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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - PK's and the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Every occupation has its good, bad, and ugly.  But for those of us who are ministry leaders and moms or dads, the ugly side of church life can feel really ugly when our kids become aware of it...

Our PKs are now young adults in high school and college (well actually half still here, half in/out of the nest). We've always tried to be transparent with them about our faith and life, without giving them TMI. They grew up coming to church with us, usually sitting on Dad's lap while I worked on Sundays. They've heard my 25 cent church membership speech enough times that I'm sure they could do a pretty good parody... ("we're a church of real people who try to love and serve God together, while we also try to love and forgive each other...") 

I do believe in confidentiality and I don't bring home stories of what so-and-so said in a private meeting. But public meetings, especially church leadership meetings are another matter. My spouse and I try not to discuss it at dinner, but they will hear snippets of conversation in the course of our daily lives. More often than not, they've had to wait while I am in a meeting after church. The problem is that we just finished public commentary on the budget and church mission statement. Some people are, well, ugly, and they heard a lot of the ugliest. And I have come home from meetings more than a little put out from time to time.

I don't want to make them PK crazy about people in the church, but they are, unfortunately, hearing the ugly side of church life. I don't want to give them more information than they should really have to bear. After all, I'm the pastor. They are, however, young adults, forming their own way of relating to The Holy and searching for their own church home when they are away from us. Is there a balance between letting them see the reality of Christian fellowship? (geez, nothing like trying to love each other and we're dumb sheep.) Our youngest is 16 and at times she gets really upset at some of the stuff she hears people say. 

Any suggestions for coaching them through this transition from "Mom's Church" to "my first, real, on-my-own church"? Or pointers for having the difficult conversations about why people disagree (or act hateful) in the church?

 Mama and Pastor

From Ruth, who blogs at Sunday’s Coming! 

Not a solution, sorry – but a wave of empathy. My daughter (now 17) is in the ‘making her own mind up about all this faith business’ phase of life. She has lived with me trying (and sometimes failing!) to keep her shielded from the more negative side of church relationships and has grown to be very sensitive to others’ feelings and very astute about human nature. I try to be honest with her that at times people can be hurtful to each other – but also to model that as Christians we offer each other love, forgiveness and a fresh start. She also knows that my secret weapon is that I pray for her to find her own living faith just as I pray for the church to be more true to its calling as the body of Christ.

Sounds like you are honest and open and loving with your kids – what more do they need?

I look forward to other people’s thoughts!

And from Sharon, who blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy

 What a thoughtful question, full of care for your kids as you attempt to fulfill your role in shaping their faith.

A hopeful word:  "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).  My experience is that it's the whole truth that leads to freedom.

It is true that church life is messy, and sometimes ugly, painful, and ________ (fill in the blank with the crap-tastic adjective du jour).  Any youth or young adult who has spent much time in church already knows this, PK or not.  I asked a young child just last Sunday why s/he wasn't with all the other kids in kid choir and s/he said, "I don't want to sing with (choir director's first name)" so s/he already was acting on some painful experience, or s/he had heard and was acting on someone else's!

It may be time to be a little more open with your kids about the underbelly of church life.  At the same time, be extravagantly honest and open in telling the truth about the rewards of faith and church life that supersede the frustrations and shortcomings.  Tell them stories of redemption and hope and reconciliation that you have seen and been part of in the church.  Help them to see the miracle of church as a mixed bag:  a God-ordained, yet flawed, institution consisting of beloved children of God who are, at the same time, sin-prone human beings.  It's also a great, yet challenging, laboratory for working out salvation, growing the fruits of the spirit, and practicing spiritual disciplines because (ha!) there are so many opportunities to practice things like forgiveness, kindness, self-control, patience, etc. . . . etc. . . . 

So, ask them what they know about "turn off things" that have happened to them or to you, acknowledge those, and then share with them some specific things about church life and your own faith that have been big "turn ons" along the way, including things may have touched them. Tell them the whole truth -- the difficult and the wonderful -- about faith and church, and then trust that God will lead them in life-giving paths.  

How have you navigated the good, bad, and ugly of church life with your children?  Let's talk about it.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. As a PK and now a pastor (and yes, having had my own stepping away from the church time), I can say a few things.

    First - no matter how great a mama and pastor you are, you can't be both mama and pastor to your kids. Even if they feel comfortable and open in talking with you about church issues, or what they are struggling with, it's not the same. Are there any colleagues that might be able to serve that role for your kids? Maybe even in other churches? For your kids in college, they'll be making their own choices about where to go if they choose to go, but you could make some recommendations.

    Second - one of the best things my dad did for us was NOT forcing us to go to Sunday school that was a complete joke and even youth group, which had its own set of issues that I won't get into here. In fact, my sister and I were both waitresses later in high school and college, and often worked on Sundays, missing church completely. I know that he took a lot of flak for our absence and lack of participation, but he shielded us from that, and respected our choices (which we discussed). It sounds like your kids are definitely old enough to be making their own decisions about their level of participation in the church, so encourage them to make decisions based on what feeds them most spiritually, and back them up. Of course they still need guidance in this, but talk to them about it. Let them know that this claim of God on their lives transcends church politics, and while membership and activity in the church is important, that can be lived out in many different ways. Is there a great youth minister at another church that they could connect with? Do they have interest in making that kind of a connection, etc...?

    Third - ultimately it is not up to you to guide them through this transition. It is God who draws us to God, who claims us in the waters of baptism, who calls us into community with each other, and who nurtures us in our life of faith. Pray for them. Pray with them. Maybe write them letters of what your prayers are for them. Then just love them, no matter what.


  2. I entered the ministry when my children were teens, but they had been raised in the church and had already seen the good, the bad and the really, really ugly. In many ways, my own pastorate was an oasis of calm compared to that. We talked a lot about what it meant to be the church in the world, rather than on an ethereal plane, and why we had to engage.

    One of the comparisons that struck true with them was that their dad had served as a high school coach, even coaching one of them, and we all had the experience of sitting in the stands and hearing parents trash him and the players and behave in ways that didn't reflect well on the school or its athletes. Yet we knew he was a good man, devoting his time (and, unbeknownst to almost everyone, donating his salary) because he believed athletics taught important skills and encouraged kids to stay in school. So we never let what was happening in the world damage our relationship with him, and we shouldn't let fellow Christians damage our relationship with God, either.

    One of the really cool aspects of the Emerging Church movement is that young adults have new of making the connection between God and the world, ways we didn't have. Only one of my kids ever sits in the pews of a traditional church (and she, interestingly enough, has chosen one with very traditional worship, although very vibrant and progressive outreach), but all are involved. Without all the structure we've built around "church," they are finding ways to be the church, and that gives me great hope.

  3. My mom is a PK, as (obviously) are her two brothers. They grew up, from the 30s to the 50s, in a parsonage that was a few feet from the church, and she occasionally shared stories about the sense of "living in a fishbowl," being under constant scrutiny, and knowing that family supper could be -- and many were -- summarily interrupted by parishioners who needed to talk.

    But Mom also told two great stories about how their father clawed back a little bit of dignity and privacy for his family:

    (1) My uncle, like many of us in the family, suffers from a skin condition that can sometimes be severe, painful and highly visible. When he was a boy, a lady came up to him, pointed at his inflamed skin, then turned to his father and said, "What ... is ... that?" My grandfather looked down at the boy, thought for a moment, then looked at the woman and said, "Leprosy." End of discussion.

    (2) Their annual family vacation -- a long car trip to national parks or far off relatives -- was off limits. When people would ask him where he was going on vacation, my grandfather would point and say, "West."

  4. I didn't chime in since mine is only 7, but for what it's worth I try to be really clear that I am going to work, not church. Monday night meetings and a Saturday wedding are work. Obviously Sunday mornings get a bit blurry. I have been known to tell him I'll see him at church, but the reason why I have to leave so early is because I'm going to work.

    For what it's worth

  5. My children were all in their 20s when I was ordained, but when in their growing up years we lived in a highly volatile parish that eventually split in two, with half going off to other churches. They certainly saw the ugly side of church life then, and I haven't experienced anything as bad since. However, since being ordained (different country, different people) they have seen an even uglier side of church life -- church politics and power plays among the clergy. It has been a difficult and disillusioning time for all of us, but, though they live elsewhere, they are all still church goers and we have all come to understand that the church is made up of sinners. As one fellow priest said to me, "God works, despite the church."

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, it doesn't harm children to realise that the church is not perfect. They will have to face that sooner or later and, just as with other things in life, if they face it in their early years with you there to support them and love them through it, it may help them come to a balance which, on their own in the "big bad world" may be far more difficult. Because the ugliness is there and even if you protect them from it now, they will have to face it later.

    I believe that if they see that our faith is secure, despite the knocks and bruises; that God is faithful even if people aren't, then hopefully their focus will be on that loving God rather than on the people who make up God's church. If they see you living your faith, that will speak volumes.

    Hope this makes sense . . .

  6. I'm also a PK turned pastor. (There was something in the water, I guess...) Growing up, my dad pastored in a really rough church-- and over the years, I saw it suck his soul dry at various places. What was hardest for me was not really understanding what was going on, because he was trying to shield me. I'm grateful that he tried to protect me, but I could never be shielded enough to not know that something was terribly amiss. I guess I've always understood the church as a place for broken people-- and that broken people sometimes act in less than lovely ways. For me, it might have been helpful to have dad talk more about what was going on, which might have allowed me to more clearly see God working through the church, through those angry people, and through my dad. I don't have children yet, but when I do, I wonder if it might be a place to invite them into prayer not only for me but for the church. I guess, though, that depends on what the kid is like!
    I will ditto everything Stephanie said above-- especially about not being able to also be their pastor. I'm grateful that my dad was my dad, and that he helped me find another youth group at a neighboring church where I could be a real person, not just the preacher's kid. I had plenty of people that pastored me, which I guess worked out ok, as nothing managed to scare me out of the ministry. But, having grown up in that way, I think God has a special place for PK's-- even as I was struggling with the church, I had a very deep sense of being held in the palm of God's hand, and knowing that even when the church was being downright nasty, that God held my dad too. As a pastor now, I'm deeply grateful for the ways I saw my dad care so deeply, even to people who were so ugly to him-- that's perhaps the place where I learned what it was to truly be a Christian. It's definitely not always easy, but in my own church when things and people seem to have turned sour, I try very hard to remember his example for me--and let the love of Christ shine through me even when I'm hurt. I hope that if I have children, I will be able to be that role model for them too.

  7. My three were between 10 and 18 when I started theological college, and I think the happiness I felt in my seven years there (very part-time, out of necessity) made an impression on them. I did my curacy in a very healthy parish (not, of course, the one they had grown up in), and my youngest was blessed to be welcomed into that parish by the Rector's daughter, who greeted her with, "Oh, thank goodness, another PK to share the load. Here's what you do: whatever they say to you, smile, nod, and back toward the door."
    In the parish where, eventually, I was Rector, they were to some extent my 'claque' and I was mighty glad they were was interesting --shall we say-- to observe the efforts of some in the congregation to invent strife and bad feeling between us when they couldn't actually discover or foment it.
    But that said, they developed their own friendships with parishioners--two of three married members of the parish, indeed--and they remain active and committed, for which I am very grateful.


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