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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with Grown Children's Decisions

The issue of raising children can become a particularly difficult one for a pastor leading a congregation - in addition to the ways congregational demands can conflict with parental demands, there is the added issue of how the child is leading a public life she or he did not choose. We ministers knew (somewhat!) what we were getting into in taking on this public life, but the child doesn't have a choice, and the public scrutiny over his or her behavior can become quite difficult to deal with. 

It can be difficult for the minister as well, as we become concerned over how our child's behavior reflects not only on our parenting but on our spiritual leadership. Our question today comes from a minister and mother in that position - What does the minister do when her grown child makes a decision that seems contrary, or might seem contrary to parishioners, to Christian values? She writes:

My 18 year old daughter has decided to move in with her current boyfriend.  Aside from all the normal reasons that this is an extremely bad idea, as a woman in ministry, I am dealing with the theological/ministrial ramifications of her move.  There is the broader question of how to minister to other parents dealing with the same reality, and how to minister to couples who have decided for whatever reason that marriage is not an option and choose to live together.  And then there are practical matters - for example: how do I handle visits from daughter and boyfriend, especially extended stays where they would reasonably expect to stay overnight. 

This whole issue has got me so confused that I cannot even really frame what I want to ask.  People choose to live together.  That's a fact.  Yet, in my mind and in my personal morality, I believe that living together is not "God's best" for a couple who could legally marry, but chooses not to (not that my daughter and her boyfriend are anywhere near that type of commitment).   And yes, I worry about what this arrangement might say to my (future) congregation. 

As a mother and a woman in ministry, how do I handle her living arrangement?  Can you answer the questions which I am too emotionally involved to be able ask?

Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, responds:
I am hesitant to say very much – as I’m well aware that as I have a daughter who is 16 years old, I may yet face this kind of situation, but haven’t so far!

But from outside of this situation, I want to say as ministers of the gospel we need to show the love and challenge of God in everything we do, so far as we’re able. This includes our family. You love your daughter, you want what’s best for her and you also want her to learn to live her own life and make her own decisions. 

It sounds as though you want to offer her the sort of unconditional love that will always welcome her back (and you don’t get more gospel than that) but fear being misunderstood by others in the church. Are there one or two people in the church to whom you can tell the whole story and confide in, who can then reassure anyone else who feels they are concerned that you are doing the right thing? (Let’s face it, very few people are going to ask questions to your face, so you need to have your ‘friends’ around to field those questions).

By way of encouragement, I have seen other mothers go through this decision and emerge with a wonderful relationship to their daughter, a few years down the line, because they have always kept the door open for the daughter to come back home. And if it’s good enough for the father of the prodigal son, it’s good enough for me – and should be good enough for any church.
Prayers for you – as minister and as mother.

Jennifer writes:
This is a sensitive question, especially as you try to balance the needs of your daughter, yourself and the sensibilities of the congregation.

I hope you’re able to talk with your daughter. As much conversation as your relationship can stand is probably a very good thing. Share your views, listen to hers, and model openness and love.

With respect to visiting, I think it’s wise to suggest sleeping arrangements that make you feel comfortable (it is your home!) and to talk with your daughter and her partner before they arrive.

With respect to your congregation, it’s hard to tell from your question to us how near or far away your daughter is, the size of your congregation, how widespread the knowledge of your daughter’s arrangements will be, and how much or little this will trouble your congregation. It’s clear that it’s troubling to you. Again, how open you choose to be will model a conversation you can have with anyone who wishes to engage with you. Why not practice having such a conversation with a trusted colleague in ministry in your area? Perhaps you can work out some of your concerns with them, and think together about how much or how little you would choose to share with your congregation.

Blessings to you!

Dorcas offers:
Ah, it is difficult to have to deal with family issues from two perspective: the personal one, just like every other mom would need to do, and then the issue of being a church leader….etc. etc. etc.  My heart goes out to you.  My short answer is LOVE.  And some detachment.  Ah, that detachment part is so hard.  But necessary.  You still love her, but your relationship is going to change, and for your own emotional, spiritual, mental health, you have to find a little distance.

I don’t mean to be trite or simplistic, but I expect your daughter already knows how you feel about this arrangement.  If she doesn’t then the loving thing to do is sit down and have a heart to heart talk and be honest.  Assuming this has happened, I think you should proceed in the way you would (as much as possible) as you would do with any other person(s).  You aren’t cutting her, or boyfriend, out of your life it seems.  Good!  What would you do with other unmarried couples who visit?  How would you talk to them?  What would you expect of them?   Where would they sleep?

Perhaps thinking of it this will help you disconnect a bit from your emotional reaction.  Should you pretend?  No.  Should you lecture?  No.  Should you ignore the obvious?  No.  How that works out in practical ways is a personal decision that you will come to, I am sure, with God’s grace and help.

As far as future church leadership, I hope you will find a place where the people are mature enough to understand that your daughter is not you.  What parent has not experienced a beloved child doing something of which they would not approve?  All of us have, and like any other painful life experience, it just may increase your ability to minister, not lessen it.  As a fellow pastor said to me years ago when my own beloved daughter was involved in a very questionable relationship, “Humankind had the perfect parent.  And still blew it.” In my own daughter’s case, she emerged a sadder, and more wounded, but wiser woman.  I hope your daughter will soon see what the better choice could be.    

Prayers going up for you and your daughter and her boyfriend. 

Muthah+ writes:
This is less a 'pastor's problem' than the problem of all Christian parents in  a time of changing mores.  I have a grandniece who bought a house with with her boy friend and THEN got engaged.  I have married many a family who already had had children.  How younger people approach marriage is different than my generation did.  That is all there is to it. 

Over the years, I have found my attitude toward marriage has changed. I am still drawn to those couples who love each other, have learned how to be equitable with each other and have learned how to support one another through tough times and the joys.  I have never married but have lived in community with another pastor colleague for 32 years.  It is hard to live with another when the total reason for sharing one's life is sexual attraction.  It helps, but there has to be more.  And all too often we find that marriages of the young are based more on sex, than the kind of respect and honor that makes for mature realtionship and holy marriage.  At the same time, I have seen wonderful relationships grow from those immature matches.  I don't believe in premarital sex--but it goes on.  And as a pastor I have to deal with it as a reality.

I am wondering how much your own concerns about how you are going to be seen in your own parish are at the center of your question:  You will be judged by those in your congregation: "How can SHE tell us how to raise our children if she can't control her own family?" But God has never asked us to be perfect, and never asked us to have perfect children. More often this is more of a judgement that we pastors fear than what our parishioners would ever demand of us.  You have no control of an 18 year old--you know that and your parish knows that.  Your distress will be seen by your parish and they will understand.  And how you welcome your daughter and boyfriend home with open arms as did the father in the Prodigal Son will say volumns to her and your congregation.  It might even say something to you. 

Look for the growth in your daughter and the good that is developing.  Look for the way that she is making decisions and point out the admiration you have for her.  If her relationship is going south, in the words of Thumper, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."  Just remind her of the loving parent you are and will always be there when she needs help.

Our faith is rooted in a loving relationship with Christ.  Our ethics need to be rooted in relationship too rather than rather arcane standards that do not promote good health or love.  Treat them as married if you need to understand the relationship that is building between them.  The ceremony may be delayed, but learn to respect her boyfriend as part of your family.  This may be a trial marriage for them.  Then again, it may blossom into something good and holy.  But it is the relationships that make for good ethics, let them grow.

And Sue offers:
I hear what you're saying, and that probably makes me the least appropriate person to respond. My feeling on this one is that *you* are the minister, not your daughter.

She is an adult, and the choices she makes, while perhaps not totally in sync with 
some of your members, there will be many in the pews who either don't know or if they do know, won't care one way or the other.

If another parent comes to you with concerns about their own children, 
you can certainly listen with an understanding ear, giving you a certain pastoral gift that those parents might really appreciate. At the end of the day though, no matter how much we might wish it were otherwise, once our children reach adulthood, we cannot live their lives for them. All we can do is continue to love them through all of their joys and sorrows. If they always know that you have their back and trust their judgment (even when it isn't what you would have chosen to do), I promise you, they will love you back because of it.

If the live-in relationship falls apart, your daughter will know where to go for nurture and motherly love. If you fight with her on the issue, she'll go and grieve elsewhere.  That's just the way it is. Without that respect for your child as an emerging adult, the communication lines may get seriously messed up. Honestly, if I had my choice of pleasing someone in church looking down their noses at the life of someone in my family (as if it's any of their business - and I do NOT believe that it is) - OR - having the love and trust of that family member? I would take the love and trust of my family over the crabby church person any day. Churches come and go, but your daughter will always be your daughter.

Should anyone in the church ask about the living arrangements, you are perfectly within your rights to say "
Thank you for asking. My daughter and her partner are very happy, but the details of their relationship are really a private matter." To say that is honest, and not the least bit rude or inappropriate. I'll repeat what I said earlier - *you* are the minister - and ministers, like other professionals in other vocations, have a right to keep private family matters private.

I guess that's all I've got. Keep talking to your daughter. Be honest about how you feel, but also tell her that she's old enough to trust her own intuition and use her best judgment on this matter. Ask her to pray on it. Perhaps you can pray about it together.

Blessings to you and your family.


Wow! What a great wealth of wisdom our matriarchs have offered in response to this difficult decision. Thank you so much to our wonderful matriarchs for taking the time to offer such thoughtful answers, especially during a week that is, for many of them, a holiday week. I will tuck these answers away for reading again when my own children are a bit older!

What of the rest of you? What is your experience with this? What advice might you offer? Please share in the comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I worked with a priest who, from time to time and in appropriate situations would say, "I have a daughter who is anorexic, a son from whom I am estranged, and a gay alcoholic son. Want to tell me about your family?" He didn't say this in a "beat this" way, but rather as a "welcome to the parenting club" invitation that allowed people to be honest with him about the challenges they faced in their own family life.

    Others have spoken wisely about how you and your daughter might handle this. From a ministerial perspective, your own mixed feelings and experience ultimately might open doors in a congregation.

    p.s. the verification word is "restle"...seems appropriate to your situation, where you are wrestling with so much in your mind and heart.

  2. Ah been there and got the T-shirt, keeping the door open is definitely the way forward as far as I am concerned. As for dealing with church members and wondering about your own witness then honesty is best. The ability to say "this is not what I would choose, " and yet to continue to offer an open door and support is a really wonderful reflection of God's grace towards us.

    And keep talking, talk to your daughter, and talk to church members, be honest about struggles and difficulties...

  3. I have a 15 year old and a 19 year old. Both girls. We've had more than "the talk" -- we've had serious conversations about what fidelity and personal commitment in relationships mean, and what happens when people break that commitment, even if they are not married. (Believe it or not, the best discussions we've had come from watching "House" episodes together.)

    I try to listen a lot and love a lot more. And pray that the conversation always stays open.

  4. I was not in ministry when my son's girlfriend moved in with him, but it was still traumatic for his father and me. Both were "adults" so what could we do? They had been high school sweethearts, and had weathered several years apart while going to college.

    Both of them knew it was not our first choice for them, but we kept the lines of communication open and loving, and made sure they both knew that we cared deeply for both of them. they lived together for almost 4 years before they got married.

    During that time I was a lay minister at the mission in which I now serve, and most of the parish knew they weren't married. What concerned my parishioners more than their living together status was how I was handling the fact that the love of my son's life was Orthodox Jewish!

    They've been married for over 3 years now (I was ordained a year later). He is the cook and keeps a kosher home for her, while he continues to teach middle schoolers in Sunday School!

    I did insist that when they visited our home before they were married that they slept in different bedrooms -- I have no idea to this day if they snuck around after Dad and I were asleep -- and i don't want to know.

    It is amazing how we have such anxiety about what our parishioners will think, when they really do understand that we do not have any more control over our kids than they do over theirs!

    I suggest you relax as much as possible, shrug your shoulders when people mention it, and say the truth: that you pray for them constantly, didn't raise your child to do this, but that God is in control -- you are not!


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