“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. 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 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?” ~E-mail Respondent
This email prompted an exchange of messages lasting several weeks. In time, the frequency of our email exchange decreased, until it stopped completely. Since the last few exchanges with this respondent suggested that she and her husband were making good progress in resolving their differences, I wasn’t too concerned by her sudden silence. I assumed I’d eventually hear back from her, and I did.
About six months later, I received one final email: “I wanted to let you know that we’re expecting. . . a girl. . . . She’ll be raised in the Greek (Orthodox) Church. . . . We also decided to raise her to respect her father’s Irish, Catholic background. . . . Thank you for your guidance and help.”
Flawed vs. Successful Strategies
I’ve received numerous emails related to the challenge of deciding where children will be baptized, when parents come from different faith denominations. In most instances, the level of conflict wasn’t as pronounced as the above example. However, many messages alluded to flawed strategies couples used when deciding when and where to baptize their children.
Other messages described successful strategies that couples used to reach mutually satisfying resolutions related to their children’s baptisms. This article provides a sampling of some of the most flawed, as well as most successful strategies used. If you’re engaged or married to someone from a different religious and cultural tradition, this information could prove to be helpful.
Common Flawed Strategies
The following six strategies that couples used to decide where and when their children would be baptized, are what I would call flawed strategies. I compiled them from focus groups, email exchanges and workshops that I conducted over the course of twenty years. Couples who employed these strategies were unable to communicate effectively. Some underestimated the level of difficulty they would encounter in dealing with this issue. Most of these couples failed to discuss this issue prior to marriage. All of these couples lost sight of what was good for their children, focusing rather on their personal needs as well as their extended family’s desires. Bitter contention and self-centered arguments never lead to good resolutions for the family as a whole.
1. Don’t Discuss Before Marriage
Participants of a research study of inter-Christian and intercultural background couples who worshiped in Greek Orthodox Churches reported difficulties arising from failing to engage in any premarital discussion regarding their future children's religious and/or cultural development. They generally observed that they would likely have profited from such discussions. This was especially true of couples 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 connected to one or both spouse's unspoken preferences and expectations. Many of these participants cautioned that their decision to postpone any discussion of this issue until after marriage didn’t help them resolve their differences; it merely postponed conflict. In many cases, shirking the issue only made it harder for them to address their preferences and expectations. The following observations are indicative of such experiences.
"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 this church. But when my husband began to resist this I got really upset. Even though we eventually baptized our daughter in the ...Orthodox Church we really had some major difficulties for a few months that took much of the joy of being pregnant away.”
Another participant stated, “One bit of advice I’d offer any couple who attend different churches is that they talk about how this will affect them and their children. We didn’t talk, 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.”
2. Who Will Give in First?
This strategy involves two partners who get caught in irreconcilable gridlock, each waiting for the other to give in first. They “dig in their heels” and refuse to concede, becoming increasingly more entrenched in their positions. The following two statements exemplify this type of attitude.
“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 Orthodox 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 this 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.”
3. Let’s Take Turns
Before couples become deadlocked, some adopt a “let’s take 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 is the fairest way of meeting parents’ needs and, at times, extended family’s needs, while also avoiding further conflict.
In theory, this strategy may sound attractive, but it’s inherently flawed because it fails to place the children’s religious and spiritual needs first. In the short run it, may assuage couple conflict and even appease extended family demands, but it is shortsighted and riddled with numerous pitfalls.
Couples who use this strategy soon discover they’ve created more long-term problems for themselves and their families than they bargained for. Questions like the following, along with numerous challenges, emerge: Where do we worship? Where will children attend catechetical school? What traditions should we include in our Easter and Christmas celebrations?, etc.
This strategy undermines family cohesion, not to mention the family’s religious and spiritual well-being. An excerpt from an e-mail I received illustrates some of the worst outcomes associated with 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 Orthodox Church. But if we had it to do over again, we’d never make the same mistake…. In our case it only confused our children and compromised their religious development. Today, none of my adult children 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.”
4. Let’s Postpone Starting a Family
Some couples choose to postpone having children until they can come to a mutually satisfying decision about their children’s baptism. The flaw behind this strategy is that the extra time they buy themselves usually doesn’t have an ameliorating effect on their efforts to make some mutually satisfying decisions. According to many spouses and couples I’ve worked with who adopted this strategy, extra time often serves to increase tension and further irritate frayed feelings, making it harder and harder for couples to reach agreements. Rather than helping couples reach a mutually satisfying agreement, those who adopt this strategy report becoming more entrenched in their positions. The following comment illustrates a difficulty resulting from this strategy of postponing a family.
“We’ve been married for five years, and we’re childless. That’s because we can’t decide where the baby will be baptized. Sometimes I think we’ll never get past these issues…. Lately I’ve been thinking about life without my husband. This really frightens me. I’m afraid it might come to this if we can’t get past this issue. I want children, but I also want them to be baptized in my church. He also wants children, and he wants them baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church.”
5. Let’s Postpone Baptism
Some parents choose to have children and postpone their baptism. Like the last strategy, additional time doesn’t always help couples that can’t decide where to baptize and raise their children. In many instances, as the months turn into years and the children remain un-baptized, tension builds and the frequency of the couple’s arguments increase, serving to compromise their children’s religious and spiritual development, often irreparably. The following statements from an e-mail I received describe some of the worst outcomes that occur when baptism is postponed.
“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…. I sure wish we had figured this out before marriage.”
6. Let’s Let the Children Decide
Sometimes parents will take what seems like the high road and agree to let the children make decisions related to religion and spirituality when they get older. While it’s true that this laissez-faire strategy often spares parents and households of the inevitable toxic exchanges that might ensue when trying to decide where to baptize their children, it also causes them to abdicate their role in this dimension of their children’s development. The following is partly how I counseled an email respondent who requested an opinion regarding this strategy.
“Would you take this position with your child’s education, health, eating habits, hygiene, choice of movies, clothing, websites 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…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.
7. Let’s Find a Neutral Church Home
Some couples search for a neutral church home that appears to be close to both partners’ religious traditions. The problem with this strategy is that it’s difficult to find a church both parents are comfortable in. Most couples that made this switch regretted their choice. They stated that it was hard to transition into a new way of worshipping God and to become acclimated to a new group of people. Some also lamented the fact that their children would not have many of the experiences they had growing up. One parent’s comments describe some of these challenges.
“The choice we both made to find a neutral worship site 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. The biggest irony is that 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 the same religious and cultural background, what strategies can inter-Christian, intercultural couples employ to come to a mutually acceptable decision regarding the baptism of their child/ren?
1. Discuss Before Marriage
One potential challenge inter-Christian, intercultural couples who worship in a Greek Orthodox church encounter is the religious and cultural development of their children. Research done on these couples’ challenges revealed the following insights.
Couples who addressed issues related to their children’s religious, spiritual and cultural development before they were married 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."
2. Get Outside Help
If you don’t feel as though you can have productive premarital discussions with your fiancée about the religious and cultural upbringing of your future children, should you be concerned? The answer to this question is an emphatic, “Yes”! Often, couples who can’t reach mutually satisfying resolutions to this issue, are likewise unable to discuss other issues. In such cases, I often advise them to obtain some outside help. Seeking help can pay dividends for you, your spouse and most importantly, your future children. Waiting too long, or failing to get any help, can have the opposite effect.
In most cases, consulting your priest/pastor is a good beginning point. The next best option might be to consult a professional counselor who is comfortable working with couples and religious populations. Such professionals often help couples address this potential problem. Depending on the amount of gridlock that exists, counseling might last one session or linger for a few months.
If seeking outside help sounds unappealing to you, then perhaps the following exchange from a couple who decided to ignore their different religious/cultural perspectives 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: “ I guess I also thought we could iron out our differences after marriage, but matters got worse. If you know of any engaged couples with serious issues…tell them to figure things out before they get married.”
Wife: “I’d agree. Where our children would be baptized was almost a deal breaker for us after we got married. We’re just lucky to have found someone who could help.”
3. Make the Children’s Well-being Your First Priority
Research indicates that couples who make their children’s religious and spiritual well-being of primary importance, and their personal preferences of secondary importance, are more likely to avoid becoming deadlocked. The following remarks illustrate this.
“We were going around and around in circles on this issue until I decided that my stay-at-home wife should assume responsibility for our children’s religious training, so I let them be baptized Greek Orthodox. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t easy, but 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, he was determined to make a concession for the sake of his children and his 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 consider what’s best for their children. Baptizing them in a partner’s faith tradition when he or she does not worship or practice the tenets of their religion as regularly or devoutly as their partner does, is likely the wrong choice as the following observations indicate.
“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 firstborn 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 issues that caused the arguments still upset me when I think back to them three years later. But thank God, he eventually came around and understood that it wasn’t about him, his family 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.”
4. Set Boundaries Against Extended Family Intrusions
Extended family intrusions can also complicate matters when couples are trying to make decisions about their children’s baptism and religious and spiritual development. The following scenario illustrates this point.
Maria tells 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 Joe’s mother begins making plans to consult her pastor. Joe doesn’t know what to do, so he simply listens politely without comment. When he informs his wife of his mother’s intentions, she becomes upset. 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 control over a situation that could quickly escalate out of control.
Step 1. The couple should come to a mutually satisfying resolution related to their future baby’s baptism and religious and spiritual development apart from their parents.
Step 2. After the couple makes some decisions, they should meet with each partner’s parents and inform them of their decision for their family.
Step 3. Both spouses should be present when these boundaries are communicated with parents. 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 message given represents both Joe and Maria’s decision.
Joe and Maria agreed this was good counsel. The couple decided that Joe should have a private 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. While Joe’s mother was initially upset and disappointed because the couple decided to baptize in Maria’s church, she eventually accepted the couple’s decision.
Making the right decisions related to your children’s baptisms and religious and spiritual development isn’t always an easy process for parents who come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Some premarital discussions can help. When parents or future parents make their children’s well-being of primary concern and make extended family and personal preferences of secondary importance, the decision-making becomes less contentious and divisive for the couple. In some instances, when a lingering gridlock exists, outside help can also prove helpful.
Admittedly, following these guidelines will not always be easy. At times one or both partners may become angry, or resentful. Extended families might also express anger and disappointment. However, when the process is prayerfully guided by the Holy Spirit, mutually satisfying decisions generally emerge.
By Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT