Adapted excerpt from the DNA of D6. For more about this book, go to D6family.com/DNA
The Senior Pastor Complex
By Ron Hunter Jr.
Over the years of emphasizing family ministry, one of the most frequent questions I have received from church leaders and staff is: “How do we get our pastor on board with a family emphasis?”
Several who asked this question had tears in their eyes. Staff members and teachers long for the pastor to lead the charge, because they understand the breadth of his pulpit influence. Everyone sees the value of developing generational gladiators, but too often, the “commander” is absent from training, leading, and fighting.
A Pastoral Problem
The truth is, numerous senior pastors wish they could lead the charge, but they feel disqualified because they watched a son or daughter grow up and walk away from God.
The departure may have happened when their kids questioned their faith, and professors added to their doubt. Perhaps a child made a mistake that took him or her down a drastically different path than expected. Maybe the “pastoral parents” made the issue worse by demonstrating embarrassment or failing to deal with the situation. None of this was intentional. All of it was painful. The emotional scars still throb.
Despite distraught feelings over perceived failures, pastors still want to warn and help others, but they fear hypocrisy. I conclude they have a hard time championing what they feel they have not lived or done well, fearing a lack of integrity. The “senior pastor complex” describes pastors who desperately want to be part of the conversation but avoid it for fear of being judged.
Most of these pastors have real integrity. They can be trusted with the most sensitive details from a counseling session and would never think of hurting anyone intentionally. The fact that they have dedicated their entire lives to helping people speaks for itself. Each staff member, regardless of past mistakes, can find grace and direction to help others. If you are a pastor in this situation, your desire to help other parents may, in fact, move you to address the hang-ups holding you back.
The greatest pain your congregation may experience is the depth of hurt in parents whose adult kids are not serving God. This is a painful topic, but it should not be ignored. Pastors, you are not alone! Numerous couples in your church grieve silently and do not know what to do other than pray. Some of the pain comes from feelings of failure.
Steps Toward Healing
The first step to overcoming the senior pastor complex is to deal with guilt and stigma. Guilt imprisons and marginalizes what could be done. Satan’s best weapon is guilt. He uses it to strip away confidence and effectiveness, sidelining many people.
Pastors, treat yourself the way you would treat others you may
counsel within your congregation. You would tell them guilt has become the warden over their own imprisonment. You would remind them of God’s forgiveness and challenge them to return to serving God.
The second step requires you to “own” the past. People in your church probably know what has happened, either by firsthand knowledge or by the absence of your conversation about your kids. Authenticity from the pastor can be an encouraging and empowering trait that leads toward church health. Ask yourself if hiding or ignoring this issue is the way you would want your church members to deal with their problems. Your people know you make mistakes, and transparency leads to real learning opportunities. Admit the issues to your congregation, and then become a generational gladiator with other parents, fighting for your kids together.
Third, educate yourself regarding this issue. Become an expert on all things prodigal. The stakes are high, and the subject demands this attention. Read everything in Scripture and prominent sources on the topic. Be honest with yourself as you read and use the knowledge to help other couples in your church.
Along the way, you may find yourself restoring the relationship
with your own children.
Next, as you identify failures, ask for forgiveness. This may be necessary at multiple levels. First, ask God’s forgiveness if you have not dealt with an issue appropriately. Remember, God is your Father, and He understands parenting rebellious kids. He has been more patient with you than you have your own kids. Second, seek forgiveness from your child. You may wince at this thinking, “My child is the one who walked away.”
Maybe you have been faithful to God, and it makes more sense for your child to seek forgiveness. But forgiveness is the bridge to restoration and healing. Consider writing or saying something like the following in your own words:
While I have not always shown it, I love you more than you know. Recently, I have been reading about how many ministers work hard, are successful in growing a church or ministry, and yet lose one of the most important relationships in the world—the one with their child. I am so very sorry. I put __________ before you. I spent more time __________ rather than having long conversations discussing what matters to you. I did not have answers for you about __________ .
I know at times I made you feel our problems were all about you when I, too, contributed to this situation. I cannot change the past, but I am owning up to it. I would give anything to go back and do things differently. While I cannot go back in time, I can try to change what I do in the future. Will you forgive me?
Will you let me try to start rebuilding our relationship without guilt, without one-sided expectations, without preaching to you, and just work hard on communicating, loving, and getting back to listening to you? If you are willing, I would like to earn back your trust and your confidence, I hope and pray we can just find each other all over again. I am sorry—can we try again, because you mean so much to me?
You may also need to ask forgiveness from your church. This probably scares you more than the other two because of the public nature and desire to look strong or perfect in front of the congregation. But confession can set the stage to help parents
of prodigals by creating a more open and honest conversation
around the topic. Before taking this churchwide, talk with your
accountability partners and church leaders first. Get their advice.
The next step is important. After reading everything and building stronger relationships through forgiveness, do not pretend to be an expert. Talk with your staff or leaders and your church about the goals and benefits of building a strong family ministry. The combination of a leader’s vulnerability in sharing scriptural truth, along with brokenness over past failures encourages others in a powerful way.
The final step is to cast a vision for your church to recapture a lost generation of kids and grandkids. Challenge them: “What you are willing to do to reach your kids and grandkids (the same for families within the church) with the gospel and make your church their church?” Then get serous about creating a church where kids want to worship.
Until an initiative is important to the pastor, it will likely remain unimportant to the congregation as a whole. Just as kids take cues from parents, parishioners take theirs from the pastor. Those who have earned the title leader will find people ready to accomplish what you deem significant.
When you describe in visionary terms the critical nature of family ministry, parents will begin to learn, just as you have, how to reconnect with their kids. Trust God to do His part while you work to stay connected with your child. We have the book of Ecclesiastes to assist us in keeping others from repeating Solomon’s mistakes, including the poor relationships he had with his family and others. Consider preaching a sermon or series from Ecclesiastes. Be vulnerable in the pulpit. Share your mistakes and challenge others not to make the same ones.
This could be the most powerful preaching you will ever do.
Michael Jordan, five-time MVP of the NBA and arguably one of the greatest basketball players ever to live, said, “I’ve missed 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and I have missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.” Then he added, “That’s why I succeed.”
Jordan was a great player because he worked hard at it. He disappointed plenty of people, and yet he used his misses to get better. Help parents who feel like failures find ways to strengthen the relationship with their kids. This may be one of the most important missions you and your church accomplish together.
Pastors have helped many people battling guilt over their past. God forgives pastors just like anyone else. But, just as doctors make the worst patients, sometimes pastors are the worst counseling recipients. It is time to get past the senior pastor complex and start helping others avoid a similar outcome. Guilt should guide you to change, not imprison you in the past. Lead pastors simply cannot sit this one out.
About the Writer: Ron Hunter Jr. has served as the director of Randall House for 14 years, and has led the organization into family ministry initiatives for the past 12 years.