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Mainline Protestant Families: Loving God and Family Members

For those in America’s dominant Protestant faiths, their understanding of God and their relationship with Him provides a model for how they believe they should interact with their spouses and children.
This essay is part of a series of articles adapted from our book, Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith: Exploring Religious Differences. There are also podcasts on these same issues.

I (Dave) was raised in a Mainline Protestant Church, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Marin County, California. I served as an acolyte (altar boy) for three years (age 9-12) and assisted the Priest by carrying the large wooden and gold cross during the “processional” into the sanctuary at the beginning of the service and the “recessional” out of the church at the end of the service, lighting and extinguishing the candles, and in serving communion. Other than our priest overdoing the incense a bit for my taste/smell, I have very fond memories of those services and of the people I knew in the Episcopal Church.

Mainline Protestants comprise a significant and centrist core of Protestant Denominations in America and include the following denominations: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Methodist, American Baptist, and United Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ. As part of our American Families of Faith research project—a 20-year national effort to explore nearly 300 racially, regionally, and religiously diverse families in healthy long-term marriages, we conducted in-depth, two-hour interviews with 20 Mainline Protestant couples (20 husbands, 20 wives, seven adolescent children), including families representing each of the major Mainline denominations. 

In this brief article, adapted from a chapter in our book Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith, we share some interview-based findings from three different domains: (a) general life strengths, (b) marital strengths, and (c) parent-child strengths.

In connection with the centrality of their relationship with God, two themes emerged: (a) “We can receive support from God,” and (b) A framework of purpose. A daughter named Mindy (all names are pseudonyms) said, 

I know God is always going to be there. He always has his hands protecting me, I’m going to have to go through hard times, but I know He’s right there to [tell me], “You can get through it [Mindy]. Just keep on going.”

Reflecting on a profound difficulty in her own family, a mother named Erin shared,

My faith was deep enough at that time that I was able to say, “This is not the end of the world. … Ben (son, age 15) will be okay, we’ll get through this. This is not tragedy, it’s a shame, but it’s not tragedy.”

A teenage daughter named Jill said,

Well, I think when my grandfather … died in December and … I’d never lived with anyone who’d died before, so it was a pretty big thing.  But I think it was really sad in a lot of ways, but … through the whole thing, God did so many things that made us feel like He was really there and He really cared about us.  

A father named Eli reportedly felt God’s support, “wisdom,” and “knowledge” through the Bible—a resource that had led him to “trust God.” Eli said,

Every question you have, [the answer] is in the Bible. The answer to every question … it’s right there. … God [is] all wisdom, He’s all knowledge. … No matter what’s going on in your life, you [can] turn to [and] read the Bible, and trust God.

For a daughter named Natalie (age 10), God’s help was sought through prayer. She said, 

The biggest thing I’m thinking of is [prayer] helps us make a lot of decisions. Being a military family, we’ve had to make a lot of decisions about where we’re going to go. … Just last week [my sister] and I were dealing with some friendship [issues where] we didn’t really know what we wanted to do … so we’re like, “You know what? We just need to pray.”

For many people, the questions, “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of this life?” and “What happens to me when I die?” are important to address (Marks & Dollahite, 2017). Vickie, a mother, said,

I think the biggest thing [my faith and beliefs do] for me is: No discrimination. We try to really live that. Even for [our son,] Zack too … everyone is equal in God’s eyes. … I think that because of that I would never exclude anybody from our home or our family.

In connection with their marital relationships, participants noted that a relationship with God and their commitment to other religious beliefs and practices helped provide two important benefits. These strengths (or themes) included: (a) unity in religious experience and (b) our relationship with God is reflected in marriage.

About unity, a husband named Samuel said, 

I remember we got together pretty early on in [our marriage] … and … decided that we are now one unit. So, there is no … “my needs” versus “your needs.” There is [only] what God is going to do through us as a couple. And we’re either going to sink together or we’re going to swim together, but there’s not going to be “one’s going to be better” and “one’s going to be worse,” ‘cause then we’re both going to be worse. (We are … one unit).

A husband named Matt said,

After we’re done arguing with each other and done trying [for] each of us get our own way, we’ll come back together and we say, “You know … we are one and we need to sacrifice for each other.” … [T]o me … God is the glue that binds this marriage together.

An Asian Mainline couple said,

Chen (husband): I think, sometimes, when I am able to share God’s word with her, sharing something in the Bible [that] I’ve read … that fine-tunes our thinking together when we are faced with difficulties. … So, [with] this major decision, I get guidance from God’s word, and I’m able to share with her what God speaks to me, in the word, and that helps us … with many things.

Zhin (wife): I think, for me, praying together is very important, even though … we don’t do it as much as I want to. That was something very important to me, because we experienced this closeness, not just to God, but with each other. … Sometimes it is hard to express yourself, and somehow when you are praying together, we just express something that may not have come up before but … [through hearing his prayer] I’ve found something about his struggle, or his inner thoughts, just by praying together. 

For another wife named Debby, shared faith-based service provided “real bonding” and something they “both believe” in. Debby related that in her marriage:

It’s the life here at the church and things going on, or ways that we’re involved. … [This] is something that we have in common, it’s something we communicate about. … So, it becomes a real bonding thing … something we both believe and we seek to follow.

Many participants expressed that their relationship with God gave them the perception of having something special in their marriage. A wife named Ashley said,

For me, [my relationship with God] just makes [marriage] more reassuring because I know that divorce is not an option. … I feel secure in my relationship with [my husband]. I know he’ll take care of me as Christ takes care of the church and take care of the family. I never have any doubts about that.

A husband named Jared spoke of a similar connection and explained:

My relationship with God … motivates me. It’s really the prime motivator to be committed to our marriage and to grow in our marriage. Otherwise, I just think I’d be looking at it [as] “What’s in it for me?” and “What’s the minimal approach?” 

In connection with their parent-child relationships, participants noted that (a) Relating to each other through God brings unity, and (b) Parenting style evolves as faith grows stronger. 

It was wonderful to hear adolescents speak of prayer being a binding, comforting force in their lives. An adolescent daughter named Jen said,

It’s a serenity thing. [It is] a comfort to know that I can always come home and pray about things. And I know there’s lots of times I call home … from school and [say], “Okay [Mom and Dad], just pray for me today.” And just knowing they’re supporting me and going to God, it’s a cool connection.

A daughter named Jill said, 

Sometimes there are misunderstandings [in family life], but … having … the common bond … [that] we’re all children of God and relating to each other through [God] … brings a lot of unity. 

A son named Jack spoke of his father’s parent-child prayers with reverence:

Prayer has always been something that’s central too. Dad still gets up early and prays with [the family], and [then] prays with me, often before I go off. Obviously, I know that my Dad cares for me. … [H]e’s … investing himself in my spiritual well-being [and] in my well-being in general. … [I]t’s … developed … a concept of father and son, but also [this idea that we’re] brothers in the faith. 

A young, college-aged daughter said of the prayers of her parents and siblings:

I mean it’s just like a security, almost like a security blanket, knowing that you have your family behind you and God behind you. You can go back and you can have your parents and your siblings be able to sit down and pray for you, ask for help. It’s an awesome experience.

Participants expressed how their sanctified view of parenting helped them see their children and their own role as a parent differently. A Mainline, Native American father named Anoki said, 

I think our [parenting] style … has altered as our faith has grown stronger. … There’s a lot more forgiveness attached to the consequences and a lot less anger … [in our] particular parenting style [than before].

One mother said,

In terms of family roles … [we have been] teaching [our] kids from an early age … how much God has forgiven them, so they need to learn to forgive each other. We’ve worked pretty hard on that. … [That] also [means] being able to go to [our children] when [we] have messed up as a parent, and be able to say, [“Sorry, I messed up.”] It’s really only through God’s power that I can do it …

A father named Jimmy said,

[When people ask me … ], “Why are [y]our kids so good? And so happy?” Not robot good, but joyous kids? [I explain to them], “Because there’s a structure and they know where their happiness lies and where it doesn’t lie, and they love it and they just want to please [God and] us.

An 18-year-old daughter named Jill said, 

God has really given me a love and respect for my parents. … I think what God has given me [is] … a desire to obey what He has commanded. So [when I obey my parents,] it doesn’t feel so much like I’m “obeying all the rules,” it actually feels like the right thing to do.

Holly explained that her husband Mark and adolescent son Allen went each Saturday and served together in a soup kitchen—an activity that brought them closer together, closer to their sisters and brothers in the human family, and closer to God.

For these exemplary Mainline families, unity was a recurrent theme across all three domains—with God, in marriage, and in parent-child relationships. Our findings suggest that for persons who are deeply committed to and invested in Mainline Protestant religious beliefs and practice, their relationship with God may do far more than give meaning to their lives or provide a unique and distinctive set of tools and resources to draw additional power and strength. God’s relationship with them serves as a model for their relationships with their spouses and children.

I (Dave) am grateful for my upbringing in one of the oldest Mainline churches in America (the Episcopal Church). I still have the Book of Common Prayer my mother gave me. On Christmas and Easter, my Uncle Gene would come to our home for dinner and my mom would always ask him to say grace before dinner. I still remember the feeling of family unity I felt during those prayers that have inspired me, across decades, to have members of our family join hands in unity for our own family prayers.

About the Authors: While we ourselves are active (devoted) members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in our work in the American Families of Faith project, we seek to highlight the strengths of our friends of various faiths. We have developed a sense of deep respect and even holy envy for these families and their faiths. Additionally, the book chapters from which these articles are adapted included two coauthors who are devoted members of those faiths.

If you like listening to audiobooks and podcasts, we have recorded a set of conversations about the families we interviewed that includes additional quotes from mothers, fathers, and youth, more of our experiences in attending their services, as well as personal experiences with friends of other faiths. These podcasts are available at:





iHeart Radio



Podcast Republic

About the authors

David Dollahite

David C. Dollahite, Ph.D., is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith.

Loren Marks

Loren D. Marks, Ph.D. is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Religion and Families. He is a Fellow at the Wheatley Institute.
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