One fear of those familiar with church work is this very topic: that their children will grow up resenting the church and God, instead of loving them. This topic is heavy on a lot of pastor’s wife’s, staff members, and church planter’s hearts because we want our children to love the Lord as much as we do! And sadly, many pastor’s children grow up resenting the church and God instead. It is such a common occurrence that while speaking at a church planter’s retreat recently, my husband and I were approached by some church planters who were worried they would have to sacrifice their kid’s faith because they serve the church. Not so! Being in ministry does not mean your children won’t grow up to love Jesus.
I am thankful--all three of our adult daughters love Jesus and His church. They all grew up with their dad being the Senior Pastor and their mom (me) serving as the Director of the Worship Department. They all would readily tell you today they love Jesus and His church. I definitely don’t think we have all the answers. Every situation and ministry, as well as child, is unique, but I’d like to share our experience and pray it will give you insight and wisdom as you raise your own children.
Just a little background information about my husband and myself: we both grew up in ministry homes. My husband’s dad was a pastor and my father was an evangelist (for you younger gals—that is someone who held revivals and meetings in churches across the country—and if you don’t know what a revival is—look it up!). In their national evangelistic work, my parents felt this very strongly and often said, “Wouldn’t it be sad if we won the rest of the world to Christ, but our own kids didn’t know and love Christ?” So, this phrase was ingrained in the back of my mind and heart as well.
For all of us, we need to keep in mind that our kids are their own people and we can’t force them to make decisions. They have free will. But there are hopefully some things we can do to help them not to resent you serving God. The ideas I am sharing with you are not original--some of the wisdom, guidance, and insight we have gained from our own upbringings, serving in youth ministry, reading many books on parenting, and, most importantly, praying for lots of wisdom.
One of the most important things your kids need to know is that they are more important to you than the church – not God –but the church. There is a difference between the church and God. You want your children to know that God is the most important thing to you, but they need to know that THEY are more important to you than the church where you serve. They are more important to you than all the other people who constantly need you in one way or another. We had to really fight and work at this priority of making our kids feel more important than the hundreds of other people in the church. I am not talking for small things but if our children had a need or a special event, we were there. Otherwise they can’t compete and feel inferior to the 200, 1000, or 6,000 other people you serve.
Making sure your kids know that they don’t have to compete with all those other people is important. How do you do that?
Younger kids need to have a majority of at least one of the parents for the evenings. It gives them security. Dinner time and bedtime are great opportunities to listen, to really know, and to influence your children. Having a baby sitter occasionally is fine for you and your spouse to go on a date. But try to make dinner time and bedtime a priority most the time. We found sometimes it was possible to push a meeting until after their bedtime so brainstorm some ideas for your ministry home. In the Harlow home, it was very rare if Tim or I missed dinner with the family, and one of us was usually home at bedtime. When it was busier times, we tried to stagger meetings so that both of our events didn’t fall on the same night. Your presence and your actions tell your children they are as important as those hundreds of people at church.
As your children grow older and are active in more activities and sports, they still want and need your attention and presence. Often people think just because their child can do most things for themselves, they tend to neglect this important need. High schoolers need your presence for emotional support. It is huge. I tried to be home when my kids got home from school just to be there, listen to them, and find out about their life. I was part-time and it was very important to me to arrange my schedule so that I was home when they got home from school. I remember Lauren and her boyfriend would come in after school and snack at our house. It was a time they would chat and tell me things that went on. It was quite fun, and I loved it! Oh, and I know that son-in-law better today because of that! (They also marry someone they date… that is another talk as well!). School and this world is a tough place, and they need to know they aren’t alone—whether they think they need your or not.
Being present for them and their major activities will take some creativity, flexibility, and organization (I call this being the CFO of your family but that is another talk!). I would spend a couple of hours each August, putting all their concerts, open houses, events, and games on to both Tim and I’s calendars. You can find them on the school websites. Putting these important events into your calendar before your calendars get filled up is key to being successful at prioritizing. Franklin Covey calls this putting your big rocks into your life first.
When our girls were in High School, our church had Saturday night and Sunday morning services. Their high school had dances on Saturday nights which was always preceded by group pictures, which were a big deal, and were taken at one of the kids’ houses. The girls all will tell you their dad never missed the group pictures. I would have scheduled myself off the worship leading calendar and Tim, after preaching, would have another staff member lead communion or close the service for him at that time. But he would always get there for part of picture taking party. This gave our girls the strong message they were important to us. It also set a good example for the other staff to make their family a priority as well.
Lauren, our middle daughter, remembers a time when we all were attending one Becca’s band concerts. Tim had an elder’s meeting the same night but he moved it around so he wouldn’t miss Becca’s part of the concert. Lauren remembers thinking “Wow, Becca didn’t even have any solos. And it wasn’t like it was a very good concert - just a junior high band in a gym!” Again, actions speak louder to your children than words.
It’s important to remember that you are always going to disappoint someone when you are making decisions. Pay attention to how often it is your kids.
As grown-ups, our girls have told us they don’t have memories of disappointments of anything that we didn’t get to do as a family. For example, we didn’t go to the Wisconsin Dells for a weekend or anything for a weekend. None of that affected their childhood. It may be hard to wrestle through what you want to give your kids financially, but what really matters is the relationally rich time you spent with them. Think back on your own life: you aren’t a Christian because you got to play on the traveling baseball team or got to do this or that. Your life was shaped because you got to be with people you cared about that demonstrated the love of Jesus and taught you about Him. Spend your energy on creating relationally rich experiences with your children.
Take advantage of your flexible times and seasons. We may not have done a lot as a family on weekends but during the week, we had the flexibility to get off to go to their unusual events or be involved with their school. Any time the girls had what was called an “early release day” (dismissed at around 11 AM), Tim would take turns taking them out for a one-on-one lunch. Each girl got a turn and got to pick the restaurant. Get creative!
I would try to get involved to help with a class party or field trip at least once a year. No, I wasn’t a super parent but I did what I could. And I always made sure I met their teachers so I knew who they were spending their days with.
Other ways you can get creative are: family movie nights eating pizza, macaroni and cheese night, breakfast for dinner, anything silly that can feel like a family tradition! Our girls have always loved the nights at Christmastime that we would go downtown in Chicago to eat, see all the lights, and view the windows at Marshall Fields! And if you get some perks of tickets to professional games or a gift certificate to a restaurant, make sure your children know who it is from and why they wanted to bless your family.
Sunday afternoon at our house was friend day. They could invite one of their Christian friends to come home with them after church. It gave us the opportunity for us to have a break while the kids played. We took a 30-minute power rest (the girls learned to cooperate and we had a basement) and then were ready to go. This helps your kids strengthen their friendships with the other children from church.
Let your kids in on your relationship with God, that working at the church is not just your job. It takes intentionality. Reading Jesus Calling for Kids together in the morning is one great way. Praying together. You have a relationship with Jesus so whenever the opportunity arises, make sure you talk to your kids about it! Your life should model a love for Jesus, otherwise your children will see the hypocrisy in your life. Guard your own heart and keep it in tune with God’s.
One thing I wish we had done was to have a white board in the house for prayer requests. Sometimes we would stand and hold hands and pray together as a family before school. It would be really cool to have a private prayer board where the family could write down their requests. Oh, and in case you are thinking we are super holy and have our act so together, many times we would be yelling the prayer at them as they ran out the door to catch the bus! Just keeping it real.
Lauren, our middle daughter, shared this bit of advice:
Let your church be THEIR church. To this day, Parkview is my church and not just my parent’s church. I got to invest a lot. Being there was not a punishment. We had a secret spot where we kept our toothbrushes and our hair stuff and a secret spot in the kitchen where we kept our Cocoa Pebbles cereal. This felt like our space and eventually translated into our church and our roles. Figure out how to get your kids volunteering. I started helping with youth group by leading worship. I also started helping in Kids Ministry. I was sad when I went to college and had to let go of those roles. It was my church, too. So, make sure you allow your kids to be a part of the journey. Pray about how to help them feel that way if they don’t.
The parent’s attitude about how they feel about going to church really shapes your children’s view of the church. We, as parents, project and teach a lot by our attitudes. We need to watch how we talk about things at church in front of our children. We do not need them to think everything is easy in the Christian life but we do want them to love Jesus, His church, and serving Him. I remember when we would set up for Vacation Bible School or an Easter service with special props, requiring extra time and work, and whenever we could, we would involve the girls. We would express to them the excitement about how more people might meet Jesus because of it! Having “insider information” made our girls feel special and get excited as well.
Protect your kids from being totally naïve and think church is just a bed of roses. Lauren remembers me saying “working at a church is not easy.” If a family they knew or were close to would leave the church, it would be disappointing to all of us so we talked about it gently as a family. Weigh what you say and how you communicate the negative experiences. It’s important for them to know church isn’t a perfect place to work. This won’t deter them from wanting to be a part of it because it is still Jesus’ church. Ask my girls.
Note: Transcribed, kind of, from our March 21 podcast.