The life of the pastoral family: An Interview with Willie and Elaine Oliver

How do you develop and maintain a healthy family life? Get tips about one of the toughest jobs anyone can tackle.

Willie E. Hucks II, DMin, is associate editor of Ministry.

Editor’s note: Willie and Elaine Oliver serve as directors of the Department of Family Ministries for the world church of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Willie Hucks (WH): So many, including myself, believe developing and maintaining a healthy family life is one of the toughest jobs anyone can tackle. What challenges have you found to be unique to ministerial families in particular?

Willie Oliver (WO): We have to admit up front that there are no perfect families because there are no perfect people. Even when people are intentional about having healthy family relationships, it still remains a challenge because we are all flawed, and our failings make it extremely difficult to sustain healthy relationships. But while healthy family relationships are difficult to develop and sustain, it is still possible to enjoy a fairly healthy family life.

The families of pastors are similar to other families, plus have the added pressure of being on display and under constant scrutiny. Because communities of faith are about accepting, developing, and maintaining trust in God demonstrated through the way believers live their lives, church members instinctively tend to look
at the pastor’s family as a model of how to behave as a Christian. Since no one is perfect, the deficiencies within the parsonage are often magnified for no other reason than their position in church life as the “first family.” This added burden frequently multiplies unwarranted pressure on young children and adolescents, and even on spouses who may try to keep up with the expectations of church members or who grow resentful by the unnecessary stress this reality causes.
In teenagers, this unwanted attention often manifests itself in rebellious behavior and disregarding church norms and highly valued Christian principles.

WH: What lessons have you learned as parents of two children—pastor’s kids—that can help your fellow pastoral couples raise their children?

Elaine Oliver (EO): An occupational hazard in parenting pastors’ kids is feeling the pressure to have perfect children. Sometimes that pressure comes from our own expectations, but often it comes from the expectations of our congregation or other outside influences. The truth is, children are human and will make mistakes, and pastors’ kids are no different. We found it much more helpful to concentrate on loving our children unconditionally, passing on to them our spiritual values through daily family worship, and spending meaningful time with them each day, even if for just a few minutes. If, as parents, we create an environment of  trust and safety, our children will be more willing to talk to us about their spiritual struggles that are a normal part of their developmental process.

WH: It seems natural to think of the perfect family: husband, wife, and children that live happily ever after. Do you provide resources for non-nuclear families? For example, families that have been blended after divorce or the death of a spouse?

EO: Working effectively with families means addressing the realities that exist in our communities today. While it is true God left us an ideal to reach for, an important part of our work is to develop resources that speak to the many permutations of family forms we find in society and the church today. To be sure, good communication in families led by two parents is not much different than good communication in a single-parent home. Notwithstanding, any meaningful
and relevant ministry to families must address the problems persistent within families in the church, which, in many ways, are a reflection of the families we find in the general population. The truth is, while good communication is good communication, we are very mindful that relational dynamics vary based on the people who make up that particular family. There is no single way of handling families. As such, we try to develop resources that will address the specific needs of families in order to be relevant and instructive regardless of the present family need.

WH: It also seems natural to not think of singles as composing a family, a family of one. Are singles a family? What counsel do you provide to pas­tors for how they should relate to singles in their churches?

WO: We tend to think holistically when addressing the notion of fam­ily. From our perspective, a family can be nuclear (father, mother, child/children; single parent, child/ children), extended (more than one generation under the same roof), blended (parent/stepparent, child/ children, and/or stepchildren), made up of a single adult living alone, or single adults sharing a home. People involved in pastoral ministry must be concerned and engaged with both the family of one and the family of one adult parenting children, which is growing in prominence in and out of the church. Marriage trends in recent decades, tracked by the National Marriage Project* based at the University of Virginia, show that Americans are less likely to marry (from 1970 to 2010 the rate of people getting married declined by almost 50 percent) and, when they do marry, do so later than they did before. Then there is the reality of divorce, ever present in and out of the church, in addition to widows and widowers, whom we tend to forget. Regardless of what is causing the increase in single adults, we have no choice but to be mindful and intentional about ministering effectively to this segment of the population. Ministry leaders should be intentional about informing themselves about the specific needs of single adults in their congregations as well as the surrounding communities. Every house of worship should have a single-adult ministries coordinator and committee that work closely with the pastor(s) to address the interests of the various members of this group. Providing fellowship, support, and ministry involvement for the various single adult groupings in the church is so vital to the health of church life. Despite the fact that marriage and family are high values among people of faith, churches must fight the tendency to be couple oriented. Congregations must be mindful of the specific needs of this burgeon­ing demographic or risk becoming irrelevant.

WH: Child abuse remains a prevalent issue worldwide. Is there something pastors and churches can do to edu­cate church members regarding a proper response to this problem? What can churches do to positively impact their communities that experience such horrors?

EO: If there are children in your congregation(s), there is a high prob­ability at least one child is being abused. Every church needs to be sure it has policies in place to help pro­tect children, at the very least, when they are in church or at a church-related event. As Christians, we see children as precious gifts from God, and are tasked with the responsibility to care, protect, and make sure they develop and grow as God would have them do. Each church should have a family ministries committee, which includes parent­ing education among its benefits to members and visitors alike. The objective of par­enting is to nurture children to grow to their full potential in Christ. Discipline, which comes from the same root word as discipleship, should be the motivation of parents with their children, rather than punish­ment. Discipline aims to teach and give nurturing direction while punishment aims to be punitive, hurt, and control children. Pastors must be mindful to train their staff members and parents in their congregations to value children and make it a point to preach parent­ing sermons that convey God’s regard for children. 

WH: How can pastors and elders access the available resources you provide?

WO: Each year the Department of Family Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists develops a resource called the Family Ministries Planbook that contains sermons, workshops, and other lead­ership pieces to facilitate working with families in congregations. Over the years, our department has developed a number of other family strengthening materials that can be accessed from AdventSource, our North American– based ministry resource center. Simply logon to www.adventsource.org, click on the Store icon, and type family into the search engine on that page. You will immediately see a list of items that can be useful for a deliberate and effective ministry to families. You may also logon to our Web site at http://family.adventist.org for informa­tion on additional ministry choices.

Readers who have an iPhone, iPad, or an Android smartphone can download our free worship app from the respec­tive devices’ app store by typing family worship into the Search window. The Family Worship app is filled with wor­ship ideas to help parents with children from infancy to late adolescence. You will find many other resources through our Web site, including our family minute television segments that are played on Hope Channel as well as our new television program, Real Family Talk With Willie and Elaine Oliver, also on Hope Channel.

WH: What counsel do you give to pastoral families in terms of main­taining their daily worship?

EO: Make family worship a matter of priority. Agree, as a family, on the most appropriate time to have fam­ily worship, then remain committed to that time and make it interesting by including the entire family in tak­ing turns deciding what components to include in your time together and leading out in worship. If you have school-age children, your sessions need last no longer than ten to fifteen minutes. If your children are ado­lescents, fifteen to twenty minutes may be enough. The real point of family worship is to connect you to each other and to God. Invariably, you will find it easy to share that concept with members of your congregations. However, it is really important that we spend that time involved in spiritual disciplines as a family. Children grow up so fast; and before you know it, they are gone. Leaving a spiritual legacy to our children is among the best gifts we could ever give them as ministry lead­ers—the kind of gift that will stay with our children for many years to come.

WH: Somewhat related to the previ­ous question, what lessons have you learned from your own marriage that you can share with your fellow pastoral couples as it relates to keeping Christ at the center of your relationship?

WO: Being a Christian is a full-time reality that applies to every facet of my life; marriage included. However, I am similar to other Christians throughout the ages. The apostle Paul expressed it best in Romans 7:15 when he declared: “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do” [NIV]. This acknowl­edges that, as Christians, we tend to not always practice what we profess because of our human frailties. While a relationship with Christ is central to my life and a priority that carries into my married life, I am ever mindful of the inconsistencies that often appear in my marriage to Elaine. My Christianity informs the way I negotiate marriage by intentionally being kind, loving, patient, forgiving, and committed to my wife. Because I am human, what I want to do I do not always do. A long time ago, though, Elaine and I agreed we would never hurt each other on purpose. So, when our humanity gets in the way of how we intend to behave in our marriage, we pause, acknowl­edge our mistake, apologize, and make the necessary time to repair the hurt in our relationship. We have learned to give each other the benefit of the doubt when either makes a mistake that hurts the other. We understand that there are no perfect marriages because there are no perfect people, and that includes us. As pastoral cou­ples, we must understand that we are human and subject to inconsistencies. We should also remember how the apostle Paul comes to grips with this phenomenon as expressed in Romans 7:24, 25. The grace of God is always available and must be employed in the parsonage to maintain the equilibrium that is necessary in every marriage that will remain viable.

WH: Do you have any closing thoughts to share with our readers?

WO: Having a relatively healthy family is a gift from God. To be sure, it takes effort, intentionality, and reliance on the Almighty. Nevertheless, we should never forget God has promised to be with us until the end of the age, leave His peace with us, and supply all of our needs. Let’s trust Him despite the chal­lenges faced each day of our lives.

* The State of Our Unions, accessed Jan. 16, 2013, www.stateofourunions.org.


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Willie E. Hucks II, DMin, is associate editor of Ministry.

March 2013

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