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Models of Parenting for Clergy and Parents

by His Grace Bishop John, The Word, December 2015

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:31–33

St. Paul uses the family relationship of a husband and wife to describe the relationship of Christ and His Church. We also use our relationships in the Church to understand better our family relationships. This is legitimate, because both family and Church are gifts from God and present models of reasonable and holy behavior. Further, Christ uses the metaphor of a good father to describe how God as Father relates to us. The purpose of parent-child relationships, as well as pastor-parishioner relationships, is for us to respond to the incarnate God who, by His Spirit, lives with us now. In these holy relationships our primary relationship is with our God, and this relationship is realized in our families and parish life, and nurtured by them. I would like to explore how models of good parenting can build holy and productive relationships between a pastor and parishioner. (A model relationship of a healthy pastor and parishioner can build healthier family relationships, too.) I apologize from the start that my study "paints with a wide brush" or is simplistic. I also write knowing that every parent uses many styles of parenting, depending on what is appropriate to the situation. Each style has positive and negative aspects, depending on a number of circumstances. I also confess, up front, that my bias is for the authoritative parenting style.

Psychology text books describe four major parenting styles: authoritative, neglectful, permissive, and authoritarian. Each one carries different characteristics and brings about different responses from the children as they relate to the parents. While every parent-child relationship is different, it is helpful to understand how these styles elicit predictable responses. So let's take a look at these styles and see how and when they might apply to the priest and parishioner relationship. I do this fully aware that the priest-parishioner relationship is most often like that of the parent to the adult child, but, for my purposes here, I don't think that this changes the value of this study.

Authoritative parents have high expectations for their children, but are supportive, kind, gentle and understanding. They explain why and how they come to their conclusions, appealing to authority outside of themselves to guide and teach their children. They say things like "the wisdom of my grandmother," or "the time-tested method experienced by everyone," rather than things like "Do it because I said so." Questions and discussion are welcomed. The parent avoids threatening the child, and the child is shown great respect and love. Children who grow up with this style of parenting are typically secure, confident and creative.

A pastor who uses this parenting style is secure in his mandate and understands that he is not competing with his parishioners; his success is dependent on their success. He prepares his messages appealing to the wisdom of the Church as expressed in her tradition of Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers. He reminds the flock that Christ often says that we are not to be afraid, because the Father loves us.  is pastor understands that people will make their own choices; his job is to give them the information, love and the formation to make good choices. He maintains a community informed by the teachings that lead to holy living and he preaches truth in love. He calls people together to understand how to live in ways based on the teachings of Christ. He lives with the people as an example of Christ-guided living, without needing to be boss. His flock responds, secure in what they have learned and in their own relationships with Christ.

Neglectful parents are unaware of what their children are doing. They let the children figure out things for themselves. They don't teach their values and skills. They don't challenge their children. Children of such a parenting style are often angry and insecure because they can't trust the family to guide them and they lack the knowledge and skill necessary to navigate.

Clergy who use this parenting style often feel unable to influence their parishioners. They don't feel like they are part of their community. They seem to lack confidence in their position to guide and lead. They allow others to assume responsibility for the parish. They avoid pastoral relationships with parishioners and feel disconnected. Parishioners of neglectful pastors lack confidence in their understanding of the faith and don't understand why the Church gathers or what she teaches.

Permissive or indulgent parents care about their children and are involved in their lives, but are less demanding or directive. They tend to avoid confrontation and allow the children to set their own goals and standards. Few rules exist, and when those rules are broken, permissive parents are inconsistent about responding, or in the consequences they impose. While these children feel loved, they don't trust the family to protect them. Children feel insecure and don't understand the appropriate boundaries. Children from these families also tend to be very self-centered.

Indulgent pastors often think that the people in their care will not accept their advice concerning their lives and fear losing the parishioner. There are few rules and no consequences to actions. Indulgent pastors are often people-pleasers and worry about how they are perceived by others. Parishioners don't know or understand the teachings of the Church and build in their own minds their own sense of what the Church is. Parishioners of indulgent pastors often have trouble with authority.

Authoritarian parents, also called strict, are demanding but not responsive. They allow little open dialogue yet have high expectations; relying on punishment to teach obedience and lessons. While children feel loved, they don't feel respected. They have problems with authority because they don't understand why decisions are made and assume that there are no good reasons other than the power of the authority figure. Children of these families have trouble getting along with others and are often aggressive or contrary. They often have low self-esteem and poor communication skills.

Pastors who use this style are often frustrated when their parishioners  nd ways to work around them. They speak of the authority of their office instead of using logic and appealing to God's revelation. They become overly concerned with obedience and have less tolerance for personal expression. Parishioners will respond passively, sometimes just by staying away or avoiding the pastor. They will also choose not to accept roles of leadership or responsibility. Others will match the pastor's zeal in a fight.

As both a parent and a pastor, I confess that I have unconsciously used each of these parenting styles. As I look back at my life, I know that my children and parishioners can report my many shortcomings and mistakes. Had I had an awareness of these parenting styles, perhaps our lives together would have gone smoother. Yet, there are times, such as when a child runs out into traffic, when an authoritarian "Stop now!" is appropriate. There are other times when we need to be permissive, and let our children make their small mistakes. In this way they can grow to be wise adults. Perhaps there are times when we even need not to ask about certain things, so that our children can discover something for themselves. From where I sit today, however, authoritative parents and pastors who teach, love, support, and simply live well among their children and flocks do better than those who generally apply the other styles of parenting.

We don't need to be right all the time. We can show each other value and respect, always apologizing, being patient and kind, loving, caring and witnessing. At the end of the day, the parent is still the parent and the pastor is still the pastor. It is not the children who make the parent, nor the parishioner who makes the pastor. Fighting for one's position only leaves the position open to negotiation. As parents and pastors, we need to listen, teach, guide and love. This will not always convince our children, but it offers a model that builds healthy and mature Christian offspring.