Skip to site content

When Pastors Must Balance Between Good Cop, Bad Cop

Parents play different roles at times in most families.

Some call it “good cop, bad cop,” which I suppose is just another way of describing “grace and justice.”

In my family, the roles were pretty well prescribed.

My mother was nearly always the good cop, ready to give and forgive, love and let love. Her arms were nearly always open wide to receive me, whether in joy, sorrow or repentance. Her voice was, by and large, calm and comforting.

My father, on the other hand, was not as comfortable with the good-cop role.

Maybe it was because he grew up in an eastern European household where men were not supposed to show emotion or appear softhearted.

Maybe it was just being a man in the ’50s, that time when John Wayne-types were the models of masculinity and even fatherhood.

Whatever, my father was usually not the one you counted on for warm fuzzies. This was extremely pronounced in matters of discipline and punishment.

If, for some reason I went beyond the realm of good grace and upset my mother to no end, she would eventually say the dreaded words, “Just wait until your father comes home.”

Those words etched terror on my soul. And usually by the time she had to say those words, no acts of contrition would have been enough to get me off the hook.

Thus, when my father came home, he heard my case from my mother and then dished out the proper punishment. It was not a happy scene.

As I’ve gotten older, I realize that it wasn’t a happy scene for him either. And I suppose that he got tired of nearly always assuming the bad-cop role.

Interestingly enough, he more than made up for it during his later years, exhibiting a grace that I would have once sworn was impossible. For instance, when he lavished funds and fun on my children, I would think, “What a transformation; he’s not the same man.”

And interestingly enough, my mother, the good cop, who was still primarily a vessel of grace all the way to the end, became bolder in her later years, expressing her opinions without the heavy sugarcoating she once employed.

Now, what is intriguing to me is how they worked together in parenting. While both had accustomed roles of justice and grace, they did from time to time swap roles when the occasion saw fit.

My wife, Lisa, and I observed that and as parents have worked at seeking some kind of balance between justice and grace with our own children.

This balance is always a delicate one. That is certainly true in regard to pastoring a church.

While the parental roles can be described in “good cop, bad cop” terms or even “justice and grace,” a pastor works the sides of the street called “priest and prophet.”

As a “priest,” the pastor seeks to take care of the congregation – visiting the sick, caring for the hurt and dispossessed, attempting to assume a Samaritan posture of pouring out compassion for those who work so hard at trying to do and be right.

As a “prophet,” there is that side that seeks to speak the truth to the congregation and the world, knowing that its disciplining nature can be somewhat abrasive at times.

The good pastor, by the way, combines these roles when he or she “speaks the truth in love.” I am constantly challenged by this “balancing act.”

Mike Massar is pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and transitional coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana. A version of this column first appeared in the church’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.