Last year, Shattered published “Nine Secrets Your Pastor’s Wife Wishes You Knew,” an article that generated passion and empathy among readers. Many of the hundreds of responses came from preachers’ kids. Some simply stated they agreed with the accuracy of the article, while others shared much more deeply intimate and personal reflections.
It seems the contemporary church culture has created an environment where an effort to uphold godly standards from church leaders becomes a silencing of their children. Preachers’ kids are often given unrealistic expectations, and have even the most trivial decisions scrutinized. This stigma follows preachers kids, ministry staff kids, and missionary kids.
Preachers’ Kids—Where Are They Now?
According to a research statistic by Barna Group, over a third of preachers’ kids abandon the faith. This should grieve us because we, as the church, share part of the responsibility. The call of a preacher is both a dangerous and risky occupation. National studies show that 80% of preachers say the ministry “negatively affected their family.”
So I made some phone calls, wrote some emails, and read hundreds of things preachers’ kids—both young (pre-teens, teens, and college students) and old (adults with families of their own)—wish the church knew. I promised anonymity in exchange for transparent conversation and offered a safe place to share. Some are still actively involved in and serve in their local church; others have abandoned the faith or the church entirely.
Preachers’ kids have something to say to the church and if we hope to ever change the sad reality of the “preachers’ kids statistic” we must first have the wisdom to listen.
1. “Being a preacher’s kid is not a negative experience.”
Being a preacher’s kid is not a “burden” to be carried, it is the situation that God has put them in. Several former preacher’s kids who are now adults shared that during their formative years they didn’t realize the many blessings of growing up in a ministry family. One shared, “If I had a dollar for every adult who said to me, ‘Preacher’s kids and teacher’s kids always turn out the worst’ I would be driving a new car.” For the record, this particular preacher’s kid turned out great!
Another shared that now as an adult when people learn about his “past” they assume he was a rebellious teenager in high school or college with a track record of grievous mistakes. Preachers’ kids want the church to know that though they feel the weight and pressure of ministry, they don’t want you to feel sorry for them.
2. “As a former preacher’s kid, I dreaded the thought of my husband becoming a pastor. I saw how ruthless people were to my parents, siblings, and me.”
This was a fairly common response from female participants, both young and old. Of course, this could be said of any profession, but the sad reality is that it’s not the irregular hours or the minimal pay that has left them with this conclusion. It was the cruelty they’ve seen in the church. The meanness from the same group of people that are commissioned by Jesus to be known by the way they love others.
3. “Our whole family survived being in ministry because we learned to trust God, not the church.”
So many of the adult respondents who avoided becoming a “statistic” used a word that should cause the church to pause. They said they “survived.” Nearly every kid who has grown up in ministry has seen the ugliness that is sometimes evident in the church. I was told several horror stories from those who have been hurt deeply by the words and actions of members and tragically carry a bitterness towards God’s people. Those who “survived” did so with the realization that the church is full of broken people (sinners) all with the same common and constant need of a Savior.
4. “It’s almost unfair that I’m held to a super standard to be extra righteous just because my dad is in the calling that he is. At the end of the day we should ALL be striving for that. Right?”
Many preachers’ kids shared the unrealistic standards they were expected to live by, the consistent judgement and lack of grace. They shared how every outfit they wore was scrutinized for modesty and acceptability. How they were expected to only listen to certain types of music, watch only G rated movies and the list went on. One participant shared that when he made “questionable decisions” or mistakes, his dad would find himself in a meeting defending him or getting unsolicited parenting tips.
The fish bowl description is real. It is important to realize preachers’ kids face the same social pressure, temptations, insecurities and struggles as most “normal” kids. We must give them permission to have bad days, not be faultless, mess up and hurt. We must encourage them to be authentic and allow them to express feelings without fear of judgement.
5. “Don’t expect us to be as dedicated as our parents are to the church.”
While it is true that ministry is often a family calling, just like pastors’ wives, many preachers’ kids struggle with the expectation to be in church every time the doors are open. One respondent shared that her dad insisted she play in the church orchestra, which she HATED. Children are individuals and may want to participate in activities that happen throughout the week such as school band, sports, arts, scouts or various other programs not “church” related. The world will not end if they miss a Wednesday night or (gasp) a Sunday.
6. “Sometimes, my dad seems more like a social worker than a church leader.”
Preachers’ kids grow up introduced to many harsh life realities at a young age: deaths, divorce, crises and family tragedies. Often they overhear late night phone calls from hurting members. Sometimes they feel like their problems are trivial or insignificant in comparison to the burdens their parents already carry for others. “It’s hard to know my dad is not a normal father to me, everyone else is more important.”
7. “At some point, we have to make the decision to own our faith.”
Being born as a preacher’s kid doesn’t make one a born again Christian. Like every other child, they must realize their independent need for Jesus. Some grow up in homes where their parents model what is taught from the pulpit. Others in homes where grace was taught but not practiced. Either way, they must eventually come to the same point that every other person breathing must decide: accept salvation or reject it.
By far, the loudest and most regular comment I heard, both young and old, was to just let them be regular kids. Don’t expect them to be Bible thumping perfectly behaved robots. And don’t expect them to behave badly just because that’s what preachers’ kids do. Encourage them, love them, take interest in their lives and invest in them.
And most importantly, if they do go through a season of rebellion or questioning their faith, resist the urge to gossip and talk to God for them instead.
For more on the subject of what it is like being a preacher’s kid, check out Barnabas Piper’s new book entitled The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith And Identity.