the parent trap

When I was young, my parents determined what I ate, what I wore and—as much as is possible with a strong-willed child—how I behaved. (They also determined the punishments when I misbehaved.) That’s what parents do.

Now my folks and I relate as adults. I still honor their role, and I try to submit to them as I would to any other believer, but all three of us set boundaries and make our own choices. We even argue occasionally.

In last week’s enews from Crossroads Christian Church in Anthem, AZ, lead pastor Steve Wyatt wrote about the difference between parent-child forms of interaction (in which one participant assumes a domineering role and the other passively submits) and the adult-adult form (in which two adults relate to each other as peers).

Steve says, “Far too often, the church traffics in the realm of the Parent-Child relationship. Leaders function in the role of the authoritative “Dad” and faithfully discharge their duties in a rather dictatorial fashion.

In some church traditions, Christians aren’t taught how to think, they’re told what to think. They’re handed a creedal statement and told to memorize it. Young people are given lists of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ rather than schooled in the art of discernment and wisdom…..

The fact is, the single most popular approach in religion is the Jim Jones model of discipleship (remember him?). He’s the grape Kool-Aid cult leader who led nearly 1000 people to follow him right into the jaws of self-imposed death. That’s the approach of many in religious circles: Treat your flock like mindless children. Demand their acquiescence. Keep them dependent on you and you alone for life’s answers. Create dependency over discipleship.

That’s the Parent-Child approach to church leadership. And it works. In fact, dare I say it? Most of the so-called ‘megachurches’ in our culture function according to this model.”

These are bold statements. And, in some ways, correct ones. I know several megachurch ministers who prefer this parent-child method. (I’ll send you a list for $19.95 plus shipping and handling.)

I also know some who take this approach with their staff; in fact, just last week I heard about another one, a pastor who, without all the facts, belittled a staff member’s ministry and questioned the person’s key relationships under the guise of helping the person “be a good example.” Instead of acting like a spiritual leader, inviting the staff member’s perspective, or—at the least—treating the person like a team member, the pastor mandated conformity to his uninformed ideas of what the staffer’s life should look like.

But I also know senior leaders who quite rightly would bristle at the implication they want church members or staff to mindlessly follow them. Of course, they teach the scriptures unapologetically; adult-adult relationships are not about diluting the truth or making everyone feel good. But some issues really do have more gray than black and white, and many leaders really do want people to study, pray, and develop their own faith.

Which is also God’s preference. If anyone has the right to invoke a parent-child dynamic, it’s the Father, but he requires us to make choices, experience consequences and “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

It’s easier, quicker, and more satisfying in the short term to tell people what to think, how to behave, or how to feel; it’s much more difficult and time-consuming to dialogue, explain, and listen. It requires more maturity to accept conflict and messiness as part of the process, and to accept that the process may take decades.

Basically, it requires people to be adults, and the root problem is many leaders—in and outside the church—never learned to relate this way. In these situations we must still honor their roles and submit to their authority. But we can also set boundaries, make choices, and even argue occasionally. It’s what adults do.