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O.C. RELIGION

Letting Others Live His Dream

Women of Faith's Male Founder Leaves Conference Choices to Female Staff

September 09, 2000|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 18,000 people gathering in Anaheim this weekend for the Women of Faith Conference, which has been sold out since March, know that the annual event is a celebration of spirituality with renowned speakers and Christian music.

What they may not know is that the popular program, which has attracted more than a million women in 24 cities since it started in 1996, was founded by a man.

Stephen Arterburn of Laguna Beach is an evangelical Protestant who started New Life Clinics, a chain of psychological centers offering therapy from a spiritual perspective. But Arterburn says he was not always so religious--or so sensitive to women.

Arterburn has written more than 35 books, including "Avoiding Mr. Wrong," and "Every Man's Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Battle at a Time." He openly admits to having been "Mr. Wrong" for many years and having struggled with the temptation to exploit women and view them as objects, rather than people.

"I feel like I used women, and now I'm giving something back," he said in an interview this week. "I was a Mr. Wrong myself when I was younger--manipulating women, even to the point of pressuring my college girlfriend to have an abortion, in one case."

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From the plush living room of the hillside home he shares with his wife of 18 years, Sandy, Arterburn has a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. As he chats, the couple's dogs romp across the polished wood floors.

Arterburn, 47, speaks with a bit of a West Texas drawl. His bachelor's degree is from Baylor University and his master's from the University of North Texas.

Arterburn said his struggles with marriage and Christianity fueled his fervor for the Women of Faith conferences, which have grown from seven locations four years ago to more than two dozen conferences nationwide this year.

Despite having written dozens of books and hosting a radio program carried by more than 100 stations, Arterburn said the Women of Faith Conferences are his most significant project.

"The purpose in the beginning was to encourage women," he said. "A lot of Christian women are frustrated."

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The women with whom he works say he is doing a good job.

"He really cares about women," said Mary Graham, 54, president of Women of Faith, who has worked with Arterburn for four years. "His dream is to responsibly reach out to women and encourage them."

Some critics wonder why Arterburn didn't start a men's spirituality conference to teach men not to ogle women or disrespect them.

"I am always suspicious about men who want to teach women about how to be spiritual," said Elizabeth Say, chair of the women's studies department at Cal State Northridge. "When men have problems with their spirituality, they tend to want to teach women how to behave," said Say, who is also a religious studies scholar and was a professor of religion for 10 years.

But colleagues say Arterburn has taken care to stay out of the programming decisions and let the women running the day-to-day organization make the decisions about speakers and conference content.

"While it was his dream, the organization is really run by and for women," said Graham, who lives in a Dallas suburb. "I run lots of things by him, but I enjoy the privilege of freedom. He never insists on his way."

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Arterburn said it was important to him to find outstanding speakers who would not preach to the participants. Rather, he wants the speakers to focus on embracing life's trials through their relationship with God.

"He's very in touch with wanting to understand women," said Terri Green of Mission Viejo, a friend of 16 years who has attended the Women of Faith Conference. "He's very sincere. His goal is to provide a spiritual venue for women."

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The Women of Faith conference, which continues from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, is sold out at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, but some overflow seats still may be available for $28 apiece at Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, which will telecast the event. Information: (888) 49-FAITH or http://www.women-of-faith.com

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