Steve L. Woodworth: in a Father-Deprived Society, Pastors Can Fill That Role

My closest friend is an Anglican priest. When he travels and speaks, he wears a clerical collar. When he celebrates the Eucharist and delivers homilies, he wears a robe. My wardrobe is a little different. I am a Presbyterian pastor who throws on a hoodie when I travel. I’ll wear a suit jacket when I preach, if I am asked to. My friend and I have grown to respect, and even cherish, the differences in our particular styles of ministry. Still, one of those distinctions has always left me feeling a bit envious: people refer to him as “Father.”

When someone mentions the title “father” in a religious context, it often brings to mind only Catholic or Anglican priests. I think that’s unfortunate. The title was used for clergy throughout centuries of church history. It became one of the casualties of the Reformation, when reactions to the papacy forfeited many aspects of ecclesiology worth saving. Beyond this history, I realize there are additional obstacles that have made the title “father” tough to swallow for many. Perhaps chief among them is the growing number of ordained women in the church today who, justifiably, view the use of the title as a step backwards. I’m not arguing against female ordination. Whether it’s “mother” or “father” (or whether we use those terms at all) I long to see us recapture a vision of the pastor as a familial role. We are called to nurture God’s family. I believe that a return to an understanding of pastoral ministry as spiritual parenting is exactly what the church needs today.

I can trace my own interest in this topic back to middle school when I started attending a small Baptist church along the rocky coast of New England. That is where I met Mark, a young father and volunteer for our youth program. Mark entered my confused world amidst the kind of hypocrisy and rebellion that tends to mark many insecure teens from broken homes. On summer camping trips and youth retreats, Mark taught me about the beauty of a community that functioned as a surrogate family. He walked me through the death of my stepfather, my struggles with alcohol, the remarriages of my parents, and the gaping hole left in my heart by a father I never really knew. He taught me the value of work, the wonders of God’s creation, and the power of a person who will never give up on you. He helped me understand how desperately I wanted a dad.

Mark’s dedication to my young soul left an indelible impression on my life. Eventually it helped unveil my own desire to enter ministry. My calling led me to serve within the academy where I was given a front-row seat into the lives of students who consistently share heartbreaking tales about the destruction many fathers have left in their wake. I think of students like the young woman who sat sobbing in my office during her premarital counseling, sharing the sordid story of her relationship with her father, and her refusal to allow him walk her down the aisle. Or the young man who still remembers vividly the day his father walked out the front door and told him coldly, “You are the man of the house now.” I heard stories of abuse, abandonment, neglect, and indifference.

Still today many people find their way to my office, burdened by fractured relationships with their own earthly fathers. Many come seeking wholeness and healing, looking for answers to daunting and difficult questions. They are people walking through life with what psychologists refer to as “the father wound.” They are men and women like my friend who told me with tear-streaked cheeks about attaching a note to his father’s bottle of bourbon: “Daddy, please stop.”

Often they are now parents who find themselves unable to break the generational cycles of sin. They come to us looking for the fathers they never had to give them wisdom, advice, and empathy. Ultimately, they’re looking for reconciliation with the one who created them, the one who calls himself Father. Our role as pastors is to embody the promises of the God who is in the business of adopting orphans. I’m convinced a growing number of people are searching for God but need healthy models of parenthood in order to understand God as their Father. They need spiritual fathers and mothers willing to embody the high ideals that God originally intended for these terms to hold.

As church leaders, the titles we embrace have far-reaching implications for the communities we lead. Minister, Reverend, Pastor, Leader, Director, Teacher, or Visionary— each moniker brings with it a myriad of expectations and practices that shape the focus of each congregation and its parishioners. They represent more than a job description or a point on an organizational chart. They shape attitudes. They communicate purpose.

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Source: Christianity Today