Raising a healthy church family

Leadership advice from parenting experts

By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today

Blackboard with writing: sometimes you sin, sometimes you learnSince my kids are out of the house, I figured I could finally donate the parenting books I’d gathered over the years. So many of the titles offered a nugget that helped me feel like I was not the only one navigating the complexity of parenthood. Into the box went some of my favorites — How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. As I packed, I realized that much of the parenting advice applies to leadership in small churches.

Many medium and large churches operate like businesses, with boards and committees that oversee a small slice of church life. Small churches, however, operate more like families. We gather around the meeting table to talk about our ministry together and to make a few things official by voting. Robert’s Rules of Order, those parliamentary procedures for deliberation used by Presbyterians, are occasionally helpful at small-church meetings, but often feel like an add-on to the relational work being done. So, with a nod to parenting books, here are some suggestions on how to behave so that your congregation will, too.

Set the tone. Sal Severe, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too reminds parents not to write the script for bad behavior. Before shopping, many parents try to make things go well be laying down the law: “If you climb out of the cart and whine about toys, I won’t get you candy at the checkout.” Instead of curbing bad behavior, this tactic actually gives kids a script to follow.

Though framed in the negative, he argues, you’ve told the children you expect them to break free from the cart and whine for toys. A better strategy is to set the bar high and describe the behavior you hope for. In the church, I call this living into our halos. Instead of spending pulpit time lamenting and criticizing the sins we all commit, I emphasize ways we can grow into Jesus’ expectations of his disciples. Are we giving people things they can do or are we just reinforcing the old script of what not to do without offering an alternative?

Let them fall. As the title suggests, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel encourages parents to allow their kids to fall to create resilience.

Like a parent who won’t let go of the two-wheeled bike, we sometimes hold up initiatives that aren’t working in order to avoid failure. Whether it’s a traditional community supper on its last legs or a brilliant idea that should have been successful, propping up what isn’t working takes away time and energy from a Spirit-led initiative. Letting a congregation fall allows them to develop skills necessary to get back up and try again.

Letting go. In his book Get Out of My Life, Anthony E. Wolf tells parents there are aspects of their teens’ life over which they have no control.

Many teens head for a future that their parents never envisioned. Like a child navigating adolescence, churches will veer off in new directions as different generations join and new leaders replace those who worked hard to create the church’s current vision.

The responses to this generational conflict are often the same. Like a teen secluding himself in his room, some members will walk away with a shrug of indifference. Or they may stomp and yell about how unfair and stupid it is, like a self-righteous middle schooler. Letting go of an old vision, though, allows congregations to grow into a new creation.

My parenting books are gone. Today I delight in the young adults my children have become —  though, truth be told, I wouldn’t have imagined the futures they are choosing for themselves. We’ve had our share of skinned knees and screaming matches, but through it all we’ve been made into more resilient, Spirit-filled people.

Sue Washburn is the pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.

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