I received an email after Easter with the subject line “Too cute and a distraction.” The church member was talking about my toddler son (let’s call him Z), who sat with us during two of our Easter services. I grew up in a sanctuary front row (probably a pastor’s kid thing), and so we also let my son sit in the front row. He stays in engaged the music and speaking when he’s close to the action. And he genuinely seemed to enjoy the services.
I panicked when I saw the email. Was this going to be the shaming that parents of young kids tell me about? No — the body of the email was a delightful observation of how our son engages in the elements of worship (and therefore was more fun to watch than the action on the chancel).
My anxious reaction gave me pause as I thought about what it means to set healthy family boundaries as a pastor. How do I respond to the judgments of church members on my parenting? So far, the judgments have been positive, but hardly deserved. I get many comments on how well-behaved Z is in worship. I have not done anything special to make that happen, except to expose him to those services since he was an infant. What happens if he starts to throw temper tantrums, or becomes a true distraction by wiggling in the pew? What if he struggles as an elementary school kid or teenager? What if he acts out in Sunday school class? And I can think of all kinds of worst-case scenarios that could embarrass me as a pastor and parent.
A church friend has been known to say something like, “I have a good résumé; I don’t need my kids to add to it.” In other words, my value as a person is not based on the behavior or accomplishments of my children. This makes sense to me until I think about the qualifications for elder listed in 1 Timothy and Titus. An overseer “must manage his household well, with all dignity keeping (her) children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will (she) care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4-5, ESV).
Are my qualifications and value as a pastor based on whether Z is distracting in worship? Granted, I don’t want to treat my work as a mother tritely. We do set expectations for Z about how to behave in worship, but not because I’m afraid of what other people will think. I want him to engage well in the community and learn appropriate behavior for different settings. My parenting matters, but to set healthy boundaries, I need to distinguish between my parenting and other people’s opinionsof my parenting.
To other parents out there who are also pastors or on church staff, how do you manage this tension? I’m at the beginning of the parenting journey and am still learning. I’m always up for learning more.
RACHEL YOUNGis the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.