Five Things I Learned as a Pastor's Kid
Love is attention.
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 that 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 who is on a path to burnout (or worse).
2. A childhood filled with church attendance isn’t an immunization against sin and unbelief. But neither does requiring such attendance automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals.
Two seemingly omnipresent misconceptions: Kids will be fine if they’re in church regularly, but requiring them to come with you will foment rebellion. Both ideas are intuitive to different kinds of people in evangelical churches, but 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. I don’t need to go into detail about all the stories I could tell of how this cliche was proven false, sometimes with grave consequences. Youth ministry 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 everything “seems” OK, that’s cause to be alarmed.
On the other hand, I’ve seen so many parents sheepishly acknowledge that they didn’t require their 14 year old to get out of bed for church because they were nervous such requirements would turn him against church. This might be more true if human maturity and development stopped at 16. But it doesn’t, and it turns out that when the teenage years are in the rear view, it’s still pretty easy for most folks to remember what their parents did and didn’t think was important in their home.
3. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows.
This is one thing that my Dad has said he wished he’d done differently with me and my siblings. 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 child resent the local church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before he is able to see the beauty.
Here’s a very 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 a PK can feel is that his Dad and Mom don’t view him as a PK.
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 that call did not at all need to be ministry, was absolutely 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 they’re 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 3 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 is watching an incredible Super Bowl alone with my Dad 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 pastor’s 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 to more is the best way to tell a PK that their pastor-Dad loves them for the K, not the P.