When Dad is a pastor, life can be interesting.
The old canard about being at church “any time the doors are open” is not only true, it’s a source of a lot different emotions and experiences. Few people see inside the local church like a pastor’s kid (PK), and few live a life that so blurs family, vocation, and ministry mores. It’s a wonderfully, and painfully, unique journey.
Every PK has a slightly different story. Mine was a relentlessly happy one, mostly because my father really did (and does) love Jesus and really did love his family, even when no tithers were watching. But I’ve known friends and peers with very different testimonies—stories of distant and harsh fathers; stories of marriage covenants sacrificed on the altar of ministry success; stories of loneliness that taught the pastor’s kids, Your heavenly Father is like this, too.
Such stories would be worth an entirely separate article. For now, though, I offer five lessons I learned while growing up a PK.
1. Pastors are people, too.
There seems a resilient misconception that pastors are less prone than the rest of us to things like exhaustion, temptation, frustration, and loneliness. I’ve seen that the opposite is actually closer to the truth. A pastor is especially vulnerable to all these things because of the constant emotional vigilance of his calling. Most of us are grateful, even unconsciously, that our spiritual lives and our vocations don’t overlap to the degree they do in the pastorate.
If I had one piece of advice for all evangelical churches, it would be: generously grant rest to your pastor. If everything falls apart when he’s not there, that’s not a reason to limit his rest; it’s a reason to seriously rethink the culture of the church. A pastor who feels like he has to choose between stewarding his mind, body, and family, and making sure the church functions well, is a pastor on a path to burnout (or worse).
2. Church attendance doesn’t immunize against sin and unbelief. But requiring it doesn’t automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals.
Here are two seemingly omnipresent misconceptions: (1) kids will be fine if they’re in church regularly, but (2) requiring them to come with you will foment rebellion. Both ideas are intuitive to different kinds of people in evangelical churches. And both are wrong.
My brother-in-law likes to say that evangelicals often think the gospel is something you catch like a cold. If you’re around infected churchgoers, eventually you’ll come down with salvation. Youth ministry, for instance, is as good a substitute for home discipleship as going to the ER is a good substitute for diet and exercise. If there’s no prayer, Bible reading, or parent-child discipleship going on in your home, and yet everything “seems” OK, that’s cause for alarm.
On the other hand, I’ve seen many parents sheepishly acknowledge they didn’t require their 14-year-old to get out of bed for church because they were nervous such requirements would turn her against church. This might be more true if human maturity and development stopped in adolescence. But it doesn’t—and it turns out that when the teenage years are in the rearview, it’s still easy to remember what one’s parents did and didn’t think was important in the home.
3. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows.
This is one thing my dad wishes he’d done differently. Seasoned saints are more equipped to handle the frustrating parts of church government, business, or discipline than teens are. You can’t hit a button and make your kids resent the church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before they’re able to see its beauty.
You can’t hit a button and make your kids resent the church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before they’re able to see its beauty.
Here’s a practical tip for pastors with kids: think of your kid seeing business-meeting fights and hearing moral failures similarly to how you think about them seeing conflicts in your marriage. You won’t be able to keep them out of the know on every tense or sinful moment with your spouse, but when they are witnesses to it, most couples will talk to them instead of assuming they’re processing it correctly. Apply that same logic to the dark side of church life. Keep your PKs out of the ecclesiological trenches as long as possible; but when they must see it, help them respond
4. The most freeing thing PKs can feel is that Dad and Mom don’t view them as PKs.
Hearing my dad encourage me, as I approached high-school graduation, that he wanted to me to follow God’s call on my life—and that the call didn’t need to be ministry—was crucial. I don’t think most pastors set out to put pressure on their kids to follow their footsteps, but what they can communicate unwittingly is that vocational ministry and true spirituality go hand in hand.
How is this communicated? One way is by holding PKs to higher standards merely because their dad is the pastor. Not only is that frustrating, it communicates that the pastorate is closer to heaven than the regular jobs.
5. PKs need dads who are more than theology nerds.
I don’t know if I can remember even three of my dad’s sermons growing up, but I can remember dozens of chats over milkshakes and trips to ball games. One of my fondest memories with him is watching an incredible Super Bowl in a hotel somewhere in Indiana while the blizzard of the decade pummeled us outside. The conference we attended later was fine, but I don’t remember most of it. I remember that night with my dad perfectly.
In a lecture to his divinity students, Charles Spurgeon urged them to be as normal as possible, rather than bland, flavorless ministry machines:
I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways. If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us. Baxter’s remark still holds good: “The want of a familiar tone and expression is a great fault in most of our deliveries, and that which we should be very careful to amend.” The vice of the ministry is that ministers will parsonificate the gospel. We must have humanity along with our divinity if we would win the masses. Everybody can see through affectations, and people are not likely to be taken in by them. Fling away your stilts, brethren, and walk on your feet.
What’s true of “working men” is even more true of pastors’ children. Pastors who cannot connect with their kids on a level beyond, say, reading (or, God forbid, politics) need to expand their horizons. Love is attention. Being attentive is the best way to tell a PK that their pastor-dad loves them for the K, not the P.
A version of this article appeared at Samuel James’s newsletter and website, Insights.