As helicopter parenting has been diagnosed by media and psychological experts alike in the last years, I’m noticing a spiritually dangerous predilection toward helicopter pastoring. It’s not particularly surprising that this would happen; micromanagement is an enduring cultural pastime, both in business and personal relationships.

Rampant anxiety in society is clearly a contributing factor, but this anxious habit has invaded churches, too. And frankly, anxiety crowds out the kingdom of God. This is a serious problem.

In the Anglican tradition, priests are often referred to as “Mother” and “Father,” nodding to the place of authority that a priest occupies in the community, as well as the all-encompassing nature of the priest’s work. Priests are called beyond transactional “distribution” of sacraments, called instead to love and serve their people as Jesus does, aligning the whole of their lives to aid communication and relationship between the human and the divine.

The primary venue for this work is leading worship in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, following the example of John the Baptist: “I must decrease, he must increase” (John 3:30). This work spills out appropriately into praying with (and for) the sick and suffering, anointing, teaching through discipleship, speaking words of forgiveness, listening well to those in pain, and feeding through word and deed (and calories).

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It’s very much like parenting. The titles are apt.

Leaving aside pros and cons of helicopter parenting, helicopter pastoring is absolutely destructive to all involved; the priest steps beyond the work she’s been given to do by God, diminishing her own humanity by trying to be like God, and the parishioner’s humanity suffers as she is not given the necessary room to respond to God on her own, strengthening her own relationship with the Lord.

How have I seen this play out in parishes? Priests launching new programs, or propping up dying ones, entirely on their own — desperately hoping that if they put enough of their own energy behind the effort, the initiative on life support will spontaneously sputter to life again. Personally, I’ve never seen this resurrection happen. Granted, I’ve only been a priest for four years, but I’ve worked in churches for almost 20.

From the outset, any specific event or program sponsored by a parish needs not only parishioner involvement but parishioner-led support. The work of the Church must belong to the body of Christ, which is much, much more than the bodies of the priested.

Another example of the over-involvement and codependence that are symptoms of helicopter parenting and pastoring alike is the too-common practice of pastors letting parishioners’ bad behavior slide without comment or accountability. Reacting with deference to anonymous critique letters, to predicted backlash for hard decisions, or to simple crankiness can masquerade as turning the other cheek, but in truth it is often a cowardly avoidance tactic, setting the one in need of censure as the bar for behavior.

Do you see how this seemingly innocuous method of ministry blossoms into full-blown heresy?

Helicopter pastoring creates two opposite errors: either priests come to think in their pride that they are indispensable to the running of the church or they allow sinful behavior to flourish under the guise of humility.

Likewise, laity come to believe that priests must begin and be involved with every activity in the church, and that church, especially the priest’s desk, is a place to behave badly, pouring out angst without reserve.

This double disorder plays into humanity’s great vulnerabilities: pride and sloth. I speak more broadly than placing people into categories of “ordained” and “lay” here, since leaders and followers of any stripe can fall prey to these sins. If the priest or lay leader is indispensable, he’s liable to grow in pride unchecked (not to mention exhaustion), while followers sit back in sloth. And the leader (ordained or lay) who gamely accepts emotional and spiritual bludgeoning day in and day out also slips into resigned sloth.

The solution is simple, though not easy, if a parish has fallen into this common broken system played out all around us in secular life. Adults must be treated like adults — God’s precious creation treated as no less than such, as no less than human.

God is the foundation and cornerstone of our bodies of worship and of our individual lives, and God has created us with capacity for love and growth and service. When brothers and sisters in Christ, with or without the honorific “Father” or “Mother” or “Deacon” or “Bishop,” allow and require every other member of Christ’s body to grow — through taking responsibility for individual and corporate spiritual growth, social behavior, and duty to the larger communion of saints — then they give the Church the space to thrive, free of anxiety, a bastion of God’s good work, a sanctuary and help to this present age.

About The Author

The Rev. Emily Hylden serves as vicar of St. Augustines’s Oak Cliff in Dallas. As an assistant editor for The Living Church, she manages the Daily Devotional newsletter [RSS].

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