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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - From Generation to Generation

Thank you for the questions! Here's our first...

What advice do you have for pastoring to multiple generations of the same family? I have found it to be the most challenging part of my ministry. Weddings bring up complicated dynamics between young adults and their parents. Illnesses bring up complicated issues between adult children and their aging parents. Even young parents with young children can be a challenge if you see them doing things that seem unproductive or unhealthy. It's hard not to take sides, when one generation isn't being fair and the other is. But when you're everyone's pastor, that seems to lead to trouble.

Muthuh+ was our only matriarch available to respond this week:

This can be difficult. I always thought that having different generations was more of a help than a hindrance. But what I hear in the question is a need to “fix” the problems that you see in families rather than turning their eyes to Christ. In the congregations that I have served, it was often other parents or other parishioners who helped the younger families learn how to parent. If the pastor is the only one doing this, you could be manipulated by one side or the other.

There is always dysfunction in families. Nothing short of intensive psychological counseling will change that. The pastor’s work is to help them bring a vision of Christ into their own lives. Don’t confuse pastoring with being a therapist unless you are one. And even then, make sure that you stay out of the family dynamics because you will be used by one generation to get at the other. Neither side will appreciate what you are doing. The role of the pastor is not to fix families, but to help them focus on God’s love.

Each time you get in-between family members you are failing to allow God to work in that family. Keep calling individuals to respond to their better selves as their response to Christ. You might suggest therapy if that is what is needed but don’t you try to do it. On your part, it is like watching a child learn to walk: you must allow them to fall so that they will learn. Your job is to model trusting in God.

With that said, if you find that there is something illegal or abusive going on, you are required to intervene in many states. In this case, I would first check with your judicatory reps as to what the rulings are or check with a good lawyer first before you do report abusive behavior. It is better to be safe than sorry.

I'm sure that many of our readers have some experience with ministry to multiple generations of the same family. I hope you'll share them with us...just use the Post a Comment function to add your two cents.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


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  1. I agree with Muthuh: It's important to be clear on your role.

    Beyond that, I think that ministering to several generations of a family is similar to ministering in a small congregation: You have to be very intentional in forming relationships with each individual, and they must be personal relationships, not mediated through a family member.

    Sometimes that makes me feel like my personality is split into many pieces: I'm X's pastor, Y's, Z's, and in each of those circumstances, the primary relationships are between X or Y or Z and me and God. When someone attempts to triangulate, I can always say, "Let's talk about what you think God is saying to YOU in this situation."

    Good luck. It's a challenge, especially if yours is a family church.

  2. I have been in two congregations with a 4 generation family represented; one of those families was enormous (10 out of 15 offspring from the 2nd generation were members!). That one had some very complex issues. What ultimately worked best was to take each person as an individual as much as possible: listen, support, pray, encourage as appropriate...just stay out of the tangled family relationships. Not always easy, for sure.

  3. I have found Bowen's Family system theory to be particularly helpful. Right now I am reading Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times which does a good job of giving an overview of the theory. I agree with the others, having clear boundaries in your own mind is key. The longer your pastor in a setting, the more likely the families are to try to draw you in to their dynamics. The danger is that this can be flattering because you are invited and accepted but you are not part of their family you are their pastor and that requires a different role and clear boundaries. I have fallen into the "daughter" role at times only to find it difficult to be in the pastor role during crisis.


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