The best advice my father gave me was never to expect someone – specifically men – to do something for me that I could do myself.
(ABOVE: The Rev. Bryan Dunagan, Highland Park Presbyterian Church, with his children. Courtesy photos)
Ahead of his time, my dad was all about the female empowerment movement and wanted his “baby girl” to be an independent woman; fiercely independent he would later call me.
Those words instilled a strength in me that has been the foundation of my faith.
Those words and that faith has also given me the fortitude to step out of some of the darkest moments in life, the determination to put myself through college in my 30s, the grit to be my father’s caretaker for more than a decade – years where he lost his ability to do just about anything – and the pertinacity to choose joy over sadness when both of my parents died last year.
We reached out to some pastors in our community to find out how faith impacted their relationships with their father and children.
The Rev. Paul Rasmussen: Highland Park United Methodist Church
“It sounds like such a cliché, but there really is nothing I’d rather do than spend time with my wife and children. The privilege of fatherhood is as big a responsibility as you can have. And if you’re blessed with the privilege, there is no higher calling than to try to demonstrate to your children the kind of unconditional love our heavenly father gives all of his children. It’s a difficult but glorious task. I learned more about loving people who are not like me from my father as anyone I’ve ever been around.”
The Rev. Bryan Dunagan: Highland Park Presbyterian Church
“Besides confirming my belief in the doctrine of original sin, parenting young children has reminded me again and again that the foundation of faith is grace—a Heavenly Father who loves us and delights in us without condition. Moving back to Dallas a few years ago has meant that my father and I are attending church together for the first time. It has been a great gift to join in Christian community with my dad, and it’s strengthening our relationship in new ways.”
The Rev. Jeff Warren: Park Cities Baptist Church
“My faith has guided me in every aspect of fatherhood. But to fully understand that is to define “faith” as placing one’s trust in something or someone. Every father has faith in something or someone. Most dads have placed their faith in themselves, which results in worry and anxiety, based on a constant pressure to be the perfect dad. Faith in oneself leads to disappointment and shame because of an inability to measure up. It is the Object of my faith that has changed everything. I have placed my trust in Jesus Christ, who lived the perfect life for me, died on the cross for my sin, and rose again to give me eternal life, and new life now. As a father, this drives my core identity. I am fully loved, totally forgiven, and completely accepted by my heavenly Father, so now I can be that kind of father to my children.
“I love my children in the same way I am loved by Him, which means they know I love them without condition. I love them whether they perform well or fail, whether they obey or not. My love for my children drives them to love me in the same way, which leads to obedience.
“Rules without relationship breed rebellion in a child. But rules and guidance born out of a loving relationship leading to obedience motivated by love. There is no greater motivation than love. This is grace-based parenting, which is the way my heavenly Father has parented me. The Bible is my handbook as a father, and it teaches me to love God first, to love my wife as He has loved, and then love my children in the context of a loving home built upon Him and His truth for our lives. The greatest thing I can do for my children is to pursue God with all my heart and to love their mom as God loves me. This creates a stable and loving environment for children, within which they are designed to flourish and to learn how to love God by loving others.”
How did faith impact your relationship with your own father?
“My dad was a committed Christian man who loved me throughout my life. I’ve realized that I have never questioned my father’s love for me. As a pastor and leader of men and families, I’ve discovered that’s a rare gift. My dad modeled a love for me that pointed me to my heavenly Father. Like me, he was not a perfect man, but he was a man who led me to the perfect Father. He made sure I knew what Christ has accomplished for me, and he led me to know Him, to walk with Him, and to devote myself to His Church. He loved my mom and modeled a commitment to her and to our family throughout his adult life. I am grateful for my dad who worked hard and provided for our family. He married an amazing woman, and together they established a safe and loving environment within which to grow, to love, and to be sent into the world. I will miss my dad again this Father’s Day, but I’m grateful I will see Him again because he placed his trust in Christ and guided me to do the same.”
The Rev. Daniel Kanter: First Unitarian Church of Dallas
“The Unitarian Universalist faith says that parenting is a charge to raise generous, reflective, compassionate people who care about justice and equity. That is a tall order but with the help of my church community, curriculums on Sundays that ask children to find their own answers and create meaning in their lives, and demand that they become agents over their bodies and their effect in the world i think i have been able to do that. My eldest son leaves for college to be a nurse and cares deeply about service, women’s rights and progressive movements for equity. My younger son is developing a deep, thoughtful well of compassion and a sensitivity to racial equity that is rare in his generation. My faith also says that life is precious and fragile and not to be taken for granted. The ministry we have for grief includes parents who have lost children, and so each day my family takes the fragility of all this seriously and tries to look in each other’s eyes as we leave for our morning rounds, a reminder that love for each other requires attention.
“My father was raised Jewish and left his faith as a teenager. He became a Unitarian and then a Buddhist. He taught me many things, but above all was that being generous was a way to expand your life. His faith was proven in his half tithe to the church and half to organizations he believed in. He showed me that generosity was also not only in philanthropy but in action as he went out of his way to care for patients who could not pay him in his dental practice and worked to advocate for the poor to receive health coverage no matter what. I try and practice my dad’s half and half tithe and his attention to those who struggle day to day in my volunteer work beyond the church.”
The Rev. Matt Tuggle: Executive minister Highland Park United Methodist Church
“I don’t like running. I only run a handful of times a year. A few months ago I was so frustrated with my children that as soon as Amy and I got them in bed, I walked to our room, put on my running shoes, and went on a run. I ran really fast for a block; then I jogged very slowly for a couple of miles. When I was almost back to our house, I realized something. I stopped running, stood still in front of one of my neighbor’s houses, and prayed, “God, you have been so patient with me. Tonight, I wasn’t patient at all with the three children you have entrusted to me.” A guy named Athanasius once said that God is “patient and painstaking” with His creation. If that’s true (and it is), I want to be a father who is both patient and persistent with my children.
“My father was my first evangelist. He wouldn’t call himself that, but he was. Sometime in the 1990s, sitting in the middle row of our Chrysler Caravan (wood paneling, baby!), I began questioning my parents’ faith. I don’t remember much of the conversation. In fact, I only remember one thing. From the driver’s seat, my father told me that nearly everyone believed that a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived, gathered a small following, and was killed on a Roman cross around 30 AD. The question was not about whether Jesus lived; it was about what did or did not happen the Sunday after he died. If he really rose from the dead, it’s the most important thing that has ever happened and worth reorienting your life around. A few years later, I did just that.”
Share how faith impacted you as a father or your relationship with your father (and a photo) by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We will highlight such stories online throughout June.