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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - It's a Family Affair Edition

Dear Matriarchs,

My church is in a small farming town with cold winters. There is a family
in my congregation that has taken in a boy who is a high school junior
after his parents kicked him out. Apparently the parents kicked their
son out one night with just a suitcase, despite the dangerously cold
weather. The parents are not willing to reconcile; the school district has
been no help; and since the boy is 18, he is legally an adult the county
can't do anything for him. (He is an adult with no drivers license, no job, and
a year and a half left of school before he gets his H.S. diploma!) The
family has even been criticized by people in the community for interfering
with a family matter by taking the boy in.

I know that taking this boy in has caused stress in the family although it
is not because the boy is a bad kid. Both the husband and wife have
talked to me and said they can't imagine why his parents would kick him
out; he has been nothing but polite and helpful the whole time he has been
with them. But they also aren't sure they can handle having an extra kid
in the house for the next year and a half, yet they are committed to not
putting him back on the streets. He is 18 yet only a junior, so the
sister of the family that has taken the boy in has recommended they
encourage him to drop out of school, get his GED, and enlist in the

The family from my congregation has keep me informed about the situation
but haven't asked me to do anything. This is my first year in ministry
and they surely did not cover this kind of thing in seminary! I have no
idea what I could or should be doing to help. Plus I have been swamped
with getting through my first Lent by myself and all sorts of other parish
projects yet I feel that I should be doing something to help this sad
situation. I would appreciate any insight or suggestions about this case
plus the more general questions about what our role is in cases like this?

Good Samaritan's Pastor

Dear GSP,
You're right - none of us learned this in seminary either! But most, if not all of us, did learn about identifying and respecting boundaries, and a few of us caution you to be attentive to boundaries in the situation in which you find yourself. And there is more sound advice and even experience to offer to on...

Ann, who blogs at, writes:

Currently support for the family who took in the young man in the form of a listening ear seems to be all they are asking of you. You might want to find about more on resources from the state and county in these sorts of situations. It is easy to with a pastor's heart to go beyond what is being asked of us. Sounds like you are handling this in a good way and letting the young man and the family take the lead. As to those who criticize --- if they speak to you - listen, but let it go. Do not get triangulated in all of this. Be clear what you can and cannot offer.

The young man will have to make the decisions about GED; it is much easier to finish HS than go that route, and the military -- not a particularly good option IMO from what I have seen of the young men around here returning from military service. It might be right for him if it is his choice.

From Kay who blogs at

Well, it sounds like the family is living out their own ministry right now by taking him in. I don't think you necessarily have to do anything unless they need something.

Have you asked what they need? (money for feeding a teenager, furniture, prayers, ?)

As to what they are going to do - the family has to decide whether to let him stay. The young man has to decide if he will drop out and/or join the military. You don't have to decide this for them.

I speak from experience. A few years ago, my son brought home an acquaintance for a meal and shower. Ryan (not his real name, but what we called him) stayed for 14 months. Later they told me Ryan had been living in friends' cars and sleeping on sofas when people would let him.

I did not know I could deal with it - in fact, I was pretty grouchy off and on. But one day at a time we managed, and when he left, it was his own choice.

JLeigh (who blogs here) adds:
Situations like this are so hard precisely because the answers are not always clear (almost never) and everyone in the community has a different opinion. All of this adds to the stress for both the young man's family and the family that has given him a temporary home. I can relate to the situation, not only out of pastoral experience, but because my brother and sister-in-law took in a young man in a similar circumstance. Our mother even helped to pay for the young man to go to school.

First, I would suggest that you remain clear in your boundaries so that you are their pastor and potentially pastor to the young man. You do not need to rescue anybody. You need to care, pray with them, listen, and potentially be with the family as they sort out their role.

Second, you may be in a position to reflect the situation accurately to those in the church/community who are talking about it. Your church family's decision to provide shelter and support for the young man need not be synonymous with interfering or attacking the young man's family. Hopefully they can make it clear that they are simply providing shelter/safe space for the young man to work out his path forward. It may even be that while he is with them, he can work on his relationship with his family. This is, obviously, not always the case.

You may be able to help those who are criticizing to know that they do not need to take sides. Their best role is to care for both the young man and his family -- as the relationships allow.

Hang in there; be steady and present without jeopardizing your pastoral role. Your role is unique. No one else has your role. If the congregation, or members of the congregation choose to offer material support in some way, that is fine. I would just recommend that your care be in the context of pastor of the congregation.

Ceramic Episcopalian invites us to listen to a higher authority:

I don't have any advice. However, maybe Archbishop Desmond Tutu does. He was on Craig Ferguson's show last week and the section of the show where he talks about Nelson Mandela's inability to see a need and not act on it (about 3/4 of the way into the episode) is really amazing.
Here is the link for the interview:

What needs do you see that are unmet and how can you meet them?

Is there anything you would like to add to this conversation? Do you have comments on Craig Ferguson's interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Use the comment box below to add your response.


  1. I would add that "not interfering in a family matter" simply does not qualify as a Christian value, in my opinion. I find it incredible that there are people who would prefer a kid be out in the cold than another family break the barriers of American tribalism. The weird nuclear family fetish that exists in America is one of those creepy pseudo-values that pose as faith; but it has nothing to do with following Jesus. A number of years ago when churches cancelled worship because Christmas was on Sunday and "people should be with their families" is probably the best example.

    So be strong in supporting the family. They are doing the Christian thing, and it sounds like they can use your support. And maybe people will be changed by their witness.

  2. One of my cousins-in-law and his wife are in a similar situation, having taken in a teenager from a dysfunctional family situation. To me, this is an incredibly generous and loving act, and I think one of the best things you can do in this situation is reassure your parishoners that they are doing a GOOD thing.

    I remember when I moved back to my hometown to help my mom after my father died -- against all advice from friends and professionals -- and when my pastor told me, "What you're doing is a good thing," I burst into tears because up to that point NO ONE in my life had said ONE affirming thing to me about my choice.

  3. I would re-emphasize what Kay says--- extra groceries and other tangible support might be needed. Ask the family.

  4. Good counsel is offered here. From my own experience I would underscore the suggestion that you become familiar with the local and state support services in your area. Sometimes the best help we can provide a family or individual facing a difficult situation is to be a resource for information. Being 18 means this young man isn't eligible for some kinds of assistance, but it may mean he becomes eliglbe for others. The family, too, may need to be linked up with other families who have provided refuge so that they can benefit from the support and experience of others.

    Are there other clergy in the area to whom you could speak so that you have a place to take your questions and get answers and support? Do you have denominational resources available to you? I was once helped by the wife of a colleague who was a social worker and was able to fill me in on some of the legal parameters of the situation in question. What I learned from her helped me to ask the right questions of others so that I was well informed. As a pastor you will be asked to listen, but if you also have knowledge you can help the family consider the larger picture and be aware of all the options available. What you learn from this will not only help the family but will also help you become a more effective pastor.

  5. I'm not a matriarch, but my family has done this once and it changed the person's life for the better. I echo the affirming--please tell them they are doing a good thing, perhaps even mention Matthew 25 a little more often than usual in your congregation, etc. Clearly these people have learned somewhere that this is part of what Christ asks people to do, in a very tangible sense. They are living their faith in a way many of us are unwilling to do. Support and encouragement are big currency when one steps out in faith.

  6. This might also be an opportunity for witness to the larger community about what happens to kids when they "age out" of the foster care system (usually at age 18) and are forced to become instant adults while kids from intact families are more likely to get support making that transition. Just doing a quick google search on the phrase "age out" brings up page upon page of discussion of the problem. It might be worth finding out if there is a support organization in your state for kids who are falling through the cracks.

  7. Having grown up in a family that included 20-some foster siblings over the years, I can attest that they are indeed doing "a good thing". And an incredibly hard thing.

    Support them, and ignore the critics.

  8. You said:
    "The family from my congregation has keep me informed about the situation
    but haven't asked me to do anything." and
    "yet I feel that I should be doing something to help this sad

    Hmmm. I would - most respectfully - ask you to ask yourself whose needs are you responding to - the young man's, the family's, or your own.

    You feel you should do something - but the family is wrestling with the situation, and is asking you for pastoral support. Fair enough. Ask them how you can be helpful and supportive. This is your first year out in the parish - let them be your teachers.

    And continue to reflect upon your own stance and boundaries in regard to this situation - and others. Good boundaries (which often mean not rushing in to 'take care of') are often not understood in congregations.

    But be comfortable enough in your own skin and pastoral identity to ask that very good question - what is my role? What do I bring that others don't or can't? How can the Gospel be known here - in word or deed?

    Blessings - you are quite thoughtful about this challenge - and in Lent, too!


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