Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 34

'Parent', 'Adult', 'Child' in Ministry

By Nigel Hardcastle.

Vicar of St Luke's with St Bartholomew's, Reading

and a Work Consultant for the Diocese of Oxford

Have you noticed how different people who minister are from each other? Even when they agree about theology and management theory, they work in very different ways. As a priest with over 30 years' experience, and as a work consultant for about seven years, I have mused much on this. I try to understand my congregation, my colleagues, the curates I have trained and most important of all, myself.

There are lots of ways of looking at these differences, but one way I find useful is considering which parts of their personality they use and how they move between them. Transactional Analysis calls these parts of the personality 'Ego States' - the famous Parent, Adult and Child with all their variations. As with any psychological theory, it needs using with caution, but it does have the advantage of being relatively easy to understand (at least in the early stages). The main states are described below. Some extreme sorts of ministers spend nearly all their time in just one state. Most of us move between them. The trick is to be in the right state at the right time.

The CHILD States

The Child is those feelings and behaviour we learnt as a child responding to the world in general and our parent figures in particular.

The Free Child

The Free Child is the Child when it isn't worrying what its Parents or anyone else thinks. The Free Child feels, loves and hates. The Free Child enjoys and suffers. The Free Child is playful, creative, and intuitive. It is better at coming up with ideas than knowing whether they will work. At its best here the sons and daughters of God live in Eden.

If you rarely use your Free Child, you will probably be relatively dull, dry, unoriginal, and not particularly perceptive. Other people may find you boring and you may be bored. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Sometimes people identify the intuitive side of the Free Child as 'The Holy Spirit'. Certainly that can seem true at times. Sometimes we 'know' things without knowing how. It seems like magic. Our intuitive knowledge always seems convincing while we are still in Child state. When we leave the Child state behind sometimes it looks silly and plainly not true. Intuition can be very powerful and true, but it can often be very wrong and destructive. All that comes from the intuition is not from God.

The Holy Spirit can use our intuition, but the Holy Spirit is supposed to fill all parts of our personality, including our logic. I once heard a leading evangelical say that while with too little of the Holy Spirit you would have certain faults, with too much you would have others. We know what he means, but he wasn't talking about the Holy Spirit. He was talking about being ruled too little or too much by our Free Child's intuition.

One can see that engaging our playful Free Child can be very important to making ministry loving, inspiring and enjoyable. One may also guess that if one is always in this state, some important things may be neglected and some inappropriate things may get done. Living in Eden, as always, risks the fall.

The Adapted Child

The Adapted Child is the feelings and behaviour we learned as a child when we were trying to adapt to a parent figure, either by being compliant or by rebelling.

The Compliant Child (one form of Adapted Child)

The Compliant Child is the feelings and behaviour we learned as a child when we were trying to please a parent figure. In the present we may be trying to please our boss or friends or the ideas we have absorbed from our parents that still linger in the mind. In the extreme case the Compliant Child lives by law and is a slave, not a child.

The Compliant Child is good and well behaved. It tries to please people, and never to cause upset. Lay and ordained Christian ministers are often in this ego state. Without this state they would bumble around upsetting people to no purpose, but trapped in this state, they can be paralysed and under pressure to satisfy conflicting demands. Many Christian ministers are trapped in Compliant Child and their ministry limited greatly by it. It is particularly disabling for those in charge of a church or project to be trapped in Compliant Child.

The Compliant Child is worthy; the Free Child is not. Ask my Compliant Child why I am a Vicar and it will answer, "Because God called me, and because it is the best way to help people." Ask my Free Child and I might answer, "It's fun, people have to listen to me and I enjoy the challenge." Both sorts of answers are true.

The Rebellious Child (the other form of Adapted Child)

The Rebellious Child is the feelings and behaviour we learned as a child when we were rebelling against our parent figures. This is part of the journey to freedom and is particularly common in toddlers and teenagers. The Compliant Child is dependent on the parent. The Rebellious Child is 'counter dependent'. Whatever the parent says, the Rebellious Child thinks and wants the opposite. It feels like freedom and 'being myself', but on its own, it is the prison of always having to be the opposite of the parent figure - not their photo, but its negative.

If there is no Rebellious Child in us it can sometimes be difficult to make a stand. We might be trapped in Compliant Child. A minister who spends a lot of time in Rebellious Child might be passionate in campaigning against injustice and against the 'old ways'. They can at their best be part of God's anger at sin. They will never fear to upset people. Change delights them. Like the other ego states, it can be useful in the right place at the right time. But to be trapped in Rebellious Child is sad and wearing both for that person and the people they minister to. The Rebellious Child can at its worst become part of the ancient rebellion against God.

The PARENT States

The Parent is those parts of our personality that we copied from our parents in some way. We learned them when we were children. Listen to your children telling one another off. Hear your own voice!

The Controlling or Critical Parent

This is the set of feelings and behaviour we learned from our parent figures when they were being controlling or critical of us. When we tell people off, or think critically about people, we are probably in Critical Parent. Sometimes the conversation takes place in our own head. Our Controlling Parent guides or tells our Child off, and we respond from Compliant or Rebellious Child. Ethical demands can be part of our Controlling Parent.

Sometimes ministers have to be critical of particular people. The Critical Parent can do this easily and quickly, but it is not always appropriate. It can make the person criticised feel like a little child. It can promote dependency. Sometimes it is better to give critical feedback coolly from your Adult to their Adult.

The Controlling Parent makes the minister do the things they need to do, but which their Free Child doesn't want to do. I don't like filing, but there are certain key files that have to work. The Controlling Parent also makes sure we don't do things our Free Child wants to do, but which are inappropriate. Visiting that rather attractive church member every week may appeal to our Free Child. Hopefully our Controlling Parent says "No", before our spouse or theirs does!

Without a Controlling Parent we would fall apart and make a mess of our lives and ministries. If we are trapped in Critical Parent, then people feel attacked or patronised the whole time. Law then replaces Grace.

The Nurturing Parent

Nurturing Parent is the feelings and behaviour we learned from our parent figures when they were caring for us. You can see this is very important for Christian ministry. At its best it echoes the love of God the Father. In this state we have a natural desire to comfort, help and be tender. If that is what the person needs and we are the right person to give it, then this is great. To be trapped in this state can, however, be bad. Some people crack under the need to help everyone. Manipulative people make a beeline for them. The person trapped in Nurturing Parent may be unable to say "no". They may be playing 'Rescuer'. They may need to nurture more than their 'victim' needs to be nurtured. We become like clinging parents. We need the pastoral case even if they don't need us. It can promote dependency.

The ADULT States

Child and Parent states are thoughts, feelings and behaviour that originate in the past. The Adult state is our independent free intelligence, common sense and all our other abilities acting here and now in response to the present, not the past. The Child and Parent states have lots of feelings, usually influenced by feeling in the past. Those feelings may not be appropriate or useful in the present. Some people describe the Adult state as almost without feelings. It is cool and objective. It is a reflection of the Logos, part of the divine Word revealing the truth. It decided whether the feelings and reactions of the Parent or Child states are useful in the present. Others suggest the Adult does indeed have feelings as useful parts of their abilities in the here and now. They are not, however, feelings from the past, but the appropriate and useful feelings of the here and now. This is to some extent a matter of definition.

The Adult state can calmly consider the things we learned while a child, and consider the inherent natural desires of the free Child, and decide what is appropriate here and now. Perhaps your parents told you not to talk to strangers, but now you're a vicar - perhaps the rule does not apply. The Free Child's intuition suggests possibilities. The Adult state 'tests the spirits'.

The Adult state is the best state to decide which state to be in. When should you leave Compliant Child to tell a home truth? Or leave Nurturing Parent to let someone stand on his or her own feet? If you feel angry as you say "Yes, about time I told them a thing or two!", you are not in Adult. It is more likely you are in Rebellious Child or Critical Parent. We all need a good Adult, but those in charge of churches and projects have a particular need of one, since they will have to test other people's ideas as well as their own, and find the right place for other people to minister.

Adult in Executive

An ideal state is sometimes described as 'Adult in executive'. That doesn't mean you spend the whole of life in Adult mode. It would be too slow and exhausting, for example, to make every moral choice from first principles. We have to live by habits. But when the Adult is 'in the executive', the Adult part of you hangs around and keeps watching what's going on and checking that your behaviour makes sense. The Adult sees when you need to move to a different state.

The Adult state can't work alone. The Free Child has intuition that can make suggestions to the Adult it would never have thought of. The Adult needs to check these because intuition is often wrong, but alone intelligence tells us only a little. The Adult has to listen to the Free Child to know what it wants. The Adult doesn't have any wants of its own. It also has to listen to the Controlling Parent, because what the Child wants may be bad. Adult intelligence can serve evil as well as good. The Adult is not so much the boss as the mediator of the ego states.

Even when we do this, no-one is perfectly balanced. I have a strong Child and strong Adult state. My Parent is only just about strong enough to cope. This makes me more original in thought and less tidy in the office than average.

The Whole Church

In a church these different balances in individuals can even out. People with strong Free Childs suggest new possibilities. People with Strong Adults can work out whether these ideas will work. People with strong Parents keep the church on track with nurture and criticism. Compliant Childs oil the wheels. Thinking in this way helps me cope with my strengths and failings. It can also help me know how to use a person and who to get them to work with. It can be very useful, as long as you don't become fundamentalist about the system and stop looking at reality. All theories are useful only because the simplification is easier to deal with than reality. It's like a road map. As long as you don't forget the theory is a simplification, it can be very useful. We see a little more of how the Spirit of God can use all of our personality, Child, Parent and Adult.

We also have hints here of redemption with a new Parent in the Father, and becoming a new Child, but that is another article, as is what this has to say about priestly formation, the counselling, consulting and training relationships.

Ministry Today

You are reading 'Parent', 'Adult', 'Child' in Ministry by Nigel Hardcastle, part of Issue 34 of Ministry Today, published in June 2005.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2021