How to Build a Shame-Free Family Ministry

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Parents can misinterpret our vision for families as just another set of impossible expectations and check out

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A family ministry must overcome herculean challenges on the road to success, but the largest obstacle probably isn’t what you’d expect. Pint-sized budgets, ministry silos, or a disinterested lead pastor won’t derail a family ministry as efficiently as shame that saddles your parents.

Popular author, speaker, and research psychologist Brené Brown says shame is “the intensely painful feeling that we’re unworthy of love and belonging.” In her book Daring Greatly, Brown argues that shame corrodes a person’s belief in his or her capacity to change. Shame tripped up parents all the way back to Eden. The first family feasted on forbidden fruit, felt shame, and then hid from God in the bushes. Adam and Eve shamed each other to avoid accountability for their actions. Just a day prior, the couple worked the family business of nudist farming. After shame entered the picture, they became obsessed with concealment and maintaining appearances.

Shame has leveled countless families ever since.

I recently asked a group of moms to list all the expectations attached to motherhood. They filled our easel paper with roles such as coach, nurse, doctor, mind reader, nutritionist, waste management engineer, disciplinarian, and about 40 other items. The exercise began with levity, but by the time we were finished the
mood had turned heavy. The moms were well aware they’re charged with an impossible task. I compounded their discomfort by offering to lead similar exercises with the roles of “wife” and “employee.”

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Brown’s research concluded motherhood is the single greatest source of shame in women, second only to body image. I suspect a similar exercise with dads would yield similar results. Our culture’s oversized expectations regarding parenthood buckle the best mom or dad and inject them with shame.

When a shamed parent approaches your family ministry, it’s nearly inevitable he or she will interpret your family ministry strategy as another set of impossible expectations and a threat to a fragile sense of worthiness.

Enter the amygdala, the part of the brain tasked with processing responses to threats, and its two-trick repertoire: fight or flight. A shame-filled dad with a bias toward “fight” will tackle your ministry’s expectations with a warrior’s zeal. However, the dad’s motivation is, in part, self-serving because he’s driven to make his feeling of inadequacy go away. This approach reduces the spiritual work of parenting to “a means to an end.” This dad’s enthusiasm will be short-lived. He’ll burn out trying to check off all the boxes and eventually, inevitably, he’ll drop out. He’ll damage more than himself. He’ll drag his wife along for the ride. He’ll contribute to an impossible image of what a spiritually engaged parent looks like, an intimidating image that discourages others and serves as a petri-dish for multiplying more shame.

The parents with “flight” bias will simply refuse to participate in your ministry as a way to keep your expectations out of sight and mind. Years ago, in the green room at a national children’s ministry convention, I had dinner with a family minister who enthusiastically told me about his 14-step pathway for parents. He
boasted at the high percentage of parents who worked his plan, but I privately wondered how many parents looked at the pathway and quietly excused themselves to find another church.

How do we respond to shame-filled parents? The answer isn’t lowering the bar. We need to inspire parents to the challenging work of introducing their children to God. But “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we’re capable of change,” says Brown. So we need to create ministry environments that allow parents to shift their view away from their sense of inadequacy and onto the God who knows their limits and sin but loves and supports them anyway.

We do this by making three powerful shifts in our faith communities.

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Children's Ministry Magazine

Children's Ministry Magazine is the most read magazine for people who minister to children from birth through sixth grade. We're partnering with you to make Jesus irresistible to kids.

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