Spring 2006

The Feminization of the Church

Why Its Music, Messages and Ministries Are Driving Men Away

By Holly Pivec

The leaders of a new, Christian movement think they’ve solved a centuries-old mystery: why men are absent from church. But their answer isn’t politically correct.

They believe Christianity has become feminized.

There are generally more women than men in every type of church, in every part of the world, according to church growth experts like Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World.

A traditional explanation is that women are more spiritual than men. But the leaders of this new movement suggest that the church’s music, messages and ministries cater to women. One of the leaders is David Murrow, author of a provocative book Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nelson Books), who spoke with Biola Connections.

The result of this feminization is that many men, even Christian men, view churches as “ladies clubs” and don’t go — or they often go to please their wives. Murrow’s solution is to restore a masculine ethos. Many men’s ministers, including some Biolans, agree.

But isn’t the reverse true — that the church is controlled by men?

True, 93 percent of senior pastors in America are men, according to evangelical pollster George Barna. But, the majority of attendees in a typical church are women. Barna goes so far as to refer to women as “the backbone of the Christian congregations in America.”

“[I]t’s not too hard to discern the target audience of the modern church: a middle-aged to elderly woman,” Murrow said in an interview with Faithreader.com.

The same claim was made by an earlier, more academic book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence Publishing Company), by Leon J. Podles, a senior editor of Touchstone Magazine. But Murrow’s book has had a bigger impact among evangelicals and has been featured by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The book has resonated with many men — like Max West, from Payson, Ariz., who wrote in a review on Amazon.com: “[It] opened my eyes as to why I have had such a miserable church experience for the last 30 years.”

Robert York, from Tigard, Ore., wrote: “It has … helped me identify why I've been so frustrated with church so many times.”

But Murrow said he addressed his book mainly to women, including married women who have been disappointed over their husbands’ lack of involvement and to single women who have bemoaned the lack of single, churchgoing men. He said women — who have felt powerless getting men to attend church — actually have the most influence in the churches and, thus, the most power to reverse the feminization.

Even Murrow’s critics — who accuse him of promoting a “hypermasculinity” — agree that Murrow has drawn attention to an alarming gender gap.

Mind the Gap
The gender gap began as early as the 13th century, according to some church historians. Others say it began during the Industrial Revolution. Nancy Pearcey, a visiting scholar at Biola, outlines this theory in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway Books).

Pearcey said industrialization forced men to seek work away from home, in factories and offices, which created a split between the public and private spheres of life. The public sphere became secularized through the new values of competition and self-interest, and the private sphere came to represent the old values of nurturing and religion, Pearcey said. Thus, religion came to be seen as for women and children and not as relevant to the “real” world of business, politics and academia, she said.

Soon, in churches, women began to outnumber men, Pearcey said. So, male pastors began to adapt churches to their female demographic, she said.

But, interestingly, the gender gap is distinct to Christianity, according to Murrow and Podles. Other religions seem to have a gender balance or even more men than women — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, they said.

Men’s absence is especially noteworthy, they said, given that men were a strong force in the early church.

An exception to the gender gap may be found in some Muslim countries, like Morocco, where churches of Muslim converts are sometimes almost entirely men, according to Johnstone. But he estimates that, worldwide, the church is 66 percent women.

In America, among evangelical churches, 57 percent of members are women and, among mainline Protestant churches, 66 percent are women, according to a 1998 book American Evangelicalism (University of Chicago Press).

The imbalance is greatest in rural churches, small churches, older churches, traditionally black denominations, and in liberal churches, Murrow said, citing research from the 1998 National Congregations Study. It’s smallest in non-denominational and Baptist churches, he said.

About 23 percent of married women attend without their husbands, according to Murrow.

The men who do attend show less commitment, including less participation in Sunday School, small groups and service activities, according to Barna. Men also report less practice of spiritual disciplines like tithing, Bible reading, evangelism and prayer.

Ladies Clubs
Gender differences explain why more women are drawn to church than men, according to Murrow and Podles. They believe these differences are revealed by the Bible, biology, anthropology, psychology and human experience.

Stereotypical gender differences have become so accepted that they are assumed in standardized psychological tests. The MMPI, for example, seeks to measure whether a person is more masculine or more feminine based on the person’s interest in activities that are typically preferred by men or women.

To describe many women, Murrow lists traits like “relational,” “nurturing” and “peace-making.” He describes many men as “goal-driven,” “competitive” and “adventurous.” These differences show up in the types of movies many women and many men like: romantic vs. adventure films, Murrow said. In sum, women thrive when secure, and men thrive when challenged, he said.

But Dr. Gary Strauss, a professor in Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology, warns that Murrow may be promoting a “hypermasculinity” — the idea that all men should fit the stereotypical norm of a “man’s man,” like the Marlboro Man — tough, outdoorsy and self-reliant.

“He seems to place such a strong emphasis on the hypermasculine image that he doesn’t adequately affirm men of a different type,” Strauss said. “To me, from the hyperfeminine woman, on the one end of the human spectrum, to the hymermasculine man, on the other, and every person in between (assuming psychological health), reflects the breadth and image of God,” he said.

Strauss added that a study by Sandra Bem, of Cornell University, indicates that men (or women) with a blend of both masculine and feminine traits may be more psychologically prepared to handle the range of challenges life presents than “hypermasculine” men (or “hyperfeminine” women).

Yet, because churches have more women, Murrow believes their stereotypical strengths are more valued — and are even seen as more godly. Masculine strengths are often seen as unneeded or as threats to the peaceful status quo, he said.

Johnstone believes the feminization of the church reflects a feminization of the larger culture.

“Our whole society has tended to deprive men of their biblical and creational strengths and empower women,” Johnstone said.

As a result, many people think of church only as a nurturing place that addresses personal needs, Pearcey said. Think: sitting in circles, sharing feelings, holding hands, singing softly, comforting members.

Love Songs and Feminine Spirituality
An example of the feminization of the church is its music. Typical praise songs refer to Jesus as a Christian’s lover and praise his beauty and tenderness. Rarely do they praise his justice or strength, or refer to him as the head of an army leading his church into spiritual battle, like “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“There’s definitely a trend toward a more intimate music style, like the music from the Vineyard,” said Dr. Barry Liesch, a professor of music at Biola and author of The New Worship (Baker Books).

Feminized music concerns Steve Craig (’05), a graduate of Biola’s degree completion program and the director of a men’s ministry of over 400 men at Yorba Linda Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Calif.

“In our men’s ministry, we’re beginning to take out the flowery songs and replace them with the warrior-type lyrics and more masculine things that men identify with,” Craig said.

Mike Erre (M.A. ’04) the director of a men’s ministry of over 400 men at Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, Calif. — said feminine expressions of spirituality are more validated than masculine expressions.

“The classic example is the worship pose of the eyes shut and the arms raised in this tender embrace, singing a song that says, ‘I’m desperate for you. You’re the air I breathe.’ Guys don’t talk to guys like that,” Erre said.

A feminized spirituality began in the 13th century, Podles said in his book The Church Impotent. One cause, he said, was women mystics who popularized “bridal imagery,” the metaphor of an individual Christian as the bride of Christ. (The biblical metaphor is of the corporate church as the bride of Christ, not the individual person.) They also used erotic imagery to describe their soul’s relationship with Christ. This feminization explains the abrupt departure of men from the church beginning in the 13th century, according to Podles.

Today the bridal imagery continues. Many books, for example, have titles like Falling in Love With Jesus: Abandoning Yourself to the Greatest Romance of Your Life (Nelson Impact), released, ironically, by the publisher of Murrow’s book. This may be because Christian publishers know women are the main consumers of Christian books. Seventy percent of customers in Christian retail stories are women, according to Bill Anderson, the president and CEO of the Christian Booksellers Association and a member of Biola’s School of Business Advisory Board.

Even some men’s ministries have encouraged feminine expressions of spirituality, like Promise Keepers, whose advertisements in the 1990s showed men singing, holding hands, hugging and crying, Murrow said. But Promise Keepers is now using more masculine tactics. The advertisements for their 2006 conference, titled “Unleashed,” depict flashes of lightening and say: “It is not about learning how to be a nicer guy. It's about becoming the powerful man God designed you to be.” Whether their new approach works remains to be seen.

Men’s Ministry — A Church’s Lowest Priority
Another example of feminization is a lack of ministries for men. Women have Bible studies, prayer groups, support groups, teas, and retreats and, of course, children have a plethora of programs. But some churches offer only an annual retreat for men. Yet, this is the opposite of the way Jesus did ministry, according to Murrow. He said Jesus focused on men, knowing that women and children would follow.

According to an oft-quoted statistic from Promise Keepers, when a mother comes to faith in Christ, her family follows 34 percent of the time, but when a father comes to faith his family follows 93 percent of the time.

“It’s very seldom you have a man in church whose wife is staying home,” said Dr. Erik Thoennes, a theology professor at Biola and the teaching elder at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, Calif.

So, what will it take to get men into church?

They need to see the greater purpose — their role in the advancing the kingdom of God, according to Erre.

“The gospel that Jesus and Paul preached is revolutionary, and it’s worth giving your life to,” Erre said. “But part of the reason guys aren’t involved is that we’ve sold them a milquetoast gospel. We don’t paint it as big enough — or God as awesome enough — to be compelling,” he said.

Instead, the church often leaves the impression that, once people get saved, their role is to bide time until they go to heaven, Erre said.

“If men think they’re going to church to check off a box, that leaves them totally uninspired,” said Danny Wallen (’88, M.Div. ’93), a director for Every Man Ministries in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. Wallen was raised in a Christian home, but said he was bored by church into his adult years. Looking back, he realizes he didn’t see purpose.

Also, many church service opportunities are geared for women — like working in the nursery, teaching children, cooking and hospitality. So, many men feel their options are limited to ushering, directing parking, or sitting on a committee — activities that might not allow them to use their skills or challenge them.

When men can’t contribute, they feel worthless, according to Gentry Gardner (’83), the founder of Sure Passage, a men’s ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“Once they feel discouraged, they pull back and disconnect,” he said.

Even professionals who join church committees, like a building or finance committee, often complain that the skills they contribute to the corporate world — like taking risks, making hard decisions, and thinking outside the box — aren’t welcome in many churches, whose governing boards tend to play it safe, according to Murrow. As a result, less gets accomplished, which can be frustrating to men who are results-driven, he said.

For example, some businessmen might suggest that a church cut an ineffective program that is costing time and money and replace it with a more effective one. But inefficient programs often remain because a more feminine value — of not hurting people’s feelings — wins out.

The reason younger churches typically have more men than older churches may be because more of men’s gifts — like vision casting and risk taking — are needed until a church becomes settled.

One way Murrow’s church involves men is through an automotive ministry that takes donated vehicles, fixes them, and gives them to single mothers and the working poor. A side benefit is that men develop friendships with other men in the context of doing things together, which is more natural for them than sitting in a circle talking — the typical church format, according to Murrow.

Social justice ministries — that allow men to use their skills to help the weak and provide interaction with business and politics — are especially appealing to men, Podles said.

Craig said mission trips are exciting for many men in his church because they offer challenge, adventure and specific goals: “like construction projects, where they can get their hands dirty and see a finished project in the end,” he said.

Touchy-Feely Sermons
Another turn-off for men is touchy-feely sermons. Pearcey said the modern church stresses emotions and inner spiritual experiences while neglecting the intellectual side of the faith.

“The more traditionally masculine side of Christianity enjoys crossing swords with hostile secular worldviews. So, as long as Christianity appeals to the emotional, therapeutic, interpersonal, relational areas, it’s not going to appeal to men as much as to women,” Pearcey said.

Churches should engage men’s intellects to help them see the relevance of Christianity to the “real” world of politics, industry and business, Pearcey said.

“We have to recover the notion that Christianity is true on all levels, not just for your emotional life or repairing relationships, as important as those things are,” she said.

Many churches emphasize Jesus’ softer teachings, like his love and his desire to save, and they ignore the doctrines of sin and hell, according to Podles. But men dislike liberal Christianity — “a mild religion of progress and enlightenment” as opposed to a battle between good and evil, Podles said.

Men want to expend their lives for a great cause, even if it involves risk, according to Murrow. He said that’s why the U.S. military’s “Army of One” campaign was effective. But American churches rarely teach about Christian suffering and martyrdom, Murrow said. Instead, today’s Christianity is presented as an antidote to these things, he said.

“Men are more attracted to religion if it presented as a quest, an adventure, a heroic exploit,” Pearcey said. “They want something challenging, bracing, demanding.”

To reach men, churches should stress the cost and dangers of following Christ — including Christians’ conflict with the world, the flesh and the devil, according to Podles.

Yet, men should be reminded that the sacrifice won’t always be a “huge, glorious display like William Wallace stepping out on a battlefield,” Erre said. Many times it will be staying in a troubled marriage, raising a handicapped child, or working a hated job to provide for a family, he said.

Girly-Men Pastors
Touchy-feely sermons come from touchy-feely pastors. A feminized church tends to attract more “gentle, sensitive, nurturing” leadership,” according to Pearcey.

“If religion is defined primarily in terms of emotional experience and is therapeutic, then who is it going to attract as ministers?” she said.

Pearcey said to consider a typical youth pastor.

“He’s really into relationships, very motivating, but is he teaching good apologetics? Is he teaching youth to use their minds and to understand deeper theological truths? At least the ones I’ve known haven’t,” she said. “Today, the common trajectory is for youth pastors to become senior pastors,” she added.

Murrow argues that the church needs strong, masculine leadership because men follow men. He said Jesus’ disciples are a prime example of this principle.

“Bold leadership attracts men. But even more attractive than a dynamic pastor is the sight of men in the pews who are true followers of Jesus Christ,” Murrow said in his book.

Morrow anticipates concern from some women that he is promoting unilateral male leadership. He said he is not seeking male dominance, but male resurgence.

Thoennes is also concerned about a lack of strong, male leadership in the church. But he said, if the church has become feminized, then he doesn’t see that as the fault of women or the church — but of men — who, he believes, have abdicated the involvement they should have.

“If the church doesn’t have enough strong male influence, that’s not a reason for men to stop going, but a great reason for them to go,” he said.

To help male Biola students become leaders, Student Ministries plans to launch a chapter of Men’s Fraternity next fall, led by Jonathan Morrow, a seminary student at Biola.

Yet, much of the church is seeking further feminization, through attempts to increase female clergy and to create gender-neutral Bibles and hymns. Many liberal seminaries now graduate equal numbers of women and men, or more women than men, like Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School.

(Currently, Biola’s seminary, Talbot School of Theology, is about 76 percent men.)

Johnstone believes the feminist movement in mainline churches has contributed to the decline in male membership.

Restoring Balance
Murrow said churches that seek to reverse this feminization might face opposition, as the leaders in his church first did.

But he and other leaders in the men’s movement, like Gardner, believe a masculine spirit will bring men, and gender balance, to the church.

“Once you start attracting a man’s full heart, soul, mind and strength — and he sees that there are ways he can use all those in the church — then we’re going to start seeing a turnaround of the absent man,” Gardner said.

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  • Seuri K. June 8, 2012 at 7:08 PM

    I really enjoyed these scripts because of a question asked by my fellow groups "Why there are many women in the churches than men compare to many men in prisons than women?". The only conclusion I since I used a phone read these scripts is that the first church was strong because of men, even Jesus used men in successing his preaching. Therefore to have a strong church today like a first church we must try to balance Masculine and Feminism.

  • Brian C. June 26, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    I have sensed the evangelical church in general has joined our culture in blaming and bashing men. Men are often the but of jokes by their wives in SS class that is supposed to explore Gods design for the marriage....and everyone laughs.

    Often times I come out of a serman feeling a beat to a pulp because my pastor continues to use what seems like only men as examples of what a Christian shouldn't be like. If he talks to the men to point out a biblical concept, its in a tone that is at times berating even using name calling to make his point.

    When he talks to the women...he walks on eggshells

    If he discusses marriage...all bets are off. It is ALWAYS the husbands fault if things are not the way they are supposed to be. I seriously feel that I could watch the average commercial or tv sitcom in how they portray men and feel no different than I do when walking out of a sermen.

    So for all the men out there that LOVE Christ and desire to love their wives as Christ does the church.....be encouraged. Rely on the truth...the word of God. Don't let the male bashing pastors out there discourage you.

  • Allison Q October 22, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    Is making sure male leadership increases from the 93% and that women do not attend seminary in any meaningful numbers (there are already very few at schools such as Westminster Philly and TEDS) really part of restoring balance?

    I do see that in our society men are facing an identity crisis and that our churches are very reactionary against liberal forms of feminism (to the extent of seeing enemies where there are fellow evangelicals at times). I am not so sure that all of the ways suggested for remedying the problem or the best.

    To add more to the discussion, many women in the church have very low self-esteem or can't find much of a place for themselves in leadership roles that does not put them in the nursery, kitchen or stereotypical women's groups that have a lot of fluff, but lack objective content. Abuse of women is also more dominant in cultures and churches that have mostly male leadership models. All of this just to say that maybe the problem is much bigger than one aspect.

    Maybe some of the problem is that we are encouraging those idealized hyper masculine and feminine understandings of people when a good number of people do not match these. Perhaps we have set up improper expectations and the result is not good for men or women. Don't get me wrong, I also believe men and women are different (though not mostly). Just giving some suggestions.

  • james January 5, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    Excellent article.

  • Ken May 27, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    I think the argument is bogus. Certainly we can make church a bit more appealing to men, but in the end, Jesus is the most manly man that's ever lived, and that men are not interested in him is because their hearts are ensnared by and attached to other things. The church at large needs to reevaluate how it presents Jesus. He certainly attracted men.

  • Dan Traxler October 29, 2013 at 8:40 PM

    I agree with what Dr. Craig says about men in the church. Men don't need things to do to be manly.
    "Fourth is my claim that apologetics is a key to making the church and Christian faith relevant to men once more. People think that by having sports programs or men’s barbecues the church will draw in more men. But I’m convinced that the best kept secret to drawing in men is apologetics. Men need to see that Jesus of Nazareth was not only a tough guy but a smart guy. I never suspected that apologetics would have this special effect on men. I had no intention of ministering particularly to men in this ministry. But the appeal of apologetics to men is just undeniable. In my Defenders class we’ve got guys who don’t even attend church but who regularly come for my lectures on Christian doctrine and apologetics. One woman in the class told me, “I don’t understand a lot of what you say. But I’m glad to come because this is the only spiritual activity that my husband will participate in with me.” Wow! "

  • Scott Pierce November 12, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    Allison Q, could you provide your evidence for the statement, "Abuse of women is also more dominant in cultures and churches that have mostly male leadership models."?

  • Peter Willis December 2, 2013 at 6:46 AM

    I am trying to start a men's ministry. What we have is frankly pitiful. One class that's been going on for years, prayer meeting once a month 2-4. Four being a lot. I have a passion for men's ministry, in that men taking their rightful Godly place in their home, community and church. I have been to promise keepers probably 10 times it has helped me tremendously, but now I am being pulled incredibly strong in this ministry. Something has to happen, we are losing men to money, pornography, alcohol, sports addiction on tv. and just a lackadaisical and abdicating attitude. Please point to people and resources, books, videos etc. Blessings, thank you for what you are doing

  • Michael Taylor January 31, 2014 at 6:11 AM

    This is a serious issue, but the responses to it are always the same. "We don't want to hurt any one's feelings" "No changes should be made that take away from women's experience" "Let's not destroy the experience for women by bringing in too many men."

    The issue is that the churches have adapted to pop culture. Women are being held up as spiritual, enlightened and Christ-like in their mothering and nurturing. Men are liars, cheaters, lazy football watchers; or at least negligent as parents or helpers at home.

    Men hear the same message in college, at work, from the media and the churches. All men are boorish pigs needed rehabilitation. How do they need to change? The must become more sensitive, more feeling, cry in public as they sing love songs to a completely unrecognizable feminine version of Jesus Christ.

    This is the problem that isn't changing. It won't change, so more men stay away.

  • Chew February 19, 2014 at 12:55 AM

    Most men ministries are inwardly focused. So, much is banked on sharing problems,challenges and hearing testimonies of guys saddled down or who have managed to turn around from them.It is a very therapeutic or I would call a ICU-intensive care approach-very navel gazing.
    An outward focus is much healthier and would enthuse more men.I have steered my small men's ministry to organize outreach programs like wealth succession , health talks,movies in the church to get non Christians into the church . I am in a Brethren church in Singapore.

  • Jocelyn March 25, 2014 at 5:31 PM

    I have wondered myself why church pews are filled mostly by females, but the answer I've come up with is different from the Author's. I will toss my (unproven) theory into the ring, to provoke thought and rebuttal:

    I think many males are alienated by the submissive relationship that exists between churchgoer and church leaders. To sit in a pew means to submit respectfully to another guy who insists he knows more than you, can tell you how to run your life, and so on. Females are accustomed to submitting, taking instruction, ceding authority to others. Many males are not. Therefore the position of "meek, humble follower sitting at the pastor's feet" -- which is the basic requirement for churchgoers -- is less offputting to women.

    I say this not to put either sex down -- merely giving my opinion.

  • Jocelyn March 25, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    To take my theory a step further: this would mean that the trouble with modern western churches is not too much touchy-feely nonsense and bride imagery, but too much of a leader/follower dynamic in the relationship between pastors and churchgoers.

    I am no expert on the early church but I do wonder: in the first couple centuries were churches structured as they now are: with a few leaders who were the acclaimed experts on God, and a multitude of followers who sat obediently for instruction? Or was the church originally a more egalitarian, spiritually active place where many members had a voice -- where perhaps all the people who had a reputation for Godliness were respected and took active roles -- and where Christ alone (rather than an exalted pastor and a half-dozen elders) was regarded as leader.

  • Wizard Prang May 6, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    Jocelyn,

    Let me weigh on on this one: contrary to popular belief, men do not have a problem submitting to authority - though they may have a problem submitting to someone they do not respect.

    I have found that, in general, women tend to be herd animals, while Men are generally pack animals. Put a bunch of little girls together and they will usually form a circle and seek consensus; put a bunch of small boys together and they will soon figure out who is in charge... before charging off together to get up to mischief!

    Guys do not have a problem submitting to the athority of an older, wiser man. Ancient chivalry (and more recently Jedi training) shows this in action. On the contrary, it seems that women have more and more of a problem submitting to the authority of their husbands: "Father knows best" has given way to "If momma aon't happy..." in both the culture and the church.

    It also doesn't help that much of the music in contemporary churches is keyed to Alto/Tenor voices, with Baritones like me left shambling around looking for the right note..!

    My lady and I pray together often, but we don't do devotionals together as often as she would like. This is because her devotionals mostly involve sitting on God's lap and praising him with Psalms and songs. Nothing wrong with that, and it is a fine thing indeed... but my devotionals are more like a soldier reporting to his Commander-in-chief for battle orders, so I am often found in the Proverbs.

    I think the problem is that men want to *do*, rather than sing Kum-Ba-Yah. And the challenge simply isn't there.

  • davidbrainerd July 16, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    Its the faith alone stupid. Faith alone is spiritual communism and spiritual welfare system. More women favor communism and the welfare system than men, for obvious reasons. Men are about doing; women are about whining about how they can’t do anything and need a big strong man to do it for them. Hence the “we can’t do anything and need God to do it all for us” theology.

  • Stephen H. Overstreet September 29, 2014 at 11:52 AM

    For some time now I've been urging my church and fellow male members to sponsor a boys only Christian school. This proved that there is too much feminism and feminine influence in my church and amongst my fellow Christian males.

    I propose a school based on homeschooling curricula and teaching methods and materials. With this each boy will have learning material that his Christian parents will approve. Since most homeschooling material is both thorough and geared to self learning it would work in my schools purpose and organization.

    Next, I would have this school stress things boys like to study, mechanics, science, math, and having boys manipulate things while girls and women tend to manipulate people.

    The advice of one previous poster to set up an automotive rebuilding ministry to appeal to men and boys has caused me to re-charge my batteries, and I will use this idea to work on my boys only Christian private school.

    Thanks for the article and commentary.

    Stephen H. Overstreet

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