In Which Church Will our Children be Baptized and Raised?
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT
“I’m writing you with tears in my eyes. I’m so upset today…. I’m Greek Orthodox and he isn’t…. Up until recently we were thinking about starting a family. But that’s been put on hold until we figure out where the children will be baptized and raised…. If we can’t get past this issue I’m afraid of what this will mean for us and our future. I don’t know where to turn for answers. Can you help?”
An Upset E-mail Respondent
I received this e-mail several months ago, which prompted an e-mail and phone exchange that resembled an emotional roller coaster ride with lots of highs and lows. Over the first few weeks, this respondent and I corresponded almost daily. Most of our initial contact was filled with serious questions and some rather candid responses. In time, the frequency of our exchange lessened, until it stopped completely.
Since the content of our last few exchanges suggested that this respondent and her husband were making progress in resolving their differences, I wasn’t too concerned by her sudden silence. Like other similar exchanges, I assumed I’d eventually hear back from her one day, and I did.
About six months later, I received one final e-mail. It included the following good news: “Sorry I haven’t written in a long time. Life’s been really hectic, but in a good way…. I wanted to let you know that we’re expecting our first child. We think the baby is a girl. Anyway, she’ll be raised in the Greek Church. But that’s not all. We also decided to raise her to respect her father’s Irish, Catholic background…. Sound familiar? Thank you for your guidance and help. We really needed it at a time when our marriage was struggling….By the way, I’m smiling as I’m writing this.”
Most Couples Don’t Have Serious Disagreements
My work with hundreds of inter-Christian and intercultural couples over the past ten years has taught me that only a small but, nevertheless, significant percentage of this population struggle with moderately serious to serious disagreements related to either their future or present children’s baptism and religious and spiritual development. The remainder of these couples will generally only experience some temporary, mild discomfort and conflict, or perhaps none at all.
For those couples who do experience serious disagreements, many report enduring high levels of conflict and lingering unresolved issues for months and even years. Their comments also suggest that when couples are unable to reach healthy, mutually satisfying resolutions, marital satisfaction is compromised and family life suffers - especially the family’s religious and spiritual life.
Who Should Continue Reading?
If you are an adult of marriageable age who is either engaged, newly married, divorced and considering remarriage, and you haven’t carefully thought about where your future children will be baptized and raised, then you should find the following information useful. If this issue isn’t important to you, and you don’t suspect it’ll generate future problems, I would still recommend you consider reviewing this article. All too often I’ve met spouses and couples who ignored this issue prior to marriage, only to experience some rather serious issues and problems after marriage.
To a lesser extent, if you’re married with children and have been struggling with lingering, unresolved issues related to their baptism and religious and spiritual development, I suspect you’ll find this article useful. Additionally, I would urge you to consider getting some outside help. That’s because these issues don’t resolve themselves with the passage of time; they usually get worse.
Before I begin, I’d like to cover two bases.
Base Number One
Much like any other writer, I see the world through a certain lens. In my case, whatever I write is decidedly influenced by my Greek Orthodox religious background. As a result, when inter-Christian, intercultural couples get married in the Greek Orthodox Church (GOA), my prayer isn’t simply limited to the couple’s future well-being. I also hope they will choose to baptize and raise their future children in the GOA. And while I’ve come to understand this latter hope isn’t always preferable or possible, it’s nevertheless a bias that’s worth expressing from the onset. So, to counterbalance this bias, in this article I’ll be relying heavily on the information I’ve accumulated from my work and research with hundreds of intermarried spouses and couples.
Base Number Two
In addition to relying on intermarried couples’ observations and descriptions, I’ll also be writing from the perspective of a specific set of pastoral guidelines the GOA uses to guide its ministry to this growing population. My thoughts will also be influenced by certain recommendations embedded in a statement produced by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), entitled: Joint Recommendations on the Spiritual Formation of Children on Marriage Between Orthodox and Roman Catholics U.S. Theological Consultation, 1980. Finally, I’ll be guided by a sizable body of literature that concerns itself with this topic, most of which comes from non-Orthodox writers and researchers.
Before I outline some strategies that help couples make good decisions with regard to their children’s baptisms and religious and spiritual well-being, I’ll be describing some flawed strategies that couples commonly use. As you will soon see, these strategies are flawed because they’re based on flawed choices and flawed priorities.
Who Will Give in First
This strategy involves two partners who get caught in an irreconcilable deadlock, each waiting for their partner to give in first. But in most cases, neither partner concedes. Instead, with the passage of time, both partners become increasingly and stubbornly, more entrenched in their positions, much like the attitudes and opinions behind the following two statements.
“He should have known that our future children’s baptism was very important to me. Why didn’t he ask? Well, now he’s getting what he deserves because I won’t give in. This issue is too important to me, and I can be as stubborn as I need to be to get my way….I know I sound angry, but I really don’t care. Our future baby will be baptized in my church or the baby won’t be baptized until he gives me want I want.”
“The kids’ baptisms in the Greek Church are very important to me because it’s important to my father. He gave up a lot to get me through law school, and the least I can do is baptize them in the Greek Church. Why can’t she see this and understand it? She’s so stubborn….Well, two can play this game. I can be just as stubborn.”
Whether couples who adopt this strategy would admit it or not, this strategy isn’t simply flawed, it’s potentially fatally flawed, because it can lead to marital meltdown, and have some markedly negative effects on family stability, not to mention children’s religious and spiritual development. Moreover, couples who relate to what I described should find some help because it’s unlikely they will get past this deadlock alone.
Let’s Take Turns
Before couples become deadlocked, some might adopt what one couple called a “taking turns” strategy to help them break the impasse. These couples decide to baptize their first child in one partner’s faith tradition and their second child in the other partner’s faith tradition and so forth. These couples reason that this strategy of taking turns is the fairest way of meeting both parent’s needs, while also avoiding couple conflict.
In theory, this strategy may sound attractive to some couples, but it’s inherently flawed because it fails to place the children’s religious and spiritual needs first. Moreover, what also generally results from such an omission is that family cohesion is compromised – especially concerning matters related to religion during important religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. Other potential consequences are included in the following observation from one partner who adopted this strategy.
“It seemed fair and good in principle when we decided to baptize and raise two of our children in the Roman Catholic Church and the other two in the Greek Church. But if I had it to do over again I’d never make the same mistake….In our case it only confused our children and compromised their religious development. Today, none of my adult kids go to church, and I believe it’s got everything to do with our initial decision to baptize some of them in one partner’s church and the others in the other partner’s church.”
Let’s Postpone Starting a Family
Some couples who are deadlocked might choose to postpone having children until they can come to a mutual decision. The flaw behind this strategy is that the extra time these couples buy themselves usually doesn’t have an ameliorating effect on their efforts to make some mutually satisfying decisions. According to the spouses and couples with whom I have counseled and interfaced who’ve adopted this strategy, extra time often only serves to increase tension and further irritate frayed feelings, making it harder and harder for couples to reach some mutually satisfying agreements. Rather than softening, most partners who adopt this strategy report becoming stubbornly entrenched in their positions. The following comment illustrates these points.
“We’ve been married for five years, and we’re childless. That’s because we can’t decide where the baby will be baptized and in which partner’s church it will be raised. Sometimes I think we’ll never get past these issues…. Lately I’ve also been thinking about life without my husband. This really frightens me, but I’m afraid it might come to this if we can’t get past this. Fact is, I want children and I also want them to be baptized in my church. He also wants children, and he wants them baptized in the Greek Church.”
Let’s Postpone Baptism
Some parents choose to have children and postpone their baptism. However, like the last strategy, once again additional time doesn’t always help couples who can’t decide where to baptize and raise their children. In many cases as the months turn into years and the children remain un-baptized, tension builds and the frequency of arguments increases, serving to compromise family stability, marital satisfaction and even extended family relationships. One spouse who adopted this strategy offered the following observations.
“If I had known it was going to be this way, I wouldn’t have married her. I knew she was religious - it’s what attracted me to her. But she also knew that I was religious and that my Greek heritage means a lot to me….Whenever the subject comes up these days, she becomes so emotional and irrational that I can’t talk to her. It’s gotten so bad between us that she’s stopped visiting my folks’ home because she thinks they’re against her and don’t like her. And even though this isn’t true I can’t convince her that it’s not true. I sure wish we had figured this out before marriage.”
Let the Children Decide
Sometimes parents will seemingly take the high road and avoid this issue altogether by postponing their children’s baptism and adopting a strategy that’s intended to let them decide about religion when they get older. While it’s true that this strategy spares parents and households of the inevitable negative outcomes and arguments I’ve described above, it can also be argued that when parents adopt this strategy with regard to their children’s religious and spiritual well-being they’ve in effect abdicated their role as parents in this dimension of their children’s development. While responding to an e-mail respondent who asked my opinion regarding this strategy, part of my response to her included the following comments.
“Would you take this position with your child’s education, health, eating habits, hygiene, choice of movies, clothing, Web sites they visit, or almost anything else related to their development and well-being? Then why would you consider taking this position with regard to your child’s religious and spiritual development? From my perspective, parents who adopt this type of parenting approach parent by abdication, rather than proactive involvement….Just as children require structure, consistency and proactive parental guidance in other dimensions of their development, so too, do they require the same degree of parental proactive involvement when it comes to their religious and spiritual development.”
Interestingly, I never heard back from this respondent. I hope she seriously considered the constructive criticisms behind my questions and comments.
Let’s Find a Neutral Church Home
A few parents may even end up searching for a neutral church home that appears to be close to both partner’s religious traditions. The problem with this strategy is that it’s difficult to find a church both parents are comfortable in. Moreover, of the few couples whom I have spoken with who have made this switch, almost all parents were unhappy with their choice. These parents also indicated that because neither parent was entirely satisfied with their new church home, their children’s religious and spiritual development suffered.
Quoting from one such parent, he observed, “The choice we both made to find a neutral worship sight was good in theory, but didn’t prove to be the case in practice. The truth is, I miss the liturgy and can’t warm up completely to the rituals and hymns in our new church home. We haven’t talked much about this choice for several years, but I suspect my wife feels the same about the switch we made. And here’s the biggest irony. Since neither of us goes to church as often as we once did, the kids’ religious training has suffered. I don’t know…maybe we need to revisit this decision.”
Short of marrying someone from a religious and cultural background that is identical to your own, are there any strategies that help inter-Christian, intercultural couples avoid serious problems? Based on my work with hundreds of successfully married inter-Christian and intercultural couples, the following strategies and guidelines have proven useful to them and can potentially help you.
Talk About it Before Marriage
When I conducted the Interfaith Research Project, one potential problem area I examined was related to parenting challenges that inter-Christian, intercultural couples who worship in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) encounter. Some participants indicated that they had considered this topic before marriage while others stated that they had failed to discuss it. Couples who had premarital discussions related to their future children’s religious and cultural development generally stated they profited from such discussions and vice versa. A thumbnail sketch of what both groups had to say follows.
Couples Who Talked Before Marriage
Participants who addressed issues related to their children’s religious, spiritual and cultural development generally observed that these discussions were profitable for them and for the well-being of their children. These couples maintained that open, respectful and prayerful discussion worked best. This approach proved especially useful when both partners had strong feelings with regard to which church their future children would be baptized and raised. One non-Orthodox participant's remarks are indicative of these observations.
"It was a good thing we engaged in some discussion about our children's religious training prior to marriage. We’re both committed to our churches and we would have had lots of problems if we hadn't done some thinking and talking about this before marriage…. It was hard stuff to discuss, but we settled most of our issues before the wedding… I think [these discussions] made us a stronger couple and family after marriage. I also have no doubt that our children benefited."
Couples Who Didn’t Talk Before Marriage
Conversely, participants who failed to engage in any premarital discussion regarding their future children's religious and/or cultural development generally observed that they would likely have profited from such discussions. This was especially true of couples who were struggling to come to terms with their children’s religious and spiritual well-being. In retrospect, these respondents believed that premarital discussions might have reduced misunderstandings after marriage that were connected to one or both individual spouse's unspoken preferences and expectations. Many of these participants also cautioned that their decision to postpone discussion of this issue until after marriage didn’t help them resolve their differences. They further said that their decision to ignore this potential problem area only postponed conflict, and in many cases, made it harder for them to address their preferences and expectations. The following observations are indicative of what many respondents observed.
"We never talked about which church the children would be raised in until I was three months pregnant….I just assumed that we were going to raise our children in the Greek Orthodox Church, especially since we were getting married in the Greek Church. But when my husband began to resist this I got really upset….It wasn't that he was totally against the idea, but he wanted to wait to allow us some time to make a decision. But I wanted to make the decision before the baby arrived….Even though we eventually baptized our daughter in the Greek Church we really had some major difficulties for a few months that took much of the joy of being pregnant away. I would recommend that couples work through this issue before marriage - especially if they both have strong religious convictions."
Another participant stated, “One friendly bit of advice that I’d offer any young couple who attend different churches and come from different ethnic backgrounds is that they talk about how this will affect their children or future children. We didn’t, and we paid dearly for this along the way….We argued over our children’s names, where they’d be baptized, where they’d be raised, where they would go to Sunday School. The list is endless.”
Getting Outside Help?
What if you don’t feel as though you can have productive premarital discussions with your fiancée, should you be concerned? The simple answer to this question is an emphatic, yes! If you believe you can’t broach the subject of your future children’s baptism and religious and spiritual development because you’re concerned these kinds of conversations will create more problems than they will resolve, I would urge you to get some outside help. Admittedly, it takes courage to make such a decision, but such a decision should also pay dividends for you, your spouse and most importantly, your future children.
In most cases, the best place to begin your search for help is to consult your priest and/or pastor. If this isn’t possible, then the next best option might be to consult a professional who is comfortable working with couples and religious populations. Such a professional can often help couples address this potential problem. Depending on the amount of gridlock that exists, you should expect the counseling to last between two to four months. If this sounds like too much time and work, then perhaps the following exchange from a couple who decided to ignore this issue and get married might change your mind.
Wife: “I knew we had problems. I just didn’t know how bad they were. Anyway, I decided to get married, believing we’d figure things out after marriage. Boy was I wrong.”
Husband: Like my wife, I thought we could iron out our differences after marriage, but this didn’t happen. Matters only got worse. If you know of any engaged couples with serious issues related to their future children’s baptisms and religious training, tell them to figure things out before they get married or postpone the marriage until they work through the issues.”
Wife: “I’d agree. This issue was almost a deal breaker for us after we got married. We’re just lucky to have found someone who could help….If you never talked about this before marriage, and now you’re married and you can’t figure things out, you should get some help.”
What’s Good for the Children Should Come First
My research indicates that couples who make their children’s religious and spiritual well-being of primary importance, and their personal expectations and preferences of secondary importance, are more likely to avoid becoming deadlocked, or are more likely to break the deadlock. The following remarks reinforce this last point.
“We were going around and around in circles on this issue until I decided that my stay-at-home wife would likely be the one to assume responsibility for our children’s religious training, so I gave in for the sake of the children, our family and marriage. Mind you, this wasn’t easy, and I still sometimes second guess myself and wonder if I made the right choice, especially when I think about things from a selfish perspective, but in the balance, I’m at peace with my decision. The way I see things, I don’t think God wanted us to continue arguing over this issue. So I made the sacrifice.”
Despite the fact that this was a difficult decision for this parent, after a period of conflict he prayerfully determined to make a concession for the sake of his children and family’s well-being. In this case, both partners had equally high connections to their religious backgrounds. But what if one parent has a much higher connection to his or her faith tradition than the other? In this case, such couples would be advised to carefully consider the implications of a decision to raise their children in the nominal believing partner’s faith tradition, while concurrently considering their children’s well-being first. One spouse’s observations helps make this last point.
“My husband isn’t a churchgoer - he would be the first to admit this. So, three months into the pregnancy when we began talking about where our first born would be baptized, I was shocked and angered when he insisted our children should be baptized in his church. After I settled down, in response, I informed him that I thought it was in our children’s best interest that they be baptized in my church, since I was going to be the one who would assume responsibility for their religious training. This issue caused lots of arguments. Some still upset me when I think back on them three years later. But thank God, he eventually came around and understood that it wasn’t about him or me. It was about our future children and since I was the religious one, it was in their interest that we raise them in my church.”
Extended Family Intrusions
Extended family intrusions can also complicate matters when couples are trying to make decisions about their children’s baptisms and religious and spiritual development. The following scenario illustrates this point, while also outlining some strategies that can help couples get past extended family intrusions.
Maria informs Joe that she is pregnant. A few minutes later, his mother calls. Without thinking, Joe shares the good news without expecting what follows. Almost immediately she begins making plans to consult their pastor. Joe doesn’t know what to do, so he simply listens politely without comment. However, when he informs his wife later that day, she becomes upset, and they argue and go to bed angry. The next day they decide to consult Joe’s pastor for some help. He listens to them and offers the following guidelines, which help them gain some control over a process that could potentially create a number of issues and problems.
First, he counsels the couple to come to some mutually satisfying resolution related to their future baby’s baptism and religious and spiritual development apart from their parents.
Second, once the couple has made some decisions they are both comfortable with, he also counsels them to meet with each set of grandparents to respectfully listen to their suggestions and needs, and to clearly indicate that their decisions will be, first and foremost, predicated on what they as parents think is best for their child’s religious development.
Third, he further counsels them that ideally they should both be present when these boundaries are drawn. However, if one or both partners believe it might be best if each partner approaches his or her parents privately, this is also appropriate so long as the boundaries that are drawn and the messages given, are agreed upon by both partners.
In the end, after both partners agreed that this was good counsel, the couple decided that Joe should have a private heart-to-heart conversation with his mother and respectfully inform her that her opinions and expectations are valued, but that he and Maria will ultimately make decisions about their baby’s baptism based on what they believe to be best for their expectant child and future children. And while Joe’s mother wasn’t initially enamored with the couple’s decision-making protocol, she eventually did accept the couple’s right to make decisions about their children’s well-being.
Making the right decisions related to your children’s baptisms and religious and spiritual development isn’t always an easy proposition for parents who come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. However, as difficult as this might be, some premarital discussions can help. Beyond this, when parents or future parents make their children’s well-being of primary concern and keep extended family and personal preferences and expectations secondary in importance, these guidelines can prove useful to them in their efforts to avoid deadlocks and make some healthy, holy decisions. In some instances, when a lingering irreconcilable deadlock occurs between parents, getting outside help can also prove helpful to couples in their efforts to facilitate their children’s religious and spiritual development.
Admittedly, following these guidelines will not always be easy. At times one or both partners will become angry, frustrated and resentful. However, if the strategies are prayerfully guided, then the Holy Spirit can also help facilitate repentance and forgiveness when appropriate, as well as healing, oneness and meaningful, mutually satisfying decisions.
1 While much of the information in this article may relate to interreligious couples where one partner is Greek Orthodox and the other partner comes from a non-Greek, non-Christian background, the contents of this article generalizes best to inter-Christian, intercultural couples where one partner comes from a Greek Orthodox background and the other partner comes from a another Christian and cultural background.
2 To review this article, log on to the following Web site: www.scoba.us