Myths and the ministerial family

What are the myths that surround the ministerial family? And how do they affect the spiritual growth of the pastor's kids?

Donna J. Habenicht, Ed.D., is chairperson of the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

A myth has a grain— perhaps many grains—of truth, but is not the whole truth, and may even be deceptive in some important way. Al though many people believe in myths, following one may lead to personal disappointment.

As a PK (preacher's kid), the wife of an ordained minister, and a professional counselor, I have identified some common myths that impact the behavior of ministerial families. Because family religious values closely tie into how children feel about their family, myths can affect the spiritual growth of the pastor's children.

Myth No. 1: The minister's family should be (is) perfect.

Mike disrupts the general science class for the umpteenth time with one of his famous pranks. His teacher is exasperated and yells, "How can I ever believe anything your father preaches when you act like this?"

Mr. and Mrs. Pastor know that church members expect their family to be perfect. In their desire to be models to their congregation, the couple place a heavy burden of perfection on their children. Phrases like "We can't do that—the members wouldn't under stand" or "Sh-sh, Daddy's the preacher and everyone's looking at us" slip out frequently. The pastor's children must be models in behavior, dress, and spirituality. The children get the underlying message: Mom and Dad's love for them is conditional on good behavior. They easily transfer this message over to their relationship with God.

Mr. and Mrs. Pastor may give their children the idea that if their family have problems, no one should know. To admit problems is to admit imperfection. They must deny feelings, put on a good front. Appearance counts. But Michael and Michelle, alert PKs that they are, know everything isn't right. They know how they feel, even though Mom and Dad deny those feelings. The kids interpret the instructions to "look good" for the parishioners as crass hypocrisy. All of this game-playing can easily lead to feelings of perfectionism—a denial of grace, a reliance on self for salvation.

Denying feelings and problems often leads to an inability to deal with one's own feelings or to understand those of others. Hardening of the emotional arteries sets in, leading to difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Sometimes the pent-up emotions and pressures of being the "perfect kid" erupt in an explosion of anger toward God (or parents). Mr. and Mrs. Pastor are crushed. What went wrong? Michael seemed such a good kid. Very likely Michael simply couldn't stand being in the pres sure cooker of perfection any longer.

What can we do about this myth? Yes, part of the job description of a church leader is to model God's way of family life. But how can we do this without denying problems or demanding unreasonable perfection?

The answer lies in our motivation for Christian living. If our actions emanate from an ongoing relationship with Christ, we will communicate this to our children. We will be concerned about how we stand with God, and not be overwhelmed by how we stand with the congregation we serve. Our way of living comes from how God wants us to live—not from what the parishioners expect. We should never let the parishioners' wishes decide our own expectations for our children. We must teach our children to derive their enthusiasm for life from God. When that happens, the model for the congregation takes care of itself.

The answer lies also in how we deal with problems. Pretended perfection doesn't show our children how to deal with their own guilt and imperfections. If we humbly admit our own shortcomings and ask forgiveness, our children will feel surprisingly warm toward us. They will also learn how the grace of God operates in real life. The burden of perfection will be removed by the comforting and reassuring grace of salvation.

Yes, we can be a model for the parishioners, but only by being in close communion with God. Our modeling becomes the natural outgrowth of our walk with the Lord. Our children must hear this message and experience the freedom needed to grow spiritually.

Myth No. 2: Every need is a call from God.

The phone rings constantly. Parishioners, the conference, the city fathers, the church school, other conferences, discouraged saints, dependent clingers, and myriads of others want to talk to the pastor. Most calls involve a request for something, and don't respect time— family time, mealtime, sleep-time, devotional time. The needs and the calls seem endless.

Each request raises the specter of turning down a call from God. So Mr. and Mrs. Pastor keep trying to meet everyone's needs. In time a grave but subtle danger arises: the pastoral ego begins to feel needed and indispensable. Each call feeds an insatiable ego. Gradually God's will and Mr. and Mrs. Pastor's need for approval and feeling needed become intertwined, and, as Tim Hansel shows in When I Relax I Feel Guilty,1 busyness becomes an evidence of doing God's will. In contemporary terminology, the pastoral couple has become addicted to doing good.

The problem with any addiction is that it dominates a person's life and makes rational decisions about everyday life and relationships difficult. The satisfaction of the addictive need becomes paramount. 2 This, in a ministerial family, means putting others' needs before those of the family. This "sacrifice" feeds the pastoral ego, but starves the family.

Mr. Pastor promises to lead out in the games at Michael's birthday party on Sunday afternoon. But early Sunday morning Sister Suzanna calls and asks the pastor to please help her move. Everyone she knows is gone for the weekend, and besides, the pastor is such a good organizer. Things will go so much better if he is there!

Sister Suzanna, a new church member, really needs his support, reasons Mr. Pastor. Maybe he can get back in time for the party. Mom can cope—she always has before. "No problem," responds Mr. Pastor, "I'll be over right after breakfast." Of course, the moving takes longer than expected, and Dad doesn't make it to the birthday party.

When 5-year-old Michael asks why Daddy didn't come to his party, Dad explains how he had to help Sister Suzanna. And Mom covers up for her husband by reminding Michael that "Jesus is happy when we help other people." That doesn't satisfy Michael, who feels let down that Daddy wasn't at his party.

Michael and Michelle soon learn that they are less important than others. Eventually this translates into feelings of rejection and resentment of their father's job. Because his work is a religious calling, they easily transfer these negative feelings to their father's God and his church.

How can the ministerial family keep in perspective the many demands on their time? Isn't their specialty helping God meet human needs? The answer lies in an intimate connection with time's Creator. Helping others can never substitute for personal encounter with God. Before the day begins, we must seek God's priorities for our time. The moment personal devotions begin to slide, we walk on dangerous ground. Satan quickly substitutes his motives for God's, and traps us in his net of ego needs.

We need to be specific in seeking God's help to direct our daily activities. We need to ask for creativity in solving human problems. We need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. Are we doing this because it makes us feel important? Could someone else help? Are we willing to give up some control to others (assistant pastor, elders, deacons, and deaconesses)? Have we organized our church so the members can help meet the needs of others? Can we say no graciously but firmly, without feeling insecure? Are we aware of the effect of flattery on our priorities? And the most searching question of all: What will be important 10 years from now?

The answer to the myth of the pastor meeting every need also lies in a firm commitment to family needs. Putting work first and family second does not provide the undergirding necessary for children to grow spiritually. Placing God first reorders our priorities into family second and work third. Putting the family before work does not mean second-rate work. It may actually result in better work because we then focus on the most important aspects of our calling. Our families will know their importance to us exceeds that of others.

How does this work in practical terms? Consider again Sister Suzanna. The pastor had several alternatives. 1. He could have told her he would help for only two hours (placing a limit on his availability), because he had an appointment later that day (writing family commitments in the weekly schedule instead of leaving them to chance). 2. He could have suggested that Sister Suzanna call one of the deacons (delegating responsibility). 3. He could have given her the names of some teenagers who would like to earn a little extra money.

As soon as he received the call, Mr. Pastor should have thought to himself, Nothing is more important today than my son's birthday party. He also should have been aware of the desired effect of Sister Suzanna's flattery on his ego. His family commitment called him to be home in time to prepare for Michael's party and share the pleasant event with them.

Children understand real emergencies like a death or an accident, but they quickly recognize pseudo emergencies. They will share their parents for the real emergencies, but they will resent it when Dad ignores them in favor of ego-satisfying "emergencies."

Children need their parents every day. A special time each day for play or reading creates a warm bond between parent and child. When Dad spends time with his children before leaving for evening appointments, he gives a forceful message of love. When children know their importance to their parents, they also know they are equally important to God.

Myth No. 3: The minister's family must attend all church functions and be active in all church programs.

I never met the anonymous writer of a letter I received, but my heart ached for her. The wife of a ministerial student, she wanted to be his perfect helper in ministry. However, a serious problem arose: Her husband insisted that she and their 15-month-old son attend services at both churches in the district where he worked as a student pastor. After the services he wanted them to accompany him on his afternoon pastoral calls. She found it impossible to keep the baby quiet through both church services, and he didn't want the child to have a bottle because that would be "eating between meals and giving a bad example to the members." The baby needed an after noon nap, but he had difficulty sleeping in strange places. Sometimes he would drop off to sleep, only to awaken as they moved on to another home. At the end of the day they had a cranky baby and a critical husband who told her she was ruining his ministry because she couldn't "make the baby behave." The young woman felt totally inadequate as a minister's wife. Every week this scenario was replayed. What should she do? Her husband believed the myth.

Because religion is the life career of ministerial families, their children have certain advantages. They attend services regularly, frequently hear about God and salvation, learn to respect and love the Bible, and often experience the joy of serving others. However, along with these advantages, there exists the danger of overexposure until religion becomes routine and loses its heart appeal.

To require children to attend all the services in one or several churches where Mr. Pastor is the minister ignores the normal needs of children and imposes an impossible burden on the family. Children cannot be expected to forgo their own Sabbath school classes and attend two or three church services each Sabbath. They need activity on Sabbath just as they do on other days of the week, and such activity should be with their friends with whom they feel close. An unbalanced church life often leads to boredom, resentment, and eventually to rejection.

How can we communicate to members our involvement and support with out denying the normal needs of our children? Perhaps we should begin by examining our own attitudes about ministry. Most church members understand today's lifestyles and would probably welcome a more family-oriented minis try. An emphasis on spiritual gifts may guide the ministerial family to set their priorities for church involvement on the basis of their own gifts. Lay leadership and participation in different aspects of ministry would certainly reduce the possibility of ministerial burnout.

Myth No. 4: Spiritual activities nourish personal spiritual growth.

Church services, Sabbath schools, and prayer meetings are all good, but not sufficient to nourish spiritual growth. Preparing sermons, giving Bible studies, and serving others can help, but they in themselves are insufficient. Sending children to church school, Pathfinder meetings, and summer camp, though highly desirable, cannot compensate for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

All these activities do have their role in personal spiritual growth, but the question is Are they motivated by Christian love expressing itself in joyous service, or are they a kind of salvation by works? The danger becomes real when ministerial families begin to think of these activities as making up for deficiencies in family life. After all, Mr. Pastor is working for God. In our rush of activities for the Lord, we are too busy to notice our children's needs. We think everything is going fine, until that day when reality hits. Children rarely collapse overnight. The little red flags are usually up for a long time.

True, God does care for our inadequacies, but not our deliberate flouting of His priorities. What we sow, we reap. His instruction is clear: There is no substitute for individual time with Him, for family worship, for heart-to-heart talks with our children, listening to them and being there when they need us.

Myth No. 5: The minister represents the voice of God speaking to humans.

Unfortunately, some individuals are attracted to the ministry because of an unhealthy need or desire to exercise power and authority. When a minister believes he or she is the voice of God in all matters, it can lead to extreme authoritarianism in the family. As the voice of "divine authority," the pastor believes in doing whatever he or she wishes to any member of the family. Such an individual denies human fallibility, shuts off new ideas, and exhibits authoritarian-type parenting. The situation may even lead to child abuse— physical, sexual, or emotional.

Of the four parenting styles identified by research (authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful), 3 the authoritarian style remains the most damaging to the child's moral development, religious values, and self-concept. Children reared in authoritarian homes often have difficulty making decisions because all decisions have routinely been made for them. Over the years they amass a reservoir of anger against their parents and God. Many times they leave home at an early age and reject family values.

The authoritative parenting style retains parental control and sets firm limits for children, but provides more communication and support. The parents gradually and supportively introduce children to decision-making. They communicate reasons for parental sanctions and provide openness between parent and child. The parents do not exercise authority for authority's sake, but, in communicating reasons for rules, en courage children to participate in learning how to live. The parents feel secure about their parenting role; they do not feel threatened because they know they remain in control. Authoritarian parents fear loss of control, so they exercise it in extreme.

Authoritative parenting leaves more room for children to make decisions. Therefore, it reflects God's method of helping humans grow in spirituality and character. Parents can best understand authoritative parenting by studying God's Father role.

How shall we react to this myth of authoritarianism? Pastors do have a responsibility to communicate God's Word to the parishioners, and they do have a priestly role in the family. Leadership, however, does not imply pastoral-parental infallibility.

Studying different parenting styles and gradually introducing them into the family can be helpful. If parents attempt new ways of parenting, the children must know this ahead of time; otherwise confusion follows. When switching from authoritarian to authoritative parenting, we can expect things to get worse before they get better, as with any major change in family structure. Children in late childhood or the teen years will not know how to be more involved in self-direction.

A ministerial family does provide ad vantages for spiritual growth. But perpetuation of certain ministerial family myths places a burden on a pastor's home. A close relationship with God, a careful reordering of priorities, an awareness of problems, and an attempt to let the positive dominate the family atmosphere would ensure a spiritual and balanced pastoral home in which God remains the true head of the family.

1 Tim Hansel, When I Relax I Feel Guilty
(Elgin, 111.: David C. Cook Pub. Co., 1979).
2 Craig Nakken, The Addictive Personality
(New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
3 Eleanor E. Maccoby and John A. Martin,
"Socialization in the Context of the Family:
Parent-Child Interaction," in Handbook of Child
Psychology, ed. Paul H. Mussen, 4th ed., vol. IV
of Socialization, Personality, and Social Develop
ment, ed. E. Mavis Hetherington (New York:
John Wiley and Sons, 1983), pp. 37-56; cf. Ellen
G. White, Counsels to Parents and Teachers
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1943), p. 155; Child Guidance (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), p. 263.

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Donna J. Habenicht, Ed.D., is chairperson of the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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