Here are three shifts for building a shame-free family ministry.
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.
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.
Working with a Shamed Parent
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. But 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.
Responding to Shame
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.
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.
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.
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.
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