Building families of character
Legate STEVE MARKEL’s ministry helps deepen the faith through the virtues . . .
by Sabrina Arena Ferrisi
Steve Markel and his wife Nancy did everything they could to raise their five kids as faithful Catholics, sending them to good Catholic schools, summer camps and even colleges.
Then one day about 15 years ago, Steve and Nancy – members of Legatus’ Denver Chapter – realized that four out of five of their grown-up children had stopped going to mass.
Birth of a ministry
“I went to my spiritual director and told him what was happening,” Steve explained. “He said to me, ‘Your kids know the faith. You developed their intellect, but you never developed their will. You didn’t develop their virtues.”
The Markels moved quickly to create a program that would teach parents about the virtues and how to instill them in their children. What resulted was a program called Families of Character.
Steve had worked a high-stress job for 21 years as a senior vice president for American Funds. During his children’s formative years, he was traveling from Mondays to Thursdays, leaving Nancy to raise the five children essentially alone.
“When the father is around, especially for sons, there is a different dynamic,” Nancy said. “They can relate to dad more than mom. You could tell my boys were missing that. And when working on the virtues, it’s harder to impart them if dad is not there.”
Providentially, Steve decided to sell his company in 2007 at the age of 50. It was right around this time that the Markels noticed their children had strayed from the faith. Through prayer and spiritual direction, Steve discerned that God wanted him to use his time in retirement to build the Families of Character program. Their program was tested for a few years and is now available nationally.
When Steve looked back on the early years of his marriage, he recalled that he and his wife had actually read several books on the virtues. Unfortunately, this never translated into teaching his own children how to live them. What Steve learned from his spiritual director was that God broadcasts enough grace for all of us. But we can only receive grace if we are living out the cardinal virtues.
“Grace builds on nature,” Steve explained. “It’s impossible to grow in grace if you don’t live the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage.”
But Catholic psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi says there are no shortcuts to the virtues. “The virtues must be lived at home and the anti-virtues must be stopped. There’s no magic. Teaching virtues is a 20-year process. If you live the faith, discipline well, and love your kids unconditionally — even then, you may have kids who take detours with regards to the faith. That detour may be part of the journey.”
What the Markels witnessed was that within one year of working on the Families of Character program, three of their children came back to the faith. They don’t know if it was the Families of Character program that brought them back, but it did effect a great change in their marriage and in their children’s lives.
“Our eldest daughter came home one day and asked, ‘What are you guys doing? I’ve never seen your marriage this good,’” Steve said.
Working on the program meant that the Markels started talking about the virtues between themselves — which unified them — and to their grown-up kids. They also began to work on improving themselves, and their children took note.
“One of my kids said they had noticed such a difference in Dad — that he was more patient,” Nancy explained. “When he speaks to them, he does so in a more loving and diligent way. When you work on being more virtuous, problems are approached in a different way.”
The program works by having a couple focus on one virtue per month. Couples can work alone or in a small group. They watch a video which explains what the virtue is. Everyone is given a workbook to assess how their family is doing with that virtue and its two opposing vices. Participants then set goals to be worked on for the next 30 days.
“In the first chapter, you have to create a family mission statement, which allows you to communicate future goals and what you want your family to be like,” said Mercy Gutierrez, who lives in Denver. She and her husband Sergio have been taking Families of Character courses for seven years.
“You realize that you can have a ‘fixed’ mindset or a ‘growth’ mindset. A fixed mindset would be, ‘I’m a yeller because my mom was a yeller.’ A growth mindset would be, ‘I’m messy, but this month I will work on hanging up my clothes right away,’” she explained. “What you realize is that you can change because you put these goals at the forefront of your mind. You see tons of progress in 30 days. It’s very concrete.”
The program also forces couples to analyze their own natural virtues and defects and to find the balance between them.
“With the virtue of generosity, you may have someone who is really frugal, and the opposite would be someone who spends too much money,” Gutierrez said. “With the virtue of order, you could have someone who is totally messy or someone who cleans too much. The balance between the two is where the virtue lies.”
Steve Markel recounts how one of his sons was having a hard time holding a job. When they talked about it, Steve realized that the main problem was his son’s lack of order. During the following week, he proposed that his son get up at 6:30 a.m. and call him every day. The plan worked. His son soon formed the habit up getting up early, which helped him in his job.
“I asked him how he felt once he was able to get up early consistently, and he said ‘great!’ This is because virtues build confidence and direction,” Steve said.
When the Markels talk to couples and ask them where children learn virtues, the answer is always: from the example of the parents. If parents are not modeling the virtues, the kids don’t learn them.
“Unfortunately, the culture today is pushing kids to be selfish, to be searching for constant entertainment, and to be morally relativistic,” said Steve.
Families of Character helps people discover and work on their greatest character flaws. By working on virtues, family members grow in happiness and unity with those around them. Children learn that parents are working on overcoming their vices as well.
“This is about becoming the best version of yourself,” Steve said. “The importance of developing virtue is, ultimately, it brings you closer to Christ.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.