The Pastor and the Family

John Frye, who writes this weekly column, From the Shepherd’s Nook, begins a promising series on the pastor and the family.

The Pastor’s Family: Part 1

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This noted opening sentence from Leo Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina, sets the frame for the next few posts on the pastor’s family.  I like Tolstoy’s observation because it points to the particularity of families. In his massive novel (aren’t all Russian novels massive?), Tolstoy probes the complexities in families who are processing happiness and unhappiness.

Because the pastor’s family is one among many families making up a particular congregation, the interplay, the give and take between the pastor’s family and the others is crucial. If I may paraphrase Tolstoy’s sentence, applying it to churches and pastors’ families, I think this fits: “All affirming congregations are alike, but all cruel congregations are cruel in their own way.”  Yes, young pastors, wake up and smell the coffee. Some congregations are mean to their pastors and their families. Lest, however, I be misunderstood, there are mean pastors, too, who reap what they sow.

American ingenuity is often aimed at standardizing everything. Of course, American ingenuity is aimed at selling products so that standardized happiness is packaged in the car you drive, the deodorant you use, the lawn you keep up, the clothes you buy. What is that thing again? Oh, yeah, “the happy meal.” One of the saddest aspects of American evangelicalism is the standardization of the so-called “Christian” family. Using fear of the surrounding secular(!)  culture to scare young families into accepting some Christian family guru’s vision of “the ideal Christian home,” a pervasive paranoia has been unleashed on Christian family life. When did fear replace faith in raising our kids? It’s ironic to me that those who allegedly care the most about the Christian family are the very ones creating the most anxiety about the Christian family.

A lot of help has been given by Christian family life ministries and this needs to be recognized. I am not against using the Bible to teach about marriage, parenting, and family values. We have a choice, though. We can teach in a context of the awful dread and social destruction of the bad, bad American culture or we can teach in the context of the vibrant hope and operative presence of our great and good God who knows a whole lot about family life. One of the best books to shape a healthy family is Scot McKnight’s The Jesus Creed.   

 I have some serious concerns about what has happened in the evangelical church regarding the Christian family. Let’s set the table. Standardizing the Christian family sells lots of books, CDs/DVDs, and fills conference auditoriums. Ah, yes, good old American ingenuity. Experts offer some timeless, “biblical” external standards and young families get riveted to these “marks of the Christian family,” striving feverishly to achieve them. All this, sadly, to the neglect of just relaxing and living with, enjoying, teaching, and disciplining their particular children in their particular home in their particular community. Most of the Christian home experts never met my family, yet they assumed that they knew better than Julie and me on how to raise our children. That is just plain nuts. The negative spin-off of all this attention on families has created a new Christian idolatry: the American nuclear family. Since the pastor’s family is the “lead family” in this frantic pursuit of Christian family idealism, you can imagine the huge, but artificial pressure put on pastors, pastors’ wives and pastors’ kids.

You might be thinking, “John, aren’t you being a little rough on those who are ‘just trying to help’ Christian families.” Maybe. Yet, when helping the Christian home becomes a commercial market, a business, and fear is used to keep listeners and raise money, I think it’s time to say, “Time out! What’s really going on here?”

Show me the ideal family in the Bible. You can’t because there isn’t one. I suppose Adam and Eve were ideal, but look where that got us. Isn’t it obvious that a family is going to be fiercely particular? You don’t have my fingerprints and Scot McKnight doesn’t have Scott Feldman’s fingerprints. Particularity. King David’s family was different from Jesus’ family and Jesus’ family was different from Isaiah’s. Here is my pastoral family foundation: If God, in his wisdom, knit together my four daughters in their mother’s womb, and Julie and I view our daughters as persons the LORD has given to us, then cannot we also trust that same God will give to us, not to some distant guru on the radio or TV, wisdom, that is, skill and guidance on how to raise them? I will never believe the secular culture, as bad as it will ever get, is bigger and stronger than the infinite love of our Creator-God who forms and gives us our children. Were Julie and I perfect parents? God, no. Yet, God knows. We are in good company with Abraham, Isaac, David, Solomon, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose families weren’t perfect either.

I have asked my daughters to write some pros and cons of growing up in a pastor’s family. They will help keep these posts real and I will share with you their take on this topic.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jeff Weddle

    “cannot we also trust that same God will give to us, not to some distant
    guru on the radio or TV, wisdom, that is, skill and guidance on how to
    raise them?”

    Wait, so you’re saying God has equipped me to raise my kids? I don’t need someone with a PhD to do that then? This blog is so confusing.

  • Jim Street

    Another terrific post, John. In addition to being a pastor, my doctorate is in Child and Family Studies and I am a Marriage and Family Therapist…or have been anyway. I NEVER felt that I could do much with it in the churches with which I was affiliated because the massive expectation was that I should do the namby-pamby stuff that passes for ‘family life education’ (marriage, parenting, etc.) Odd…

    On another note (and with a confession that I have not read Anna K…so I can’t say that I understand what Tolstoy meant), my experience with families- both relatively well functioning and those totally in the death spiral- is just opposite to Tolstoy’s observation.

    Happy families (or at least the best approximations) are all different. Unhappy are usually unhappy in the same ways…which is one thing that made doing family therapy incredibly boring to me.

    But…I may be missing Mr. T’s point…

    Thanks for this…and thanks Scot for posting them.

  • Amanda Hecht

    “but artificial pressure put on pastors, pastors’ wives and pastors’ kids.”
    Alas, while I completely agree with the statement, I notice that the “pastor’s husband” still does not even enter our parlance.

  • John W. Frye

    That is my error, Amanda, and I try to avoid this oversight. Thanks for mentioning it.


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