Family of Origin Impacts How We Minister

Oblate School of Theology

By Fr. Bryan Silva, OMI, PsyD

Originally Published on the Oblate School of Theology Blog

(Editor’s Note: The following article, written for priests/brothers in ministry, is also an excellent source for reflection for anyone who would like to improve their work and everyday relationships.)

I learned to be……

In our family of origin, we learn many important lessons and also ways to apply guidelines in relationships. From this background, we gain a healthy respect for adults, a keen ear for impending conflict and a set of skills to cope with the daily struggles of life. When accepting the ministry of priest or pastor, we bring these learned responses with us.

Fr. Al grew up in a “normal” household. He had a loving mom who stayed home to raise her children and a father who worked very hard. Dad would often stop after work with friends to have a drink before coming home.  Each time a thorny issue came up in family discussions dad invoked his favorite saying:  “We do not discuss those things!” He avoided lots of conflict or difficult questions by this means of denial. His mom would always say “if you don’t ____, I won’t ____.” But the consequence never came. Lil Al could count on not being confronted with his areas of weakness, and so he did not grow.

When we enter a ministry position, whatever it may be, we bring these unwritten rules and coping skills with us. As a pastor, Fr. Al never learned how to “give and take” with the staff or to talk out a difference of opinion. He was known for cutting off the conversation before he lost any ground. He would exercise his own form of “we do not talk about those things.” He became manipulative in his relationships in the parish and would threaten to cut off benefits to those who did not see things his way. What is this saying about his ministry?

Although his parents got their needs met through the control they had over their children; power is not the nature of our relationship with God’s people. We are not placed in the role of parent to them nor in positions of responsibility in order to get our own ego needs met. We are presumed to be mature enough to meet these ego needs without damaging others. We are meant to be examples to others of how to have loving, non-genital, healthy relationships. These ends are jeopardized when we blindly carry our childhood or adolescent issues into pastoral ministry. The image of the “angry celibate” has been around for a long time. We tend to play right into this image when we are not aware of the tenor of our relationships with people.

What can we do to change the negative impact of our familial background?

I believe that several things may help:

1.) Think through the way our family operated. Where are we allowed to express our thoughts and feelings? Were we stifled in this by an atmosphere of fear or denial? Were rules flexible and open to different situations? Could difficult issues be brought up respectfully and discussed? Was communication direct and clear? Were decisions and rules based on “reality” or on past or future maybes?

2.) Count the times we catch ourselves saying or thinking “this is not up for discussion!” This may indicate the over all tone of our ministry stance. We might find that we are precluding issues/topics that make us uncomfortable. If so, explore these issues/ topics in our own lives and begin to resolve them.

3.) Be consistent. If we are truly convinced that an action is warranted, then discuss it with a few “devil’s advocates,” define the proposed action(s), get other’s assent, implement it and follow through. We do more harm by saying we will and not following through then by acting.

4.) Encourage expression of ideas in our administration. Ask for feedback, choose people whose views we can respect and who may have different opinions.  Listen to their thoughts. No one wins or loses in this exercise, we only listen to the alternatives viewpoints and reflect on their merits. This broader insight may come in handy when dealing with those who disagree with our way of seeing issues.

5.) Write down the answer to these questions and reflect on the response you made: My father’s favorite expression was _____? My mother’s favorite expression was ______?  When I disagree with someone, I _____? Winning means _____. Being a priest/brother means _______.

You may want to change these to favorite expressions about money/power / the opposite sex or others. The insights one gains about their youthful “programming” is very valuable and relevant to ministry in that we act out of these unconscious sayings and training.

Bryan Silva, OMI, PsyD is a psychologist and priest with over 25 years experience in counseling. He is currently professor of pastoral counseling at Oblate School of Theology.