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The minister as a parent

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Archives / 1990 / June



The minister as a parent

Garth D. Thompson

Garth D. Thompson chaired the Department of Christian Ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Upon first glance Genesis 5's account of Enoch as a parent is at the very least remarkable. It seems to me that on second glance it becomes most awesome!

"And Enoch lived sixty-five years, and became the father of Methuselah. Then Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he became the father of Methuselah. ... So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Gen. 5:21-24, NASB).

Enoch, of course, is the very first re corded analogue of the Adventist preacher/parent. You remember the words that we read in Jude: "And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all" (Jude 14, 15).

Genesis says of Enoch that after the birth of his first son this preacher walked with God for three hundred years, and then "he was not, for God took him." It is a record that is unparalleled by that of any other man of God.

Could it be that Enoch's parenting of a child had anything to do with his walking with God? Is it suggested here that the birth of his child may in some way have influenced the beginning of that walk? I submit that we would be justified in answering yes to those questions. Certainly Ellen White would affirm our yes. In the book Patriarchs and Prophets she wrote: "But after the birth of his first son, Enoch reached a higher experience; he was drawn into a closer relationship with God. He realized more fully his own obligations and responsibility as a son of God. And as he saw the child's love for its father, its simple trust in his protection; as he felt the deep, yearning tenderness of his own heart for that firstborn son, he learned a precious lesson of the wonderful love of God to men in the gift of His Son, and the confidence which the children of God may repose in their heavenly Father. The infinite, unfathomable love of God through Christ be came the subject of his meditations day and night; and with all the fervor of his soul he sought to reveal that love to the people among whom he dwelt."1

Being a pastor/parent clearly had immense impact on Enoch's own life. May we believe, do you suppose, that being a parent had an impact on his ministry as well? And in turn, did his being a minister of God's truth have an impact on his parenting?

The Scripture record is far too brief to support any answers to these questions. But we know very well that our parenting is affected greatly by our being pastors.

As I contemplated the topic of the minister as a parent, it dawned on me that in order for you or me to be a minister/parent, there has to be a PK a preacher's kid. You have determined most of you without any consultation with your children that they should grow up as preacher's kids. You owe it to them, then, to do everything that you can to minimize the liabilities that your decision may lay upon them. And while you're at it, it only makes sense to maximize the assets!

Wanting to look at this subject from the perspective of a preacher's kid, in preparing this sermon I talked with some preachers' kids. For that matter, I myself am a PK, and my wife and I have reared four PKs of our own. Review with me, then, some of the effects that our being ministers has on our parenting.

The peripatetic pastor

Not the least of the disadvantages con fronting the children of a minister is the mobility demanded, especially in the case of the young pastor. People ask me where I am from, and I am at a loss to answer. I was born in Chicago, and my family lived in several places in Illinois during my early childhood. When I was 10 years old we went to Jamaica, where my parents served as missionaries. I re turned to the States to attend Emmanuel Missionary College when I was 17 by that time my parents had moved to Cuba.

When I completed college, I went to Indiana as a young minister. After eight years and several moves in Indiana, I took the family I had by then established to Indonesia. Eight years later we moved to Singapore, and after another eight years we came back to the States and spent three years in Florida, where I did my doctoral study. From there we went to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I spent a year at the academy. Then it was on to Pacific Union College for eight years.

Where am I from? Who knows! My story is just another instance of the mobility imposed on the minister's family.

The uprooting, the wrenching apart of attachments, can be a devastating experience to a child. Of course, children from other than ministerial families have to endure that too. But since it is a builtin occupational hazard in your case, you need to plan on dealing with it.

Another problem laid upon PKs is proverbial. It is that of unrealistic behavioral expectations. One of the PKs I talked with in preparing my remarks one who is now himself the minister/ father of a 3-year-old told me of the rebellion with which he struggled as a child because of church members who scolded him with "How can you be so naughty? Your daddy is the pastor." And he spoke of his bitterness as a teenager when his mother forbade him to do this or that "for the sake of Daddy's work and reputation."

More hazards

And then there is the problem of time. When the father or mother is a minister, there seems to be precious little time for the family. Now, that isn't as unusual as we sometimes make it out to be. Ministers aren't the only ones whose careers take them away from the family. There are doctors and factory workers and teachers and traveling sales personnel and business executives and government officials and others ad infinitum who work 10, 12, or more hours a day. The particular vulnerability of ministers lies in their children's growing awareness that their parents are working for the salvation of other people and the children of those people. The minister's own children are often left to wonder if they and their salvation matter at all.

Another particular hazard is the child's growing awareness that the minister mother or father doesn't always live up to the ideals she or he preaches. The failure to live up to the ideals might not be so damaging if it weren't for the fact that the parent is the person proclaiming those ideals.

A similar hazard is the product of the pastor's close involvement with both church members and conference leaders. The pastor is in a position to know and be exasperated by the failings of members and the decisions of the conference officials. Because home is a refuge, it be comes very easy to let down there and discuss people's failings, leaving the child to struggle with his feelings about what appears to him to be "the hypocrisy of the brethren." My own parents were scrupulously careful not to do this. But other PKs with whom I have spoken indicate that they grew up bearing heavy and difficult burdens arising from criticisms they heard at home.

I made the mistake of distressing my son by relating to him as a pastor to a parishioner, or during my early training in counseling as a counselor to a counselee. My good wife confronted me in exasperation one day: "The children and I are tired to death of your talking to us as if we were counselees in your office. When you come home, just be a father and a husband."

Well, these are some of the distresses that ministers may inflict upon their children. We can only guess how Enoch might have handled them. I would like to propose some ways for handling one or two specific matters, and then offer some suggestions for minimizing the hazards generally.

Openly empathize with your child

First of all, I maintain that it remains possible to turn all of these potential hazards into real advantages. It may take an Enoch-like walk with God to do that—but who is more occupationally predisposed to such a walk than the minister?

When my work in Singapore came to a close, our 11-year-old son had a boxer puppy that was the delight of his life. The day before our flight home we went to the airport to check into the cost of flying the puppy home also, but found it to be prohibitive. When we drove away from the airport Ron knew that the last possibility of keeping his puppy had evaporated. He began to cry softly. As I drove along, tears came to my own eyes, and before long they so blinded me that I had to pull the car over and stop beside the road. With that he began to cry more openly, and in a few moments I was weeping as I have not wept from childhood, nor have since. All over a dog? No. Over the pain of a child whose father had opted for a calling that had once again inflicted upon the child the suffering of breaking an attachment that had become dear to him.

The many moves the children of minister parents undergo offer advantages, among them a breadth and variety of experiences available in no other way. But I thank God that He moved me to enter into the pain of my son that day. It seems that deliberate awareness of and empathy with such pain is the least the minister parent can give.

Relating to another of our occupational hazards, I believe that it is important for ministers to sit down with their children most desirably, well before the teens begin and talk frankly about the distress of living in the ministerial fishbowl. Talk about the inescapable reality of the community's unrealistic expectations. Convey deep regret for the pressure the child inevitably will feel from those expectations.

My own judgment is that ministers should vigorously repudiate any part in holding such expectations themselves. "Son, daughter," you might say, "I want you to know that I will have no part in laying such expectations upon you. My ministry is a product of my own conviction, and my own response to what I believe was God's call. I cannot deny wanting with all my heart for you to choose to be not only a child of God, but an instrument in His hands to draw others to Him never to mislead another. I would welcome your helping to make our family a witness for the power of God. But not for a moment will I lay upon you behavioral demands on account of my decision to be a minister, a decision that I recognize you had no part in. I can only hope that you won't hold against me the fact that I can not abandon my ministry, even to relieve you of the pressure of those expectations. "

Promise your child that you will tell your congregation that you expect no more and no less of your child because he or she is a preacher's kid, and that you wish the congregation would not expect more either. Then carry out your promise in the hearing of your child.

Let your child grow up

As a parent the minister needs to re member to progress from being the parent of a toddler to being the parent of a preschooler, then of a preadolescent, of an early teen, and finally of a late teen. While Ellen White says that the very first lesson for a toddler to learn is obedience, she just as surely says that the time comes for the youth to learn to make more and more choices without external control.

Of course, granting this freedom leaves the minister liable both to embarrassment and criticism, as well as to disappointment. About here many of us panic. We remember that other analogue of the minister parent, Eli, and the fact that God held him accountable for the disgrace of the priesthood that the behavior of his sons caused. I am convinced, however, that it was not for the failure to control the behavior of his adult sons that God condemned Eli. Rather, I believe God's condemnation came because of Eli's failure to remove his sons from the priesthood in the light of their disgraceful lives. At any rate, it has neither been required of us nor even given to us so to control our children as to guarantee their faithfulness to the truth.

It may help the minister parent to re member that when the Almighty wanted light He said, "Let there be light" and there was light, and it was very good. He was just as easily able to accomplish His will when He wanted trees and grass and lions and birds. But when He created human beings, He could not say "Let this man [woman, child] be good," and be assured that it would be so. From that moment on, He could only unceasingly work at it—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And no parent ever had children with whom he or she could do more, nor with whom less would be enough.

Love your child

Parents enjoy being loved by their children. Sometimes they even seem to expect it as a right. Certainly children are commanded to honor their parents. However, as important as it is for children to love their parents, their doing so is not nearly as important as their knowing themselves to be loved "no matter what."

For ministers who walk with God, loving their children seems to come naturally. Unfortunately, however, it is very possible that the children will not recognize that love. It is remarkably easy to love without conveying that you love. But love that is not conveyed has no effective impact on the beloved. I commend to you the book How to Really Love Your Child.2 Pastor parents whose very lives center in loving need to learn the skills of conveying that love not only to their congregations but also to their children.

Paul tucked a significant sentence into Ephesians: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children" (Eph. 5:1, NASB). Children universally tend to imitate models. Even children of abusing, tyrannical parents imitate those parents. Their lives may depend upon it! They have a seemingly invincible hope that they can thereby win their parents' love. There is a vast difference, however, between the way such children imitate their parent models and the imitating that is done by children who know them selves beloved. The greatest gift the minister can give to his or her children is the sense of being loved continuously, "no matter what"—no matter how the child fails or disappoints, or what discipline the parent must administer.

If you are not moved to fall on your knees with the cry "Lord, who is sufficient for these things?" then you have not yet grasped the awesomeness of being a minister parent. But if you have, let me remind you that Ephesians 5:1 includes you also. And if we are beloved children, there must be a very loving Father who loves us no matter what.

Through the centuries, those who have taken God seriously have often reversed the loving and the imitating, put ting the imitating before the being loved. For them, being loved and accepted was conditioned upon successful imitating. On the other hand, some have discarded any notion whatever of the imitating, holding it to be an attempt at salvation by works. The truth lies in neither of these camps. Paul affirms the astonishing but glorious truth that by nature God loves us no matter what. And God extends to us the incredible invitation within the unbreakable context of that love—to bend our energies to imitating Him!

As a minister parent and a beloved child, you can give your child no greater gift than to live your life in just such imitation of your heavenly Father.

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1. E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1958), p. 84.

2. Ross Campbell, How to Really Love Your Child (New York: New American Library, 1982).

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