My years of having been both a parent and a minister brought me to a stark realization early on: I needed help doing both.
My nature is to be somewhat self-sufficient, which is not the best approach to parenting or ministering. Neither role was easy, but I didn’t really expect them to be. Both brought great joy, and both brought . . . other things.
I could never have made it through either role with any sense of success without my mentor/friend, Paul, who was on a church staff with me. He had earlier held the same position I had in that ten-thousand-member, multi-staffed, metropolitan church. He had moved to a new role.
When I look back on those years, I now realize that Paul pursued the relationship with me, not the other way around. We were of different generations. He had grandchildren who were older than my two children. But his impact on my life made me be a better minister and an even better parent. So much of what I learned from him was applicable to both roles.
At the time, though, I’m not so sure I realized that. It was not like we had a formal sage–neophyte relationship. He befriended me and was sincerely interested in not only the ministry I had inherited from him, but also genuinely interested in me as a person and a father.
It was in his spontaneous humor, overflowing kindness, and easy-going nature out of which I learned these three approaches that made such a difference in my parenting . . . or was it in my ministering?
First, one day as I groused about the poor decisions my teenage son was making, Paul said, “Feed the fires that you want to grow. Don’t spend so much time trying to stomp out the others. In time, the fires you feed will consume the others.”
Its obvious application to parenting cannot be overstated. Brilliant.
But it held true in ministering, too.
It was easy as the ministry leader to see the deficiencies. I was prone to see the negative first, the problems and challenges. I would fall into the trap of spending all my energy and focus engaging issues I could not resolve. That doesn’t mean I should have ignored them, but I shouldn’t have spent all my resources on them.
(By the way, my then-teenage son is now the father of four and has served around the globe as a missionary. Paul was right about feeding fires. And the ministry I led in those years prospered and flourished when we concentrated on building something rather than tearing something down.)
Another one of Paul’s axioms was to learn to say yes whenever it was possible. As a parent, this particularly applied to my younger child who pushed the envelope on almost everything.
It was my pattern to say no to her a lot. Paul encouraged me to say yes (generally with conditions) when asked questions like, “Can I have twenty-five dollars?”
My response would have typically been “No, you’ve done nothing but lie around.” I learned to say, “Yes, but you have to clean your room first.” By saying yes—with conditions—I had far more influence as an ally than as an obstacle.
And this applied in ministry, too. When church members set up an appointment with me, they often had a complaint or wanted to address a problem. Rather than be defensive or try to negate their observation, I began to help them see the issue/complaint as a ministry opportunity. “Why don’t we have more social events?” That sounds like something that particular person had a passion about and could be a leader to resolve. Being an encourager rather than an obstacle made me a more effective minister.
It didn’t always work that way, of course. But every time I could be a gateway instead of a wall, everyone benefitted.
(By the way, that child I learned to say yes to rarely misses an opportunity these days to express love and appreciation to me and her mother. She’s a bit mortified when she recalls some things she put us through. And, in ministry, when I sought to transform “complaints” to ministry opportunities, we empowered some innovative ideas . . . and an unintended benefit was that the complaints and issues decreased.)
Stay in the boat
Finally, probably the most consequential thing I learned from Paul was, “Stay in the boat.” In stormy seasons of ministry, it was easy to want to jump out and swim away.
And in application to parenting, even while I was considering jumping out, my children were often trying to push me out simultaneously. I have often likened raising teenagers to whitewater rafting. I learned quickly in those years that I was not nearly as “in charge” of the boat (and certainly not of the “waters”) as I had imagined. But being in it with them mattered, even if they could not see it at the time.
I always promised my children I’d get out when the waters quietened. (It didn’t exactly work out that way). The waters of parenting—and of ministry—eventually calm down. Staying in the boat at the worst moments expressed devotion, love, and sacrifice unlike anything else.
It would have been easy to give up many times. I can now look back with few regrets on weathering the storms those roles brought.
By the way . . .
Now I’m the old man. While I no longer serve on a church staff, the opportunities to encourage young ministers abound. But I must pursue them. Thank God Paul didn’t wait for me to pursue a relationship with him. It probably would never have happened. I knew everything at forty.
Disregarding my ignorance, somehow Paul saw something in me of value and wanted to fan the flames. He found ways to empower me rather than criticize or lecture. And, until his death a few years ago, he was always available and walked with me through some of my life’s greatest crises.
Wait . . . he stoked and built fires in me.
He found ways to affirm (and guide) even some of my worst ideas.
And he stayed in my boat, even when the waters calmed down.
The man practiced what he preached.