Michael Catt reflects on raising 2 daughters

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Thursday, June 18, 2009 (5 years ago)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)--Most pastors pray their children won't do anything to embarrass them. Michael Catt said he and his wife have long prayed that if their two daughters did anything "stupid," they would be caught early.

"Neither one of them ever got in serious trouble of any kind," Catt said with a sigh of relief, crediting "the grace of God."

The 56-year-old pastor, who says he thinks like he's 36 but sometimes feels like he's 66, has had plenty of experience with marriage, parenting and life in general. As senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., Catt has been the producer of the family movies "Fireproof" and "Facing the Giants."

Now with adult children, Catt said it presents new challenges, but the basic principles of parenting don't change.

Erin, 26, and Hayley, 24, both know, for instance, that no matter how bad they may mess up, no matter what they do, they can always go home. "I think there's nothing they could do that could change my love for them," Catt said. "It could cause me to grieve, just like I could grieve the Holy Spirit. But it doesn't change the love of the Spirit of God in me."

The problem is that some parents with broken hearts build a wall when they're grieving; then they get angry, and anger leads to unforgiveness, Catt said. The cycle begins too often because a parent is thinking more about their position as pastor, deacon or Sunday School teacher than they are of their child. "That's just ego, that's just pride," Catt said. "Whatever your kid does, it's not as bad as [each one of us has done] to Jesus."

Catt, readying to speak at a marriage conference in Florida, shared advice gleaned from parenting his adult daughters -- one who had a starring role in Fireproof and is preparing for an October wedding and the other who is a professional photographer.

"Clearing the air," so to speak, Catt dismissed any notion of nepotism in Erin's selection for the role alongside Kirk Cameron in the movie Fireproof. Catt said he and his wife removed themselves from the tight-knit group who made final casting choices once they were told Erin was advancing to the top, despite trying out for a lesser part.

"She had to earn it on her own," Catt said. "I wasn't going to play the dad card or ... the pastor card. The ministry of the movies is more important."

When it comes to being dad, however, Catt said he determined early on he wanted stability for his family. So despite opportunities that arose through the years, Catt has served at Sherwood for 20 years. And both girls went to Sherwood Christian Academy, a ministry of the church.

"I wanted them to have a sense of home and I wanted them to have a sense of grounding," Catt said.

Learning the ropes of parenting didn't come without its own bumps, though. Catt said when Erin left Alabama after graduating from the University of Mobile to take a job as an entertainer at Disneyworld -- using her first and middle names, Erin Bethea, as her stage name -- he had in mind what she should budget for an apartment and "not a penny more."

When father and daughter looked at what was available in their targeted price range in Orlando, Catt said he was on the phone with his wife pretty quickly. "I don't care what we gotta do, she's not living in there," he said of the first apartment complexes they visited.

PARENTS AS ROLE MODELS

Kidding aside, Catt said he believes parents are to be models for their children throughout their lives. "You don't give orders," Catt said. "If you don't model it, you can't expect it."

Both parents also made it clear that they would support each other's decisions, Catt said, leaving no room for Erin and Hayley to go back and forth and try to "divide" their mother and father.

"I think a lot of parents make that mistake," Catt said, of letting their children play them against each other, and "that's not a united front." That doesn't mean that Catt and his wife always agree behind closed doors; what it means is that the girls see consistency.

Catt said he also believes children need a "board of directors" for making decisions which includes five people -- hopefully their parents, a coach or a music teacher, a schoolteacher and a youth worker.

LOOSENING THE REINS

Taking a deep breath, Catt said kids are growing up much faster than they used to but, even so, there's a time to let go. Admitting his girls weren't allowed to date until they were 16, Catt said the age in which young girls are dealing with serious issues seems to be younger. "Most parents are just clueless about what's going on with their kids," he said.

Regardless, "I think you've got to learn to let go of the reins, because if you hold on tight, all you do is build rebellion," he said.

Describing the same kind of bond a master has with a dog he has trained to walk beside him without a leash, Catt said children should be shown boundaries and the boundaries extended as trust is established.

"You can't control what's out there in the world. You can't be a mother hen. You can't watch them 24/7," Catt said. "You love them, you pray, you hope they get home safe -- that they don't do anything to blow their testimony."

And if they do?

Catt said he and his wife try to take a collective breath and not respond in the moment, or even that day, and when they do respond, they try to respond to each girl as an individual. Catt said because he and Erin have similar personalities, as do Hayley and Terri, the parent with the opposite personality usually delivers corrective news.

For instance, Catt said he might tell Hayley, "I paid the phone bill, you owe me the money." Being sensitive to the girls' personalities is key, Catt said, "because you gotta know who can deliver the mail in the way it needs to be delivered."

Pulling rank, especially with an adult child, isn't always the best approach, Catt continued.

"I can say I'm the head of the house, I'm the chief of the family, but it's not always best for me to do that," Catt said. "I may trip one of them emotionally because they won't receive it well from me, and so I have to be careful and Terri has to be careful."

GOING TO A WEDDING

For a father with a daughter on the verge of marriage, Catt said he is more at peace now than when Erin was a high school senior and dating a young man of whom Catt did not approve.

"I just had to stand my ground," Catt said. "She misunderstood. I put my foot down and I went to the wall and said this was not going to happen."

Still, Catt admits Erin's fiancé, Bill Shafer, who resides in Orlando where he attends First Baptist Church with her, jumped through a few hoops before finally getting the OK to pop the question.

Catt said after the couple had been dating more than two years, Shafer sought his permission to ask him a question. "I said, 'Not yet,'" Catt recalled.

Asking the young man questions about his finances and family, Catt said, "I got to know what family she's marrying into because you don't marry a person, you marry a family."

Soon afterward, Shafer's family spent a long weekend at the Catt home in Albany, and after about five months Catt and his wife agreed there was no reason why they shouldn't agree to the marriage.

Incidentally, Erin didn't know during that time that Shafer and her father had been talking, Catt said. "Bill told me, 'Michael, I have fought to win your daughter's heart and I am going to win yours.' And he did. He was serious as a heart attack about it."

Shafer told Catt that if he didn't have his "blessing," he wouldn't have asked Erin to marry him. "So something we did was right with that because she has enough respect for us in the process of walking her through this relationship," Catt said.

Just short of tears, Catt was quick to add, however, that he will be the father of the bridge at the wedding and won't be performing the nuptials.

ENJOYING ADULT CHILDREN

While enjoying a different relationship with his daughters now that they are adults, Catt said hugging remains an ongoing practice. Sending them encouraging text messages without expecting anything in return, giving them his blessing to take a far-away cruise -- without providing the funds, of course -- and letting them know that he is ready for them to spread their wings, sits comfortably.

"Don't be afraid if they move out of town," Catt advised. "I would rather my kids be 500 miles away or 1,000 miles away in a good church where I know they are in the will of God, than where they are close to me and I start meddling."

On the other hand, with adult children moving home because of the economy and other quirky situations, Catt said parents need to "seek the Lord for wisdom" and remember they are not alone. "We live in a different world with terrorism and violence and everything else, and the only thing we can do is to stay on our knees before the Lord and be teachable and humble and open to hearing His still small voice," Catt said.

Mindful that not all parents are in the same circumstances, Catt said even with God as their "perfect Father, Adam and Eve rebelled against Him."

"If our girls have turned out well, it's the grace of God," Catt said. "There is no formula. The best we can do is to love them and give them to Jesus."


Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.floridabaptistwitness.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention.