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9 Ways to Encourage the Parents of Prodigals

9 Ways to Encourage the Parents of Prodigals

Parenthood has been described as having “a piece of your heart walking around outside your body.” If this is true, then having a prodigal child means standing helpless as you watch that heart being trampled and abused. One parent described the feeling as “witnessing a living death.”

The ache of watching a prodigal child continuously make damaging and dangerous decisions cannot be fully understand unless you’ve traveled this journey with your own prodigal. Maybe that’s why well-meaning people make hurtful comments without realizing the pain they’ve caused. When the parents are pastors and ministry leaders, the pain is magnified by the addition of criticisms of their ministry.

A recent survey of parents of prodigals reveals the following comments they wish people would keep to themselves:

This, too, shall pass/It’s only a stage.

Of course it will pass. Everything we experience here is temporary. But this doesn’t make it any less painful when a parent watches his child’s destructive choices.

God will save your child/Train up a child in the way he should go…

Well-meaning Christians often quote Proverbs 22:6 as assurance that the prodigal will come to saving faith in Christ and live a fruitful life for God. But this verse is not a guarantee of salvation. Instead, as one mother said, “it just turns up the hiss of condemnation - that it’s because I didn’t train them up well that they aren’t Christians.”

You did the best you could for him/You gave him every opportunity.

One parent explained, “I know they want to lift my pain, but knowing I did everything I could doesn’t ease my pain. It is not me that I am brokenhearted for, it is him. I am brokenhearted for the previous pain that drove him to this…for the present despair as well as danger he is experiencing…and for the future loss that he might never recover.”

Are you practicing “tough love” until he repents?

It’s a familiar question heard by parents of prodigals, especially prodigals following a homosexual lifestyle.

One ministry leader observed, “The response I get the most and have come to despise: ‘Do you have anything to do with him?’” She goes on to say, “We are sick at the path our son has chosen, but we love our son and will not turn our backs on him. We pray every day for God’s strong arm to hold us up as we reach out to him.”

It’s because your ministry came at the expense of your family.

A ministry couple who works with urban youth has struggled with accusations of poor parenting. “People have said we spend too much time in ministry working with other people’s children that our own son became a prodigal because he felt neglected.” These judgments are often passed without knowing the intimate details about the parents and the prodigal.

Any news?

This is a frustrating question for any parent of a prodigal. They appreciate the concern, but as a struggling parent explained, “I’m embarrassed when people ask me how he is doing all the time. If he gets saved I will be shouting it from the house tops!”

Parents may not even know how to answer. One mom noted, “It is not uncommon for him to cut me out of his life completely.” Parents can’t answer the question if they haven’t had any recent information about their prodigal, good or bad.

Even if the prodigal shows progress, parents may be reluctant to share the good news too quickly. One mother in ministry leadership shared, “It seems that every time I share a praise for him, the very next day he would fall even deeper. I would go back and retract my report, so everyone would continue to pray.”

Parents of prodigals also have a wish list of comments they yearn to hear:

I’m praying…

Parents carry a constant burden for their prodigal. Prayers for their child are rarely far from their heart and their lips. Knowing their family and friends are sharing the burden of prayer is a precious gift.

One ministry leader shared, “I wish they would join me in praying for my prodigals, right then and there with me, and then continue as the Holy Spirit brings my kids to their minds.” The parent of a prodigal daughter noted that only the Lord has the power to change her child’s heart. “The best thing people can say is that they will pray for my child to turn to God.”

You are not alone.

Watching other families can be painful. Although everyone has their issues, Sunday mornings usually bring out the best in families…at least on the surface. Parents of prodigals often feel as if they are alone, that no one else can relate or understand.

One parent revealed her vulnerability when she said, “Friends who listen and allow me to cry are the best.”

Repentance is often a process.

Familiarity with the Parable of the Prodigal Son has conditioned many of us to expect prodigals to wake up one day and experience a sudden and dramatic repentance. But as one pastor’s wife said, “I wish people would give her permission to come back gradually rather than a grand display of public repentance. Few of us came back that way!”

I will do my part.

A ministry leader with two prodigals yearns for people to “pray and ask God if there is any way he would have them connect with my prodigals and then follow through.”

Another mom hurts for her daughter and also longs for others who know her child to come alongside. “I wish believing friends would speak biblical truth into my child. Her [social media] page is shocking. There are over sixty of my Christian friends on her page, yet not one has spoken truth to her regarding her posts….It can’t always come from her mom. Call her. Take her to lunch.”

Finally, parents hunger for support from their pastors:

Acknowledge there are prodigals within the church family

It sounds simple, yet is often overlooked. Many parents sit quietly in church each week, embarrassed to admit the pain they carry. They long to hear their pastor acknowledge the issue of prodigals in the church family. It’s certainly not a new topic. After all, God is the perfect Parent, yet ended up with two prodigals in the Garden!

One ministry leader with a prodigal suggested the best thing pastors can do is to “be sensitive. Be encouraging. Realize that some suffer in silence because they are afraid their church family will not understand.”


As pastors become aware of prodigals in their ministry’s families, of course they’re expected to pray. Many do pray, privately and individually.

However, corporate prayers in ministry often mention specific troubles such as health problems, financial difficulties, and broken marriage relationships. Rarely is the issue of prodigals mentioned, which reinforces the parents’ sense of isolation and implies this is not an issue within the congregation.

Point them to God

Parents of prodigals don’t expect their pastors and ministry leaders to have a magic bullet to resolve their situation. But even the strongest Christian parents need to be reminded to look up. As one mom said, “I wish they would point me to Jesus, his character and sovereignty, and the hope that is in him and the power of the Gospel. I need reminding!”

She continued, “I do find great comfort in the unfailing love of God our Father, which can do more for my son, out there on the streets, than I could if he were sleeping down the hall.”  

Encourage the parents to seek comfort in God’s Word

One mother of a prodigal son shared that her ministry leader “encouraged me to find a Scripture to pray and claim, which led me to Psalm 13:5. At times I have to dig my nails into my palms and repeat it over and over, but without fail, eventually the Holy Spirit calms me with the truth of that verse, and I can believe it for my son.” The verse? “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (NIV).

Another ministry leader said, “I cling to Habakkuk 3:17-18. It helps me to give myself ten minutes in the morning and my last thoughts of the day to my son. I can crawl up in God's lap and cry during that time and then leave my son with Him and focus on the work God has for me to do.”

Offer to meet with the prodigal and provide resources 

Their sense of isolation often leaves parents of prodigals unsure of the resources available to them. Is there a support group available in the church? Written resources to encourage them?

As with their friends, these parents long for their pastors to offer to meet with their prodigal. Even if the prodigal refuses, the offer and effort goes a long way in ministering to the parents.

One common thread running through every parent’s survey response was a sense of relief and gratitude that someone acknowledged the issue of prodigals within the church family. As we all learn what to say—and what not to say—we can minister to these hurting families, wrapping them in the love of God and of his people. It’s really all they’re asking for.

DRAva Pennington teaches a Bible Study Fellowship class. She is also the author of Daily Reflections on the Names of God: A Devotional, published by Revell Books and endorsed by Kay Arthur.

Publication date: September 10, 2014