Shame-Free Family Ministry

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Shamefree

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

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.

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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.”

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.

shift one:
From Competition to Community

In our fallen world, our nature is to size up each other to
establish our place in the pecking order whenever we attempt to
build community. We judge who’s most worthy to receive love and
affection. We mask the worst parts of our stories and hide our
inadequacies from each other in an effort to increase our place in
the order. The result is that when a mom plays this game long
enough, she believes the lie that she’s the only “unworthy” parent.
The isolating power of shame begins its work, and the mom’s
parenting muscles atrophy.

We can minimize competitiveness within our faith communities by
insisting our churches become “Societies of Imperfect Parents.” We
can help parents realize inadequacy is a universal condition and
church is a place to give and receive grace and feel God’s
unconditional love. Here’s how.

Celebrate the faith stories of imperfect parents.
Ask the single mom to tell other parents how God has been working
in her life. Encourage the dad with anger issues to share what he
learned in the last parenting class. Find ways to spotlight these
stories of imperfection so other parents will hear-and know they’re
not alone.

Be vulnerable. Children’s ministers are tempted
to pose as experts. We’re leaders, after all. However, Brown notes
that vulnerability is the greatest measure of courage.
Appropriately disclosing your parenting shortcomings tells other
parents “I’m imperfect but I’m confident in God’s love for me. I
don’t need to play competitive games and you don’t either. You’re
free to be real here.” Yes, you have the right to privacy. And
oversharing can be self-serving-but so is cultivating a misleading
image that you’ve arrived as a parent.

Create safe places for parents to be imperfect.
During a parenting class, affirm the parents brave enough to admit,
“I’m not sure” or “I blew it.” Offer support groups for single and
divorced parents. Keep all your events friendly for all parents.
Daddy and Me events are great-unless your husband walked on you a
year ago. You don’t have to eliminate these events, just make
accommodations so all families can participate. Encourage the
single mom to send her child to Daddy and Me with a grandfather or
an uncle.

Tell about the Bible’s imperfect families. The Bible records
loveless marriages, sibling rivalries, domestic violence,
betrayals, abuse, boozy family gatherings, wives attempting to earn
love through baby-making, and an array of other family
dysfunctions. Don’t tell these accounts to make their immorality
and brokenness appear normal; tell them to remind parents that God
invites broken people into his family.

It’s not a problem for a parent to feel inadequate-until he starts
believing he’s the only inadequate parent or that he can’t overcome
his inadequacies. Your commitment to building safe places for
parents to be authentic and experience support will allow parents
to know they aren’t alone.

shift two:
From Martyrdom to Maintenance

Here’s a secret about the parents who tend to want to conquer any
and all expectations before them: They secretly resent anyone who
doesn’t also feel obligated to keep pace and partake in their
fatigue. They resent their spouses who don’t care as much about
their child’s spiritual development. They resent the other parents
who don’t agree to volunteer at every family night or in the
children’s wing on Sunday mornings. When we choose to play the
martyr, we imagine everyone around us is a lion and we resent them
for it and subtly shame them.

You can’t stop anyone from playing the martyr, but you can create
the expectation that Christian parents stop, rest, and take care of
themselves. Here’s how.

Check your attitude first. The ministry trend
toward family ministry has left many children’s pastors with
conflicted attitudes toward parents. When the family ministry hat
is on, we want to encourage and equip parents. But when we wear the
children’s ministry recruiter hat, and there are still six empty
volunteer positions that need to be assigned by Sunday, it’s
oh-so-tempting to quietly accuse parents of not caring about their
children. No amount of effort can contain an attitude leak.

Without intentionally doing so, we can become a source of
impairing shame for parents.

Invite without arm-twisting. As you encourage
parents to get involved, explain how participation will enrich
them. Tell them they’d be good at the position. And by all means,
don’t soft-sell the commitment. Assure parents that you don’t want
a snap decision, either. Give people space to pray about the
position and get back to you. When parents realize you respect
their boundaries, you also remind them boundaries are necessary
tools for thriving as parents and followers of Jesus.

Model self-care. Fact: Few children’s ministers
have been inducted into the Work/Life Balance Hall of Fame. Ensure
you get to worship service. Take days off. Date your spouse. Read a
book. Set the example that you rest when you’re tired, not when all
impossible expectations are met.

Champion health. Ensure that your support groups
for mothers and fathers stress the importance of boundaries and
self-care. Encourage your parents that the most important thing
they can do as they spiritually parent is to take the time to
cultivate a spiritual life of their own. And be the voice that
cautions your leadership team when the church calendar threatens to
capsize busy families.

shift three:
Perfectionism to Process

A perfectionistic parent always asks, “Do I look the part?” A
parent focused on becoming a spiritual leader for his or her
children asks a deeper question: “Am I becoming the part?” As Brown
observes, perfectionism teaches people to value what others think
about them more than what they think or feel about themselves.
Rather than focusing on becoming a parent uniquely equipped by God
to raise his or her child like none other can, the perfectionistic
parent settles for conforming to “the mold.” We must encourage
parents to discover and develop their unique spiritual gifts and
strengths, so they can leverage them to develop their children
spiritually. We can encourage parents to care more about growing to
be more Christ-like than merely looking the part on Sundays. Here
are ways to do this.

Affirm the redemptive potential of every parent’s
story.
Many working moms live with the guilt stemming from
believing their children would be better off if they were
stay-at-home parents, and vice versa. They bear this guilt whether
working or staying home is possible in their situation. Rather than
compounding shame, point out hope. All moms are experts in
perseverance, work ethic, and sacrifice-biblical values all. Remind
them they’re modeling these virtues to their children. Encourage
them to coach their children about these strengths.

A recovering alcoholic knows self-denial, the importance of
community, and healthy communication. Encourage him to pass these
skills onto his children while explaining how God gave him the
strength and the grace needed to change. Most every parent’s story
has a hopeful side. Chances are, discouraged parents won’t be able
to see that hope on their own. Encourage them.

Embrace the outliers. Historically, we children’s
ministers haven’t known what to do with parents whose children are
involved in activities such as competitive sports or coordinated
music programs. We know the parent’s motivation is to fully develop
her child’s potential. But we privately judge this parent for not
valuing church services and programming more than these activities.
Rather than debating the quality of this mom’s priorities, what
would happen if we committed to helping her spiritually lead? We
might help her develop a customized “as-you-go” plan, per Moses’
instructions in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. We could encourage her to find
worship services to attend while on the road and provide tools to
have spiritual conversations with her children in the car.

Remember, the goal isn’t to pour a parent’s life into our church
programming. Our goal is to help that parent take ownership of the
spiritual leadership in his or her home.

Make these three shifts, and your family ministry will be on its
way to help free parents from unnecessary shame so they can embrace
their God-given calling, imperfections and all.

Larry Shallenberger is an imperfect pastor, husband, and
father who leads imperfect families at his church. He’s also author
of Lead the Way God Made You (Group). It’s a
great, but imperfect, book.

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