Bill Putman says, “In 43 years of ministry and 41 years of parenting we have faced just about every crisis imaginable in our family and have experienced the grace of God to get us through it and beyond it.” Having learned from those experiences, Bill has written two books as an encouragement to fellow Christians: Daddy, I’m Pregnant (Standard Publishing) and Life Sure Is Confusing (Heartspring Publishing). His interview as “a father named Bill” on James Dobson’s nationally syndicated radio program, Focus on the Family, has been rebroadcast several times. Bobbi and Bill have four daughters and a son, Jim, who is senior pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho, with whom they serve in ministry.
When did you hit bottom?
It was a combination of many things: the stress of ministry, five teenage children all at the same time, and thousands of uninsured doctor bills mounting up. Several of our children were out of control and in rebellion, and Bobbi and I were in trouble. Personally, I was in complete emotional collapse. And God still was God. Now, at this season in our lives, our children and ministries are far more than we ever anticipated they would be.
You had particular problems with Jim.
Jim was a first child. I imposed upon myself some unrealistic expections that I would be a better dad than my dad, and I tried too hard. There was a point in time when Jim was in absolute rebellion and I was absolutely broken. It just about gave our family a mortal wound—until he finally had to leave our home.
That must have been very painful.
The hardest thing a parent has to do is to know when to really stand his ground. I wanted to get Jim to a counselor to fix him and he wouldn’t go. So I went. I told the doctor my tale of woe and he said, “If somebody else were telling you this story what would you say?” I said, “Throw the kid out.” I looked up at him and said, “I can’t. He’s my kid.” But sending Jim into the hands of God to take care of him, instead of me trying to fix him, was the beginning of healing for us as a family.
Sounds like a living example of “tough love.”
Tough love is really easy to suggest when it’s somebody else, but it’s hard to implement when it’s your kid. It’s good theology. It’s right. If a person is doing anything that the Bible says is wrong, separate him from the church. It’s easy to read, but it’s hard to practice when it’s your kid. We had to establish the minimal rules and let those rules determine whether he stayed or not. He came and went several times. When he’d ask, “Dad, can I come home?” I’d say, “You know the house rules, and if you can keep them you can stay.”
How did Jim ultimately come back?
When Jim was through running, I remember him coming home and knocking on the front door—you know there’s stress if he has to knock at his own home. His first words were, “Dad, I’m not saved.” I said, “I know. What do you think you should do?” He said, “I want to confess Christ and be baptized, right now.” So we gathered up our little family and we went to the irrigation ditch and I baptized him into Christ. And there have never been two days the same since. He’s one of the miracles I watched God give.
Had you given up hope?
That’s the first thing that left. Love and forgiveness is given and trust is earned. Somewhere in the middle of that is hope, and I gave up hope. My mother kept saying to me that “he’s going to be OK; he’s got a good heart.” She could see what I couldn’t see, and it gives me a lot of joy to know she was right.
How did you pray?
I was at my medical doctor’s office and I picked up a Reader’s Digest while I was waiting. There was a woman’s prayer: “Lord, when I wake up in the night and I don’t know where my child is, please help me remember that you love my child more than I do.” So I tore it out. I stole it right out of that book. And I carried it for years. And I’ve watched my children, each one, become far more than I hoped for.
You and Bobbi had a Christian home. Did you ever question the “train up a child” passage of Proverbs 22:6?
Looking back, I assumed that verse as my own. I falsely believed that if I was a pastor, if I was doing devotions, if I was being consistent, that my children would automatically turn out to be Christians. One day in the middle of my insanity I decided I would study that passage. So, I asked what does it really mean, “Raise up a child in the way he should go”? I retreated to what God meant in Deuteronomy 6, where it says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might,” and I had to confess my all wasn’t enough. I read the passage, teach them when you rise up and when you sit down, and I had to confess, I loved the Lord with most of me most of the time and most of the time I followed Deuteronomy 6. I had to come to the place where I said, in spite of me, I’ve got to trust the grace of God to save my children.
Did you blame yourself for the situation?
Absolutely. I’m an insecure guy who tries to make up for his insecurity by trying too hard. In all my trying I just about drove my family away and drove myself nuts. When you have a child, you look down at the child and know it’s your responsibility. But no matter how well you raise your children, it’s got to be you plus Jesus. It can’t just be how well you do. I’ve watched God chase my kids down and convict them and bring them home. My children are Christians in spite of me and because of Jesus.
How did you keep moving forward in ministry while all of these things were happening around you?
We survived. That’s about it. Bobbi would get up at five in the morning and get close to God so she could get through the day. I journaled and wrote to God. I’ve never been very good at praying but I’ve written him tons of letters. Bobbi and I would role-play “what if” this happens or “what if” that happens and what would the Lord want us to do “if.” When the “if” happened, the church came alongside us, and instead of throwing us out, helped us. Our friends never left us. Our extended family didn’t know what to say, but they were just there.
What would you say to the person who doesn’t have the kind of network he needs to carry him through?
If you don’t have that kind of support network, I want to recommend you swap dads and have the heavenly Father be yours. If you don’t have a Christian friend, ask him for one. If you don’t have a Christian family, go find a good church who loves sinners. And remember that God loves your kids more than you do.
Is there still damage in your relationship with Jim?
When people compliment me for being a good dad, I jokingly say, “Well, when I was his dad and he was just my son, neither one of us was worth shooting. Jim has been God’s son for more than 20 years and now “he’s my son in whom I’m well pleased.”
And now you’re working for him!
Four years ago I was in a happy ministry and Jim called me and said his church grew by another 1,000 people and was serving 2,500 people. He said, “Will you come help?” Think of it this way, 20 years of broken relationship with him, him coming to Christ, and then seeing him several times a year and talking to him on the phone. We still had unresolved issues we needed to face. I didn’t want him to be left with memories of me that were not healed.
We moved to Post Falls, and in spite of the past, and because of the grace of God, we are teammates. He’s now my boss.
The first week he said to me, “Dad, it’s different with you working for me and my being your boss.”
I said, “Well Son, I promise to obey you the same way you obeyed me the first 20 years!”
He smiled and said, “Then I’m in trouble!” I think I’m learning no longer to be the main player and to just sit back and cheer for what God is doing. I realize all I can do is make it worse, only God can make it better.
What would be your encouragement to people who are living a painful journey right now?
A broken marriage can thrive because he’s there. That overwhelming debt can be paid because he’s there. Deep loneliness or wounds can be healed because he’s there. I hardly remember the pain of it, but like a scar on a healed wound, I remember the joy of it that God never let us down, that there is hope because he is faithful. My greatest joy in ministry is to see a broken person find Christ, to see a broken marriage have hope, to believe that my grandkids will grow through any rebellion they have and that some day, instead of borrowing their parents’ faith, they will have a faith of their own in the God who is always there.
Seeing the pain parenting can bring, how would a person without kids look forward to parenthood?
I have come to believe that in spite of our limitations as parents, and in spite of this crazy world, we can raise godly children who will make a difference in this world. Our family is still healing and growing. I have seen us go from being a broken family and a wounded ministry to where I’m just so proud of God and what he has done and is doing in my children.
You have a lot of pride in God.
My greatest satisfaction is knowing God keeps his word: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” If looking back at your parenting is painful, can I encourage you to visit those memories but not live in them? “Coulda, shoulda, woulda” can kill you. What has God done in spite of you?
If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?
I never get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll screw up my life: I’ll be a bad husband, dad, pastor.” But by the end of each day I find I have fouled up something and need the grace of God. I wish I had learned earlier that it’s OK to fail, but it’s not OK to rebel. God expects me to fail in the effort, but he doesn’t want me to rebel.
I may be 65 in the world’s eyes, but I am just “little Billy” to God. I’m glad I don’t have to be a great dad because I have a GREAT God who loves my children and family more than I do.