When a Pastor’s Child Strays
I recently met up with an old friend. We’d served together in local church ministry, but hadn’t seen each other in several years. After he accepted a pastoral call to another state, we’d fallen out of touch. There were the occasional email exchanges and the annual Christmas card, but nothing more.
It was great to see him. But as we prepared to say our goodbyes, the conversation suddenly took on a somber tone. “Can I ask you to pray about something?” he asked. Tears began to fill his eyes; his normally strong voice faltered. He apologized, and then took a moment to compose himself. Over the next several minutes he told me about the heartbreaking story about his son who had recently walked away from the faith.
Sadly, I’d heard my friend’s story before. Another pastor’s kid, gone. Raised in a Christian home, seemingly trusting Christ at an early age, memorizing Scripture, serving as a leader in youth group, participating in mission activities—the story was all too familiar. Almost overnight and without much warning, his son had an epiphany: he no longer believed any of this stuff. The gospel and the claims of Christianity no longer made sense to him, if they ever really had at all.
A FAMILIAR STORY
I write not as a mere observer or sympathized, but as a father and a pastor who prays for his own wayward children. How desperately I long for them to embrace the faith they were taught and had imperfectly modeled for them. I’ve waited for years for the Lord to call them to Himself, even as I struggle with my own sense of failure in their having chosen the course of life they’re presently pursuing. What could my wife and I have done differently? How might we have made the gospel more appealing? The sense of guilt I sometimes feel, whether legitimate or not, is at times overwhelming.
Ministry is hard enough when things are going well. But it becomes doubly difficult when the path chosen by our prodigals withdraws from the Lord and weighs heavily upon us. Brothers, we need others to help us press on when the burden becomes too heavy to bear alone. Perhaps the following reminders will prove helpful in providing support and reshaping our perspective.
1. Don’t try and go it alone.
Surround yourself with a band of faithful and prayerful men. Perhaps this will mean the elders of your church with whom you serve. Or perhaps it will be a small group of fellow pastors that you’ve grown to trust. These should be men with whom you’re willing to be vulnerable and transparent, those who will not judge you or add to the guilt and pain you already feel.
Be willing to receive appropriate criticism when it is offered by other faithful men. You’ll likely discover that your situation isn’t as “unique” as you imagined, that you’re not as alone in the pain you feel. As these fellow brothers help you to reframe your perspective, the path forward will become more bearable. Though the recovery of your children won’t be immediate, you will enjoy a clearer view of the One whose hands hold much-needed mercy and grace.
2. Don’t fake it with your people.
Church members tend instinctively to look up to their pastors. They consider them either immune from or having overcome the daily problems that they so regularly face. This is perhaps especially true in matters of the home. Because of this, pastors may feel the need to mask the struggles that come with wayward children. They think this helps this ministry, but in reality it more likely hinders it.
As pastors, we shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed to reveal our own parenting imperfections. We shouldn’t downplay the disappointing outcomes for the sake of protecting our reputations. Even the most respected man of God has “feet of clay,” and we should not yield to the temptation of pretending that we don’t. It can be altogether appropriate to admit that we are hurting, and to ask for prayer for ourselves and our families. Consider discretely weaving brief vignettes of your own parenting struggles into an occasional sermon, being cautious not to say too much. But a word of caution is fitting here: we should exercise care in not doing this too frequently or too vehemently, lest we’re guilty of soliciting sympathy for ourselves.
3. Never stop loving your children—really loving them.
Despite what some people think, pastors don’t have “all the answers.” Nor do we think we have all the answers. Privately, we know that all too well, but publicly we sometimes don’t like admitting it. Rarely can we discern what God is doing “behind the scenes.” That’s true in the lives of our children, perhaps especially when they’re “far from home.” So resist blaming a specific cause, and instead receive the troubling providence as a humbling lesson from the Lord.
Nonetheless, our love for them must not be allowed to fade. Nor should it be conditionally dispensed. Warmly embracing our offspring while not condoning their chosen lifestyle is a practiced skill—and it must not be faked. If we hope to keep the communication lines open for the gospel, we must learn to love them well even as they stray.
It’s at this point where pastors sometimes veer off course in their emotion-laden appeals to their wayward children. Consider how the Lord pursued us when we were in the “far country,” and how his consistent love eventually drew us to himself (Luke 15:11–32). We owe our children no less. Therefore, let us continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would grant them faith and repentance so that they would turn from sin and embrace the Savior.
4. Don’t let go of the grace of God.
We have have no assurances that our children will ever be brought to saving faith. But we do know with absolute certainty that the God we serve is good and perfect in all his ways. He is merciful and just. As we persistently plead with our Heavenly Father to spare and to save these precious ones whom we love, may our dependent confidence in him never fade. He alone is our hope and in him alone do we trust.
In the closing words of Malachi’s prophecy, we are told that the Lord “will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Of course, that’s not a carte blanche promise that God will save every pastor’s child who has abandoned the faith. Some he will save; their waywardness will end in their salvation. Others he will not; their waywardness will end in their destruction.
So the question that remains for us is a difficult one: will we continue to serve the Lord faithfully with no strings attached . . . even those that are tied to our very hearts?
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). This assurance gives hope to both my friend and myself as we pray without ceasing for our children to come home.