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Growing Up in a Pastor’s Home

The Risks and Rewards

By Chris Arnzen

Neil confided in me, “My fear is that my girls will grow up and not have anything to do with the church, and not follow the Lord. What are the pitfalls of ministry and how do I avoid them?” There was sincerity in his voice.

These questions did not surprise me. Neil had recently graduated from Bible college, was married, and is the father of three young children. He directed these questions to me because my father was his pastor, and I had once been his Sunday School teacher. It made sense for Neil to ask these questions. However, I have not lived in a pastor’s home for more than 25 years. I was concerned that my experience may no longer be relevant. What would today’s PKs say?

One evening seven Assemblies of God college-age PKs and I shared a meal and discussed their experiences. Even though they engaged the typical topics — the fishsbowl existence, struggles with the expectations of others, isolation, and feeling inferior concerning the ministry — this group of PKs was refreshingly candid.

Lebron’s (names have been changed) family pastors a church in the inner city. During his lifetime, his parents have held four pastorates. Aaron has lived in a major Midwest city for the last 9 years. Ellie and Kyle are siblings from a small, rural town in the Midwest. Their father has pastored the same church for 12 years. Although Tessa and William are not related, their fathers have held several positions in churches (West Coast and Midwest), as well as district and national offices. Sam’s parents lived on the West Coast and in the Midwest. Although his parents have moved 5 times in his lifetime, they have spent the last 11 years in the same pastorate.

As I talked with these PKs, they expressed both the positive and negative aspects of growing up in a pastor’s home. Despite living in a fishbowl environment, they made positive remarks about living in the parsonage.

Kyle: Every year a lady in our church gave us Nike tennis shoes for Christmas. Now that I am in college, I receive an anonymous check every month or every other month.

Ellie: Being a PK gives you a sense of leadership. You know how the church runs, and different things that come up do not surprise you.

Sam: It helped me connect with people more easily. I’m not shy. When we do a meet and greet, I’m comfortable meeting people and finding out about them. My top strength is connecting with others. That ties to the compassion I saw my parents show people. I also feel that I have compassion. I see God in everyone. Growing up in the parsonage helps me have confidence when talking to people.

Even though these PKs had a positive view of their lives, they also had issues to deal with.

William:I felt I had to share my dad and mom with other students. It felt like it was not just our family and siblings, but everyone’s family and siblings. The good thing, though, is when my dad was home he spent a lot of time with my brothers and me. He made the most of the time he had with us.

Kyle: I had to attend every single church event. It wasn’t that bad all the time, but I still remember my sophomore year having to miss a concert because we had a fish fry at church. Things like that would happen, but it wasn’t a big deal.

One issue these PKs mentioned was living in the shadow of their fathers. Their developing identities were impacted and feeling different was common. They had difficulty explaining their parents’ career to their friends. At times, adults assumed they had a certain type of character based on their father’s reputation. Interestingly, none of these PKs struggled with being labeled rebellious, even though many of them said they struggled internally and knew other PKs that did act out.

Aaron: Going to public school was challenging. The other kids didn’t understand what my dad did. Some kids asked if we lived in the church.

Lebron: Sometimes my dad would drive me to school in the church van. It got code named the God-mobile. Try to live up to that.

Another downside — although my dad and mom were good at hiding it — is the negative things I saw going on in the church. It gets you frustrated at the church and how it’s run. For a while, it turned me off a little to church. Then in high school, I realized that’s just the way things are.

Tessa: When I went to high school, people asked what my dad did, or they would find out my dad was a pastor. I felt that I had to be perfect for the people who didn’t go to church or weren’t Christians. They would call me a hypocrite because my dad was a pastor.

Sam: I went through a couple of years where I felt people held a high standard for me and my family. Sometimes we would walk in the church after we had been fighting. Mom and Dad would say, “Okay, put a smile on. Let’s deal with it afterward.” They were just trying to help us not look like brats. For me, though, it made me feel that I had to be a fake and always happy at church because I was the pastor’s kid.

The other kids were looking up to me because I was the pastor’s son. I didn’t feel I was good enough to be their role model, so I acted as if I didn’t care what they thought. I entered a rebellious stage — not doing drugs and stuff — but having an attitude of I don’t care what you think, because I don’t have to meet your standards.

Kyle: My dad was well liked. I realized early on that as long as I put on a good face in front of people, no one would know what I was like. As long as they knew I was my dad’s son, I was a good person. To this day, when I meet district officials and tell them who my dad is, they say that I’m a great kid. I could go to my car and smoke weed, and I’d still be a great kid.

There’s a growing process. I had to realize for myself that my reputation is based on who I am as a person. I remember during my second semester at college I started to realize people didn’t know who my dad was. My reputation is based on who I am and the people I hang out with.

People expect pastors’ families to attend, participate, and contribute in many church events. In small churches, participation is a matter of necessity. PKs are called on to fill in the gaps. This often can make PKs feel people are taking advantage of them. Although some of these PKs could identify with these feelings, they have been able to reframe their experiences as something positive now that they are young adults.

Aaron: I’ve moved more people than anybody else. My dad always volunteered my brothers and me. We would wake up on Saturday morning, and my dad would tell us what we were going to do that day. That’s just how it was and how it still is. Sunday mornings, if something needs to be done, we’re the first ones they go to. I guess that builds character later in life.

Ellie: I was in the choir, a nursery helper, and the kids church helper. If someone didn’t show up to teach a class, either my sister, brothers, or I would do it. It was a forced thing, and it made me bitter toward church involvement. When I started college and attended a different church, my No. 1 goal was not to get involved. I’m involved now; I can’t help it.

Pastoring and parenting can be complex. Many of these PKs expressed the longing for their fathers to interact with them as their child, and not as another person in their congregation. Not until these PKs entered college and experienced relational distance could they appreciate the complexity of these two roles. These PKs did have many positive things to say about how their parents raised them.

Sam: It wasn’t until I came to college that I realized how complicated being a parent and pastor is. My parents have been telling me about things that happened in the church that I never knew about. They did a good job of not telling me and my siblings about some bad things that happened. My mom said they knew we would hear things about the church, and they didn’t want to add to that, so they kept those things to themselves as husband and wife. I’m thankful for that.

Tessa: I agree. My parents did a good job of keeping church information from me that I did not need to know, especially when I was little. They had their job, and they kept the family separate.

Kyle: I always appreciated the fact my parents made it clear why they were in the ministry. Dad always said that God had called him to this town. I’ve been in the same town my entire life. Dad still gets offers to go to different places, but he believes for now that he’s to be here. To see that call of God helps me. I don’t feel called to the ministry, but it helps me with whatever God wants to do with my life. It will be worth it, even in the hard times.

Sam: My dad and mom attended every event that I had. It was second nature for me to see them in the audience. In high school, we’d have a choir concert. It wasn’t very big. I’d say, “Dad, don’t go. It’s going to be boring. I do not want you to go.” But he was always in the audience.

I’d say, “Dad, you did not need to come to that.”

He’d say, “No, I love you. I want to come see you.” It was nice, even though I told him he didn’t need to come to everything.

Looking back, though, these PKs did wish their parents had done some things differently.

Kyle: I wish they had exposed me to the outside world. I was in a Christian bubble 24/7. I wasn’t exposed to non-Christians much. All my friends went to church. It was hard on me going through high school, going to youth conventions, and hearing about witnessing because I didn’t know whom to witness to. It was hard to be a Christian when the No. 1 thing you’re supposed to do is witness to other people. It made me feel like I was failing. It’s kind of a weird situation. My parents were trying to do their best, but I wish they had exposed me more to the outside world.

Sam: I saw my dad as the enforcer. Then on Sunday, he was a peaceful, loving dad, even though he had just spanked me Saturday night. As a 6-year-old, I thought my dad was a hypocrite. My dad had an anger issue. He’d speak about anger on Sunday, but on Tuesday he’d be yelling at us.

PKs see the human side of their parents. Most people in the congregation don’t see that. They see the pastor on Sunday and think he is a great man, and he is, but you see his flaws and his worst times. So as a kid, I got the idea my dad was a hypocrite.

Lebron: My parents were not too legalistic or too hard on me, but did give me too much freedom. I was allowed to date or go out whenever I wanted. I had no curfew. I was probably a couple of bad choices away from completely being lost. I easily could have gotten involved with the wrong crowd more than I did. Looking back, I wish my parents had a few more rules.

Ellie: I think my parents emphasized the church too much. I know they were pastors, but there were days when I felt if they had to choose between salvation and church, they would choose the church. I think I saw what they did for the church more than anyone else. I saw the sacrifices my family made. There were times we needed a break and the freedom to not go to every church event or function.

With the daily demands of a pastorate, it is easy to overlook the fact a PK may be experiencing internal conflict. Although PKs often appear confident and display good conversational and leadership skills, they struggle with varying levels of insecurity. Looking back, there were some things they would do differently.

Kyle: I was insecure throughout high school. I was home schooled, so I automatically thought anyone who went to public school was cooler than me. It didn’t matter who they were. Even the smelly kid was cooler than a home schooler. I’m glad I was home schooled, but I think I could have been a better influence on my friends if I had been a little less insecure. I think I could have had a lot more fun.

Tessa: I wish I had put myself out there more in high school. I was so involved in church. I wish I had participated in more high school activities that would have connected me with more people. My freshman year in high school was the first time I had ever gone to public school. I attended a small Christian school and was home schooled until high school. I was not ready for public school. I was insecure and shy, and too sheltered. I didn’t know how to act around people. I wish that I hadn’t cared as much about what people thought of me, and I wish I had tried new things.

Aaron: I was insecure in high school, too. I think the reason was because I couldn’t act like the other kids. They were going out and partying on the weekends. I didn’t have anything to talk to them about at the lunch table. I could share the gospel, but you can’t do that at lunch, every day. I would probably do high school different. I’d build relationships with people, instead of just sitting there being quiet.

Sam: I honestly wish I had gotten more involved in church. The only thing my parents pushed was that I go to church every Sunday — even if I was sick. I had to be deathly ill to miss. That made church attendance a job to me. I always said I was too busy, but I think it was still the resentment wearing off from my younger years.

With parents in the ministry, all of the PKs had to wrestle with whether or not full-time vocational ministry was in their future. For some of these PKs the process of working through this question was painful. Sometimes pastors or church people put pressure on PKs to go into vocational ministry that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Sam: I’m from a multigenerational pastor’s family, and the only boy in my family. Even if people don’t say it, you know what they’re thinking. I had believed that no matter what, I was going to be a pastor. It took years for me to realize that if it is God’s will, it will happen. But I also want to be open to other things. I never thought, Oh, I could be a journalist, because people expected me to be a minister. It’s in your blood; you have to do it. My parents, however, never pressured me that way.

Kyle: My three older sisters went to Bible college. I’m the first boy, so I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps.

One time we had a missionary at the church. My dad told him that God had called many kids into the ministry. He called them up front. The youth sat together, and I was the only one left. I felt like going up because everyone else did. I remember praying, “God, why don’t You just call me?”

In my college sophomore year, my dad was speaking, and he mentioned my four siblings had been or were currently at Bible college. He then mentioned that I was at a Christian university. He said, “My son Kyle (in a low, serious tone) is going into media ministries.” I sat there and almost cried. I’d never heard my dad say anything that made me feel like I was less; it had always been unspoken. At that moment, I felt it was spoken; it was pressure. It was something for which I had to forgive my dad. It was a hard time for me, but I had to trust in God and know He has my future planned for me.

Ellie: I felt pressured by my siblings, more than by anyone else, to go to the mission field. All of them were called to missions. It was the cool thing to do. I would tell people I was going to be a missionary when I felt more of a call to youth ministries. But my dad was proud of them. He would always tell people that my older siblings were going to be missionaries. So I tried to fit in.

When asked what these PK students would tell a young pastor about raising kids in the parsonage, they expressed the necessity for family time even if it is simple. They claimed the security of a strong relationship between mom and dad was invaluable and protective during difficult times of pastoral transitions. They added that a lack of integrity and affirmation leads to confusion.

Kyle: With my family, we knew Mom would be there and Dad might be there. One of my greatest memories is watching Seinfeld with my dad. That’s still the greatest show ever to me, because every time I watch it, I think about my dad. That’s what we did during my high school years. For me, it was something I could count on. I feel I coped with family time better than my siblings. I could tell it hurt them when they didn’t get one-on-one time.

William: My dad took advantage of the time he was with us. It was fun when he was home. My mom was involved just as much as my dad. Her role made the difference.

How our dad treated my mom was important. I didn’t date until I was 16, but I was ready. I knew how I should treat a woman: The same way my dad treated my mom. He set the example. They’d have arguments, but there were certain things they wouldn’t talk about around us. The thing they made a point not to do is argue over little things that make no difference.

Tessa: Always tell your kids and your spouse that you love them. Let your kids know that you love your spouse and that you’re treating her the right way. They need to know that. My parents always tell me they love me, and it never gets old.

Sam: My parents have always had an amazing relationship. I never thought they would divorce; it never entered my mind that it could happen. It was just an amazing relationship that I got to watch. Whenever they fought, I either didn’t know about it, or they kept it to a minimum in front of us kids. They never fought about the church in front of us. I think that was part of their protecting us from the bitter side of pastoring.

Lebron: It’s important to realize that your kids aren’t part of the congregation. They need a dad and mom; not just a pastor. Make sure you’re playing both roles.

Sam: My biggest concern is that you base your rules and your lifestyle on being a parent, not a pastor. It’s not your kids’ choice that you’re a pastor, and their life is connected to a church. Make sure you discipline them and set certain rules not because you’re a pastor and your family has to look a certain way. Otherwise, those expectations may cause your children to become bitter and rebellious.

Ellie: Don’t be afraid to admit to your kids when you’re wrong. When you haven’t spent time with them, or you have preached a sermon you knew you weren’t living, don’t be afraid to tell them you were wrong.

The PKs’ spirituality was the last topic we discussed. These PKs were in transition; their spiritual development had moved beyond church activity and now took on personal meaning. They talked openly about their relationship with God and how having parents in the ministry hurt or helped that relationship. What they reported might seem discouraging and frightening to a pastoral couple. If this is a reflection of typical PKs’ spiritual development, however, a pastoral couple can better prepare for their children’s faith crisis, and turn it into an opportunity to demonstrate faith in real time.

Sam: I grew up hearing about how I could have a relationship with God, but I didn’t fully know what that meant. I knew Jesus lives in my heart, and I was to read my Bible, but I never understood it. I went through a stage of resentment. The older I get, I’ve discovered that I process spiritual things differently .

I realize that developing a relationship with God is my choice, especially since I no longer live with my parents. When parents are teaching their kids, they need to make them understand that having a relationship with God is their choice. That’s the big difference. You’re not being forced to serve Him; you’re being offered opportunity to make a choice.

Kyle: Growing up in a pastor’s home hurt and helped my spirituality. It hurt my spirituality because I grew up thinking Christianity was a lot of rules. My parents disagreed. They said it was not about the don’ts, but about the dos. But that’s not how I lived my life. I was legalistic in high school. Serving God was following a list of rules to me. It’s good to know it’s all about God loving people, and the rules fall into place after that.

Ellie: I felt my Christianity became routine. I had to go to church; I had to do this and that. I never stopped reading my Bible or praying, but I did go through a time when it didn’t mean squat to me. I did it because I had to.

When I went to Bible college, I was bitter toward church and didn’t want to go. I would go Sunday mornings and leave early. I was extremely bitter toward church my first semester. Church involvement had to be my choice. Now I’m involved in church, and I love church. I love being able to go, because now it’s my choice.

Aaron: I felt I was saved because my dad was the pastor. I rode on his coattails for a long time until I moved out and went to college. After high school, I had to make a personal choice to serve God. I no longer served God just because my dad was a pastor.

Lebron: I’d say being a PK hurt my spirituality. I didn’t feel the need to be in prayer and in the Word as much. I thought I already knew everything. I felt that by association I was a good Christian. It wasn’t until college that I saw the importance, especially since I was going into the ministry, of having a relationship and time alone with God.

Conclusion

As the PKs were reflecting on their spiritual lives, they all referenced moving away from home as a critical point in their choice to serve the Lord. Parents also face a critical point as well. Even though parents are concerned for their kids, showing it may communicate that they do not trust them. This could cause a rift in the relationship. One PK said, “How can you not trust me when I’ve helped you and the church for 18 years? I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do; yet you can’t trust me to go on my own for 4 years. I think that trusting your kid is important.” This is the time when faith is tested and love is demonstrated.

It was clear these PKs had a great deal to say. They shared the positives and negatives of growing up as PKs. A lack of integrity, family time, and exposure outside the church created internal conflicts. However, experiencing the security of their parents’ marriage, their affirmation and support, and the freedom to choose positively influenced their experiences. Regardless of their experience, it was clear that their spiritual lives were dynamic and maturing into a personal faith.

CHRIS ARNZEN, MA, LPC, Springfield, Missouri, is Director of Clinical Services, National Institute of Marriage, Branson, Missouri.

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