When the pastor has a prodigal

By Laird Crump

I heard someone jokingly say that there’s a great likelihood that the child of a teacher will become a dropout, the child of a police officer will become a delinquent, and the child of a pastor will become an atheist. But is that really true?

High expectations

We all know of numerous teachers who have kids that excel academically. Most police officers have law-abiding children. And most pastors have children who are engaged in following Christ. The problem lies in expectations, and the expectations for clergy families is high. As clergy ourselves, we sometimes fall into the trap of expecting that our child will become the next Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. But when a prodigal emerges in the parsonage, many pastors are overwhelmed and even somewhat . . . embarrassed. They fear that the prodigal’s presence will be perceived as a poor reflection of their pastoral performance. Parishioners, too, can become perplexed and judgmental.

Certainly, the Scriptures caution leaders in this area. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 says of pastoral leaders that they “must manage [their] own family well and see that [their] children obey [them] with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)”

This is common-sense advice, but it is speaking of family management, not spiritual orientation. A child can be obedient and treat their parents with respect, but at the same time, their heart can be far from God. Spiritual vibrancy is not something any of us can control in our children. And this is the way God has ordained it. It is reflective of both the blessing and curse of free will.

A necessary journey?

The journey toward authentic faith is one every person must take alone. It may take pastors’ kids even longer to surrender their hearts to Christ because they need to work harder to separate Christ from their family culture. Mix into that the confusion of adolescence and the natural urge to challenge authority, and things can get pretty messy. Sometimes a prodigal detour, although disconcerting for pastoral parents, is the path certain children need in order to make their faith real.

So what can a pastor do when they discover a prodigal in the parsonage?

Fasten your seat belt. Just because we love God does not guarantee our kids will. Pastors’ kids need freedom to genuinely explore what they believe and why, without pressure from their parents. When our kids ask us spiritual questions, we may be tempted to respond with three points and a poem. But it may be more effective to ask them what they think and allow for self discovery.

Pray aggressively for them. Pastors spend a lot of time praying for their flock, but their own family needs to be at the top of the prayer list. Solicit the prayers of a few trusted friends to join you in bringing your children’s spiritual needs to the foot of the cross. Prayer allows us to look past our child’s behaviour and see the person that God is in the process of developing.

Don’t take that guilt trip. Remember that you can do everything right in terms of Christian parenting and your kids can still make bad decisions. Try to discern whether your prodigal’s behaviour falls into the category of misdemeanors or felonies. Often, the prodigal has not violated some Biblical principle, rather just a personal preference we have.

Understand the spiritual warfare that may be at play and stand your ground. Our enemy knows that one of the best ways to sidetrack a pastor is to attack his or her children. Our kids can also be the victim of friendly fire. Our enemy can use well intentioned church people to drive them deeper into a prodigal lifestyle. Our role is to protect our kids from both hostile and friendly fire.

Examine your family system. Sometimes we make prodigals out of those who are not really prodigal at all. It could be that the compliant child may actually be farther from God than the prodigal. Behaviours rarely happen in isolation. Think about how each member of the family affects the other. Maybe we as parents are somehow contributing to our child’s rebellion. An apology from you may be the catalyst to soften that child’s heart. Also, their rebellion may be a reflection of some emotional struggle they have, like depression or ADD. The problem may not necessarily be spiritually rooted.

Don’t use your kids as spiritual trophies. When I was a pastor, I loved using my kids as sermon illustrations. After a while, my kids demanded a few dollars every time I mentioned them in my teaching. Of course, I only told the positive stories. The difficulty with this is that it subtly puts pressure on our children and can result in a performance orientation to the Christian life.

Cut back on your schedule and spend more time with that child. You may need to say no to that extra committee meeting or Bible study. Sometimes, kids engage in prodigal-type activity simply to get our attention. You might need to take some time off and go on a road trip with your son or daughter in an effort to reconnect. In certain cases, it may be necessary to ask for a home-based sabbatical to address issues with your family.

Make yourself appropriately vulnerable. Many of us have had to take a while to kick the tires of the Christian faith before buying. Think of your own spiritual journey and you will no doubt recall that you spent many months, if not years, processing what it meant to be a committed follower of Christ. How much time did you spend in the pig pen before you came to your senses? Sharing our story in age-appropriate ways could demonstrate how one repents and turns to God.

Guard your marriage. Having a prodigal can put enormous stress on a marriage and drive a wedge between husband and wife. Issues surrounding a prodigal can occupy all of your talk time. It may be wise to intensify the investment you are making in your marriage. Your prodigal child needs your marriage to be healthy.

Talk to a trusted friend or counsellor. Even pastors can lose their objectivity. A good friend can help you see clearly, and a counsellor can help you understand the deeper issues at hand.

Assume they will return to the Lord. We need to exercise those three greatest virtues of faith, hope and love as they relate to our prodigals. Keep the faith, never lose hope and love them like crazy. Our kids need us to be a personification of God’s grace.

My father was a director of Christian camp and he often told the youth workers to keep their eyes on the rebellious kids, because in the end, they tend to become great Christian leaders. Every good leader has a little bit of rebellion toward the status quo. If God gets a hold of that drive, He can use that person to positively influence others. Who knows, maybe your prodigal will turn out like Billy Graham or Mother Teresa after all!


Laird Crump was a pastor for 25 years prior to coming on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.