By Johnny Levy on Apr 20, 2023
As pastors and church leaders, we play a powerful role in the formation of the members of our flock. This is an endeavor that takes immeasurable time and loving effort. However, we can sometimes forget that as fathers, we have an unparalleled role in helping to form the identities of our children. This article is specifically about fathers and sons.
Your little boy is watching your every move out of the corner of his eye, learning what it means to be a man every second he’s with you. Learning everything you teach through your example — what it means to be a pastor and a father, and what it looks like to balance the two. He’s already drawing conclusions about his priority in your life.
We all know the stories of pastors that have sacrificed their families on the altar of church service. And we want to give our best to our churches while also giving our best to our sons. As we pursue this path, let’s explore the deep needs of our sons, in order to ensure we are giving them the love they need to flourish.
Our Sons are Watching and Listening.
I am a bi-vocational pastor of a small church. I have a seven year old son. It amazes me, the things that he retains when I am not looking. I see my own habits and mannerisms reflected back to me. My little dude loves to pray. And like his daddy, he doesn’t pray short prayers. We sit at the dinner table. Who wants to pray? Jadon is ready — he goes to work. We all wait as the words tumble from his mouth. The other kids start to get restless. After minutes, I am fighting the urge to tell him to wrap it up. But whatever inconvenience comes from these long prayers, there is also a glowing pride that he bears the marks of his daddy in his habits. He’s taking what I say and do into his mind and heart. And it’s a powerful piece of what is forming him. What a wonderful, scary, amazing thing.
Fathers are so important in the early years.
A dad is incomprehensibly powerful in the life of his son, whether in presence or in absence.
In my neighborhood, growing up, there were many kids without fathers. My dad worked all the time, and I rarely got to see him during the week. Still, I always knew that he loved me. And he provided me an example of a man who worked hard to provide for his family. I had no idea what a blessing and advantage I had, simply having a dad. I have a friend, Ayinde, who grew up in my old neighborhood, Park Hill. Like me, he was one of the kids in the neighborhood who had a dad. He described to me how simply having a father who was present made him less vulnerable to being recruited by the gangs in our neighborhood. Whereas so many other kids, looking for fathers, turned to gangs to try and satisfy this unarticulated, instinctual need.
For a bit more color about my dad and my childhood, you can check out one my poems: Father’s Touch
The bottom line is this: Fathers have unspeakable power for good or evil in the lives of our sons. As pastor-fathers, we are in more danger of being absent, whether physically or mentally, because of the weighty responsibilities we bear. Here are three things your son needs to hear from you, to help shepherd him on his way to a healthy manhood.
#1 “I love You, Son” First, what is love?
The highest form of love is selfless in nature. It is truly caring about someone else for their own sake, not based on what they do for you. With true love, the object doesn’t have to be worthy in order to be loved. True love has nothing to do with performance, and does not need to be earned. It is communicated constantly in word and deed.
This is the kind of love with which we are loved by God. God does not love us because we are good. He loves us because He is good. This is foundational to the gospel. And yet, it’s easy to bypass this and create a contrary dynamic in our own homes. It’s easy to make our sons feel like they have to perform in order to earn our love and approval.
Love Him as He is, Not as You Want Him to Be
Isn’t this one reason that pastor’s kids can rebel? Because their well meaning fathers have placed a heavy burden on their kids, and not lifted a finger to help them lift it?
Sometimes I forget my son is seven, and I treat him like he’s forty. I have lofty expectations. Sometimes, when he’s not meeting my standards, I have to remind myself that he’s in process, just like me.
We do a lot of our discipline based on the fruits of the spirit. The kids all have them memorized, and we commonly pray for these graces by name. This gives a great framework for identifying behaviors. “Was that kindness you were showing, when you yelled at your sister?” It gives the kids the opportunity to stop and think for themselves, and be honest with themselves. However in this, it’s important to remember. The fruits of the spirit don’t come from our kids, they come from the spirit. Yes, we want to exhort them to the best possible behavior, but we must never neglect to keep pointing them to the source that empowers that behavior. If I push too hard to try and make my son manufacture the graces that only the holy spirit can give, I can end up breaking him down into discouragement. It’s so important to make sure I am reiterating my love for him, especially in times of conflict. When I have a hard time saying, “I love you, son,” in the midst of conflict, it’s a great indicator that I am not in the right spirit. I use these words to test my own heart.
I must remember to love him as he is, not as I want him to be. This is the love of God, who sent his son to die for us when we were enemies, knee deep in our rebellion.
We are exhorted by scripture that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. We are exhorted to share the truth in love, and love covers a multitude of sins. Few places is this more difficult to carry out than in our own homes, with our own children. Make sure that even your most necessary discipline is rooted in love for your son.
Beg the spirit to help you love your son, and say it often, and not to say it or show it contingent upon his merit.
Resist the Urge to Be Stoic
My dad didn’t come from a healthy family. In fact, as near as I can gather, he was raised by a disinterested single mom in a dangerous, urban Chicago environment. He was on his own a lot, with few good role models. I find it remarkable that he has, consistently, throughout my life, told me that he loves me. He has had no trouble saying those three words. Many men from his generation struggle to express verbal affection for their sons.
Perhaps men of that generation were taught that expressing love is weakness, and produces softness or a lack of resilience. Perhaps they were taught that expressing love is totally unnecessary; for example, a hard-working dad might think that his hard work is, in itself, an adequate expression of love.
Love Can Guard Against Insecurities.
However, the truth is, love that is not diligently expressed can lead sons to feel insecure about their father’s love. And being secure in a father’s love is foundational — like water is to a young plant. It provides essential life giving nutrients for health and well being.
Sons need to know their fathers love them. They need to know that a father’s love isn’t something they need to earn. They need to know it’s not something they can lose. This, alone, is one of the great building blocks of a secure and healthy identity.
I say this recognizing that many of us never had fathers, or had fathers who damaged us. I am not consigning you to hopelessness, just because you didn’t get the essential ingredients you needed. Life has a way of providing for us, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways and places.
The Greatest LoveOne of my well-loved passages in the scripture says, “When my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will take me up.” There was a lot that my imperfect, unavailable, working dad was unable to teach me. There were areas in which he damaged me, certainly. All dads are imperfect, except one. Whatever my earthly father was lacking, my heavenly father has provided for me.
We all have access to unlimited fatherly love from above that strengthens, establishes, and heals us. And this love can help us to love our sons better than we were loved.
Tell your son you love him frequently. No; right now. Stop reading this, and go tell him. Your mission as a father is to build him up to impossible heights through building a mountain of unshakeable love beneath his feet.
Your son needs to hear that you love him, and I don’t think you can say it to him too much.
#2 “I’m Proud of You, Son.
“It’s burned into my memory like a brand. It was my high school graduation night. I had walked off the stage, and I was facing my dad. His eyes became soft with tears. He gazed at me like he saw something I couldn’t see, something awe-inspiring and wondrous.
“I’m proud of you, son,” he said. He’d never said that before, at least not like that, so full of feeling. I could see that he was deeply moved and that he meant it. Those words entered my ears, bypassed my mind, and went straight into my soul.
Few things are as strengthening to a son as those words, honestly uttered. Your son needs to hear that you are proud of him. You want your son to be strong and confident; to have a backbone. You want him to be a man of substance in a world of frivolity and confusion. You don’t want to coddle him. As a pastor, you are held to a high standard — and you want your son to also strive for moral excellence.
Certainly, you must challenge him and hold him to a standard. But as in all things, there are dangers in the extremes. If you accept and tolerate everything, you will raise a son with no boundaries, no self-control. If you withhold your approval to the extreme, you will raise an insecure son who strives to the breaking point, unable to rest.
Give your son the rest that comes from knowing his father takes pleasure in who he is, not what he does. Tell him and show him that you are proud of him.
Find The Good in Your Son.
I have a good friend who has ministered in the trenches with me in the past. He has the most gentle, pastoral heart of any man I know. As I was wrestling through this section, I asked him the question that I think stands in the minds of many fathers. “What if I’m not proud of my son? What if he makes bad choices? Wouldn’t it be insincere and deceptive to say I am proud of him if deep down I am not?
“My friend thought about this for a moment. But not very long. Frankly, I was surprised at the depth of the answer he was able to produce in only a few seconds. “As a father, it’s your full-time job to find the things in your kids that are worthy of praise. Every child has things to be proud of. It’s up to fathers to seek out those things and call them out.”
If you find nothing at all in your son to be proud of, there is a problem with your eyes. Your son may have great flaws and many flaws. But we are not only our flaws. What if God in heaven, in His perfection, chose to see only our flaws? No soul would last the day — we’d all be ashes. We live in a world where the masses are constantly seeking validation — more likes, more shares, more views. This is because people are desperately insecure.
In a world like this, the message of unconditional human value — the imago Dei — is more important than ever before. All people are created equal, and the creator has endowed all people with innate gifts, innate value, innate purpose. Your son needs to have a place where he can exhale and know that his approval isn’t solely contingent upon his stellar performance, but where he is valued for who he actually is. He needs a place where someone will take the time to mine the cavern of his personhood and discover the gold nuggets and gems that the Lord has hidden, uniquely, inside him.
And I think this is the key. In order to truly be proud of your son, you need to take the time to know your son. This may be challenging because it’s very likely that your son doesn’t even know himself. That’s part of your job — to help him discover the precious and wonderful creation that God has fearfully and wonderfully made him to be. It’s easy to see the worst in others, especially our sons. If we’re honest, the stakes are higher with our sons because if they fail to meet our standard, it reflects on us, not only as fathers, but also as pastors. Perhaps it makes us feel like failures. And this can make us despondent or angry and more likely to be harsh in our words or withholding of our praise.
But to be great fathers, we have to let that go. Our sons are not ours to control or to mold like clay into the shapes of our preferences. They are ours to explore, and to discover, and to coach, and to guide. They are ours to affirm, and to love, and to lovingly correct.
Look at your son. Right now! Stop reading, and go take a look at your son. Make it your mission to be the expert on that which is praiseworthy in him. Have those things ready on your tongue. He needs you to see him, really see him, and to be the storyteller of the goodness and virtue that you see. He needs to hear that you are proud of him.
#3 “I’m sorry, Son.
“We are flawed beings. Sometimes we are destructive and cause harm. Often, we make mistakes. The first part of humility is understanding this to be true. Life is so good and effective to teach us not to trust ourselves, not to bank too heavily on our perfection. Our failures are our school books. As church leaders, we know this better than most. We are constantly confronted with, not only our own brokenness, but the brokenness of the people that we shepherd.
Invariably, and probably daily, we fathers will fail in our families. This can be anything from snapping at our kids with harsh annoyance to misjudging a situation, yelling, not being present mentally, or a thousand other things. We want to raise our sons to be men who are humble and self-aware, not stubborn and conceited. We want them to be open to reason and open to constructive criticism, not rigid and dogmatic about their rightness.
As fathers, we have an excellent opportunity to teach them by example. You’ll get your chance sooner than you think. Just know that when you make your next mistake and take radical responsibility, it carries massive weight, whether you can see it at the moment or not.
The Best Way to Apologize
Be quick to recognize when you are wrong. Be specific about where you went wrong. Apologize without any qualifications, disclaimers, or blame. You know what I mean. An apology isn’t a place for self-defense or justification — avoid saying things like, “I’m sorry, but you just made me so frustrated.” No one can make you frustrated — you are responsible for your own soul. Apology also not a platform for you to get the other person to apologize.
Avoid saying things after you apologize, like, “Did you have anything you wanted to say to me?” An apology is a place for radical, unqualified responsibility for what you did wrong, without any mention of what the other person did wrong. You are in control of your actions, and when you fail, it’s never anyone else’s fault, even if they “started it.” You can have a conversation about the other person’s shortcomings, but it’s a separate one. Invite your son into radical responsibility by being willing to take radical responsibility for your actions. Model the change.
In so doing, you are teaching a powerful, essential lesson. You are teaching that it’s human to make mistakes and that it’s OK to be human. If you, as a big, strong, smart dad, a pastoral leader who people turn to, can be wrong, then maybe it’s OK for your son to be wrong and not be so averse to the possibility.
Be Patient With Your Sons
Few things are more of a trigger to me than when my son absolutely refuses to see the error of his ways. My son, Jadon, is by far the most loving, sensitive, compassionate little boy I’ve ever met. But he also has a little streak of his daddy’s self-righteousness. There are rare times when it’s impossible to get him to take responsibility for the most obvious of bad decisions. He puts up a wall of defensiveness and justification. It makes me soooooo mad!!! And nearly always — more than I’d like to admit — I add my sin on top of his by becoming harsh.
Things work out the best when I am able to be patient, maintain my composure. It’s possible to administer justice and consequences while maintaining a posture of gentleness and reconciliation. It’s possible to keep gently inviting him into the restful waters of responsibility. So often, the thing that seems so impossible — the simple act of taking responsibility and saying we’re sorry — is the thing that brings immediate healing, restoration, and rest! The water is really quite warm if you join the rest of us over here as just another flawed, fallible, broken human who makes mistakes. It’s the fighting against this verdict that is so incredibly stress-inducing and exhausting. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It’s one thing that every human being has in common.
And when I am not patient, and I lose my composure with him, it becomes an opportunity for me to model for him the very thing I am asking of him. I apologize without qualification for being harsh. And it’s hard, believe me, because my inward sense of fairness is screaming, “How can you apologize?! He started it!!” I punch that inner voice in the face the best I can, say a prayer, and feel the sliver-like pain of humility in my heart. “I’m sorry, son, daddy was too harsh. Will you forgive me?
“Not always, but almost always, this is the moment when things start to change. His tight, angry face begins to soften. He dries his hot, angry tears. And sometimes, just sometimes, without my asking, he apologizes too. He’s learning. And this is a very, very hard one for humans to learn.
Be quick to apologize to your son. And be authentic in your apology. Show him the path to taking the burden of rightness and perfection off of his own shoulders and that it’s OK to be wrong, acknowledge it, take responsibility, and move on. Righteousness is not something that we have, it’s something given to us by Jesus. In order to let Jesus be our righteousness, we need to give up on finding it in ourselves. That’s the lesson you are always teaching, my brother!
The Awesome Power of a Pastor-Father
I think part of the reason fathers can do so much damage to their kids is that they don’t understand the awesome power they have in their kids’ lives. Even when kids rebel, or detach, or outwardly seem to be independent of caring what their fathers think, there is another story. Down deep, sons are built to crave the love and affection of their fathers. I think this is a reflection, or a blueprint, of our deepest and most foundational need for the love of God.
A father can be an incredibly vibrant, detailed, colorful illustration of God in the life of a son. But this power can also be incredibly destructive in fathers who are ignorant of the awesome responsibility that comes with it.
A pastor-father can be an even greater asset or a greater liability. You are not only modeling what it means to be a virtuous man, you are modeling how to be an excellent leader in the body of Christ without neglecting your first ministry — the home. The stakes are high.
Remember, your words are powerful. Use them to build up your son. Take full advantage of the power of your words, and be generous with them. Tell him you love him often. Take the time to know him deeply and to call out the good that you see. Show him humility by being quick to apologize when you are wrong. I don’t think we pastor-fathers have any idea what is possible for our precious sons, how high their branches might reach, with the right amount of watering and sunshine that comes from our smiles, our affectionate hugs, and our wise and strengthening words. May God richly bless us as we seek to do the emotional, painful, impossible, and necessary work of raising up a Godly heritage by the power of the holy spirit.
I’ll close with links to a couple more poems that convey the feeling behind the content of this post. Open ArmsJars of Fireflies
Johnny Levy (website: Levy Fam Creative)
View all articles by Johnny Levy
Johnny Levy is a poet, father, husband, pastor. You might find him turning over rocks with his wild-haired kids, having deep conversations with strangers at the supermarket, or dreaming up ways to collaborate with other creatives. His other sites include levyfamcreative.com, Johnnyspoems.com, and slampoems.com.