Navigating the Fishbowl

We’ve bought the school clothes… but they have been untouched since the
shopping trip, still tucked in the closet, tied securely in plastic
bags from Target. School supplies, too—we’ve crossed everything off the
list, but the pencils are unsharpened, the erasers still encased in
their clear packaging.

I’ll deal with it later.

Later is Tuesday.

Could I be feeling some ambivalence about my eldest child going to
kindergarten, about seeing her swallowed up by the large yellow school

Up until now, my child’s peer groups have been very limited—a few kids in daycare half a block from our house, and children at church. As one of the church’s pastors, I have had a special vantage point to observe her interactions, even as I’ve tried not to crowd her. As the worship leader for Vacation Bible School, I snuck frequent peeks at her, singing and dancing along with the activities of the day. As the chapel teacher for the preschool, I shared the great stories of faith with her and her friends. I didn’t seek her out as she walked the halls, but I’ll admit it—when she broke away from her class to run and hug me, I didn’t object.

Tuesday is a launch of sorts. She’s ready, I know, but it will be bittersweet. Here at the church she is known and adored. But out there… who knows?

I’ve always known that she didn’t “belong” to me, but it is truer now than it has ever been.

For this reason, I have made a pact with myself: I will no longer use stories about my daughter in my preaching. I rarely did before—I used to joke in sermons: “Here is my yearly sermon illustration involving one of my kids… don’t blink or you’ll miss it.” But kindergarten seems like a fitting time to end the practice for good. Now that she will be out in the world, with friends and classmates I will not always know, with social dynamics that will swirl around her in ways I cannot imagine, I am committed not to put her questions, actions, or even her profound wisdom on display.

Different pastors handle this differently. Some ask the child for permission before using him or her in a sermon. Others make a joke out of the awkwardness, giving their child a dollar for every story told from the pulpit. Either approach can work, and in parenting as well as pastoring, standard disclaimers apply—people need to find what works for them. And our children are smart and spiritually deep—why would I declare mine off-limits when they teach me so much?

Because I am haunted by the story (perhaps apocryphal) of the pastor who started telling a story about his son, only to have the young man rise from the pews and say, “I’m sorry Dad, it is not OK for you to tell that story.” And as a recovering people pleaser myself, who often deferred to adults even when I didn’t have to, I’m not sure whether children really feel free to say No to adults about this kind of thing… no matter how many times I might reassure her that it really is OK to refuse.

The decision about preaching is part of a larger issue of parenting as a pastor. My husband is a preacher’s kid, so I have heard a lot about the “fishbowl”—the increased attention that comes from being the minister’s child. I think the fishbowl is not as confining for PKs as it used to be, but I am still aware that my mothering is very public.

How do my husband and I handle my toddler when she gets fidgety in worship, when she turns to us and asks a question in that too-loud stage whisper we both love and cringe at? If I try to shush her, is that sending a message to other parents that their kids are not free to be kids in our church? Or if I let the behavior continue, does that reflect badly on me for not being able to “control” my children? Even the decision about whether or not to circumcise our infant son was processed, however slightly, through the filter of my pastoral identity. Will the nursery workers changing his diaper think I am a hippy-dippy weirdo if I decide to keep him uncircumcised?

A few months ago, while greeting parishioners after worship, a middle-aged man in the church reached down and hugged my five-year-old who was standing nearby. She is a reserved child, and I saw her stiffen. He truly meant no harm—our church cherishes our family, and embraces each of our children—in this particular case, literally. Thankfully, it has not happened since; I know I would have had to say something. But that day, I didn’t. We’ve told her repeatedly that she can say No to any unwelcome touch, interaction or activity, whether it’s the passing of the peace or singing with the preschool choir. But did I fail her by not immediately putting a stop to his unwanted physical contact?

These kinds of questions will only continue and get more complex as my kids get older. In the meantime, it feels right to have set at least one boundary: not to bring my children into the pulpit with me.

I know this decision may have a cost. I believe in authenticity. As a mother of three, ministering in a church with lots of young families, my pastoral role is strengthened when people feel they can relate to me. Hopefully this authenticity is still possible, even though I do not intend to share stories about my children from the pulpit. I will continue to preach about my experience as a mother, when appropriate—just not about the ones I mother.

4 replies
  1. Louise
    Louise says:

    This really resonated with me, as my nearly 4 year old is leaving our church Pre-School to start nursery. I won’t be able to pop my head round the door just to be nosey!
    Your comments on whether or not to talk about your children whilst preaching made me think. I may just have to re-evaluate my thinking on that!
    Children of the Manse/Pastor’s kids are really in a unique postion. When Rebekah Grace (my daughter – aged nearly 4) was born she became ‘church property’ almost. Someone said to me recently, she’s not just your child, she’s our child as well. Mmmm?
    And oh how I appreciate/recognise your comments about what to do when yur child misbehaves in church. Last week Rebekah fell off the pew and cracked her head. You could hear the bump… and her wailing afterwards completely threw me….. So many people over coffee after the service said they were really feeling for me and her….. I wanted to stop everything and give her a hug… perhaps I should have done… but her dad was there!
    Thanks for all the issues you affirmed and questionned, I appreciated it!
    Louise in the UK

  2. Ruth
    Ruth says:

    Thanks MaryAnn-
    You have said many of the things I have been experiencing as I get ready for my daughter to start K next week too. I never included her stories in my sermons, so that isn’t my issue. And I have loved seeing her do her thing at VBS and Sunday School. But thinking about her circle out in the world widening is bittersweet. Some of my congregation members work at her school and it is so tempting to ask them to “keep an eye out” for her. Of course we do this in our neighborhood and church for one another with the children, but is it different to be watching out for the pastor’s kid? I don’t know, maybe I’m just being over-sensitive to how she may be perceived.
    Worship- after my daugher bolted to the front and did a lively and brilliant “litugical dance” behind the reader one Sunday I’m pretty sure other parents don’t feel so bad when their child “stage whispers!”

  3. ann
    ann says:

    I interviewed with someone who started telling me how she wouldn’t have put her kid through being a pk (she came to ordained ministry later). She completely horrified me. Thanks, MaryAnn, for reminding me that it may be hard, but hard does not mean impossible.
    I’m also intrigued by the bio. The kids are the most…?


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