Pastors, your position is a demanding one, and those demands bring unique struggles on your family. A pastor’s wife bears a great burden, but she usually enters the call to the ministry willingly. A pastor’s children, though, are carried on the current of their parents’ calling. It is often a life of singular struggle and uncommon needs. These struggles often stem from the failures of the father. This isn’t to cast full blame on pastors for their children’s problems. But it is to say that pastors need to work to be good dads.
My own father has worked hard at this. He had his blind spots and weaknesses, and they have been a source of tension between him and me. But to this day, in his 33rd and last year of pastoral ministry, he has never stopped trying to be a better father. As I wrote this, I thought of his failures, yes, but I also thought of successes. Lots of them. I also thought of dozens of conversations with fellow preacher’s kids (aka, PKs) about such struggles and their own relationships with their fathers. So know that my writing does not stem from bitterness of heart or some jaded desire to expose a good man’s faults. I love my dad. My desire is to see struggles avoided or defeated for other pastors and PKs.
So here are seven of the most significant ways a pastor can be a good father to his children. Pastors, your children need . . .
1. A dad, not a pastor
Yes, you are called to pastor your family, but PKs want a dad—someone who plays with them, protects them, makes them laugh, loves their mom, gives hugs, pays attention, and teaches them how to build a budget and change the oil and field a ground ball. We want committed love and warmth. We want a dad who’s not a workaholic. It’s hypocritical to call your congregation to a life of love, sacrifice, and passionate gospel living while neglecting your own family. If a mortgage broker or salesman works too much at 60 hours a week, so do you. Leave work and be present for your kids. Your children will spit on your pastoring if they miss out on your fathering.
2. Conversation, not sermons
Sermons are an effective way to communicate biblical truth to a congregation, but not to your kids (or wife). Preaching at your children will stunt their view of Scripture, dull their interest, and squelch what passion you are trying to stir. Speak to your children about the Bible in a way that’s interesting, applicable, and conversational. Help them see the Bible as a normal part of life. Rather than teach lessons, imbue your conversation with biblical worldview to help your children shape their life lenses. That way they’ll think they, too, can interact with this important book. Sermons at home separate them from the Word by implying that only the learned can understand it.
3. Your interest in their hobbies
Jonathan Edwards may be your homeboy or Seth Godin your muse, but your first-grade daughter doesn’t give a flip. Her love language is playing Barbies and dancing to Taylor Swift. Your son wants to build a Lego fort, beat you soundly at Modern Warfare on Xbox, or learn how to run a 10-yard out pattern. Your hobbies are yours alone, but engaging your children’s interests speaks love that matters deeply to them.
4. To be studied
It gets harder to share time with kids as they get older. So study them as hard as you study your Greek lexicon. They’re more important, anyway. Would your high school-aged son appreciate going out to pizza with you or chilling on the couch and watching college football on a Saturday afternoon? Does your teenage daughter want you to take her shopping or to coffee? Maybe they don’t want recreation but just help—so talk through their friend challenges or algebra problems, whichever are the most pressing. Learn these things, even if it seems like there are no right answers. Teenagers are hard; they treat parents like idiots all the time. But these acts of pursuit, when done consistently, add up. Make them a pattern so that when your kids are done thinking you are a moron they have a path to walk with you.
5. Consistency from you
No one can call hypocrisy on you faster than your kids (and wife), and nothing will undermine you in the home faster. If you stand in the pulpit on Sunday and talk about grace after spending Friday and Saturday griping at your family, grace looks awfully cheap and unappealing to your son in the second row. If, however, you treat your son as if you need his grace and forgiveness for your crappy attitude, it may open a door to God’s grace. (And use phrases like “crappy attitude”—it sounds more like you actually know what you’re apologizing for.)
If you act like the great shepherd in the pulpit but the hired hand who runs away at home, your children will see church and all it entails as phony because you are phony. If you encourage a life of joy but are morose, or if you exhort your people toward a life of sacrifice but are lazy and spendthrifty, nobody will notice faster than those in your home. To your family, your interactions with God and them are far more important than your Sunday sermons.
6. Grace to fail
Pastors speak much about grace. It is the basis of our salvation and the source of hope. But when the rubber meets the road, do you offer enough of it to your children? PKs feel enormous pressure to be “good” and to be confident in all things biblical. But we are often not good and often lack confidence in biblical realities. We sin and doubt like everyone else, but when we do, the road to restoration and peace often feels like an impossible one to travel. Are we allowed the same grace to fail and to doubt (assuming you preach grace to your congregation)?
7. A single moral standard
One of the graces PKs need is a single moral standard. Too many PKs feel the pressure of their fathers’ priestly profession in our moral lives. The pastor and elder qualifications in 1 Timothy and Titus feel like a threat: “If you screw up, your father not only looks bad, he will be out of a job.” But those standards are the same ones that every Christian should be held to (other than the ability to teach). Nobody else’s dad is at risk of being unemployed if his kid is rebellious, but mine is. The additional pressure to be morally upstanding does not help my heart. It creates a convoluted soul environment in which temptation to rebel and temptation to be a hypocrite battle the desire to honor Jesus and my dad.
You have heard that it was said PKs should be holier than their peers, and their parents should raise them better, but Jesus says to us all, “Be holy for I am holy.” So it should be.