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Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Hardest Hit: Pastor's Sons

While offering individual instruction for the Christian Nice Guy problem throughout the United States and Canada, I’ve discovered a dangerous pattern: The group of men who ask for help the most are pastor’s sons.


Let that sink in for a moment.  Think about its ramifications.


In No More Christian Nice Guy, I wrote about subtle and overt forms of spiritual neglect from the pulpit to the pews when we are encouraged to emulate a gentle Jesus meek and milk who really did not exist.  Now I’m going to reveal one of the most damaging forms of spiritual abuse that comes from the pews to the pulpit.  And like most spiritual abuse, it isn’t intention, though the result is sure real.


The pastor’s sons I work with are almost always separated, divorced, or on the verge of divorce.  Their wives or ex-wives complain that they just don’t possess the kind of vigor or fire that they want from a husband.  They sometimes complain that their husbands drain them of energy instead of invigorating them.


These men often have no definable self, a fact their wives point out, sometimes with disgust, when walking out the door.  Our sermons encourage us to have self-control, but these men don’t have a self to control in the first place.  They are anchorless and are often too easily influenced by others.


Because they’ve been trained to be pleasant to everyone, they often over-yes and under-no others.  Many think that it’s simply wrong to tell others “no.”  And when they do, they lose sleep at night.  Being human, having boundaries, feels unnatural and sinful to them.


They are resentful of how people have treated them and their families, and because they don’t think they should experience or own negative feelings, they don’t know what to do with them.  They often denounce them as unchristian as opposed to being honest and working through them.  As a result of poor treatment from others, they do not trust others very well, including their wives.


They are known by many, but not knowable in part because they possess personas, an assumed identity, but not discernable personalities.  They feel that they have been forced to play rolls in life, to wear masks (one of the original meanings of “persona”), which is exhausting and depletes them of integrity and healthy self-confidence.  Integrity makes us conspicuous, and it is always painful.  It’s important to realize that the word Jesus used for “hypocrite” while denouncing the Pharisees literally means “wearer of masks” (Matt. 23:13).


They know the right words to use in marriage—they know how to perform—but they don’t know how to deeply love another person.  This is what personas do: they are like holograms and holograms by nature are all surface, no substance.


They think that never showing indignation (which includes as part of its original meaning “much to grieve”) or other forms of healthy anger toward anything or anyone and always remaining gentle are among the highest forms of spiritual maturity, even though Jesus wasn’t always gentle and pleasant.  More so, their spiritual training has them believing that it’s wrong to not be gentle.  But if this is true, then Jesus was wrong.  Jesus sinned.


For example, one son of a pastor who asked me to help him overcome passivity in marriage told me how his mother’s “gentle spirit” made her the perfect Christian woman.


“She was always so gentle,” he said warmly.  “She never got angry about anything.  She was perfect!” he gushed like a child.


My inner Dr. Phil came out.  “Perfect?!” I exclaimed.  “In more than 25 years of ministry, she had to have seen wickedness and evil tearing people apart.  She had to have seen divorce, adultery, child abuse, drug addiction, homicide and even suicide.  And she never became indignant when she saw that kind of destruction, the way Jesus was indignant?!”


There is much to grieve in this life, and responding to life’s destructive forces gently instead of with indignant power may well make us accomplices to these destructive forces.  For many, gentleness is a disguise for being dispassionate spectators of life and a hiding place for fear and passivity. 


The pastor’s sons who ask for help are always expected to be happy, one of the most damaging myths in evangelicalism today.  I call this the Happiness Mentality, and it needs to go away.


Here’s an example from my own life that I write about in my upcoming book, Unleashing Courageous Faith.  I went to a funeral of someone I loved and the minister said that we should not shed tears because he was with Jesus now.  “This is not a day of mourning, but of celebration!” he said, with a level of enthusiasm that appeared fake to me.  He didn’t even seem to believe what he was saying.  He spoke as if he was following a script.


“Celebration?!” I thought.  “I loved this guy.  I’m not going to celebrate his death, I’m going to weep his loss.”


True to the Happiness Mentality that we slavishly idolize, this talker of spiritual matters did not allow for the spectrum of human life, love, and longing because this spectrum is not considered “spiritual.”  He didn’t allow for both weeping and celebration.  True to his spiritual training, he axed the negative stuff and gave us a plateful of spiritual dessert.


And instead of leading us toward a more loving and compassionate orientation toward life as it really is, he encouraged a very selfish approach toward those closest to the family man.  Why express your condolences to his 12-year-old daughter who just lost her father when the spiritual leader just told you there’s nothing really to cry about?  She remains untouched and unloved.  The Happiness Mentality in many ways is actually a cruel mentality.


This plastic world of our own making helps to make the Christian faith appear more and more irrelevant and ill. 


Pastor’s sons who find No More Christian Nice Guy indispensable have not been allowed to exercise a real will of their own.  Instead, their wants, needs, desires and dreams have been subjected to the will of others.  As a result, they are pretty much the ideal Christian child because they are tremendously pleasant to be around, but they later flounder in adult life.


Ultimately, these pastor’s sons just don’t feel safe in life, and if you gave them a shot of sodium pentothal—truth serum—my guess is most of them would say that it’s sinful to be human.


A dear friend of our ministry in Wisconsin once told a pastor’s son something that is worth repeating to many other pastor’s sons and daughters.  Like many children of ministers, he felt he always had to be “up” and always had to have an answer to most every question.  So she turned to him while working on the same project and said, “You don’t always have to be happy and you don’t always have to have an answer.  It’s okay to not know something.”  These are wise and compassionate words that we should keep in mind as we do our part to change this terrible situation.


Pray for the pastor’s sons and daughters who you know.


Treat their parents with dignity when you disagree with them.


A friend of mine, Nate Larkin, Founder of Samson Society ( and author of Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood, is a pastor’s son who knows the pressure they feel to live two very different lives.  Here’s what he recommends: “Let the kid be a kid.  He’s not a representative of the pastor, nor is he responsible for upholding his father’s reputation.  Let him make his mistakes.  Give him the same grace you’d give any other kid in the church.”


Second, “Don’t compete with the kid for his father’s attention.  Too many pastor’s kids grow up feeling that the congregation comes first in their father’s affections.  As a result, they become either resentful and rebellious or overly compliant and artificial in an effort to attract their father’s attention.”


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Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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