How to step back from being a helicopter leader

By Pauline Doerksen

I was sitting in our adult Sunday school class a while back while our teacher led us through conversations around the book Doing Life with Your Adult Children by Jim Burns. As you can imagine, we had some lively discussion as we tackled topics like:

  • My child’s choices are breaking my heart – where did I go wrong?
  • Is it OK to give advice to my grown child?
  • What do healthy boundaries look like?
  • What’s the difference between enabling and helping?

From the moment we take that first look into the eyes of our precious newborn child, we enter a whole new world of learning. Sure, we are learning about all things parenting, but let’s be honest, parenting teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about keeping a little human alive long enough to watch them take off as adults.

Helicopter parenting

“Mom you’re hovering!”

Those were the words spoken to me by my firstborn who was on the threshold of turning the ripe old age of 18. Part of it was in jest, but there was clearly a larger part that was saying, “I’ve got this, I want to take care of things myself.” I didn’t doubt that he could do it, but it was painful to realize that he didn’t need my help for everything anymore – my issue, not his. Afterall, we raise our children so that they become responsible adults, right?

“Will you let me make a mistake?”

Again, words spoken by one of my offspring. This time, it was our second born who had found the first car he wanted to buy. It had the bells and whistles that many teenage boys would croon over but reliability was not on that list of selling features. So, he bought that car and learned many valuable life lessons that have contributed to many wiser future decisions. And the words “I told you so” were never spoken! But I really had to bite my tongue. I wanted to prevent those consequences by picking out the proper car for him. Again, this was my issue, not his. I wanted to prove that I knew which was best, but it would have delayed the learning process for him.

Now, before you start to think that you have received an article on parenting, stay with me and I hope you will see where I am going with this.

Recognizing triggers as a parent and leader

Is it possible that there are significant similarities between raising our children and serving our flock? I would not have made that connection before; however, as I reflect on the years of serving as a pastor’s wife, at the same time as I was raising a family, I can see now that some of my reactions to situations and methods to encourage growth were very similar to those that I used in parenting my children.

Triggers! We all have them. Those things that cause us to overreact in a situation because they bring back deeper hurts, disappointments or expectations that we have picked up over the years that we haven’t healed from.

Parenting triggers those emotional responses the same way that serving in ministry triggers those emotional responses. The people, situations, and responsibilities may be different, but the triggers are exposing the same deep hurts, disappointments and expectations that we need to heal from.

Knowing then what I know now

I have lost track of how many times I have thought – and even spoken out loud – that if I knew then what I know now, how I would have parented differently and served differently. Why is that? Because my heart has gone through more healing at this stage in my life than it had in my 20s, 30s and 40s.

Back then, I needed to overreach, fix and overcompensate as I parented and served. My intentions were noble. I wanted to support and care for others. I took my responsibility as a mom and ministry leader very seriously. Yet there was a deep hurt around being seen as bad or not good enough that drove me to prove that maybe, just maybe, I was good or, at the very least, okay.

As a result, while I was trying to help people, I was also trying to meet my own need.

What did that look like then? Well, I needed people to do better under my care. Therefore, I would do my best to create a controlled environment so that they had the least number of distractions, disappointments or temptations to fail.

I still remember very clearly the day the Lord got my attention to all of this and let me know that I needed to let go and allow those I care for to grow up. I needed to trust that God knew every detail and loved these precious people far more than I did.

Releasing my hold was no easy task. It meant allowing my children to feel the full weight of some of their choices and the consequences that followed. It also meant having some hard conversations and releasing some people that were serving in certain areas of the church because they were not stepping up to what their position needed. It also meant that I needed to accept my own limitations of time and resources. I had to learn to say no to some things.

Even as I write that, it feels wrong. Yet, as I reflect back on many of those situations, it has been abundantly clear that I needed to get out of the way for them to be able to grow.

The value of a hands-off approach

Allowing our children and those we serve to fall, stumble or struggle helps them to strengthen the muscles they need to get back up again. Every time that I stepped in to fix a mess, or to soften the fall, I took away the need for their muscles to work and grow. More importantly it gives them the chance to lean heavily on their Creator, to walk with him instead of counting on me.

What is our role then?

  • Leading is showing by example that we need a heavenly Father to guide us.
  • Leading is teaching the truth that God is continuing to work in us, to make us more and more like his Son.
  • Leading is extending grace to walk beside and encourage them.
  • Leading is cheering them on.
  • Leading is being present with them when life hurts.
  • Leading is praying with them as their hearts turn to repentance.

One of our marriage therapists at Focus on the Family Canada led us in devotions a while back and there was time for a Q&A after. I asked him, “What do you do to make sure that you don’t take on too much responsibility to fix things as you work with couples who are in crisis in their marriage?” His simple answer was this: “As therapists, we keep each other in check to make sure that we don’t care more than those whom we are working with.”

How has it been for you? Do you find yourself triggered by the need to overprotect, overdo, overreach as you lead your flock? Do you have the pressing need to have your fingers in every area of ministry life? While our intentions may be genuine in wanting to encourage growth, is it possible that you may be getting in the way of the very thing you so desire to see?

Maybe those triggers are trying to tell you something. Take some time to think on that. Talk with a trusted friend. Have a heart to heart with your spouse. Call into our Clergy Care counselling line (1.888.5.CLERGY) and speak with one of our counsellors on staff. After all, we still have some muscles that need strengthening too!


Pauline Doerksen and her husband, Sam, are the program directors at our Manitoba Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.

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