Raising Happy and Healthy Children While in the Ministry
“I love the ministry more than I can say,” Scott, a pastor at a leadership training retreat, told me. “But the fear of what being in the ministry might do to my kids keeps me from enjoying what I love.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“First, I was a PK. I remember hating a lot about that. I felt as though I represented my dad, and his entire ministry rested on my shoulders if I ever did anything wrong. I don’t think I do that to my kids, but I worry they might feel that way. Beyond that, I worry about not having enough time. I feel torn between ministry and family. When one side has what it needs, it seems the other does not. That is the hardest part for me.”
We had a good talk, and my heart went out to him. Even though he was concerned, I was not worried. Having worked with ministry leaders for more than 20 years, I am familiar with these kinds of problems. He was not in danger. He was highly relational. The fact he was concerned puts him in a different camp than most of those who harm their children. His worries, however, are valid. It is good for people in ministry to be vigilant concerning how their children are developing. That raises a question:
What is worth worrying About?
In my experience, that is the right question. When people answer this question correctly, their children usually do well. If they miss it, they can be heading for trouble without even knowing it.
Parents sometimes think because they have good parenting skills there is no danger. But there is. Ministry parents often don’t see this danger because they focus primarily on the spiritual life — hearing the message, learning the belief system, and exhibiting right behavior. While those are important, they must happen in the right kinds of relationships that help a child develop character.
Remember, your relationship with your child is the means for developing his character and belief system. Your child is developing into a person through his relationship with you. How you love, discipline, deal with failure, and equip him provides the ingredients that shape him into who he will be. These daily experiences are the fabric of character development.
The word translated character in the New Testament means experience. What experiences are we providing our children in every interaction? They are taking them in and it is shaping who they are. The internal voices they follow will be the ones they hear from you.
When we think this way, we begin to focus on the nature of the interactions with our children, and on the character structure these interactions are building. This focus will help provide the basic hardwiring in your child — the healthy soil where you can help cultivate values, beliefs, and behavior.
In raising children, it is easy to get the cart before the horse. For example, we might think finishing homework or staying away from bad behavior are key issues — a deal-with-the-problem-of-the-day approach. These issues are important, and become a context for what we do. But sometimes we do not focus on what produces a child who finishes his homework and stays away from destructive behavior. We can fall into the problem of trying to control our children to ensure things go well, instead of raising children who have self-control. This is one the highest biblical virtues. We need to remember that while behavior is important, character produces behavior. Our focus needs to be on character-producing things. Here are some to keep in mind.
Love: Becoming Connected
The first and foremost goal in making sure your child is healthy is to help him become a connecting person. The Bible tells us repeatedly that abiding in love with God and others is the most important issue. Many times I have counseled with troubled ministry families, looking at how the parents and children have failed to connect. Troubled behavior was the result. When we consider the sources of problems with children, we need to first ask: “Where and how is the connection becoming lost?”
Research shows, for example, that having family dinners multiple times a week produces many good benefits. Children whose families eat dinner together are less likely to have drug or tobacco use, promiscuous friends, depression and suicide, and eating disorders. Also, they earn better grades and report overall better mental health. This results from one measure of connection — a family dinner.
This does not mean, however, that every family dinner or other family time makes for great connection. But it suggests that those who connect well do better than those who do not. What ingredients build bonding with your child? Consider these thoughts:
- Connection comes from safety. Listening and making an emotional connection earns you the right to teach and correct your child. A parent needs to focus on what his child is saying and listen actively to him. Empathy is the key to connecting with a child’s heart, so empathize, understand, and encourage your child to speak. Reflect back to your child that you hear him. When he is talking, make sure he feels as though he is the only person in the world.
- Find times and activities that lend themselves to connecting. Take walks together, go fishing or rollerblading. Play a board game or cards. Participate in activities that require you to focus on each other and create good interaction.
- Keep a personal log to track your abiding time. I am astounded when I audit the time I spend with my children. I think I spend time with them because we are together a great deal. But when I look at how much of that time was in the hustle and bustle of going here or there, or in doing activities that did not lend themselves to real emotional connection, it amazes me. I realize that we might have been together many hours on a weekend, but I still needed to have some focused time. I will take one child on a walk so we can enjoy time together. Audit your connecting moments and make sure you have enough every day.
- Do not allow your child to isolate his feelings. Make him tell you what is wrong. When a child unplugs because something is bothering him, do not let not communicating be an option. Encourage your child to talk. But remember, he will not talk if he does not receive empathy and understanding from you, or if he receives a lecture or correction before he tells his story. Once it is out, and your child knows you have heard and understand him, you have opportunity to give input and guidance. Your child needs your input, but he will not hear it until he knows you have heard him.
The more you connect with your children, the more they will develop a character that equips them to connect with others. This will serve them well for life. They will be healthier, less prone to emotional and relational problems, more compassionate, and choose better people to love. It is the foundation of God’s love, the ability to create chashaq, (khaw-shak), a loyal, abiding love. God desires it more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), and they will need it for the rest of their lives.
Discipline: Establishing Boundaries
Boundaries concern one main issue: self-control. Probably 99 percent of ministry parents I have met believe discipline and setting boundaries for their children are important. But many are not doing it even when they think they are. Many parents think they are disciplining their children when, in fact, they are teaching them to be out of control. Usually parents do this through nagging, or repeatedly telling a child to “stop,” or “don’t do that.” They may become angry or upset and give emotional consequences such as guilt for the child’s behavior. Each of those responses, even though they seem to correct behavior, only serves to make it worse.
What works are freedom, choices, and consequences. Give your child the expectation or the rule, allow him to make a choice, and then give appropriate consequences. Do not join a power struggle or become caught up in emotional noise. Do two things: enforce the consequence and empathize. “Oh, Johnny, that is sad. I asked you to not do that, and you did. Now you will need to go to time out for a while. Bummer.” When Johnny becomes upset, empathize: “I know, it’s tough. I feel for you. But maybe being in time out will help you remember the next time I ask you to not do that. Now go.”
The main thing about discipline is to make sure you do not become the problem for the child. His behavior is the problem, not you. If you become upset and escalate, then he will think you are the issue: If I did not have this mean mom or dad, everything would be okay. But, if you stay out of the way and let discipline be between the child, his behavior, and the consequence, he learns he and only he is in control of his quality of life. This is an important spiritual lesson that God gives us every day: Choose life and you will live, choose death and you will die (Romans 8:13). He gives us the freedom to make that choice.
This approach helps prevent the power struggles ministry parents can have with their children. These struggles foster rebellion against the faith or the church. The more you are not the issue — and the more you allow your child, his behavior, and the consequences to be the issue — the less chance your child will rebelliously act out against the over control sometimes confused with God. Do not control. Give freedom, choices, and consequences. Be clear, firm, kind, and consistent.
Forgiveness: Foster Acceptance of Being Less-Than-Perfect
Healthy children develop the ability to live in the tension caused by the coexistence of good and bad. They can have ideals and at the same time be comfortable with their imperfections and failures. They try to be the best they can, but when they fail, they need to know there is grace and forgiveness. They can still accept themselves for who they are. They know it is okay to be imperfect. They do not hate themselves or beat themselves up when they make a mistake.
To learn self-forgiveness, they need to internalize it from you. In raising your children, look at your own comfort level concerning imperfection. To the degree we are perfectionists, black and white, or narcissistic people who are only satisfied when we, or our children, are ideal, our children will become as we are — or break under the pressure. We need to have a biblical self-image. This includes both realities: God created us in His image, and we are fallen sinners who sometimes make mistakes. If parents have learned to accept God’s forgiveness and live in a state of no condemnation, when they fail, they are more likely to pass on that freedom to their children.
The following principles will help your child develop an appreciation and striving for God’s ideals, and an ability to work through failure:
- Tone, tone, tone. The biggest problem is not that you correct your children when they fail. They need correction. The biggest problem is how. If your tone is kind, loving, and firm, you can tell the truth as much as you want. But if it is angry, guilt inducing, heavy-handed, spiritualizing, or shaming, they will have problems. Watch not only what you say, but also how you say it. Calm down and speak with a loving tone, even when telling them they have done something wrong.
- Develop a family culture that admits failure, mistakes, or sins. I have a point system for my children who are ages 6 and 8. When someone does something wrong, if he admits what he did wrong, he earns a point. If he blames someone else, he loses a point. When a child earns 10 points, he receives a reward. I reward my children for ownership and confession. The way out of failure is to become comfortable with being honest and confessing what is wrong, and then solving the problem. We teach our children this when we show them it is normal to fail. Confession and doing better becomes a normal way of life.
- Model confession yourself, and model accepting yourself when you make a mistake. “I did that wrong. That was my mistake. Will you forgive me?” Those messages give your child a good model so he can become as you are and self-correct in the same way — with honesty and kindness to himself.
- Have what-went-well-today and what-was-not-so-good discussions. This helps your child understand that he and life are neither good nor bad, but every day is a combination of both. your child will learn to be comfortable with his strengths and weaknesses.
- Help your child become comfortable discussing his negative feelings and resolving them. Do not let his anger, sadness, failures, or hurt go unexpressed. At the same time, require proper expression of those feelings.
- Laugh when you make a mistake. Develop a culture of practice makes perfect. Make learning fun. If your child reacts to failure harshly or tries to pout or pull away, make him come back, participate, and stop the drama. Make your child face it with you.
- When your child has done something wrong, go through a drill. Ask: “Before you leave time out, tell me what you did wrong. Why are you in time out?” Make sure he can say it, be clear about owning his behavior, and then ask for an apology. When he has apologized to everyone necessary, make sure he knows everyone forgives him.
To equip your child to lose well, fail well, and to keep on going is a great gift. Do that by combining grace and truth, as God does with us. Give your child love and acceptance, and at the same time, honesty about what needs improvement. This way, he will become comfortable in his own identity and not need to be perfect or ideal. If you do this, you prevent many emotional and behavioral problems, and help your child learn how to be successful.
Where Do I Find the Time?
In parenting, time has no substitute. Quality time does not make up for not spending enough time. Your child needs you, but you are busy also. This is the problem. Today, with Internet, cell phones, and PDAs, work and ministry relationships can spill into the evening at home, at the soccer game, and invade each area of your life. In my book, The One-Life Solution, I discuss how time and space boundaries that used to be on our work, no longer exist.1
You used to go to work because there was a location where work took place. You used to be at work for a certain time, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. When you were there, you worked. When you were not there, you were no longer working; work time was past, and you were at home spending time with your family.
Now, work follows you. Work has no time and no space where you cannot be answering e-mail, or talking to someone about a ministry issue. The built-in boundaries are gone. If you do not create your own time and space boundaries around ministry, your family will not have the you that they need. If you do not put that time — in stone — into your schedule, it will not happen. Some urgent need will always interfere.
Treat your family time as you treat your money when you make your budget. You only have so much money, and you only have so much time. As you pay the rent or mortgage first, write your time check to the family first, so you are not using leftover time. There will never be enough time to spend with your family.
Write those checks with your spouse. “Monday night will be family movie night.” Or, “Saturday morning I will take my 13-year-old out to breakfast.” Schedule those events as you would other vital matters, such as a church board meeting. If you do not allow yourself to spend that time for other things that come up, you will follow through with your family.
Also, in The One-Life Solution, I explain the real reason why people do not have enough time: Our own character weaknesses allow various activities to steal our time. We should not allow these activities to have that power over us. We find it difficult to say no to controlling people, to our own guilt messages, or to our own driven natures that cause us to overextend ourselves. Not having enough time, except in times of crises, is usually a character issue. When we find ourselves in patterns in which we are overextended, it is time to become honest and evaluate what character weakness is driving that behavior.
God has not given us a spirit of fear. You do not need to fear your child’s future. His ways will protect our children and us, causing us to prosper (Deuteronomy 6:20–25). Make sure the main things are the main things — love, self-control, and forgiveness. Guard enough time to continually build those things into your children through your relationship with them. If you do that, you can trust that when your children are old, they will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).
1. See Henry Cloud, The One-Life Solution (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
Ten Commandments of Advice for Ministry Parents
Research suggests that growing up in a ministry home has risks and rewards. The rewards include well-developed social skills, opportunities for interaction with spiritual leaders, and resiliency. On the other hand, it is well-documented that ministers’ children are under a microscope and often held to higher standards than other children. Based on God’s commands to Moses, here are some guidelines for the pastor in the role of parent:
- You shall not make your ministry a higher priority than God and your family. Instead, you shall remember that your first call is to be a minister to your family as a spouse and a parent.
- You shall not make idols for yourself. Remember to use things and love people, not the other way around. Model for your children a healthy perspective on material things as well as place a higher value on relationships.
- You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Instead, you shall model for your children a healthy submission to God’s authority and submission to other constituted authorities. Children need to learn that all are under authority. This structure is God’s provision for our guidance and safety.
- You shall keep a day of the week as your day off. This sabbath is a day to rest, refresh, renew, and recreate. Model for your children that the world (and ministry) goes on without you and that a sabbath is a gift of God.
- You shall honor your own parents. This models for your children a healthy intergenerational perspective of care and sacrificial living.
- You shall not murder. In practical ways you shall model for your children how to bless those who curse you, do good to those who despitefully use you and speak well of those who speak ill of you. Furthermore, you shall model a forgiving spirit.
- You shall not commit adultery. You shall model for your children that you are still madly in love with your spouse. This includes loving eye contact and gestures, affirming words, thoughtfulness, and couple time together away from the children.
- You shall not steal. You shall model for your children a spirit of generosity, giving, and serving.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall model the value of building trusting relationships and nurturing several close friendships.
- You shall not covet. You shall model a lifestyle that is devoid of complaint and one that exemplifies contentment with God’s provision.
DONALD A. LICHI, Ph.D., is a psychologist at EMERGE Ministries, Inc. in Akron, Ohio, where he serves on the Clinical Leadership Team. He is also an adjunct professor with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served in the same capacity with Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Ashland Theological Seminary.