Did you hear the one about the dad (or pastor) who was well rested, settled, knew what he was doing and managed to go one whole day without someone breaking into tears in front of him?
Yeah, me neither.
Ministry is hard. And so is parenting. The two together feel like you’re a parent of a congregation and a child all at the same time. It’s weird to tell someone old enough to be my parent the things I say to my kids on a regular basis.
Let’s play a game. The following are phrases I’ve said in the last year. You tell me if it was me to parishioners or to my kids.
- “You need to actually go talk to the person.”
- “I’m not doing this for you when you can do it yourself.”
- “The cook is not here, we have to do this on our own.”
- “Someone needs to clean this place up.”
- “I’m sorry, but you do need to put actual clothes on.”
If you guessed that all of these are things that I’ve said to both my kids and church people, then you win a free night of babysitting by a church member’s aunt’s son’s girlfriend who is “great with kids.” That’s right: They are all things I’ve said to church people and to my kids… in one form or another. Context matters of course and same phrases were said in very different situations. (Before I get fired, let me remind you that I primarily do youth ministry and sometimes teenagers need a reminder of what constitutes actual clothing — or that it is crucial to change your clothes at least once during a weekend retreat. On the other hand, my kids sometimes need a reminder to put clothes on their bodies before they go outside.)
I suppose that my best intentions as a father are also my best intentions as a pastor: to raise someone kind, compassionate, strong, giving, empowered and loving. Trust me, a 3-year-old will embrace this as much as any church member. Though one of them (or you) will be on the floor crying “I don’t want to!” at some point in this journey.
I’d bet some people are better at separating their role as a parent from their role as a pastor than I am. I don’t keep family and pastoral things separate on social media. My daughter sometimes joins me for the benediction or when I’m praying during worship. Thankfully, I serve a congregation that has had the opportunity to raise a few pastor’s kids in its short life and they are great about giving space when needed, sharing grace when needed and treating my kids like the other kids when needed. Of course, my kids think it’s a little weird that so many people know their names and say hi to them every Sunday, but that’s their normal. We’re also clear with them that they don’t have to hug anyone they don’t want to or act any differently than they do when we are in other social settings. The boundaries are the same at church, school and the playground.
I don’t want to have to separate the two. As pastors, we give all of who we are, probably to a detriment. And parents do the same. All of who I am is all of who I am. I think people are searching for authentic from their pastors these days and I know kids “just want/need their parents to be ‘real.'” It doesn’t get more real than getting puked on in the middle of the night. (Again, I do youth ministry and am a parent.) I don’t care if people see a pastor who gets frustrated with their kids at church sometimes or has to say no to a night meeting because the day just deteriorated and my wife needs some help getting little humans to shut their eyes and “Go to sleep!” (Come to think of it, that’s one more phrase you can add to the previous list.) Of course, you have to know your boundaries and know how to say yes and no appropriately — to everyone: your family and church members.
Me being a parent informs me being a pastor and vice versa. All of our life experiences should inform one another. They should all do a little Trinitarian-like dance that at the end gives us a bigger picture than the sum of the whole.
I can’t change that I’m a dad (nor do I want to). I can’t change that God has called me to this weird profession of being a pastor where every week has “bring your kids to work” day. I’m not going to do either one perfectly, but I will try my best to do them honestly, openly and authentically. But first I need a nap.
PHIL BROWN is associate pastor at Saint Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. His primary responsibility at church is youth ministry, but he also is good at the “and other things needed” clause. His primary responsibility at home is survival. His spouse and he have a 1-year-old human and a 3-year-old human, two dogs, a cat, two turtles, and now five chickens.