attention PK once enjoyed had evaporated. Gone was coverage of massive PK stadium conferences and the personal testimonials of lives changed that had graced the covers and feature stories of all the nation’s top weekly news magazines. And front–page headlines captured so effectively by the group suddenly became a distant memory. Those left scratching their heads from diminished news coverage would see the writing on the wall with a quick glance at the numbers. The Promise Keepers’ annual budget dwindled from $117 million in 1997 to $34 million in 2001, and its surviving office staff of one hundred—those rehired after the layoff—was a skeleton troupe when compared with the veritable army of three–hundred and fifty that it employed during its heyday.

More convincing yet, the movement’s stadium gate draw became a mere shadow of its former self. Once able to attract more than 50,000 men to each of more than a dozen football stadiums during its “conference season,” the movement adopted the more modest goal of filling convention halls and civic centers of about 15,000. One of the more striking examples of the drought in attendance was found in Minneapolis. PK attracted 62,000 men to the Metrodome in 1995, but could muster only 16,000 men to Minneapolis’s much smaller Target Center in 2000. Similar drops in attendance occurred in other repeat–venues throughout the nation.

For their part, the Promise Keepers have not resigned themselves to being dismissed as yesterday’s news. When questioned about their drastically diminished revenues and less impressive membership rolls, one PK spokesman glibly asserted that the group is merely letting “the soil rest” before reinitiating its harvest of men’s souls.  Other spokesmen have adopted a more forthright tone. One leader described the group’s well–publicized financial woes and staff layoff as its “puberty era.” Such images suggest that PK has “grown up” from a gangly revivalist movement to a more mature men’s ministry. Still others have sought simply to downscale expectations. Another leader in the group painted the Promise Keepers as a front–line crusade whose primary goal has always been to serve as a “starting point” for channeling converted men into local churches. According to this logic, once the baton has been passed to local churches, observers should not expect to see PK tally the same numbers in fund raising or conference attendance that they previously commanded.  

Read more of this article in the religion and family section of this web site.

This article is an excerpt from John P. Bartkowski’s forthcoming book, "The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men" (Rutgers University Press, 2003). 


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