Taking Off The Camo

WITH PATRICK TYNDALL

As an avid hunter and fisherman, Patrick Tyndall has spent a lot of time around guys in camouflage. But underneath the layers of Realtree, many of them are wearing a different kind of camouflage—the kind that hides insecurity, hurt, and shame.

The nonprofit that Tyndall founded fourteen years ago, Ironman Outdoors, deals with both kinds of camo. During the day, men bond over hunting and fishing adventures in wilderness areas in some 14 different states. But once they’re back at the lodge, they open up to one another about the problems they’re facing in their lives, learning about themselves—and learning from one another—in the process.

Tyndall says the ministry was inspired by Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another.” But in order for men to be “sharpened” by each other’s shared wisdom and experiences, he says, “somebody needs to see you without your camo on.” And many men aren’t willing to let that happen in the formal environment of a church or Bible study.

In a ministry that intentionally seeks to look like a Bass Pro Shop, Tyndall says men can relax and let their guard down  without fear of judgment. “They come on the retreat because they want to kill a big deer, but after the second day it’s not so much about the deer hunting anymore,” he explains, “it’s about what’s going on in their lives.”

What does restoration mean to you?

Restoration means recovering from a sin or some sort of hurt, habit, or hangup that you’ve had in your life. It can mean restoration of your faith—maybe you’ve walked away from the Lord for many years and now you’ve come back.

How does your ministry help lead men on that path?

We take groups of men on hunting and fishing retreats. Some of them are in church and invite their unchurched friends to come with them. While we’re on the retreat, we have at least one manhood discussion every day, usually in the evenings after dinner. We create the right kind of atmosphere to talk to men about Christ. Sometimes church or a Sunday school class or a couples Bible study can be very intimidating places for a guy, and he’s not likely to “take off his camo.” But if you put him in a hunting cabin or a lake house with 12 other men and they’re willing to take their camo off and say, “Hey, this is what I’m dealing with,” then they’ll be more likely to take their camo off too.

That’s a theme we keep returning to at The Redeemed—the false fronts that men put up to disguise the fact that they’re struggling. Yet because society expects men to be these strong, stoic people, they’re not allowed to take that camo down.

When the guys who come on our retreats show up that first afternoon, a lot of them look like they’ve come out of the Cabela’s catalog. Many of them are successful business owners, they’ve got some money, and they wear really good camo. But on the inside, their marriage is falling apart, their job is unfulfilling, they’re workaholics, alcoholics, or whatever kind of “-holic” you want to call it, and there are things they can’t beat in their life. They come on the retreat because they want to kill a big deer, but after the second day it’s not so much about the deer hunting anymore, it’s about what’s going on in their lives. And they see guys who are doing it a little bit different from them think, “Maybe I should try it a different way.”

That’s where we need to rub shoulders. It’s so great—a lot of times we have two or three guys who come from one place and three or who come from another place, and next thing you know we’ll be in a retreat in Ohio for a deer hunt, and there’ll be guys from five different states in the room. We think you’re actually more likely to drop your camo in front of guys you don’t know, not the guy you’ve known since third grade—you’re probably going to leave your camo on for him.

How do you get guys to the point where they feel comfortable opening up?

 We don’t start by saying something like, “Raise your hand if you struggle with pornography.” On the first night of the retreat, we’ve hunted or fished together that afternoon, we come back, they’re telling me their hunting stories and I’m telling them mine, we’re building that relationship. I’ll text them while in they’re in the tree stand, “Think of one good thing you learned from your father, and then one bad thing you learned from your father.” Then, that night, we’ll go around the room and I’ll give everybody a voice. And it’s a small group, eight or 10 guys, no more than 12, and they’ll open up and tell me about their fathers. And some of them, within five seconds of talking, they’re in tears because I’ve touched upon a soft part of their hearts. Some will say, “My dad was an alcoholic and he beat my mama, and I’m never gonna be like him.” Some say, “My dad’s my best friend, he’s my role model, and I want to be just like him.”

So we learn from the good and the bad, but when you ask a key question like that and you get guys talking, that’s when they start to open up, and you really feel like you’re getting to know the other guys in the room when they tell their stories. Although we quote scripture, we’re not pulling out Bibles and saying “Turn to Romans chapter 8”—we’re just sort of touching on key biblical principles in the discussion, and we’re learning from one another.

The last night is when we usually talk about sin and really take our camo off. Everybody’s got a story, everybody’s got something in their lives they’re not proud of, and they’ll take their camo off and tell that story. I don’t necessarily ask everybody to tell me what they struggle with, but we’ll give everybody around the room a rock and we’ll have them write on their rock what their sin is. Is it alcohol, is it lust, is it your tongue, what’s the issue you need to work on with God’s help? And we’ll talk about the part in the New Testament where Paul says we get weighed down by sin. These rocks are heavy, and if I had to carry them around in my pocket all the time, it’d weigh me down. And then we stress accountability—we get another guy to hold them accountable for that, because that’s how they’ll beat it.

Is it hard to balance the fun outdoors stuff with the spiritual development part? 

Everybody who comes with us, they know up front what we’re about. We love to kill big deer, and we try to do everything we can to put you in front of a big deer or a big fish or a big hog. But we’re also going to do our manhood discussions, and that’s very clearly spelled out. Most guys really enjoy the discussions because the way we go about it isn’t preachy. It’s very much a discussion. It’s encouraging to hear other men’s  stories, and it’s done in a non-threatening way. 

What are some of the most profound changes you see?

We’ve baptized guys before they’ve left the retreat sometimes. If they make a decision for Christ, we’ll baptize them right there. Then sometimes there are guys we call “know-it-alls.” Whatever deer you’ve killed, he’s killed one bigger. Wherever you’ve been on a hunting trip, he’s been on a more exotic one. But then over the course of that week, you see some humility, and you see them open up: “Really and truly, my marriage is falling apart, I need help” or ”I’ve got a 20-year-old son who will not speak to me, I don’t know what to do.” And we’ll circle up and pray for him and his son. We’re big on accountability, so we’ll be praying for him and his son six months after the retreat, we’ll be checking up with them. You can’t fake it. He may have been faking it a bit at the beginning, but by the end of the trip it’s gotten very real. He’s shared some things, and we’ve shared some things, and that makes it very authentic.

Going back to what you said earlier about men being reluctant to open up in traditional church environments, why do you think regular church attendance seems to be a harder sell for men than for women? 

This is an old statistic, but if you look at just the adults attending church in this country, it’s 65 percent female, 35 percent male. And for guys who may want to get involved in the church, there’s nothing really “masculine” for them to do. You don’t want to sing in the choir? You don’t want to teach vacation Bible school? OK, you can take up the offering. That’s about all we give men to do.

But if you give a guy a chainsaw and say, “OK, we’re going to help these people who got hit by a tornado,” he comes alive. Or we say, “Hey, you’ve got a grill or a smoker, can you come cook something for our retreat?” Then they can go get their F-250 or their boat, they’re engaged, there’s something for them to contribute, and they say, “Absolutely, yeah!” They’re just looking for a way to serve the kingdom with their gifts.

Do you think that’s something that churches need to change?

Oh, absolutely—there are churches that are already doing it. There are churches that pay attention to the decor they use in their buildings, putting up tin and stainless steel on their churches to have more of a “masculine feel.” There are pastors who are using analogies that relate more to men. I think that’s so important, because if you lose the men, you also lose the family. But if you get the men, you’re going to get the family in church. I think the pastors who are doing it right are spending a significant amount of their time and energy focusing on building relationships with the men in their community. 

Ironman Outdoors is a Partner of The Redeemed

the redeemed log lion inside a crown of throns