Patrick Tyndall keeps a flash drive containing photos of men being baptized while wearing their Ironman Outdoors T-shirts.
“I remember the first picture I received from a guy who had been on one of our retreats,” Tyndall said. “I thanked him for sending it, and I asked him why he wore that shirt to be baptized in. He told me that’s where his relationship with Christ started — during that weekend in the woods.”
Ironman Outdoors Ministries celebrated its 10-year anniversary in April of this year. To date, that weekend in the woods and its manhood discussions have reached about 4,000 men over the age of 18. But the organization really began five years prior, when Tyndall was teaching Sunday school at North Trenholm Baptist Church in Columbia.
“We had a lot of women in the class, but I rarely saw their husbands,” Tyndall recalls. “Men of my father’s generation were largely in church, but men of my generation and the generation younger than me aren’t. They’re in a tree stand or at the lake on Sunday. Many of them believe in God, but we needed a way to get them plugged in.”
Looking for a way to connect with the men in their church, Tyndall and a few friends who owned boats planned a weekend fishing trip. They were intentional about who would be invited. They wanted it to be more spiritual than simply blessing the food before they ate, so they developed the idea of having a “manhood discussion” to talk about the things that men struggle with, like what it really means to be a godly husband and father.
“Those guys had never experienced something as authentic and real,” Tyndall said. “There was no three-point sermon, and we didn’t tell stories of our successes; rather, there were stories of our failures. Older men began to caution the younger men not to make the same mistakes they had made by putting work or hunting or other things ahead of their families and not being home with their wives and young children.” Guys “took off their camo” and talked about real-life struggles.
Men accepted Christ on those early retreats. Husbands learned how to pray with their wives. Marriages and other relationships were restored. And word of those weekends in the woods with manhood discussions began to spread.
The first Ironman Outdoors board of directors meeting was held at Sticky Fingers restaurant in Columbia, with six men from Tyndall’s Sunday school class in attendance. Doors really began to open for the organization when a landowner in Summerton agreed to donate the use of 2,000 acres one weekend each fall for an Ironman Outdoors retreat. The organization today has a network of Christian landowners who donate or lease property in 13 states to stage a total of 40 weekend retreats each year for deer and hog hunts.
The organization’s all-volunteer retreat leaders now number 65. Those donating their time and talent to the organization include everyone from contractors to accountants to social media specialists. Donations have included a cabin in Alabama that was repaired and remodeled by volunteers, gas grills, utility vehicles, and trailers for hauling tree stands, food and other retreat supplies.
A contact list of 150 names has grown to more than 7,000 men across the country interested in participating in an Ironman Outdoors retreat, getting involved as a retreat leader, or becoming a donor or sponsor.
For Todd Steen, a businessman and avid outdoorsman from Greenville, Ironman Outdoors retreats are his mission trips. Steen said he knew he wanted to be more involved in the ministry after attending his first retreat in 2008, and he has been leading two to three retreats each year since 2010.
“I had never been around a group of men who so openly, transparently and candidly talked about the things they struggle with,” Steen said. “To see a grown man who is broken and in tears take a step of faith and ask Christ into his heart, there’s nothing better than that.”
With very few ministries designed to reach adult men, Tyndall said Ironman Outdoors will always be laser-focused on reaching men. “We’ve got guys paying to come hear the gospel,” Tyndall said. “I believe the Holy Spirit is working on them before they come to a retreat, and being in God’s great outdoors gets them to really think about spiritual things.”
For Tyndall, the photos on that flash drive are a continuing expression of the Ironman Outdoors mission from Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” But the story of a father and his grown son who attended a retreat a few years back is a stark reminder of why the married father of four continues to devote many weekends each year to this ministry in the woods.
The father, a men’s ministry leader from Gaffney, brought his 25-year-old son, who had strayed from the church in young adulthood, to an Ironman retreat. On the drive home after the manhood discussion the night before, the son admitted that he had gotten a long way from God but that he was a Christian who put his faith in God. The son returned to church the two weeks following the retreat.
“Three weeks after the retreat, the pastor of that family’s church in Gaffney called to tell me that the young man had been killed in a car accident the previous night,” Tyndall said. “The pastor said the young man’s father wanted me to know how thankful he was that he and his son had come on that retreat, and that their conversation on the way home made him know that his son is in heaven.”
For more information on Ironman Outdoors, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, visit www.ironmanoutdoors.org.
— Kathy Vass is public relations director for Jackson Marketing Group in Greenville.