Walking the Prodigal Path

As pastors and parents of children who strayed from the faith and fold, four ministry couples admit their common ground was pain, but their hope is in sharing how they found resolution.

Listen to the audio transcript of this interview. (MP3)

All it took was one question: “How has having a prodigal child affected your marriage and ministry?” It seemed someone had pulled a giant plug, draining the cheerful chatter from the room. Now there was silence; no one wanted to speak first. Yet this was the very question four couples had gathered to discuss. Even though it meant allowing painful memories to surface once more, our collective hope was to toss a lifeline to others now treading those same unknown waters.

Ranging in age from mid-forties to early sixties, we represented different backgrounds and situations. John and Jennifer, the youngest couple, serve in a fairly new pastoral position and are still raising children. Ken and Brenda are senior pastors who formerly served as missionaries to Indonesia. Larry and Hilda raised two biological sons while pastoring and took in more than 30 foster children. Following more than 25 years in pastoral ministry, my husband Jim and I have served the last 15 years as district denominational executives.

Like age and appearance, our stories also vary. Yet as pastors and parents of children who have strayed from the faith and fold, all have sad similarities. Even though our common ground is pain, our hope was to share how we found resolution.

How It All Began

I opened our session by asking that each couple relate where they were in ministry when their problems with their prodigal began. Taking a breath, John and Jennifer spoke first.

“We had just opened a new church and were conducting home groups. To be honest, we had anticipated that our oldest son might eventually exhibit behavioral problems stemming from a 5-year period of early childhood abuse by an extended family member.”

Sadly, John and Jennifer became aware of this abuse after the fact. Because the abuser was underage, the revelation resulted in a hurtful and emotional legal battle to determine his penalty. This drove a wedge in the extended family and brought even more as-yet-unknown negatives to light. By the time their son reached junior high and puberty, the real ramifications of what had happened caused his emotions to suddenly explode. It started with anger and defiance at home, and John and Jennifer soon discovered he was stealing and selling drugs. For the next 8 years his struggle turned their lives upside down.

In Larry and Hilda’s case, it was not their biological children who created chaos, but a darling foster daughter for whom they became legal guardians. They had been pastoring a new church for only 1 year when the turmoil started that would span their entire 18-year tenure.

The problems with Ken and Brenda’s son started with troublesome bouts of misbehavior when he was 14. At first, they considered it normal teenage turbulence. They, too, were pastoring, with one difference: theirs was a temporary assignment to satisfy requirements toward becoming missionaries. Immersed in itineration, they never suspected how their son’s problems were simmering. Nor could they know then that their prodigal path would cover 25 years of increasingly rough terrain.

As for Jim and me, we have elaborated our oldest son’s situation my book Prodigal in the Parsonage: Encouragement for Ministry Leaders Whose Child Rejects Faith. Following the Lord’s undeniable leading, we had just moved from one city to another, leaving a staff position at a large church to serve as pastors of a smaller congregation. Our son had just turned 13. For reasons still unclear, the move caused some latent insecurity to emerge, thrusting him into a rebellion of unimagined proportions, lasting more than 20 years.

All four couples agreed. Each was completely caught off-guard by what developed. But develop it did. Soon our situations were becoming plain to those in the pews.

To Hide or Not To Hide

When problems with children arise, parents’ natural tendency is to keep them concealed. We want to protect them; yet we, too, need time to process what is happening. Floundering with feelings of failure and humiliation, we fear what may happen when others find out. Sometimes you have no alternative.

“Our son’s outward appearance made his lifestyle impossible to ignore,” Jim interjected.

Looking for a place to belong, our son had almost immediately joined a group of unchurched teens from school. To his credit, he brought many of them to church, mainly because we required that he attend while he was living at home. Our consolation was that many of his friends heard the gospel. Our concern was how the congregation was processing these teens with spiked hair, leather, and tattoos. Outwardly, most were friendly and hospitable. Then our son shaved his head because he joined a group called skinheads. Any further pretense was pointless. “What were we going to do,” Jim laughed, “make him wear a wig?”

Jim decided to tackle the truth before it became an issue. He explained to the church board and offered his resignation. We are eternally grateful that they declined, committing to prayerfully support us instead.

Ken and Brenda were dealing with a different kind of board — the world missions board of their denomination. Not wanting the board to disqualify him, Ken felt it best to keep their son’s struggles quiet, praying that once they were on the mission field things would smooth out.

When they arrived overseas and observed how other cultures deal with drug issues, they suddenly realized the seriousness of their son’s situation. In that part of the world, these crimes were punishable by death.

“Fear finally overrode embarrassment,” Ken states. “I knew we needed help.”

Even so, after they returned from the mission field and became pastors again, Ken was determined to preserve their ministry and protect their son’s privacy. Only when he saw that many in their congregation were going through similar problems did he finally embrace openness. It took Brenda a little longer.

“I still felt just the opposite,” she admitted. “Given the choice, I didn’t want anyone to know.”

Eventually, she learned how helpful and supportive people who loved them could be. This was especially apparent when their son joined the military. The congregation rallied behind Ken and Brenda, praying for him in his absence.

Being secretive was not an option for Larry and Hilda.

“At one summer camp, some ladies in our church had already noticed the problem our daughter had with lying,” Hilda said.

John and Jennifer also opted for the open-book philosophy, noting that having meetings in their home made it obvious.

John agreed, “It would have been harder to try to hide it.”

Nevertheless, while those close to them knew more of the personal details, John and Jennifer did not make those on the edges privy to any more information than necessary.

The group’s common consensus, in fact, was the importance of using wisdom in how much they shared, when and to whom. More than personal embarrassment, they did not want others to become discouraged.

The people in the pews were not the only ones who needed encouragement. Some of our peers in the ministry needed encouragement as well. I related Jim’s first invitation to do a breakout session on parenting a prodigal at a ministry conference. Not expecting many to attend, he was shocked to enter a room full of clerical colleagues. Hearing our story helped others find courage to process their pain as well. This also affirmed my future decision to write a book on the subject.

Truth and Consequences

We have personal perceptions of how others may react to our prodigal problems. Sometimes it is better than expected, sometimes worse.

“Most of our daughter’s acting out took place at home,” said Larry, “so the congregation was not really involved. When they did see things, they seemed to take it in stride.”

John and Jennifer faced mixed reactions.

“Some people felt bad, almost apologetic, for what was happening to us,” Jennifer remembered. “I know many prayed for us.

Some also left the church.

“They simply couldn’t understand why we had to place our son in a rehabilitation program.” As Jennifer spoke, fresh pain permeated her words.

John described it as the perfect storm — meaning that the storm struck from several sides simultaneously. As mentioned, they were planting a new church when their son’s struggle started. Their home church, where John had served for 18 years, committed to help them both financially and physically. Unfortunately it ended up pulling back because of infrastructural problems.

“In the end, the greatest support came from those on the district level,” John reflected. Following their wise collective counsel, John and Jennifer decided to close the church, help their fledgling congregation find other churches, and then go back to their home church.

Following a year off from ministry, the next church they pastored had its own unfortunate history of problems. Combined with everything else, it was almost too hard to handle. Describing the pressure this put on their personal relationship, John admitted feeling like they were living dual lives — one at home, a different one at church.

At times, we wonder how much better we might have handled things if not for the outside pressures. Sometimes, we were grasping for straws. This is more evident when it concerns the myriad opinions about how best to discipline.

Deciding How To Discipline

Like generations of parents before us, we did our best to discipline, often trying to follow our parents’ model. The problem is that we were dealing with difficulties our parents never imagined — drugs, blatant promiscuity, lack of respect — not to mention today’s liberal media influence. What worked for them did not always work for us. No wonder we were floundering, even arguing about ways to discipline.

In John and Jennifer’s upbringing, two different dichotomies came into play. John’s dad ruled the home and was a harsh disciplinarian while teenage hippies raised Jennifer.

Muddling matters even more are the current politically correct limitations on what kind of discipline parents of a juvenile can legally employ. When dealing with downright defiance, having to take a hands-off approach leaves parents feeling helpless to control their child’s actions. Surely many can relate to Jennifer’s lament that this resulted in countless sleepless nights.

“His actions finally caught up with him,” she said with sad resignation, “and he ended up in juvenile hall. We’re just fortunate he didn’t hurt anyone else.”

This creates another frustration because the law still holds parents of underage kids responsible for their actions.

Regarding discipline, Larry and Hilda faced even more restrictions. As legal guardians, the state and county absolutely dictated how they were to handle conflicts.

“I had to step back because of the male issue,” Larry explained. Hilda had to be the main disciplinarian. The rigid rules meant either talking or removing privileges.

“Hilda did a great job. I simply tried to be supportive,” stated Larry.

They both admit it was hard and caused a great deal of stress for the entire household.

Pressure on Personal Relationships

“There’s no doubt that a prodigal’s actions set the emotional tone in the home,” said Jennifer. “Our younger children understood clearly what was going on and sensed the tension. This only added to the trauma and drama. Every time he walked in the door, the unspoken question was: What is going to happen?

As a result, siblings often became chameleons, blending in just to keep the peace. At times, they would create distractions to take the focus off the prodigal — anything to avoid the conflict and stress. Sadly, these same siblings missed many activities because of the time and money spent in counseling and program placement.

Even though Jim and I determined not to let our prodigal be the focus, his actions inevitably demanded everyone’s attention. Sometimes we felt the situation held our family hostage in our own home.

“You hesitate to put more stress or guilt on the prodigal,” said Jennifer, “but you still wish they’d take responsibility for how their actions affect others.”

Unfortunately, until they repent, few prodigals ever come to terms with the time they have taken or the emotional duress they have inflicted on others.

“This is my life,” our son often said. “It’s not about you or anyone else.”

Yet the consequences of a prodigal’s choices have an unending ripple effect on others, especially those closest to him.

The chaos can affect the extended family. Equally as painful to John and Jennifer were Christian family members who suggested that they needed to resign the church because their house was not in order. To Jennifer, whose parents did not raise her in church, their reaction was not as Christlike as she had expected. This unnerved her, caused her to withdraw, isolate herself, and eventually she suffered a season of depression. Who can I turn to, she thought, if not them?

Added to this were outside pressures. More than one would-be comforter told us, “Put his bags on the doorstep and tell him not to come back until he straightens out.”

Comparing ourselves with our peers also added to the pressure. Most of us know pastors with seemingly perfect children who are attractive, well-groomed, and win every contest. It is hard not to look at them and wonder what happened to your own child.

Managing the Meltdowns

In a prodigal pressure cooker, emotions eventually boil over. The tension affects your personal relationships — arguing, finger pointing, and laying the blame. From anger to compassion, the range of emotions we each experience varies drastically, as do our reactions. If we are not deliberate in our decisions, it can drive a dangerous wedge between husband and wife.

Brenda commented on how common it is for each person to look at the situation from a different angle. “For instance, because I was in denial for a long time, I couldn’t understand why my husband got so angry.”

“That sometimes made me feel she wasn’t being supportive,” replied Ken. “Looking back, I am sorry. I realize I wasn’t always sensitive to her feelings.”

He also regrets acting one way in front of the congregation and another at home. “Our actions should be consistent.”

“Somehow, though,” Brenda interjected, “we always managed to agree on important decisions.”

For Jim and me, it resembled a tag team sport where one parent picked up when the other became tired. Finally, we had to make a conscious decision to preserve our marriage above all else.

As Jim put it, “We were husband and wife before we were mother and father.” We made sure our children understood that nothing would destroy our commitment to God and each other. Like Ken and Brenda, when it involved important decisions, we determined to act as one.

It is hard when you feel torn between love for each other, your child, and the church. Nevertheless, when your child no longer shares or understands your commitment and makes choices contrary, even destructive to it, you must ask: “If we allow our child’s choices to destroy our marriage, ministry, and family, what will be left?”

Even under the best circumstances, teens are smart and will play both ends against the middle. Eventually, those kids will move out. Then, some couples struggle because their lives so revolved around their children that nothing is left. Couples must find time to get away, renew their relationship, and allow a change of scenery to bring a new perspective, especially if they sense their marriage or ministry — or both — is in danger of disintegrating.

“That’s why we took a year off from ministry,” John said, “and went back to our home church.”

With all that had happened in such a short time, they needed space to process it. During this time, they sent their son to a Christian program in Colorado.

“One of my biggest struggles,” John reflected, “was feeling that to be congruent in ministry, you must be able to process forgiveness in your own life. Otherwise you feel you’re living a lie.”

Admittedly, this took a while for him to sort out. At one point, he even considered relinquishing his ministerial credentials. Finally, through conversations with other ministry mentors, he managed to get a handle on it and did not feel so guilty.

“Only then could we truly chill out,” John said.

Even so, he wondered if he would ever go back into ministry.

Conversely, Larry and Hilda were able to stay active in ministry while dealing with their daughter’s issues. They credit openness and good communication for keeping it from becoming a real conflict in their marriage and ministry.

“Actually,” Hilda emphasized, “it was a strengthening time.”

It would seem there is wisdom in both scenarios. A wise and courageous person realizes when he must step back and give himself time to properly process what is happening, to ensure both his marriage and ministry are preserved. The hard decision is whether a person can do that in the context of ministry. To be honest, much depends on one’s ability to support himself financially in the interim.

Often God intervenes. In our situation, God knew if we were to heal emotionally, we would need to move. At a critical point in our prodigal parable, a new church several hours away called us. This time our son opted to stay behind.

When To Consider Counseling

Talk to a trusted mentor in ministry or a professional counselor when the situation is not getting better, is becoming all-consuming, or you are no longer coping. Seek counseling when the situation begins to affect you emotionally — perhaps even physically — putting not only your marriage and ministry at risk, but your health and well-being also.

Though neither was in jeopardy for Hilda and Larry, they still chose to meet with a licensed marriage and family counselor. Admittedly, the issues did not all disappear, but counseling helped everyone cope.

Choose a counselor carefully. Ensure he or she is a good match for your family. Jim laughed, remembering one counselor who fell asleep during our session.

“That really impressed our son.” Jim said. “Still, when in crisis, do not try to figure it out alone or let a bad experience keep you from seeking professional counsel.”

Why? It is impossible to extract ourselves from the swirl of emotions. During our difficulties, we had an understanding board and congregation. Still, we needed someone who could be dispassionate and objective, someone who would not judge or make comparisons like another pastor might.

Jim admits he doesn’t remember much of the advice, but he does remember how good it felt to unload the burden on someone.

I concurred, recalling a few times when the entire family could not keep a counseling appointment and I went alone. Perhaps it sounds selfish, but I benefited more when I did not share the counselor’s time with others, because I could address specific personal needs. I left with a more positive perspective. This ultimately benefited my entire family.

Adding It All Up

As varied as our situations are, the current circumstances of each prodigal represented varies as well. One prodigal has finally come home; three are still on the journey. Even as we pray for restoration, each of us recognizes how much we have learned. Looking back, our panel offered the following encouragement.

John and Jennifer’s son is now 18 and has been in and out of juvenile hall. Released again recently, he is living in a near-by state with a close friend of John’s who he describes as an angel in disguise. This friend also did time as a young man, but has been clean and sober for more than 28 years. “Our son can’t pull anything over on him,” John said, laughing.

It seems true. Since he has been there, their son has earned his high school diploma and is now an apprentice in a carpenters union. John and Jennifer believe his life has taken a turn and that God has him in a place where he will finally make much-needed spiritual changes.

John’s advice to ministry parents is to keep serving God no matter what happens. “The biblical prodigal came home to an industrious household,” he says. “His father was still going about his work, not victimized by his son’s choices.

“It’s easy to feel like giving up when we’re in pain, especially as pastors who point others to the Cross. What happens when we can’t see it ourselves? In dark moments, we may falter. God reminded me that it was dark when His Son died, too, but it wasn’t the end.”

John realized how God understands our times of discouragement. That is what kept him going.

Jennifer emphasized the importance of finding two or three people with whom you have built a relationship, whom you can talk with about your situation.

“The worst thing we can do,” she related from experience, “is isolate ourselves and break off communication. Consistently debrief, even if it means seeking professional help.”

She adds a word of caution: “Don’t force your situation on those who are too weak spiritually or emotionally to handle it. Not everyone knows how to respond when those they love are in pain.”

“Even as pastors,” Larry elaborated, “we don’t have all the answers. That’s why it’s important to seek those who can pull the curtain back a little farther and help us see.”

Their daughter is now living independently, making her own choices. Hilda knows she will never forget the special spiritual moments in her life — times when people prayed for her and youth conventions when she went to the altar.

“Looking back,” Hilda stated, “she’ll remember.”

Those bright moments serve as lights to lead our children home. “Train a child in the way he should go,” Proverbs 22:6 reminds us, “and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

I have come to understand this as a two-partner principle. Our part is to train; the rest belongs to God. He alone can bring it to their remembrance.

Jim and I, too, still pray for our son’s safe return to the fold. He has made significant progress over the years, but unfortunately continues to live with the consequences of his many poor choices. Like many parents, we pray daily that he will soon surrender his will and ways to the Lord.

Ken and Brenda also walked many miles down the prodigal path while their son nearly destroyed himself with drugs. At the end, he wrecked two cars, almost killing himself.

Attempting yet another intervention, Ken and Brenda went to his house. This time, to their great joy, he responded tearfully and positively, accepted the Lord, and agreed to go to Teen Challenge for rehabilitation.

Four months later, Teen Challenge allowed them to see him. Their son related how the desire for drugs and alcohol left him when he walked through the Teen Challenge doors. Not long after, the Holy Spirit filled Him and transformed his life.

Now, 3 years out of Teen Challenge and 39 years old, he will soon be a church board member. He is a walking miracle.

Ken reminded us that practically every Old Testament character had a prodigal to deal with. “In fact, God’s own first kids were prodigals. So pastors should not wonder why they are not exempt.”

The good news is that we know God’s promises better than anyone.

“Never lose hope,” Brenda added. “God knows best and uses situations we don’t understand. No matter how hard or unpleasant, only God knows the future and what our children must go through to get where they need to be. God is still in control even if it doesn’t look that way to us.”

Their son is now an encouraging example for others to keep trusting and believing God for the best outcome. More is happening in the heavenly realm than we can possibly see or know.

To that end, I shared my life verse, 2 Timothy 1:12: “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.”

The last word, after all, is always God’s.