A number of years ago I asked a group of ten Episcopal high schoolers, “Who are your godparents?”
About half of them had no idea. The other half said, “My aunt and uncle,” or “my mom’s best friend and her husband.”
I asked, “If you were wrestling with a really deep question or a difficult problem, and you didn’t feel comfortable bringing it to your parents, would you bring it to your godparents?”
The first reply pulled no punches: “Absolutely not! My godparents are way too close to my parents.” So out of that group of ten teenagers, not one had a meaningful, unique relationship with his or her godparents.
Clergy aren’t often asked for tips on how to choose godparents. Many come to the Episcopal church from a tradition that doesn’t have godparents. Others come with the notion that godparents are those appointed to raise the children should the parents die, but this is a separate legal reality that has nothing to do with baptism. So they bring their children to the font with godparents already chosen, usually on the sole basis of who they are personally close to. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Lisa Kimball, wrote her doctoral thesis on godparenting. She says that “being a godparent is a distinct honor and responsibility without a roadmap.”
Our culture has gotten much more mobile. We can’t expect the godparents we choose to live near our children all their lives. Yet grace abounds: I have four godchildren, and I’m convinced that in more than one case, it is that godparent relationship that keeps our families working hard to develop long-term friendships.
My oldest godchild is 14 now, and her brother is 16. They haven’t attended church regularly since they were very young. But our families keep making an effort to spend time together, and my friendship with the kids is very different from my friendship with their parents. We have spent many years nurturing personal closeness. One weekend I watched several episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my goddaughter, and as we baked cookies, we even talked about Jesus. A deep conversation with her brother about reading the Bible in context actually inspired him to read people in context, and not to jump to conclusions about their intentions. I know my relationships with them will continue to be important. I pray that I will have moments of such significance with all my godchildren, again and again. And at the very least, I will let them know repeatedly that such a relationship is a possibility.
Choose godparents carefully. Choosing them from among family and friends necessitates an effort to let your kids develop their own relationship with them over time. Choosing them from within the congregation means that, at least for now, your kids will see their godparents every week. Your children’s godparents can take them up to the communion rail. They can mark baptism anniversaries with gifts (I have a list of good books) and memories about that important day. Most importantly, all godparents can be models of how a Christian lives: not perfectly, but with intention and with trust in God.