Blessings and Boundaries for Raising Kids in Ministry

How can pastors integrate their children into their work without souring them on church?
Blessings and Boundaries for Raising Kids in Ministry
Image: Photo by Ostill / Getty

In an article for Leadership Journal, Lillian Daniel, senior pastor at First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa, wrote, “I can’t go anywhere without seeing a current, former, or potential parishioner. It’s gotten so my teenage children refuse to eat out with me in our city. They don’t like to share my attention with the people I recognize at other tables.”

The always-on nature of ministry can be challenging for pastors, but it also means their children will be exposed to ministry in all parts of life, from the church building to their homes and everywhere in between. To learn more about the relationship between pastors’ kids and their parents’ ministries, I interviewed adult children of pastors, their parents, and pastors who are currently raising kids while in full-time ministry. Through our conversations, I learned that pastors must think carefully about how to invite their kids into their ministry work and when to set up healthy boundaries—at least until they’re older.

The Church Home

Stewart Ruch, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Upper Midwest at the Anglican Church in North America, was already thinking about the relationship between his children and his ministry work when he first become rector of Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois, at age 32. “I went to the vestry and said, ‘I want to give this church 50 hours a week during a five-day workweek. I need to give my family two days a week,’” he said. “They blessed that, so growing up, my kids knew I would be home Friday and Saturday.”

As important as it was for Ruch to draw a clear line between his time at work and at home, he told me it was equally important to include his family in his ministry work whenever possible. “If anything, we’ve erred on the side of having our kids too involved,” he said. “I led meetings wearing a toddler in a front pack. Some of our boomers thought it was irresponsible, but I like the fact that people have always seen me as a pastor and a dad.”

Of course, having your children front-and-center comes with a risk. “Occasionally our kids would misbehave in front of the church,” said Ruch. “It can be tricky. But the way we view our children has influenced our church’s culture.”

Few people know this as well as Steve Williamson, worship and executive pastor at Church of the Resurrection and former pastor’s kid, who is raising his children in the culture Ruch helped cultivate. “My kids beg to be involved in everything,” he said. “They come into the church building an average of three times a week. They assume they run the church with me. They feel special—I don’t need to work hard to give them that feeling.”

According to Williamson, ideally, church should be an extension of a pastor’s family life. “I want my kids’ number-one association with the church to be that, when they’re there, they’re with their community and friends.”

Chap Bettis, church planter and author of The Disciple-Making Parent, told me he loved seeing his children treat the church space as a second home. “The other elders and I were often the last at the church building. That meant our kids got to do things other kids couldn’t, like play around with the sound system. Handing out bulletins, setting up chairs, all the things a church plant involves, they did it.”

Routine service opportunities like these help define the church space as a pastor’s kid’s home and the people of God as their family. “Today my kids have a heart for service,” Bettis said. “They are givers, not takers, by God’s grace. They absorbed a ministry of hospitality.”

Difficult People and Church Conflict

After ministering in several congregations, Greg Coleman, pastor at the West Unity United Methodist Church in Ohio, is no stranger to church conflict. He recalls one congregation that, like many, had seen its share of challenges, congregational decline, and financial difficulties. The few remaining families had become anxious and nervous about change.

Some congregants were particularly problematic, becoming coercive and manipulative in an effort to preserve the church they knew. Coleman suspected they might confront his children, putting them in the middle of the conflict. He said, “My wife and I told the kids, ‘These folks might approach you and ask questions about things going on at church. If they do, tell them they should talk to Dad, and then walk away.’” Coleman and his wife were careful not give the kids any more details about the situation; that way they would not be tempted to give an answer if confronted.

Soon, just as Coleman had suspected, someone cornered one of his young children. “My daughter held the line and did just as we had told her. She said, ‘You’ll have to talk to my dad,’ moved right around the person, and walked away.” By setting early expectations, Coleman prepared his daughter to handle a tough situation that many adults would have a hard time navigating. But he didn’t leave it there. He and his wife didn’t want their kids to start seeing congregants as enemies instead of a church family.

“We tried to validate the church members’ concerns,” Coleman said. “We explained to the kids that the way people were handling it may not have been right, but they were hurting because they had lost people from their church and things were not the way they used to be.” Their family prayed often for the people who were lashing out in anger, teaching the kids that, as Jesus said on the cross, people don’t always know what they’re doing.

What could have been an irrevocably damaging experience ended up being formative for Coleman’s family. “Even though my children were hurt during that conflict, they do not hate the church. We gave them the opportunity to go through that with us, to be more than spectators.”

Not every church exists in such a contentious state, but they all experience conflict. Inevitably, the dark cloud of a combative budget meeting or an angry conversation will follow a pastor back home from the church building. The pastors I spoke with advised caution when discussing these highly sensitive moments.

Williamson does his best to shield his kids at home from sensitive ministry conflicts. “If there’s something intense I need to process with my wife, we try to do that when the kids aren’t around. It would be unfair to burden my kids with keeping things private.”

Bettis agreed. “I was pretty careful when I spoke with my family about my day,” he said. “If I said something negative, I tried to make it high-level and general, balancing it with the joy of serving God’s people.”

But Bettis told me those barriers don’t have to stay in place forever. “I have spoken to the kids more as they’ve entered their 20s—even backfilled a little from when they were teens. The motivation has always been discipleship. Every church and family has problems, and part of a parent’s job is to help children get perspective on that.”

Suffering and Death

“The hardest thing for me as a pastor’s daughter,” said Kristin Padilla, marketing and communications director at Beeson Divinity School, “was hearing negative remarks about my dad. My parents were careful to shield me from that, but sometimes it was inevitable.”

Now she worries her son won’t experience the same blessings she did as a pastor’s kid, especially regarding a surprising area: death.

“I grew up going to the funeral home,” she told me. “I played hide-and-seek in the graveyard behind our church. That exposure meant I wasn’t as shocked by death as people who grew up shielded from it.”

These days, she said, people tend to distance themselves from suffering and death. “We put people away in hospitals and nursing homes, and death comes as a shock. But it was part of my upbringing. Now, I worry for my son. Will he experience death—and therefore life—like I did?”

Hoping to introduce her seven-year-old son to these aspects of her childhood, Padilla took him to visit someone in the hospital. It didn’t go well. “I tried to give him the same experience I had, and he had a meltdown,” she said. “I realized I couldn’t recreate my childhood for him.”

When it comes to pastoral hospital visits, Bettis advised caution in bringing kids along. “I would discourage that,” he said. “With a hospital visit, you don’t know what you’re going to encounter. To bring a child into a hospital room, you assume your child will behave well, the patron will enjoy your child, and there’s nothing serious they want to talk about.”

Coleman, on the other hand, has taken all five of his kids on nursing home and hospital visitations. “If it’s severe, I won’t take them in,” he told me. “But if it’s appropriate, and I have permission from the person I’m visiting, those can be important moments for kids to experience.”

Hospitality in the Home

These days Padilla is coming to terms with the fact that every childhood is different, and there are few hard-and-fast rules for exposing kids to ministry. “My father in law, who is in his late 70s, has lived with us for most of my marriage. We take care of him. Over the last few years, God has shown me this, too, is ministry. I hope my son is seeing how to care for the elderly in a gospel way and how to honor your parents.”

Just as the church can feel like a home to children of pastors, their homes often become places of ministry. “Growing up, having an open home was a blessing,” said Padilla. “People would come in and ministry happened within the home constantly. It shaped me in a positive way.”

It’s this kind of day-in-day-out, in-the-home ministry that she hopes will most impact her son’s life. “We have many opportunities for students from Beeson Divinity School to come into our home, and we’re trying to take as many of those opportunities as possible—for many reasons, but especially for my son.”

Williamson told me that inviting church members into their home is one thing he would advise every pastor to do. “When you open up your home to people,” he said, “it connects the dots for kids: ‘This is Dad’s job, but it is also life.’ It bonds our kids to people at our church, and this bonds them to the church.”

Similarly, for Ruch, radical hospitality is about being intentional, both on a neighborhood and a global level. “We regularly have a global bishop or missionary in our home. We say, ‘Tell us stories of what God is doing in your country.’ After dinner we come into the living room, worship, and pray for that country. My oldest daughter says she’s a third-culture kid, even though she grew up in Wheaton.”

Ministering Together as a Family

Not every pastor will have frequent opportunities to host international guests, but according to Coleman, the home can always be a place of ministry—even when ministry takes the pastor away. “On several occasions,” he said, “we’ve been eating dinner at home, and I’ve gotten a phone call that somebody has been rushed to the hospital. So we pause everything, my family helps gather the stuff I need, and we pray together before I leave.”

Those interruptions don’t make his kids feel detached from his ministry. Actually, they unite the family in common mission. “We don’t think of ourselves as leading separate, detached lives—a pastor, a pastor’s wife, and preacher’s kids,” he said. “We are a pastoral family, and that comes with certain expectations. Ever since the kids were little, I’ve joked that whatever they do is potential sermon material.”

I asked if this caused any resentment in his kids. “Our older kids are becoming more private,” he said. “They don’t get angry about being in the spotlight, but they’re a little disconcerted about the idea that everything’s out there.”

In Coleman’s opinion, increased scrutiny comes with being a pastoral family. “Folks inside and outside the church expect them to be better because they’re pastor’s kids,” he said. But he sees that constant “spotlight” as a ministry opportunity.

“If something we did can defy expectations and help teach others, I’m using it in a sermon,” he said with a grin. “I try to do that with levity and a lot of respect for the kids. For example, I recently preached about how they fight while they do the dishes. They just laughed along because they knew it was true. And it helped relieve the pressure they sometimes feel to be paragons of virtue in front of the church.”

The kids also know that Coleman uses himself as an example just as often, and usually in a self-deprecating way. He wants them to know that no one is perfect—not even Dad. “We live in a fishbowl,” he said. “I don’t want the kids to hide from it. I want them to embrace it. Living as a pastoral family can—and should—be a blessing.”

Ruch echoed Coleman, saying, “I don’t see ministry as my job; it’s a vocational calling, and that’s true for my whole family. We’re a ministry family, and I’m thankful for that.”

Though behind-the-scenes exposure to church life can sometimes be complicated, Ruch says he wouldn’t change much about how he has raised his six children. “My adult kids would say that 80 percent of their involvement in the church was positive,” he said. “About 20 percent was negative. They have been very committed, but they have had to bear more pressure. I would rather kids deal with pressure than disconnection.”

Williamson believes it all starts with discipling your children. “My wife and I do our best to make sure our kids know how much we love the Lord, how much we love the church, and how much we love them. We do what we can to connect those realities. If your goal is to integrate your kids into the life of the church, it needs to get a little messy sometimes, but it’s worth it.”

Ashley Emmert is a writer and editor living in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

October

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