Man on a Mission: Mark Houck

Interview by Kristyn Komarnicki4

Launched in 2006, The King's Men is a Catholic-led ministry that nurtures an ecumenical brotherhood of accountability, support, and spiritual discipline. It exists to help men not only live lives of sexual integrity but also to fight for their families, communities, and the most vulnerable among us. Through experiential retreats, relationship building, education, and public advocacy work, The King's Men calls men out of passivity and isolation to become godly warriors on the front lines of society.

We sat down with The King's Men Cofounder and President Mark Houck to learn more about what fuels their work and what challenges they are up against.

Your website articulates The King's Men mission as to "unite and build up other men in the mold of leader, protector, and provider." Is this something you feel is neglected in the church today?

Houck: Absolutely. I can tell it is, because we're so busy here! There's so much demand for our work, that we're clearly filling a need here, so I would say it has been neglected. In contemporary Western culture, some of the most popular shows are about stupid men—Ray Romano and Homer Simpson, for example. There's a perception and portrayal of men as weak, as buffoons who don't know what they're doing and are not a complement to women but are subordinate in a lot of ways.

And perhaps even a hindrance?

Houck: Hindrance, yes, that's a good word. In reality, men aren't superior to women, but we have a different role to play and we're equal in dignity. So we're raising up men to understand that role, which is to lead, protect, and provide. That doesn't mean a woman can't lead. My mother was a single mom, and she's a leader. Certainly there are many leaders who are women. But we try to build men up as husbands, as fathers, as advocates for good in their communities. We try to help men, no matter what their station in life, to understand that they're called as men to protect the common good. And so with issues of pornography and abortion, for example, men need to be in the thick of those battles—it's really where they're called to be as men—to fight. A man leads and provides best when he's engaged in battle. Something good happens when a man is stirred to defend people—his best qualities come forth.

I do think there's a neglect of this issue and that's why we're getting so many invitations to speak and to offer our programs, even to priests. Our Into the Wild retreats are getting 100 men at a time, and a lot of them are repeat attendees coming back for a second, third, or fourth time. So they're obviously being fed spiritually, they're coming alive, and they're finding a brotherhood.

Most men feel alone. I think the reason most men don't get engaged in the battle is because they don't want to be the only one doing it, and they don't know if anyone's going to join them if they step out. But if you have a network of brothers who are already doing it, all you have to be is another link in the chain of brothers. We help men feel safe. A lot of guys will think, "If I step out here, I'll be derided, or people will say that I'm something that I'm not, and I just don't know if I'm ready to handle that emotionally."

There are a lot of wounded men out there—emotionally—so they're fragile. They don't want to step out and make a spectacle of themselves and say, "Look at me—I'm doing it right," when in reality maybe they're not! We always say that the best way to combat your own demons—let's say you're struggling with pornography—is to go on the offensive. Don't be reactive—just go after the problem. You'll come alive as a man and feel better about yourself because you're actually doing something good in relation to that issue that has been so destructive in your life. So you feel empowered, you're not alone, you're not locked away in your room isolated somewhere. You're out in the open saying, "You know what? I'm a work in progress, I'm leading with my weakness, and by the grace of God I'm going to do the best I can. Even though I'm struggling here, I'm still going to say it's wrong." So you're empowered, you're affirmed in your work, and then you have maybe 10, 12, 15 others with you who are just as imperfect as you are but transformed by God's grace, and together we can do some real good!4a

What have you learned about God—and about men—from doing this work?

Houck: I've learned that God is a warrior. As you read the Scriptures you see how unafraid he is of confrontation. That validates what we're doing, because people often accuse us of judging them by fighting pornography. "Can't you just leave people alone?" they ask. And we say, "Well, no, we're not judging you; we're actually doing this out of love." God says the hard things, right? He speaks truth, but he does it in love, and it's not always well-received. Jesus said, "They persecuted me; they're going to persecute you." God goes into the fire. It's easy in peace time to be happy and comfortable, but where people need healing is where the fight is, and we need to be in there ministering, like the chaplains in war time, and pulling out the wounded.

God is a warrior; he's fierce. That's why they killed Jesus—because he was a dangerous man! I try to identify with that good kind of dangerous, to be a peaceful warrior with a strength that emerges in a time of crisis, someone who steps up and summons what's best about himself. That's Christ. Christ gets up and goes to Jerusalem, to where people don't want him to go.

What I've learned about men is that they like to follow good leadership. Christ is our leader, so we don't really have to question our orders too much. He tells us to make disciples of men and spread the gospel—when we have those marching orders it's easy to be led. I think men like good leadership, and they also like opportunities to lead. Christ sent out the apostles two by two; he didn't go with them, he let them go and make mistakes, learn, fail and succeed, together. What we're learning about men is that while they want to feel safe, to know that there's support there, they also want an opportunity to summon their courage—sometimes collectively, sometimes individually—and test themselves a little, put themselves in a risky situation once or twice and see what happens.

There are men across the country doing activism, and they know that we're doing it, too, and we're in solidarity.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle for men? What keeps them from using their gifts?

Houck: Fear, without a doubt. Men are afraid of some of the things we already talked about, but more than anything I think they're afraid of people finding out that they're a fraud. Something like five out of 10 men in church struggle with pornography, right? At one time or another a man has probably at least dabbled with it. Maybe he's free of it now, but he never really processed it. But on some level, the fact that he once used pornography or struggled with sexual purity prevents him from fighting it today. "I don't know if I'm ready to deal with that," he thinks. "I don't feel comfortable talking about that." He's afraid of people finding out about his past struggles. Lots of guys are fine with coming together as men and growing in virtue and holiness—that's all good—but once they hear we're fighting porn, some men shy away from our ministry.

I'm not proud of the fact that I was a porn addict, but I proclaim it because look what God has done with it. It's freeing to own it.

Then there are the men who are still struggling with it and who feel like a hypocrite. To them I say, "You're not a hypocrite if you're actually fighting something—both in your own life and out in the world—that you know is bad. It's okay to wrestle with that and still say it's wrong. You're not a hypocrite if you say you hate sin. You're like Paul, who said, "I don't do the things I want to do, and I do the things I don't want to do." We all have to deal with this double-minded man in us.

Then there's the older guy who thinks of porn as a rite of passage, something he used as a younger man but that isn't that bad. Fighting pornography would mean he has to look at himself and say, "I did something wrong." He may never have confessed or acknowledged it as something destructive to his relationships and family dynamics. It takes a humble man to really approach those things and to admit their wrong and maybe even go make amends.

A lot of men will put their business associations above the fight—they'll say, "I can't go protest because I work for the government, or I'm a civil servant or…" There's always a reason, but at the root of it is fear. Now, we have some police officers who come to our protests, off-duty, and I think that is the greatest. They come because they're convicted in a deep, personal way to say, "Regardless of what I do, this is important, and I need to do this as a man."

But more often a man will think, "I can't get involved, I'd lose my job…" So there's the fear of losing income or prestige. There's the fear of what your family will think. I deal with that myself—there are people in my own family who think I look at porn and do the very things I'm condemning. I had my own brother say, "I remember when you used to come and get the porn tapes from me." Yeah, that was me, you're right, but that's not me anymore. I'm humble enough to admit that was me, but I'm man enough to say I was wrong. But most men don't even want to go there, because it's too risky. More than anything else fear cripples men.

You've been able to taste the freedom that lies in being open about your struggles and about God's grace. You know what lies on the other side. You've found that the best defense is offense. Many people haven't experienced that, so they don't dare go there.

Houck: Yes, but until you go there you try to justify your sin, and you're trapped. "Porn's okay for me because I like it," guys will say. Even women will say, "We like it; we use it in our marriage." They don't see it as a problem, and don't want to, because they've been duped by their man or by the culture. Men will ask, "Am I a real man if I don't look at porn?" Women will ask, "Is he going to go look for somebody else if I refuse to look at porn with him? I'm giving him what he wants, at least he's with me when he's doing it," etc. How many women deal with that demon? I know a marriage counselor who says that three-quarters of his cases are porn-related.

What would you like to see the church do that it isn't doing now?

Houck: I'd like to see the church address sexual abuse of boys by men. If porn is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, then childhood sexual abuse is the 2,000-pound elephant. Almost nobody is talking about it. But abused boys often grow up to become sex offenders. They've been over-sexualized as kids, so that's how they act out as adults.

But talk about fear! Going back to the place where you were abused so you can deal with it? Men don't want to go there. They've compartmentalized it— "That happened to me long ago, and I'm never going to think about that again"—but they don't realize that all of their choices since then have in some way been a product of the abuse they suffered. It's not behind them at all.

In our ministry, we do education, spiritual formation, and public action, but the fruit of everything we do is healing. Even though we don't have a direct healing program, men are being healed by virtue of what we do—fighting evil.

What would you like men to walk away with after reading this interview? What do you want them to know?

Houck: That they're not alone. That they have great strength in their weakness. That they are called to be servant leaders. Our true calling is to serve others, and that's where the healing comes from. I want to see men get in touch with their demons, their weaknesses, those dominant defects that they see in their character, because that's exactly where their true strength lies. I always try to convey that it is from your wound that your greatest good comes.

I met a man at Men of Valor, an ecumenical conference that deals with the issue of porn. He shared his story and said how hard it was for him to get up and talk about it. I went up to him afterwards to encourage him because it was so touching, and he said something to me I'll never forget. He said, "One day I realized that at the end of my life I would not be, in the world's understanding, considered a great man. I would never have a building named after me, be a great philanthropist, or have any of that status that comes when you do great things. So I told God, 'Lord, since I don't have great things to give you, I give you permission to take my failures and use them for good.'"

That's the message I would like to convey here. Give God your failures and he will exalt you, he will raise you up, and he will take you to places you never thought you would go. You will do things you never thought you could do. It's not necessarily the miracles that are being worked outwardly, it's that through our humility and our weakness, we're able to soften hearts and transform lives. That is where men's strength lies. If they can find the place they don't want to go and go there and let the Lord minister to them, they will begin to discover their true identity, and God will bring them to true greatness.

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