Find Bishop McConnell’s displays at: Solinika, 133 Sixth Street; and Duquesne University.
“I wanted to be a different father than the one that I had. My own dad was remote. I loved him very much and I think at root he felt the same way about me.”
The change that came roaring into my mind was when Evan was born, when I became a father. I will never forget the first time I held Evan in my arms and thought, “everything is different.” My whole universe is changed. I couldn’t tell you why I thought that. I knew my life would be different but I didn’t know how. Everything that Betsy and I were now oriented around this new life, helping him become everything that God wanted him to become.
I wanted to be a different father than the one that I had. My own dad was remote. I loved him very much and I think at root he felt the same way about me. But, for a whole host of reasons he was very distant. He could be demeaning. He was demanding. He had a serious alcohol problem. He was not faithful in his marriage. I felt that inheritance was also in this moment, strangely being crucified and raised as something completely different. And that has proved to be the case over the last 26 years of Evan’s life.
Betsy took two years off from her own practice to be with Evan full time. I had the night shift. For the first six months, Evan was colicky. He would wake up in the middle of the night in terrible distress and I was the one who picked him up out of his crib and walked him around the living room or got in a warm bath, which was about the only thing that would calm him down. That, and Gene Ammon’s records. He loved tenor sax if it was the right kind, like “My Foolish Heart.” Just listening to that, he put his head down on my shoulder and start to relax.
I noticed that every time I picked him up, initially I felt searing pain that was related to the legacy of the generations of “unfathering” behind me. Of distant men with painful relationships with their own fathers that they passed on to their sons. Into the middle of this there was deep assurance that this kid was going to be fine. He was really in God’s hands. He was, from the get-go, creative, socially aware, funny, and charming. I didn’t know what all of that was going to turn into. But on the basic level of the structure of his character and the integrity of his soul, I knew he was going to be alright.
He’s about to turn 27 and is so gifted with people, particularly with children. He’s a tenderhearted, very smart, thoughtful, highly intuitive young man. Right now, he’s got a great job with his commercial diving company and he’s a first responder for oils spills, boats that sink in their harbor, and more. He’s on call all the time, and enjoying it, meeting a lot of interesting people, and doing good work.
The more I grew as a dad, the deeper I grew as a pastor. I don’t think I really understood when I was first ordained how the first job of a priest is to love your people. That sounds so cliché – of course, you would say that. But it’s easier said than done. Especially when your people are as unlovable as you are. For instance, when they start throwing things and reacting badly to all your best ideas. Yet, as a parent, one of the things that you learn, when you have a toddler is that when they throw a toy at you, you are not allowed to throw it back. That sort of learning, patience, and forbearance in love is something that I learned deeply as the Dad that God was making me into, and it carried over into my pastoral calling.
Don’t ever think just because your kids get out of college that they need you less. They need you more in some very important ways. But you can’t parent them the same way. There’s one point at which you’re doing everything for them and you gradually have to figure out how to do less for them – while making sure that they don’t kill themselves or somebody else. Then they launch and you have to come alongside and be there for them and let them make their own mistakes, which is really hard.
That’s the same challenge as being a priest or a bishop. I’m responsible for the lives of 36 congregations and 70 clergy and their families. Yet, they’re all grown-ups. Not all of them of course – there are plenty of children in some of our congregations. As their leader, you love and use authority in a way that is appropriate, helpful, encouraging, where you also will not let somebody go off the rails, especially if it’s going to harm the church. But at the same time, allow the measure of freedom that they need in order to explore what the grace of God and the call of God means for them. The challenge that has been informed by the history of me being a parent.