At times, pastors play the role of parentperhaps too much.

All pastors at times play the role of parent to people in need who, like children, cry out for specific direction and counsel. Like parents, pastors are expected to be strong, forceful, and invincible. Their word is absolute. How comforting it is to a person in crisis to know he need not search for his own answers but simply turn to his spiritual parent, who will happily tell him what to do.

What could possibly be wrong with the parental pastor role? What could the temptations be of such a ministry?

Simply stated, the greatest temptation for parental pastors is the same one parents have—to live off rather than with those who ask them for help. Parents live off children when they refuse to allow children to grow up. One often sees parents who cling grimly to parental power long after it is appropriate. Though Johnny is now in his thirties with children of his own, his parents simply will not admit he is an adult who should be dealt with on an adult level. “When I was your age,” his dad says, “I went through exactly what you’re going through. Let me tell you what you should do.”

Parents (and pastors) create two problems for their children (parishioners) when they hang on to parental power. First, they often succeed in delaying the time when they will have to let that power go and their children (parishioners) will have to deal with the world as it really is. Second, they keep their children (parishioners) safe from the risk of engaging in authentic relationships with equals, stifling growth.

It is difficult to see parental excess in one’s own pastoral style. A short checklist might help the pastor assess his personal style:

• How many people in the congregation call me by my first name?

• When I call on a family, in which room does the conversation usually take place? Do I sit in the most comfortable chair?

• How do I deal with children in the church? Do I ever play with them?

• When there are differences of opinion in the congregation, whose opinion usually wins?

It is no accident that some Christians traditionally bestow titles of father and mother on religious leaders. People need a parent figure they can trust, especially in crises. They find great comfort in shedding adult self-sufficiency to play again the part of a child.

But only sometimes! People also need to grow up into authentic adults who know how to make their own decisions. If this growth is not encouraged, someday they may discover the need to rebel—against a parental pastor as well as the church he represents—in order to gain that freedom.

How can a pastor prevent this from happening? Simply, he ought to assume the role of sister and brother as well as that of mother and father. Wonderful things can happen in churches where pastors dare to live in congregations as equal members of the family. For one, pastors will discover their own needs are being met honestly and more often by others.

But the benefits are not all for the clergy. Pastors who admit they hurt may discover people in their congregations who are eager to minister back to them. People are often wells of wisdom, courage, understanding, and care that spiritual leaders have never dreamed of tapping. But in ministering to the pain of their spiritual leader, people sometimes find exactly the strength and courage they themselves need to grow up.

What if people don’t respond to the pastor’s needs? It is that fear that pastors have used as an excuse to continue using only the parental style of pastoring. “God loves us,” they say. “This long-suffering God has promised to take unto himself all the burdens we cannot bear. We are supposed to be strong—to show the way to others who cannot deal with their problems.” Pastors who admit they have problems risk being vulnerable. But sometimes there is great strength in shared vulnerability. Look at the way God came into the world in the person of Jesus.

Talk about vulnerability! Talk about humiliation! People were clamoring for a savior who would restore political power to Israel. Instead, they got what appeared to be a dusty desert prophet who proclaimed another kind of kingship. Pastors today are priests of that Prophet. How can they be anything else but models of him in presence, vulnerability, and humiliation?

In consideration of the peculiarities of his own congregation, each pastor must work out his own style of ministry. He might, however, remember that: the parental pastor is strong and comforting; sometimes he is exactly what is needed, and at other times he is not. His role is avoidance and a lie to those who are commanded to mature and grow as Christians. God calls all to a rigorous vocation of discipleship—to grow as Jesus in wisdom, stature, and fullness. If leaders of Christ’s church refuse this mandate to become whole, how can they expect anything else of their flock?

Sister. Brother. The titles are refreshing. Heard long enough by a pastor, they may provide genuine relief to him and a wellspring of joy to his people.

DAVID TREMBLEYMr. Trembley, a former pastor, is a free-lance writer and communications consultant in Burlington, Wisconsin.

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