My mother chuckled as she penned her poem, a parody of “The Church in the Wildwood,” entitled, “The Wild Woods in the Church.” In our small congregation, three separate and unrelated Wood families occupied the pews. While the other two Wood families consisted of only a few folks, my father’s family influence spread across several generations including siblings who served in every aspect of church ministry. Even my brother and I, adolescents at the time, served in music as well as youth and children’s programs.
Church had become so integral in our lives, I never gave a thought to how dominant our family had become within our small congregation until my mother wrote her poem. Fortunately, no one was offended, and both she and the pastor had a good laugh.
Through the decades of my church experience, I continued to serve in key ministerial positions as did my husband. Career changes and moves afforded opportunity to become involved with many denominations. One element I observed was the tendency of many congregations to have one or more dominant families—consisting of multiple generations and extended relations. Often this was a good thing. Other times, this created many headaches for the pastor.
I asked a pastor friend of mine if he ever experienced this phenomenon. “Twice,” he said. In one experience he shared, four generations of active congregants spread across nearly every aspect of ministry, including financial management. The patriarch of the family was a well-loved leader and served on the board for many years. The extended family web included grandchildren as well as great-grandchildren, many of whom maintained vital roles in the church. “I was touched by generations of humility and cooperation. Their knowledge of the community and church history was invaluable.” As illness and disability became paramount with older family members, my friend found the younger generations were helpful in resolving conflicts that arose due to severe dementia and dysfunction. The family unity avoided a potentially hurtful and divisive situation.
“At times,” my pastor friend continued, “ I worried the reaching influence of this family might create division, especially when they disagreed with one another. At times, meetings became them against me. Fortunately, the board was able to come together. Eventually, this dominant family and I agreed to disagree.”
My friend’s experience echoed my personal observations through my years of service within varied denominations. I came to realize dominant families have the potential to create friction; however, in most instances a dominant family can be a blessing.
Sometimes, the influence of dominant families can be viewed by others within the congregation in negative ways. Derision is germinated by seeds of jealousy and characterized by references to a dominant family’s perceived ownership. A pastor may find himself in the unenviable position of serving as mediator to facilitate healing and resolution from these misperceptions.
Divisions often result when a pastor puts personal agenda ahead of the needs of the church and perhaps feels the dominant family is thwarting these ambitions. Rather than fight the dominant family’s influence, the wise pastor will learn to utilize that influence to understand church history and elicit the dominant family’s support in necessary transitions.
Sometimes the dominant family is so intricately involved with the church, members have difficulty letting go of territorial issues. Most often this is because of deep concern generated from decades of service. Pastors can utilize the dominant family’s love and commitment to the church as well as their influence in the community. Remembering these positives will help when conflict arises.
Pastor Steve’s advice?
“Let love prevail. Most importantly, learn to separate personal ambition, hopes, and desires for the church from its spiritual needs as you strive to fulfill the ministry of the church”
Linda Wood Rondeau