Ozzie Nelson had it easy. He went to work every day and when he came home at night, his role was clearly defined as head of family, spiritual leader and financial bulwark.

He wasn't trying to figure out how to be a nurturing, loving father to children who live 200 miles away with his ex-wife. He didn't have to worry that the kids were running wild while Harriet was at work to help make ends meet.Ozzie Nelson didn't take his turn with the car pool or deal with an unmarried daughter's pregnancy. Relocating because Harriet had a great new business opportunity was not an option.

As family structures change - with increased divorce, single-parent families, step-families and other permutations on the old "Ozzie and Harriet" television image - churches are changing the way they help fathers meet obligations.

"I am thoroughly convinced that nurturing of children has to come from both parents," the Rev. Stan Smith said. "Maybe it's a little different kind, but it's necessary.

"It is very clear that psychologists are suggesting a deep `father hunger' in the contemporary culture. That's kind of at the core of what's going on in the men's movement."

Smith co-pastors the First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, along with his wife, the Rev. Nancy Dar-nell.

"The issues are not changing," said Eric Blubaugh, who directs the men's ministry at Metro Fellowship. "They're exploding. Basically, men can be jerks who are very self-centered. They can get into a certain mode of how they are supposed to treat their families.

"There are special problems that take a lot of prayer and a lot of talk."

Dads 20 or 30 years ago left home to go to work and they became physically and emotionally absent from their children, the Rev. Smith said. They provided physical comforts like food and clothing but "created a psychological hole.

Refining a father's role

"The women's movement raised a number of very important issues that men are starting to take time to pay attention to. What is their role? Head of household? Bread winner? Final decisionmaker? I am hoping we are moving toward a far more egalitarian style in family leadership," the Rev. Smith said. "Man is one of a pair of parents with contributions to make to family life. It's of equal value."

Not all churches agree with Smith's view. Many denominations teach that the man is the spiritual head of the family. While man and woman share many of the responsibilities of family life, she is second when it comes to spiritual command.

But the denominations agree, without exception, that the role of father is a changing - and terribly important - issue that must be addressed continually.

At the heart of the discussion is this: What, exactly, is a man's role in the modern-day family?

"Begin with the men"

Most churches are taking a hard look at the question.

During the most recent general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Council of the Twelve, spoke on "The Father and the Family."

Speaking to the men, he said,"Most of you are worthy fathers and husbands who do what you should do. But there are women whose hearts have been broken and children who are neglected, even abused.

"If we are to help them, we must begin with the men."

To that end, Elder Packer said, the church's next series of stake and regional conferences "will be devoted to teaching the doctrines and principles of responsible and worthy manhood. Some of you had no worthy example to follow and now visit the abuse and neglect of your own parents upon your wife and children . . .

"Your responsibility as a father and husband transcends any other interest in life," Elder Packer said.

"I think there's been a very positive change in the role of fathers in terms of moving from just a breadwinner to involvement with the family," said Dave Barnes, pastor of Granger Community Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation. "That's been an important change from the concept of mother as family raiser. Now it's really a joint effort. In most cases, both parents are working, and by doing so, that means both have responsibility for the family as well. Even with just one parent working, I think it's important that raising children be seen as a job for both."

With family upheaval like divorce, "there are foundational issues that need to be dealt with by both parents. I think they can be dealt with in a very creative way if both are willing to do that. The concern needs to be with the welfare of children, not get back at the other person," the Rev. Barnes said. And it's important to reaffirm that any marital problems are between the parents and not the kids.

What makes a good father?

Sometimes, there's disagreement on what makes a good father.

"A father is a servant in his family," said the Rev. Steve Mullin of Hope Chapel. "He stands as a role model, spiritually, physically and emotionally. His role is to be supportive, participating equally in discipline, establishing foundational belief throughout the struggles and crises and issues in life."

Instead, the Rev. Mullin said, he sees a lot of dysfunctional families with "men who don't have an understanding of their role. Emotionally, they have a difficult time being a parent and father. They don't know how to maintain the role on a consistent basis. Many of these fathers didn't have fathers."

"What I do first of all is encourage fathers to be aware that when the day is done, it will not be how much money they've made or how successful they've been, but rather it will be the image that their children have of them when they're adults that will say how they have actually spent their lives," said Frazer Crocker, a priest on the staff of the Episcopal diocese who is also a psychiatric social worker.

"That means we have to look at such questions as `what are your values in life? Do you really believe that he who dies with the most toys wins?' If you do, what does that say?"

The Rev. Crocker's father was a printer who worked 60 hours a week, but it was "always very clear the center of this life and what gave meaning to his life was his relationship with his wife and his three boys. All too often, especially for people who are upwardly mobile or involved in professions, that seems to be lacking. People do not seem to get the same kind of fulfillment from their families. And they may feel very guilty about it, in fact."

Spiritual sense of self

"I don't mean to sound flippant," the Rev. Smith said. "But a man's role is to be who he is, as opposed to playing a role as spiritual leader and religious teacher. He needs his own sense of self spiritually and to be able to model that for his kids and for his family but not in an autocratic way. If he is a man of faith, let his children see him pray. If a man of conviction, let his children seem him demonstrate those moral convictions."

The Bible has a lot to say about partnerships, he said. "It is a father's role to become more partner than leader, from my perspective. You need to work together to build a life and run a household and nurture kids. He doesn't bear the burden of being the Lone Ranger, all by himself. There's too much of that. It's not realistic and not the way God created us. We were created for loving relationships, and that can take all sorts of forms. One man in my church is as fulfilled staying home and playing with toddlers as another man is out working for the family."

Blubaugh believes the gentle, interpersonal side of fatherhood is not always easy, particularly for men who have been raised to believe that men don't cry and emotions are signs of weakness.

"The nurturing role is a tough one for men to deal with; men tend to be inward and not show emotions. Being vulnerable and opening up to children, telling them where you've blown it and asking for forgiveness is rare."

The Rev. Jim Schaedler of Metro Fellowship believes many men are abdicating their responsibilities both in the home and the church. "They're living self-centered lives," he said. "They use material advantages to justify lack of spiritual life."

He does a lot of marriage crisis counseling and finds "many men and women today do not have biblical values and are making decisions based upon their personal needs and desires, rather than biblical directives. I'm not in favor of divorce. I believe it wrecks our society.

"I believe the church can play a vital role by speaking to those topics regularly. We live in a day when prenuptial agreements are typical; if expectations are not fulfilled, that justifies severing the rela-tion-ship.

Fathering by example

"A man must set spiritual values in the home and nurture the children in spiritual values. He's not just to leave that to the church. He should teach them to pray, teach of his faith, show what it means to lead a godly life."

To some extent, the issues in the Catholic Church are different because of its ban on divorce, according to Father Joseph Mayo of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.

"It's an inherent responsibility for a Christian to be a good father, to care for the home and be there."

If it's difficult - and it often is, he said - there are programs like marriage counseling available.

"We don't recognize divorce, so we believe in the integrity of the family."

The roles of parents have changed, he said. Both parents commonly work, so there's a definite need for programs like Catholic Elementary School's latchkey program. Families have become more flexible. If the woman is more the wage earner, Mayo said, the man takes on the responsibility of dealing with the household, educating the kids, caring for them and feeding them.

"That creates a difficulty. There may be less time for the things you'd like to do when both people work. But it's important."