Ashley Emmert on Blessings and Boundaries for Raising Children in Ministry

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

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.”

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Source: Christianity Today