Prodigal in the Parsonage
By Judi Braddy
Is there anything more devastating for a minister who is setting out to win the world than to find that he is losing his own children? What a paradox. Here he is, the spiritual quarterback, running the ball down to the end zone while his kids are tearing down the goal posts and burning them in protest before the crowd. While fledglings in the faith may make a wrong play here or there, the pastor is expected to strategize and call the spiritual shots.
At the first sign of trouble, questions become silent specters that haunt our thoughts and prayers. How can this possibly be happening? We’ve tried to do everything right. Where did we go wrong? Even more frightening is hearing these same questions echoed from the pews.
This is a familiar scenario for my husband, Jim, and me. As ministers and the parents of an adult prodigal son, we understand firsthand the dilemma a pastor faces when he is caught between the church and his family, and the issues that must be resolved if he is to balance both without losing either.
For us, this devastating drama began nearly 20 years ago. The first sign of trouble appeared soon after we accepted the call to pastor a new church — one with great potential, but limited resources. This meant our children would need to be taken out of Christian school and placed back into public schools. For our two elementary-age boys it was not a drastic change. But our oldest son, who had just turned 13 and entered 8th grade, was thrust into adolescent crisis. At first we hoped that this trauma was temporary. After all, our boys had weathered many previous ministry moves. Our son had adjusted before. He would adjust again.
He did not.
For reasons we may never fully understand, his unhappiness escalated into a rebellion of unparalleled proportions. During the months ahead we trudged into frightening and unfamiliar territory as our son’s anger and frustration turned inward. Soon our entire family was involved in his struggles. With no warning signs posted, we entered a dark tunnel of hurt and pain that would soon send us careening down a long road strewn with the wreckage of his poor choices along with the resulting consequences. It was an unexpected journey and one we could never have been prepared for. Our journey, we discovered, parallels that of many other ministry families.
Sadly, many Christians today are experiencing the pain of having a child or close relative walk away from faith. Can there be any doubt that the enemy is targeting both children and parents? Yet in this spiritual conflict, it is vitally important to God’s kingdom that we do not succumb to discouragement and defeat, that we remain faithful to our calling and our families.
Thankfully, through the years we have come to see God’s greater purpose in the pain. It has become our mission to share these practical perspectives on how the challenges of having a prodigal child can affect ministry issues. But more so, to share the ways our lives, families, and ministries can be enriched if we stay the course and apply the lessons.
Yet, learning God’s greater purpose was not without some dark times of personal doubt and despair.
Fighting The Feelings Of Failure
Without question, the initial reaction common to pastors whose children reject the faith is that of utter personal failure. Many see resignation as the only honorable way out. There is just one small problem.
Where does a pastor go to resign? He can hand the church board a piece of official stationery indicating his intentions but, even though they invited him to this place of ministry, they did not issue his divine commission. That came from God whose “gifts and call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). A pastor may leave the church but he cannot just walk away from a lifetime calling.
Resigning may remove a pastor from the immediate pressures and embarrassment of his situation, but it does not eliminate the problem. It may even start a new cycle of guilt, frustration, and failure. The last thing parents need when their children are facing an identity crisis is one of their own. The assurance that we remain in God’s will provides shelter when everything else comes crashing down around us.
So, what should a pastor do when it becomes apparent that problems in the parsonage are not going away? There are too many variables for a one-size-fits-all answer. I can suggest that through the years we have seen many ministers give up too soon and lose their church, future ministry, family, and in extreme cases, their relationship with the Lord. That should never happen.
Remember, there is no more perfect pastor/parent than God. Yet, even with everything going for them, it did not take long for His firstborns to tumble into trouble. Like many preachers’ kids, their turning from God boiled down to an identity problem that resulted in rebellion and some severe consequences. And, they also had some unsolicited support from a deceitful snake.
Remember, too, we are not the only shepherds struggling to save the home pasture. We must lay aside comparisons and critical thinking if we are to help ourselves and encourage each other.
God has called pastors for a purpose. Never doubt it for a moment. We must believe that, no matter how the present circumstances appear. More is happening in heaven than we can possibly know. Even so, we will continue to struggle with earthly emotions.
Riding The Roller Coaster Of Emotions
Ministers are called on to do difficult things, such as comforting those going through a life-threatening illness or death of a loved one. Through this process, most pastors have become familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, guilt, depression, and acceptance.
Dealing with a prodigal child can run that same gamut of emotions. Just like sickness or death, parents are grieving due to a frightening change, a devastating separation, and a real loss.
The problem is, ministers are good at hiding their emotions and managing around them. After all, someone has to keep the parish plates spinning. Fearing accusations of spiritual weakness or lack of faith, pastors may do the worst thing: minimize their feelings or suppress them entirely.
To grieve and acknowledge emotions is not a weakness. Nor, in the case of ministers, is it unspiritual. A normal range of emotion is part of the natural process in managing any difficult circumstance. Early in ministry I learned to allow myself to grieve over the frequent pastoral transitions. Otherwise, I could never have fully embraced the next.
Out-of-control emotions can render pastors ineffective and can even become counterproductive to God’s work in our lives and our children’s lives. So, how do we continue to function without being overwhelmed, embittered, or paralyzed by them?
Any student of Scripture knows the answer: It is in translation. We must find a way to translate spiritually what is happening on the most personal and poignant level of our lives to our congregation and others. If we can, we will relate more personally to people than we could behind a pulpit.
But one might say, “I am having a hard time translating this for myself. We must have blown it. Otherwise, we would not be going through this.”
How do you know that?
Many years ago, I wrote two sermon quotes in my Bible that I refer to often: “God shows His confidence in us by the circumstances He sends our way” and “Circumstances do not reveal who we will become as much as they reveal who we already are.” Maybe you do not like the circumstances or the person that has been revealed through them. On the other hand, you may be surprised how well you have weathered the storm. Either way, we learn much about ourselves in the process. And even more about how God sees us. After many years of believing Him, is it not amazing and humbling to realize that He also believes in us?
The big question is: Can we accept the fact God has purposely chosen us for this challenge? Perhaps we resist, thinking acceptance means we have resigned ourselves to our children’s situation. Not at all. From His own Word, we know it is not God’s desire that any, including our precious prodigals, should perish (2 Peter 3:9). He never stops seeking, so we must never stop praying and believing for their safe return. Rather we come to see the situation not as a celestial crisis, but as divine design.
God knows what has happened in our children’s lives and why. Our challenge is to continue believing that God is not only present, but also active in our lives. This confidence frees us to move ahead, committed not only to fulfilling our duty to ministry, but also devoting our lives to God’s heavenly purpose on earth.
To be honest, I prayed for years for divine insight. I analyzed our situation until my brain hurt. I wore a rut (and often found myself in one) backpedaling to where the problem started, only to pump wearily back carrying the same unanswered questions. Have we endured years of pain because we made our son leave a school he liked? Would he have made better choices for his future had we stayed? Or, were there things already in play that we could never have predicted or anticipated?
My conclusion, given the various contributing factors, is there is no single, earthly answer. Dealing with personalities, perceptions, and personal choices is much more complicated than that. We may come to understand some of what has transpired; other factors only eternity will reveal.
Still, the process has to count for something. For us, there is no question that God has been using the circumstances to do much work in our lives. One invaluable lesson we learned is that imperfection should not be seen as failure. Rather, we should accept that to be human is to be imperfect and, with that recognition, admit our great need for God. This realization has kept us humble in our own sight so we could be real before others.
In spite of the personal pain, Jim and I stayed the course in ministry, and it has rewarded us on many levels. It has not been easy. But as we have fought with the enemy for our children and sought God for wisdom, our prayer muscles have been strengthened and we have had to keep our sword sharpened. Not bad qualities for a minister. Our situation has opened doors of ministry, allowing us to touch hearts and lives in ways and places we never imagined.
Here are a few observations from our journey that may encourage you in your own.
Answering To The Community
Having to answer to the community, church, and peers for the negative actions of our wayward children can be hurtful and humiliating. It can also provide incredible opportunities to reach and encourage those we might not have otherwise met. This means, at some point, we must stop worrying about what others think, but instead, seeking what Christ requires in each situation.
Minimizing Collateral Damage
Inevitably, ministers’ kids get caught in the crossfire of church problems and hurtful circumstances. But we can disarm the enemy by taking time to consider our reactions carefully and prayerfully. If the damage is already done, then we can ask God for the words and wisdom to explain the harsh realities of ministry life.
Even then, much depends on the child’s own susceptibility. And the devil knows that.
Putting The Blame Where It Belongs
As the war against rebellion rages, it is imperative to remember that the enemy is not our child, our church, or even those who hurt us, deliberately or not. Our enemy is Satan, the evil accuser, who wants to discourage us from pursuing God and accomplishing His will. We must determine daily to focus our energy on his defeat, armed with weapons divinely designed to demolish his strongholds (Ephesians 6:12–18).
Keeping Heart And Home Together
Home is the stage where real-life dramas play out, but a prodigal’s performance can jeopardize the whole playhouse. Marriages become strained as parents disagree on appropriate discipline. Siblings are torn in their loyalties. Dissimilar ways of handling stress can create a communication chasm. Occasionally, the burden is compounded by unsolicited advice and extenuating circumstances.
As tough as the home turf can become, it pays to keep your children there as long as possible while they are young. Use every minute to make a positive influence, build traditions, and create memories — things that your children will miss enough as they journey down the prodigal path to be drawn back home again. Home, even one with some painful memories, is still the place you hang your heart.
Seeking Wise Counsel
There were times when Jim and I wanted to run away from home. But no matter how frayed our nerves became, we were committed to keeping our marriage and family intact. For us, this meant seeking professional Christian counsel — an area where some ministers struggle for a variety of reasons. Yet, what can be more honest and set a better example than acknowledging our own problems? Otherwise, we only deceive others and ourselves, disastrously delaying the help our families need.
The longer our children wander, the more complicated things become, and the more parents must ask God for special wisdom to know when and how much to intervene. Parents must push through their own personal pain and feelings of rejection. This is no small task. Undoubtedly, some will battle with hurt and anger over what has transpired. Only when we seek God for divine emotional redirection, do we begin to see the promising possibilities of how He will use the pain for our growth and His glory.
Perhaps it will help to consider these encouraging research statistics:
- Faith rejection is more about searching for truth than it is about rejecting it.
- Eighty-six percent of prodigals eventually return to faith.
- Ninety-three percent of current pastors and Christian leaders who went through a fairly or extremely serious faith rejection came back stronger than ever.
It should be no surprise that prodigals make some of the best pastors. Who better to preach firsthand the perils of the pigpen?
Undoubtedly, it is when we are, as my dad used to say, “between a rock and a hard place,” that living is most difficult. Having to determine how we will live with the consequences of our children’s choices and trying to remain encouraged when circumstances are weighing us down, is difficult.
Yet, we know with God’s help all things are possible. It boils down to this, trust Him and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Then, do not be surprised if down the road you find yourself between a rock and a God place.
Our children will always be the most important people in the world to us. We cannot take our earthly possessions to heaven, but we can influence our children to serve God and, thereby, take them to heaven. So, believing that God is already orchestrating the outcome, let’s start supervising the celebration.
Until then, I will let you borrow one of my favorite life verses: “Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).
Coming Next Quarter
In the next issue of Enrichment my article, “Battle Plan,” will focus on the familiar fighting formula in Ephesians 6:12–18 from a “vicar’s-eye” view.