He grew up in a dysfunctional family and bounced through the foster care system, an unlikely background for someone destined to lead an evangelical family-equipping organization. But that's just where Jim Daly finds himself today, as the President and CEO of Focus on the Family. Daly's first book, Finding Home, detailed his difficult childhood. His latest book, The Good Dad: Becoming the Father You Were Meant to Be, shows that a rough upbringing need not ruin one's ambitions of leading a healthy family. Pastor and author Daniel Darling spoke with Daly about how men, no matter how broken their past (or present), can become godly fathers.
You shared your story of growing up in a dysfunctional family environment in your memoir, Finding Home. Did this upbringing ever cause you to doubt your ability to be a good father?
I'm not sure that I ever thought about it in quite those terms. Ability was never really the central question in my mind. I've always been an optimist by temperament, and when I'm given a job to do—whether it's quarterbacking, running an organization, or parenting a child—I'm usually pretty good at jumping into the ring and giving it my best shot.
What my upbringing has done for me is to shine a big spotlight on the crucial importance of having—and being—a good dad. I learned what that meant by default. Because I never had a positive male role model in my life, I understood the value of an involved father in a way that many of my friends from intact families simply couldn't grasp. I knew what I wanted for my own kids precisely because I'd never had it myself. That has made a big difference in my life.
Many men will find solace in knowing that someone who grew up in your circumstances can become not only be an effective parent, but also the leader of a pro-family organization. Was that part of your motivation in writing the book?
Absolutely. I believe with all my heart that to be in Christ is to be a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17). Among other things, this suggests that followers of Jesus are not defined by their past. They don't have to be locked into or held down by the sins of their fathers. Christ has set them free from slavery to the "same old same old" of previous generations. I'm convinced that, in God, all things are possible. This has huge implications for marriage, parenting, and family life.
There is so much brokenness in families today. Yet you seem like a joyful prophet, lamenting the crisis but offering up the church as a solution. Is that your mission?
My mission is to convince others that what has been true for me can also be true for them. Let's face it: There has always been a lot of brokenness in families. If you don't believe it, get your Bible out and read about some of the dysfunctional families who, in spite of their flaws, played such an important role in the history of God's people.
Spend some time mulling over the mistakes of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Judah and Tamar, Joseph and his brothers, David and Bathsheba. You'll soon come to the realization that the world has been in crisis practically since day one. That's an eye-opener in itself, but as Christians we know that it isn't the end of the story. My mission is to let people know that Jesus came to redeem all this dysfunction and to heal the brokenness of our family relationships.
What can the church to do help mentor the lost men in our society, the boys who grow up looking for a role model?
The only way to foster genuine mentoring relationships is to build a church that's truly intergenerational. Believers need to get out of the habit of segregating themselves according to age groups. Younger men need older men who can come alongside them, walk with them through the tough spots of life, and show them what it means to be a man who really trusts God for all his needs and who puts other people's concerns and interests ahead of his own.
To put it another way, men need to be nurtured within the context of community. The church, as Christ's Body, is uniquely equipped to meet this need. But we have to remember that it won't happen automatically. If we're going to build men up in the image of Christ, we're going to have to be intentional about creating thriving men's ministries in our local congregations.
As you survey the state of manhood and fatherhood in our society, what distresses you and what gives you hope?
I'd say that, on the whole, men today have a much fuzzier concept of who they are and what they're supposed to be doing than did their fathers and grandfathers. The feminist movement has done a great job of opening up all kinds of new doors and opportunities for women, but in the process, one of its unfortunate side-effects has been to rob men of their purpose as provider and protector. Somehow, guys today need to rediscover and reclaim that aspect of their identity.
On the other hand, I see signs that many young dads are stepping up to the plate and playing a much more active role in their children's lives than was often the case in past generations. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project, recently reported that fathers have almost doubled the average amount of time they spend with their children each week, from 4.2 hours in 1995 to 7.3 hours in 2011. That's good news.
What encouragement can you give to fathers who have come from broken families and feel ill-equipped to raise families of their own?
I'd encourage them to believe that, with God's help, he can rise above his origins and his present situation. I'm not necessarily saying that this will be an easy process. I also think it's important to remember that none of us will ever be perfect in this life. Nevertheless, new life in Christ is not just a fantasy. It's something we lay hold of by faith.
New growth, new horizons, and new ways of thinking and behaving are all part of God's plan for those who turn their hearts over to him and trust him to lead the way. You just have to find the gumption to say, "The past is the past and the old patterns stop here. By the grace of God I'm going to take a different path!"
How would you advise pastors, church leaders, business leaders, community leaders, and politicians to help shape the next generation of young men?
This is an art, not a science. Every man is different, and re-creation in the image of Christ is a unique process for each individual. But on the whole, I'd say that men at the beginning of the 21st century desperately need three things: people to love and be loved by, a place to belong, and meaningful work to do. The church, the community, business, industry, and the corporate world can all contribute something toward the meeting of these needs. But the place where it all begins—the most important piece of the puzzle—is the family.