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Fraternity and Christian Freedom

January 6, 2022 23 min read
By James Baxter Co-Founder and CEO, Exodus
Two men hiking

James Baxter, Co-Founder & CEO of Exodus (the makers of Exodus 90 and the Exodus Biblical Series for men), joined Fr. Dominic Bouck, chaplain of the University of Mary, to discuss how his program helps men to grow through prayer, asceticism, and fraternity.

Fr. Dominic Bouck (FBouck): Before we get into the question of fraternity, formation, and Exodus 90, I was wondering if you could give us a bit of background about your own life? We were in seminary together at St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas (in St. Paul, Minnesota), for several years, and I’m sure your experience of seminary formation has played a role in your involvement with Exodus.

James Baxter (JB): My experience of college seminary was connected to my experience of high school in an interesting way, because I was active in a young men’s fraternity at my parish throughout high school. The group was a fraternity of altar servers called the Knights of the Holy Temple, which is very similar to the Knights of Virtue throughout the Diocese of Bismarck. We served Mass every Sunday, we had regular fraternity meetings, we served the needs of the parish and community, we had lay mentors, and there were priests actively involved. So, for me and the other leaders of the different chapters of the Knights, college seminary was like an extension of what we started in high school. When I showed up at St. John Vianney College Seminary, I already knew the other seminarians from my diocese and we already had shared experiences of formation. From a young age, the contemplative life, masculine friendships, formation, and accountability were part of my life, and I am extremely grateful to God for that. Today, those values flow through every aspect of our work at Exodus. When the opportunity presented itself to develop and launch Exodus 90, we wanted to share that vision of formation with other guys who did not previously have those kinds of opportunities.

I entered seminary right after high school, but I almost went off in a different direction. I was on my way to Indiana University: I was enrolled in the business school there and had a few roommates from my hometown lined up. But I was holding seminary off, and it was gnawing at me. So, two weeks before the semester started, I went on a retreat and decided to stop running away from the invitation. Father Bill Baer, who was the beloved rector of the seminary, somehow managed to get me through the seminary application process and enrolled at the University of St. Thomas all within a week and a half. I showed up at St. John Vianney College Seminary never having been to the state of Minnesota before, not knowing anything about Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and not really knowing what I was getting into at all. Fortunately, it was all a blessing and it’s shaped everything about my life, even today.

After graduating, I went to St. Meinrad, a major seminary at a Benedictine monastery in southern Indiana, for theology studies. I was there for two years. After those two years, I discerned out of seminary formation. The way I explain my discernment when people ask is that the closer we got to the end – ordination, which was the point of it all – the more disjointed everything felt for me. It was difficult because I loved the formation elements of seminary, and it took me a long time to accept that it was time for me to go. But in my own discernment, the calling to go out into the world was something I felt very deeply. I did a pastoral year to make sure that I was making the right decision, and it was during that year that I started on the project that would become Exodus 90. I got married a few years later. My wife Colleen and I have a son and a daughter, and we live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We’ve been very blessed in our vocation and in our life together.

I’m very vocal about the fact that Exodus 90 was not my idea. It started as a formation program in a seminary designed by Fr. Brian Doerr, who had also started the Knights of the Holy Temple. He shared the notes of this formation program with me: it was basically a two-page document of testimonies and a list of things they had done with the program. But that document really spoke to some dreams and desires I had from college seminary of being able to share formation with others. Years earlier, I remember Fr. Baer saying that he wanted to build a second dorm onto the seminary where laymen could come and experience the rhythm of formation, prayer, and accountability for their own vocations in the world. In my mind, this formation program represented an opportunity to do something like that. At the same time, I was an entrepreneurial kid who liked the chaos of figuring stuff out when there is no path but prayer to guide you. I combined some of my natural talents and dreams and submitted them to God, and ultimately simply wanted to see where it would go. That was 2015, and we’re still going seven years later, which is as surprising as it is humbling to me. I’ve been working on it ever since with some incredible men who have joined our team over the past few years.

FBouck: Exodus 90 has helped a lot of men in those seven years, including a lot of young men that I serve at the University of Mary. Could you tell us a bit more about how it developed during those years, and speak to where it is today?

JB: When you’re starting from nothing you have to depend upon God for everything. In the early days of the project, I had some hesitations about starting a new initiative rather than working to revive or contribute to an existing institution. Obviously as Catholics we work within an institutional framework, and that orientation was strengthened through my experience of Catholic Studies. It was through prayer that I had this sense that Exodus was a gift that God wanted to share. The next steps have always been right in front of me, and whatever work I’ve done has been disproportionately blessed by God. Whenever it has been time to take a step, that step has always been clear.

In the beginning, we just launched a blog and we shared information through that, and then it became an eBook and email program. But in 2017, we doubled in size. We added something like a thousand new men in a couple of days, about 90 days before Easter. I thought we had been hacked! But the few hundred men we reached in the first year had positive experiences and shared that with others. Before that growth in 2017, I still didn’t really know if Exodus was something that would last or be worth committing to. We launched our mobile app in 2018, and even though we didn’t know it at the time, it would be the foundation for us to grow and thrive during COVID. Many ministries who had been utilizing traditional models had to downsize and lay off staff during that time, but we were extremely fortunate. It’s not because we saw it coming, but the decision to develop the app and to embrace technology guided by principles helped us more than I could have imagined at the start.

FBouck: I get the sense that Exodus 90 is a larger project than a lot of people realize. How many people have gone through the program, how many people do you have working to keep the project going?

JB: We’ve had 50,000 men over the last six years. We have a team of seven full-time employees, and we will be hiring for a few new roles over the coming year. As our team has grown my job has changed a lot, and I’ve been increasingly focused on our team, and doing my best to build a company in which the social teachings of the Church are at the core.

FBouck: You mentioned masculine friendships as being a foundational part of Exodus 90. I think a lot of people are looking for more authentic friendships in their lives, and friendship is a great philosophic concept that’s been approached by everyone from Aristotle in ancient Greece to C.S. Lewis closer to our own time. Aristotle described friendship as the highest sort of human relationship, and Lewis describes friendship as being like standing next to someone looking at the world together, as opposed to a romantic relationship where you’re mainly looking at each other. Could you share your vision of healthy masculine friendship that’s so central to Exodus 90?

JB: Masculine friendships are important to men for two primary reasons: encouragement and accountability. As fallen men, we get distracted, we sin, we fall off the path. It’s so easy to respond to that experience by becoming cynical about everything or just cynical about yourself: “I’m not fulfilling my potential. I’m a failure. And so on.” Through fraternity, a group of men can call one another back to the center. I’ve found that in the moments I want to be hardest on myself, there’s more mercy in that space. Good fraternities provide you the encouragement you need to keep moving forward.

At the same time, a fraternal group is a place to be challenged. It’s not all about encouragement – we need accountability, too. My wife is so encouraging and merciful to me. If I tell her I didn’t get in my prayer time, she will say something like, “It’s okay. We’ve had a lot going on!” Most of the time, I need her gracefulness and I’m extremely grateful for her support. But sometimes what I need is for someone to tell me, “No, it’s not okay. If you’re not praying and consistently giving yourself over to God, you’re not going to be who you need to be for your family.” Good fraternal groups provide that sort of correction and accountability that men need.

In my own experience, when I’m lacking that kind of fraternity, I’m not as fully myself. So, I would emphasize encouragement and accountability as being two things that good masculine friendships provide.

FBouck: That is a great insight. I’m thinking here of the young men on my campus, but I think the question goes for men of every age: what if I don’t have those sorts of friendships in my life? Fr. Baer has spoken about the difference between a drinking buddy and a brother. If someone realizes they don’t have that sort of healthy masculine friendship, how can they go about looking for it? I don’t think a dating approach is really what we’re looking for: asking guys for one-on-one coffee conversations doesn’t really seem to arrive at the sort of friendship you’re talking about.

JB: I would go back to the C.S. Lewis quote you mentioned, about friends standing next to one another looking at a common goal. I find that my best masculine friendships all came about through activities. As an example, I played golf competitively growing up, and some of my best friends to this day are guys with whom I played golf. That’s one of the reasons serving Mass can be so good for young men, and the same goes for acts of service. Men generally don’t just sit down together and say, “Let’s be friends.” That’s not how it works. And that’s why Exodus 90 works: it brings men together with a shared goal. The deeper friendships form because they’re doing something, not because they’re just sitting down and sharing. It’s because they’re committing to prayer and acts of asceticism that they can come together and have something to say about what’s going on in their lives.

FBouck: That’s all something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but you just crystalized it for me. I remember being told that sometimes all it takes is a ball, a cigar, or a fire. If a group of guys just sit down with the plan of sharing, it usually doesn’t work. But when they start tossing around a ball or get a fire going, the dynamic changes. Obviously there’s a ladder of importance of the tasks you set your eyes on: there are common activities, then there’s service, and then divine service like Mass. But all those things are good and valuable, and that’s something Exodus 90 seems to understand so well.

JB: Right, there are plenty of opportunities for friendship to unfold as the circumstances of your life change. But you have to be intentional, or it won’t happen with everything we all have going on. One of my good friends is a videographer, for instance, and it was through his craft and working together on a project for Exodus that we became close friends and share fraternity to this day. So, part of the process is allowing the circumstances of your life to unfold, and from there to see who God is bringing before you for the friendships and the fraternity that you need.

FBouck: Loneliness is a huge issue on college campuses today, and I know that problem extends far beyond college campuses, too. Loneliness is the sort of thing you can experience even when you’re with someone else. So there’s the kind of loneliness people feel when they’re isolated, and maybe not clicking with the people around them right away, but there’s also the deeper loneliness that can last when you are around other people. For a lot of young men, I think they decide that they just need a romantic relationship – they think that would solve the problem. Based on your experience, what factors that inhibit true friendship should people be aware of? What are obstacles to the sorts of meaningful relationships we’re discussing?

JB: The first thing that comes to mind is silence. St. John Henry Newman shares a quote in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua from Cicero, “I’m never less alone than when I’m alone.” For me, that’s always meant being attentive to what’s going on internally and from there, becoming aware of the mysteries and realities in the Christian’s spiritual life. I find that when I get lonely, bored, and anxious, it’s often because I’m not spending enough time in silence; I’m not paying attention; I’m not truly open; and then I fall into frenetic activity and distraction.

Every morning before I start to pray, I try to spend 20 to 30 minutes in silence. It’s not prayer. I just sit there. And I take note of how I’m doing, what I’m thinking about, and what I’m feeling. We’re complicated after all, and we have parts of us that are in all kinds of different places if we are honest with ourselves. When you take time to process everything going on inside by listening, you’re able to come to peace and confidence. Then, you’re not as confused about what in your interior life is from you and what is from God. For me, that practice on the natural level has facilitated discernment on the supernatural level, and my time in therapy has helped me to cultivate that as an essential daily practice.

When silence isn’t part of your life, you tend to fill that place of loneliness with distractions that won’t satisfy and that compound the loneliness! I’m not saying this as someone who has perfected this, but instead as someone who experiences all these patterns in my own life.

FBouck: That brings up the question of technology. You mentioned earlier the success Exodus 90 has seen with your mobile app. I think a lot of young men turn to technology to mitigate that loneliness you were mentioning – they use it as a distraction. So could you speak into how technology has played a role in Exodus 90 and how you think it can be used properly?

JB: In my conversations with Catholics, there’s a lot of negativity around technology. And I understand that: the downsides of technology are evident and we don’t yet fully know the impact it’s having on all of us. But at the same time, I rarely hear about the incredible upsides that we experience on a daily basis. I think we take a lot of technology for granted, and then we complain about it. A micro-example that comes to mind is the fact that I haven’t had to walk into a bank in years. I can do everything I need to do online! I’ve saved a lot of time from that, and there are so many other examples like it that we take for granted every day.

Our company has a defined vision for how we build and use technology, and it’s allowed us to do deep, meaningful work that has a great impact for the men we reach. If we can work from first principles and build from there, we can protect ourselves from all sorts of downsides we want to avoid. As an example, we do effectiveness studies every year to keep a pulse of who our men are, how they’re benefiting, and what the long-term impacts are upon their lives. One thing we’ve found is that roughly 50% of guys struggle with screen-time every day before Exodus 90, but that number gets shattered to 6% by the end of their 90 days. That’s interesting because, again, most of those men are using our app on mobile devices. We have books for people who don’t have smartphones or just don’t want to use them, but from what we’ve seen, the fact that our app is being developed from principles and a desire that people don’t spend too much time on it has helped us avoid the negative aspects of technology.

FBouck: Everything you’re saying fits perfectly with Prime Matters: it’s a website that’s not only built on first principles, but is built in an attempt to explain first principles. The Foundations section of the website is dedicated to the sorts of principles that never change. Catholic organizations have an advantage there: we have clear first principles to base the rest of our activities on. In the case of Prime Matters, those principles are very expressly put on the website, as if to say, “If you want to know where we’re coming from and what we’re trying to accomplish, here it all is.” I can’t imagine major secular media organizations articulating their first principles for everyone to see, yet as Catholics that’s exactly what we attempt to do. When those first principles aren’t in place, the editorial direction is hodge-podge and readers and viewers find themselves caught up in the middle of the conversation.

JB: And as you said, a lot of organizations can’t articulate their first principles honestly because don’t quite know what their first principles are. That means you have to be careful about what you’re reading because you can’t always be sure of where it’s coming from or what it’s trying to do.

Your first principles are going to decide how you measure your own performance and what you consider to be “success.” If the purpose of our app were to keep people on it as long as possible, for example, it would be a total failure of our larger project. At the same time, almost every single major technology platform has that as a goal! What you measure matters, and what you consider success matters. If your first principles are there, they’ll guide you to the outcomes that you want to see.

FBouck: One of these first principles of the Catholic perspective – or the classical perspective – is the understanding that the human person is one, but is composed of body and soul. We’re body-soul composites. Exodus 90 is very focused on how the body informs the soul and how the soul informs the body. Could you speak to how that vision guides Exodus 90, as opposed to a worldview that views body and soul as two very distinct realities?

JB: I think we could copy-and-paste your explanation there and use it for my answer! Human beings are body-soul composites. If you just focus in one direction, you’re not thinking in an entirely Catholic way. External realities impact us internally, and internal realities manifest themselves externally. That’s the beauty of how God made us, and the integration of the human person informs even how we worship at Mass: it explains why we kneel at certain parts and stand at others, and it explains when it’s appropriate to lift our hands in praise or to open our hands in meditation. And this is what makes the ascetical component of Exodus 90 so important.

Dr. Peter Malinoski of Souls & Hearts, a Catholic ministry that seeks to offer psychological healing services, uses an image of a farmer on this point: a farmer tills his soil, provides the nutrients, and waters his crops, but he can’t make the plants grow. The growth of the plants is up to God. When we look at our own lives, we need to be like the farmer and till the soil, provide the nutrients, and water the plants. We can’t give ourselves grace, but doing the little things opens us up and disposes us to receive grace from God. That’s why I think asceticism is so important, especially for men: it’s that basic work we need to do that opens up space for God to work. Asceticism isn’t about physical mastery or earning some kind of spiritual enlightenment: that’s not a truly Catholic or Christian vision. Instead, it is very much at the service of the growth of the whole person, which is God’s work to bring about.

FBouck: I’ve noticed that Exodus 90 is very much in tune with good, modern design, and speaking the language of the twenty-first century, and I think that’s something you’re providing here: speaking about these topics in the way your target demographic understands.

JB: What we’re doing is really simple: we’re presenting traditions of the Church that are extremely helpful for men, some of which have been neglected and forgotten for quite some time, and doing so in terms and in methods that make them understandable today. I think that deep down, people are feeling the desert wasteland of the modern world that so many authors like T.S. Eliot and Romano Guardini have described so well. It’s our mission at Exodus to go into the desert of men’s lives today, and invite them to take a long, hard, journey through the desert in the Book of Exodus so that we can grow, mature, and become who God is calling us to be for this moment in time, this moment that God has entrusted to us.

FBouck: The desert of Exodus and the Desert Fathers are incredibly important aspects of the tradition that have been thought about a lot, and you’re doing a great job of packaging them.

JB: Right, this all exists in the tradition. Some guys will look at Exodus 90 and say, “Hey, I don’t need this to practice asceticism or to fast or to read the Desert Fathers.” My first response is always, “That’s great! If you don’t need Exodus to engage with those parts of the tradition, no problem!” The fun part of Exodus 90 is that guys are experiencing these things together, and many of them never would have experienced them otherwise. At the same time, I know priests and religious who have gone through the program and have found something new in it. So, from my perspective, Exodus 90 isn’t some all-or-nothing, “this is it,” kind of thing. It’s just a tool that’s been helpful for a lot of folks and hopefully will continue to be for many people into the future.

FBouck: Based on the feedback you’ve received, are there any responses you’ve received consistently? How are people being impacted by your program?

JB: That’s an exciting question because this is why we do what we do. One thing we receive a lot of feedback about is prayer. When you commit to going through Exodus 90, we ask you to pray for an hour each day. If someone finds that completely unreasonable, we ask them to give at least 20 or 30 minutes to silent prayer. That creates a space to come before God, and a lot of guys aren’t used to that on a daily basis. So many guys are struck by the presence of God, and they’re struck by how vocal and active God truly is. You can have a lived relationship with God! It’s possible! That can all be experienced if you make the space and if you commit to it on a daily basis. God is present, and it’s not complicated, you know? A growing interior life shows that.

I’ve reflected a lot on why we’ve grown in the way we have, especially considering that we started from nothing a few years ago. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me at first. But upon reflection, I’ve realized that when you make space for Jesus Christ to move, he will. He will do that every time in the life of the souls that he created and knows perfectly. I think that’s the biggest thing, and it’s easily the most important thing we do in our work at Exodus. When we talk about Exodus 90, we talk about freedom. That all comes down to making yourself available to Jesus Christ who then sends you out to love.

Something else that’s stood out from our research is that more non-Catholics are getting involved. The majority of our guys are practicing Catholics, but as we keep growing, we’ve found a bunch of interesting backgrounds. We’ve had conversions to Catholicism, which is humbling, but that’s not the goal of our work. As we grow, I hope to reach more and more non-Catholics, because I believe that the truth is in the tradition and that truth is for everyone. Lastly, though Exodus 90 is not an addictions program, there are all kinds of stories about guys receiving natural level and supernatural benefits that change their lives. Every time men are brought from bad places to a place of healing and recovery through Exodus is deeply rewarding.

FBouck: I’ve witnessed the impacts of Exodus 90 on so many lives, and it’s spreading organically. I’m seeing interior conversions happening on our campus because of it. I’ve heard things like, “A friend just asked me to do it so I said ‘okay,’” from a lot of students who had massive transformations of life because of it.

JB: That’s amazing, and it’s really beautiful to hear that from your own experience in college ministry on campus. The majority of the men who have gone through Exodus 90 are between the ages of 26 and 40. This sometimes surprises people because this demographic can be so hard to engage and often goes unengaged by the Church today. Most of our men are at that busy “young-adult” stage of life, newly married with children and more on the way, working hard in the early stages of careers, constantly busy, and probably not sleeping very much. Our focus has been on helping them to hold all those pieces together and to find God in the midst of it all, and I know from my own experience how challenging that can be. When we return to who we are as sons of God, all these things – even the most secular things – become opportunities for improvement and growth and union with God.

FBouck: I didn’t realize that about your demographics, but it makes sense that so many men of that age would be drawn to what you’re doing. You mentioned that a lot of these men are around marriage-age, so I was wondering if you could speak to how everything men experience in Exodus 90 helps men to enter into healthy, committed relationships – from dating to marriage to fatherhood.

JB: When you pray and practice asceticism, you get humbled. You don’t walk away thinking, “Wow, I’ve got it all figured out!” No, you get humbled! As I continue to grow, I keep getting humbled, and that’s really good for me. That place of knowing that you don’t have it all figured out and of knowing that you’re not everything the world needs is the best place to enter a relationship in my opinion. You have your weaknesses, you have your flaws, and, hopefully, you are doing your best. A life of prayer, an ascetical life, and the encouragement and accountability of fraternity remind you of how dependent you are. From that place, and not of pride, can you make the gift of yourself. You can give so much more from a place of humility than you can when you’re trying to appear to be something that you’re not.

The humility that comes with prayer and asceticism puts you in the right place to enter into a relationship. That’s helpful as the relationship becomes more serious and you know that you’re discerning a commitment for your whole life. Without an active contemplative life, you’re not going to make the fullest decision you otherwise could, or you will at least lack some of the peace you could otherwise have.

FBouck: That is almost a microcosm of everything: strength from humility.

JB: One of the greatest things we do is place people back into their true dependence upon God. That’s where people become the most dynamic.

FBouck: James, I think that’s a perfect note to end this on. Thank you for your time.

JB: Thank you, Fr. Dominic, and it’s so good to be with you again.

For those interested in working for Exodus as they continue to expand their ministry, click here.

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