Several years ago I was feeling like a total failure as a father and, because of that, also feeling like a failure as a church leader.
At the time, one of my sons was going through a period that brought grief to my wife and myself. Which son it was and the details of the struggle are not the significant part of this story. I have realized that almost all parents go through difficult times when the teen years hit. What I learned on a certain day in Alabama is.
I was on my way to Montgomery for a meeting. I had at least two hours of travel and I was alone. My mind went to the situation in my family and the more I thought about it the worse I felt and the more discouraged I became.
I tried to discern where I had gone wrong as a father; where I had failed as a parent. Because I felt that the pastor should be an example, I also believed that I was failing as a leader. I was contemplating just resigning. I didn’t know what I would do but, at least, we would be out from under the microscope.
Finding no solace in my thoughts, I decided to find an “oldies” station on the radio. That meant music from the 1960s. Before I was married. Before I had kids. Before my failures. I flipped through the stations seeking for music that would carry me back, at least for a short time, to happier days. I didn’t want to pray, didn’t want to hear Christian radio, and didn’t want talk radio. I just wanted some peace for a few minutes without torment.
As I dialed, I hit upon a station that was featuring a program by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I did not want to hear anything he had to say. I wasn’t in the mood to be preached at or lectured by someone on the radio.
I moved to changed stations when Dobson said, “The biggest lie ever bought by American parents is, if they had been better parents and had provided a better environment, their kids would be better than they are.” My hand froze in mid-air and slowly lowered to the seat. I decided to listen.
I don’t remember very much about the next 20 minutes or so. I do remember that Dobson said something like, “Raising kids is like riding a roller coaster … it’s scary and the highs are really high and the lows are really low.” Well, I understood that and right then I was about as low as one could get. I continued to listen.
What I do remember is the punch line of the teaching Dobson was sharing. He said, “Our first parents (Adam and Eve), had the perfect parent (God). This perfect parent placed them in the perfect environment (Eden). And Adam and Eve made bad choices.” Parentheses added by me.
Certainly, I was not a perfect parent. I was even wondering if I should have ever become a parent at all. We lived in less than the perfect environment. The parsonage is, in a very real sense, life in a fishbowl. Not only do people look at you, they look at your family.
While most people are really good people, there are always those critical people that have nothing good to say. There’s a reason that up to 80% of pastors leave the pastoral ministry within five years of seminary graduation or ordination. Unlike families that suffer privately when something goes wrong, nearly every aspect of the minister’s life is public.
But, as Dobson said, even the perfect parent who provided the perfect environment had children who made bad decisions and got themselves into trouble. Was that God’s fault? No, it was not.
What about me? Did I bear some responsibility? Yes, I did. But I didn’t bear the totality of the responsibility. Some of it may have been my fault, but it wasn’t ALL my fault. People have choices. People make decisions. Not all of those choices and decisions turn out well.
I didn’t feel absolved. But I did feel some relief. I turned off the radio and contemplated on what I had heard. Dr. Dobson spoke the truth in that broadcast and I felt better for it. On the return trip, I did pray. I prayed for forgiveness for the failures that were mine, for wisdom to know what and what not to do, and prayers for the strength to realize that people — even my own sons — are going to choose, no matter what advice they are given. They will make their own way in the world.
I also remembered that God did not give up on Adam and Eve. And neither would I, I decided. And I didn’t. The events of those days are over now, the memories are all that remain and they are fading away.
In the course of life, it wasn’t just the one son who brought and experienced pain to himself and his family. They all did to one extent or another at various times. Eventually, all my sons learned to own up to their mistakes and bad choices and sought to make better choices.
Today they are grown with families of their own and I am proud of them all. If and when they experience heartache because of the kids (and it will probably happen), I hope they heed the counsel of Dr. Dobson. They are not perfect fathers and they, try as they might, cannot provide a perfect environment.
So, my counsel to them and to any parent, is — just do your best and hang on and ride the ride. The highs will be high and the lows will be low. And, before you know it, or are ready for it, the ride will be over, and you will wish you had more time.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]