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Spiritual Step-Parenting

I am not the first pastor for many of the people in my church.  Some have had as many as six pastors before coming here.  One can only imagine how confusing and painful each transition has been and what they felt each time they had to submit to a new leader and adjust to a new church.  This is becoming an increasingly common reality among us, and there are vital issues generated that need to be recognized and addressed.  Healing past hurts, developing a sense of belonging, submitting to authority, integrating into the new church community, spiritual nurturing and growth, church retention, opportunity for ministry and many other issues make up this growing need.  If I agree to become a person’s pastor, I assume responsibility for his or her spiritual welfare. 

People move through several stages as they integrate into a new church and accept the leadership of a new pastor.  First, the circumstances which brought about the change may be a huge factor in how successfully they negotiate the journey.  If it was due to a simple move, a job change or some other normal shift that life often brings, the beginning of the transition may not be too traumatic.  If trouble, disappointment or some negative situation forced them out of their former church and into a new one, those issues will need attention and it will take time for the wounds to heal.  

Second, after people attend the new church for a while, the differences between the churches will become more pronounced.  Rules, customs, policies, standards, expectations and other differences need to be processed in their minds.  Some new things will be a welcome change for them, but some will not.  How well they do will depend largely on how they were discipled in the first place.  Their own personality will also be a major factor.  

Third, they will go through a period of adjustment to the new pastor’s personality and leadership style.  During this time, they will determine whether or not they sense genuine love and care, whether they can grow, whether their family and friends will like the new pastor and church, and whether they will be an active participant or a pew-sitter.   They will also assess the community of church members in the new congregation on the same basis.  Do they like the people?  Can they relate to them?  

The fourth stage is related to the third:  will they buy into the vision, the passion and the spirit of the new church?  How soon, if ever, will they refer to it as “my church?”  

Fifth, will they settle in and sink their roots into the new church?  Up to this point, everything else can be done at arm’s length.  In this final stage, they fully identify with the new church and will accept everything about it.  


In several significant ways, changing churches and pastors may be compared to step-parenting.  If we can understand the feelings of a step child as he or she adjusts to a stepfather or stepmother, we can gain valuable insight into a person’s heart when joining a new congregation.  Here are some of the common expressions that stepchildren make about their new parent: 

  • You are not my real Dad or Mom.
  • You don’t really know me.
  • You don’t have any right to tell me what to do.
  • I don’t want to be here.
  • Your rules are stupid.
  • You’re worse than my real Dad (or Mom).
  • You don’t love me.
  • You don’t want me here.
  • Why don’t you just go away and leave us alone?   

These emotions run extremely deep.  The step parent who makes light of them will probably never win the love and commitment of the step child.  Step-parenting requires much more work than natural parenting because of the lack of congenital rights, the biological differences in genetic backgrounds, the lack of emotional bonding that natural parenting involves, overcoming the pain of separation from the natural parent and the resentment that that the stepchild harbors for the whole situation in the first place.  

Spiritual Step-children 

Let me now speak directly to the one making the change.  In order for this person to fully adjust to a new church, he or she must start with the right attitude. 

  • I must be saved.
  • I need a pastor and a church to be saved.
  • I didn’t want to change churches but I had no other choice.
  • I will do whatever I need to do to forgive and be healed from past hurts.
  • I realize that I may have bad days, but I will get through them with God’s help.
  • There are things I still love about my old church so I will not become bitter against them.
  • This new pastor and church is not responsible for what happened to me.
  • I will not transfer my suspicion and resentment to the new church.
  • I may go slowly, but I will make steady progress and I will not go backwards.
  • I am going to give the new church and pastor the benefit of the doubt.           

After you are in a new church for a length of time, you must take certain positive steps in order for the integration process to develop.  You should reinforce your basic spiritual disciplines like prayer, bible-reading, church attendance and producing the fruit of the Spirit.  Ask questions of people about different aspects of the new church, not in a confrontational way but to gain insight into their thinking and style.  Try not to compare the new church to your former one.  You may like some differences, but other things you won’t.  You will need a lot of grace and forbearance to get past a few things.  God will help you if you continually submit to him and keep your priorities in place.  

Love stands alone as the primary motivation for all the personal decisions we make in our lives, especially in relationships.  How do you start to love a new church?  Can anyone just decide to love and, “Voila”, everything happens at once?  Hardly.  Yet, you know you have to.  To begin, you need to keep in mind the reason for going to church—to get closer to God.  So, do it.  Focus on the spiritual aspect of the services.  Worship God, even if you have a hard time with the church’s music.  Pray earnestly, even though you don’t know who the prayer requests are for.  Listen and respond to the preaching, even though it’s delivered differently than you are used to.  Spend time in the prayer room.  Pray with people around the altars.  These are practices that shouldn’t require any adjustment, and, more importantly, they will increase your sensitivity to God so he can lead you further.  

When you concentrate on spiritual activities, the people in the new church will notice.  Nothing is more attractive to them than those who come into their midst showing a genuine devotion to God.  Share your testimony with them.  Talk about the scriptures.  Let them feel your spirit and attitude.  After all, they come to church for the same reason you come.  When they sense your love for God, you set them at ease.  A major hurdle melts away and you open the door for new relationships to form.  

Spiritual Step-parenting 

Let’s go back to the stepfather analogy.  The best a stepfather can do is set up the opportunity to gain the trust and love of his new child.  He may take him fishing, hunting or some other activity that interests the child.  He may take her to the mall and let her shop for some new clothes on his credit card.  He may offer to help with homework.  Each time this happens, a chance for interaction and bonding opens up.  The stepfather cannot make the decision to accept—only the child can do that.  Yet, there are some kids who refuse to “take the bait.”  Why?  Because they think, “You’re just doing this to get me to love you.”  Or, “I don’t care what you do, I’m not going to accept you as my dad.”            

This leads the relationship to a critical juncture.  The stepfather may react to the attitude of the stepchild by saying, “Okay, fine.  If you don’t want to be with me, then I don’t want to be with you.  I didn’t ask for you to come into my home in the first place.  I don’t have to do anything for you.  You’re not my kid.”  When this happens, he inflicts enormous emotional damage upon the child.  Because he is the more mature, he must rein in his visceral reactions.  Every parent has to put a guard on his or her feelings in the presence of the child.           

The pastor of someone who comes from another church must take the initiative in building a bridge to him or her.  An earnest conversation in the office can open the door.  There are many facts to learn about the new person, most of which are fairly predictable.  If no church troubles precipitated the move, then there is not much reason to delve any deeper than the obvious.  Conflicts with the former church or pastor, however, present a somewhat different problem.  This calls for some specific steps:           

  • Forgive any real or perceived offense. This is absolutely necessary.
  • You may listen, but only deal with general facts about the past.
  • Communicate with the former pastor.
  • Ask the person not make negative comments about the former pastor or church.
  • Encourage the person to begin a new chapter in life.
  • Help the new member to chart a course to involvement and spiritual growth. 

These developments will not happen overnight, although some people get a foothold more quickly than others.  Monitor the progress.  Never presume to succeed where the former pastor may have failed.  Cull out your own prejudices.  Make sure you are doing everything in a spirit of love, understanding and positive expectation.            

In our increasingly mobile society, we will deal more and more with spiritual step-children.  The receiving pastor’s goal is to make it seem like these new people just came home.  With the right treatment, they will soon call it “my church!”  That is a good feeling for everyone!

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