A Pastor’s Relationship to His Children

Rev. Dr. Jack L Daniel

“You always put the church ahead of us!” Those were the angry words hurled at our friend by his adult daughter. The young woman had become estranged from both her pastor father and her faith a few years before, and despite repeated attempts by both parents to heal the break, she remains alienated.

This pastor had changed churches frequently in his career, including during his daughter’s high school years. It was largely this experience of repeatedly being uprooted during adolescence that her accusation referred to. But like all family conflicts, this one is too complex to ascribe simply to pastoral pulpit changes. From time immemorial, parents in all cultures have moved their families with few adverse effects. While the pastoral relocations were no doubt a factor here, I wonder what else contributed to this heartbreaking but all-too-common circumstance of the estrangement of adult children from their parents and their faith. I can immediately think of four pastor friends who have an adult child alienated from them and God. What can be done to restore these broken relationships is the subject for another time (another article). What can be done to help prevent this outcome is the topic for now. This article addresses parents with younger children and so still in the active parenting years.

How Can Pastors Raise Children to Love God and Their Parents?

In Matthew 7:9-11,

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Jesus makes the bold claim that parents instinctively know how to raise their children in a good way. He declares that we already know what good gifts to give our children that they might grow into healthy, loving adults. He says that even our “evil,” flawed, and sinful nature doesn’t prevent us from giving these good gifts. Amazingly, Jesus favorably compares parents to God the Father. By reflecting on our love for our children, we can begin to comprehend God’s vast love for us. What parents haven’t cradled their newborn and, overwhelmed with love, pondered the Father’s love for them.

This text begs the question, “What are those good gifts Jesus says we already know how to give?” While there is no formula, no “silver bullet,” for raising children to love God and their parents, Jesus indicates that all parents have good gifts that their children need. Each of us could compile our own list of “good gifts.” Looking back on our active parenting and considering the outcomes (our three adult children, their spouses, children, and lifestyles), here is our list:

LOVE. While this seems obvious, the unique challenges of raising children in the pastorate complicate the giving of love. In the mind of my friend’s daughter, it seemed her father loved the church more than he loved her. Like many careers, pastoral ministry can become all-consuming. Addictive workaholism can overshadow the needs of spouse and children. Most pastors, by nature, are high-energy people pleasers. And pastoral ministry provides more than enough opportunity to feed these needs. Only by seeing our true identity as a child of God and not as a pastor can our work be put in its proper perspective and not hinder our parenting.

While every pastor is continually torn between obligation to his flock and his family, family must win out. Our children must never seriously doubt that they come before the church. “Family First” must be our motto. Being fully present with our children is the most tangible expression of our love. Each pastor must work out for himself what being “fully present” looks like. For us, it meant having dinner together every night, typically before I had to leave for an evening meeting. Even though I worked on what most dads had as a day off, we tried to arrange a family time every week, and only a true emergency would violate it. We also took family vacations each year, often with the element of adventure commensurate with our children’s ages and a pastor’s budget. Of course, being present isn’t simply being in the same room; our presence must also include continual verbal and physical expressions of love. Staying emotionally attuned and connected to my children is a lifelong goal for me. Of course, in hindsight, this “evil” father failed often and missed countless opportunities to affirm and bless my children.

TRADITION. In a way, traditions are part of the love we show our children, for they help create a powerful bond in a family. Each marriage represents the blending of two family traditions forming a new and unique opportunity for celebration. The challenge for busy families is to take the time to honor the traditions that make every family different and special. Parents need not worry about remembering all of the details of their traditions; their children will remind them. Tradition is, of course, part of all human cultures and certainly our biblical Christian culture. Typically family traditions center on holidays, seasons, and rites of passage and become richer over time as new strands are added. In my own family, many of the traditions my wife and I introduced to our children are now sacrosanct with our grandchildren. Family traditions powerfully and joyfully convey the message that our family is unique—and that we belong to one another.

HOPE. The hope that we give our children is both small and big. Small hope is short-term hope, the “something-to-look-forward-to” that we need each week. I believe this is part of the meaning of Sabbath. For the ancient Jews, the Sabbath was (among other things) a divine gift of weekly hope to a people, like us, struggling with all of the vagaries and exigencies of life. It was a reminder of the God who loved and cared for them. As pastors, our Sabbath is not always Sunday, so we must find a time when we can gather our children and celebrate family life and God’s goodness. For my family, it was our weekly family time. When our children were young and stressed with the pressures of school, we would often say to them as we tucked them in at night, “Only a few more days until ….” To add to the sense of anticipation, my wife and I often kept the plans for each family time a mystery.

In their best-selling book The Blessing, psychologists John Trent and Gary Smalley point out that a key feature of Old Testament parental blessings was “picturing a special future” for children. This is the gift of big hope, and we can and should bestow it on our children. Children are, by nature, dreamers, always imagining their future. They daydream, “When I grow up,” and then fill in the blank. We get to help shape those dreams by pointing out whom God has made them and what strengths and aptitudes He has given. Like many people of my generation, I was the first in my family to go to college. I recall my parents often saying, “When you go to college…” not “If you go to college.” I always assumed I would go. Of course, not all childhood dreams are realistic; most Little Leaguers will not become professional athletes. However, we need not disparage high hopes; life itself will scale them back. Helping our children see who God has made them to be is the gift of big hope.

Needless to say, the ultimate gift of hope we give our children is the eternal hope of life in Christ. This leads to the next gift on my list, the gift of faith.

FAITH. In a very real way, the gift of faith begins even before our children are born, as we pray and prepare for them. An unborn child begins to recognize its mother’s voice. Infants quickly learn that their mothers and fathers are the sources of all of their needs, and trust begins. We set down a firm foundation of God’s faithfulness for our children by demonstrating our faithfulness. Our commitment to keep our promises to our spouses and our children establishes the basis for their faith in God.

As children move through toddlerhood into the school-age years, faith is very natural. They believe unquestioningly what their parents tell them. Someone has called this the “imprint” stage of life, as the faith of the parents is powerfully planted in their lives. Pastors and all Christian parents need to take full advantage of this season when a child’s heart is tender toward the Lord. This is the time to teach children the stories of the Bible and to train them in their prayers. Social scientist George Barna’s research shows that 71 percent of adult Christians in America became Christians between the ages of 4 and 14 – “The 4/14 Window.” Even if a pastor is blessed to serve a church with devoted and skilled Sunday School teachers, the primary responsibility of our children’s discipleship rightly falls to parents. Do not neglect this duty and assume that your children can or will eventually decide on their own without your consistent input.

As children move into the teens, our approach changes and becomes more like that described in Deuteronomy 6:7, where the teaching happens “along the road” as we live our daily lives alongside our children. They get to watch us as we drive, as we watch television, and as we interact with our spouses, friends, neighbors, and strangers. They get to see us pray, read the Bible, and talk about our faith. Now we need to be prepared to explain the reasons for our beliefs because they are hearing other viewpoints. When our two older children were in this season, I began to read the Bible with them every morning before school. It was a challenge to carve out a few minutes before the school bus arrived. I arranged my schedule during these years to be available for this precious activity most mornings. We would send them out the door with our hands on their heads (careful not to mess up hair) and a triune blessing. We still bless our adult children and little grandchildren in this way when we take leave of them (or tuck them in). This is also the season to take full advantage of youth ministries, mission trips, or overnight camps, so children find Christian peers and hear the message from different voices.

The teenage to young adult years are the most challenging for parents. It sometimes comes as a shock that, almost overnight, we are no longer the most important people in our kids’ lives! We gradually recede into the background and stand on the sidelines, not the team captains but the coaches. And our coaching looks more like a baseball manager than a football coach. Unlike a football coach, we are not feverishly pacing the sidelines or anxiously sending in plays. We are sitting in the dugout, watching the game unfold, reminding them of what they have learned, but often we stay silent (and pray a lot). We intervene only when necessary, and we try never to lose our temper.

Key elements of the gift of faith in this young adult season are freedom and grace. As children navigate through the teen years, parents must loosen their grip and grant them more freedom and responsibility to make their own choices around their faith. My wife and I had one rule regarding Sunday mornings: our family went to church. But we let our teens choose between Sunday school and congregational worship. We didn’t force the church agenda on them if they weren’t buying it. Sometimes a particular Sunday school class or youth group didn’t appeal to them; rather than force them to go, we let them attend worship instead. We tried not to make them feel that more was expected of the pastor’s kids than other kids. We were fortunate to have good public schools, and our children thrived in public education. One of our children went to a Christian college, while the others chose secular schools, but they all kept their faith through those years. That said, this is the season of rebellion, and we had our share. Expect it and navigate it with care. Now, as married adults, wives, and mothers, our daughters and their husbands are raising their children in the faith. We are truly blessed. I believe that giving our children the freedom to make these choices, after establishing a solid foundation with and for them, helped them embrace the Christian faith on their own.

GRACE. Parents shape the home environment; first and foremost, we tried to create a grace-filled family atmosphere. There were rules and consequent punishment for breaking the rules, but restoration always followed punishment. I also learned powerful lessons about grace and forgiveness on the many occasions I had to ask my children for forgiveness when I had disciplined them out of frustration and anger. It was painful and humbling to go to one of my young children, admit I was wrong, apologize for punishing them unfairly, ask them to forgive me, and assure them that I wanted to be a better father. It was even more painful when, through their sobs, they forgave me. I didn’t have to do that too often to learn what God was teaching me.

Further, there were times when we had to shield our children from the toxicity that can at times seep into church life and replace grace. My wife and I kept these hurtful matters confined to the workings of the church and didn’t bring them into our family life. If we want our children to grow up loving the church and the Lord of the church, it is essential that we protect them from the unhealthy environment that can exist in a church. As pastors and parents, we need the moral courage to stand against these things and, if need be, the courage to leave such a church to save our family.

For pastors, raising our children to know and love the Lord is our greatest desire. It has never been easy, which may be why most clergy today and down through Christian history have been celibate. But it is possible, and the Lord has given each of us the gifts we need to do it. Moreover, he exhorts us to shower our sons and daughters with “good gifts.” Thinking again of Jesus’s words in Matthew 7, what good gifts are your children asking for, silently or with their behavior? Will you commit to being a good giver of good gifts?