Ken Evers-Hood: A case for good-enough parenting and pastoring

Small boy walking alone in a field, city skyline in the distance

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Mary and Joseph lost Jesus amidst the Passover crowds. They tried their best but weren’t perfect, and I don’t have to be either, writes a pastor.

With the advent of Advent, I find myself thinking of Mary and Joseph. But not the young couple making their weary way to Bethlehem with a pregnant Mary astride a donkey without air bags or, heaven help her, a seat warmer. Not the Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt only to escape again into Nazareth.

This Advent, the Mary and Joseph on my mind are not the parents of the infant Jesus but the parents of Jesus the boy. The holy couple who somehow lose sight of their precocious 12-year-old amidst the crush of the Passover crowds. Luke concludes the infancy narratives with this story, but the twist always seems to get lost.

I think it’s because the story is embarrassing. Sure, Jesus does OK. He finds his way to the temple and for three days mystifies scholars with his incredible knowledge. We like this part. But hold on -- Jesus was missing for three days? How did Joseph and Mary let this happen? What kind of parents could allow this to happen?

In today’s atmosphere of hypervigilance, we freak out if parents allow children to walk to a local park by themselves for an hour. Jesus was AWOL for three days? My mom loves to tell my kids that when I was 4 I took my Big Wheel, crossed a busy street that was explicitly forbidden and pedaled to my older brother’s elementary school. When she found me there, I was laughing and said, “I bet you thought I was lost, Mommy!” With the same mix of relief and anger Mary expresses in Luke’s Gospel, my unamused mother escorted me home and placed my Big Wheel on the highest shelf in the garage. She didn’t take it down for what felt like an eternity.

As a father of three and a working pastor, I have to say that I kind of love Mary and Joseph’s lack of parental perfection. They show us what British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called “good-enough” parenting. After observing thousands of parents, Winnicott concluded that children benefit when their parents fail them in small, safe ways rather than hovering over them to meet every need.

Of course, Winnicott knew about parental neglect, and he saw firsthand the serious and real damage such neglect could inflict. Being a “good-enough” parent never allows for any kind of abuse, but what Winnicott added to our understanding is how damaging overparenting can be. Winnicott observed that when hovering parents demand too much, children will create false selves for protection. Outwardly, these very nice children behave well, achieving and performing to parental expectations, but inwardly they suffer, feeling cut off from a deep sense of purpose or self. “Good-enough” parents, by frustrating their children in manageable ways, actually strengthen the children’s ability to stand on their own.

As a parent, I like knowing I don’t have to be perfect. As a pastor, I realize how important it is to hear this message during Advent and Christmas.

This year will mark my 14th year to celebrate Christmas as a pastoral leader. Each of those years, I have felt the pressure of this season, torn between wanting to join my family and friends on vacation and handling a mountain of details, demands and expectations.

There’s a Christmas Eve sermon to write, and the desire to preach a message that somehow offers a fresh, meaningful angle on a story everyone knows. There’s more pastoral care than usual, with more people, especially those coping with grief and holiday-related depression, seeking us out. And this year, there’s real turmoil and fear in the world, an impending presidential election and a controversy over red Starbucks cups to add to the mix.

Pastors are facing extra pressure from others this season, but the truth is that we also place a lot of this extra burden on ourselves. We know that more people will show up in the pews this time of year. And while we know intellectually that church health isn’t about putting up big numbers, we want to make the most of the opportunity. We know we are uniquely positioned to offer what no one else can this season: gospel words of light and hope in a very dark time indeed. Behind our jaded comments, even the grinchiest pastor wants to hit it out of the park during Advent and Christmas. This is a lot of pressure to feel. Especially over something we don’t have the ability to produce on our own.

This Christmas, pastors, I want to give you a gift of the best Christmas story we don’t tell: the story of Mary and Joseph losing Jesus. Because that’s what happens. As hard as they were working to be great parents, as much as they wanted the holiday season to be perfect, they failed to do the only thing they really had to do -- keep an eye on the boy. They weren’t perfect, but they were good enough. They kept looking for Jesus, and eventually they discovered he was right where he needed to be all along, even without their help, thank you very much.

I applaud you if you already have all of your Advent and Christmas sermons written, as well as all of the details handled for the children’s play. If you know exactly what to say to the grieving parents in your office, thanks be to God. If you’ve arranged your calendar so that you have ample time for all of your family’s holiday festivities, congratulations. But if you don’t -- if you are more like me -- take heart.

In fact, lift up your head, because you may be a better pastor than you think. Winnicott observed how overparenting can create dependency in children. When we try to meet every need in our congregation, we unwittingly do some of the work that isn’t really ours to do. Sometimes, part of what it means to grow in faith is to learn how to be thankful for a pastor who disappoints our unrealistic demands because she has learned how to say no. And by not rushing around chasing after an imagined ideal, by spending time in prayer and rest, we might actually model something better than perfect: faithfulness. And by God’s grace, we might discover again how our faithfulness is good enough.

In my 14 years, I’ve never had it all together, and this year isn’t looking much better. I have never been the perfect pastor. But this year, I’ve given myself a gift from Mary and Joseph: I don’t need to be. This year, may we know that being good enough is enough, trusting that God through the Holy Spirit really will show up as God always does: in a way no one expects.