We’re all familiar with the cultural (and stereotypical) image of the pastor’s kid–the rebellious teenager who shuns all things church or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the straight-laced, biblical expert who is first to raise her hand in Sunday school. As is true with most cultural stereotypes, the difference between image and actual reality can be quite broad. Among the clergy families I studied, most were extremely intentional about letting their kids be their own selves, resisting the pressure to conform to stereotypes or unrealistic expectations. At the same time, clergy families also realize there is only so much shielding they can provide for their children.
Stephanie, a clergy spouse, shared how she noticed the continual spotlight her kids were under:
[O]ne of the men from our church here, when we were being considered to come here, he came down to…Our church there and he snuck in on a Sunday morning and just observed the service. Actually, it was Easter. And I saw him and I wondered who that guy was but I didn’t get to meet him after because he slipped out on purpose. But in the message, Luke mentioned something about that [our son] Trevor was working across the street at Starbucks that morning and you know, something about…He made some little quip about, you know, “Head over and say happy Easter to Trevor.” And so this guy was like, “I’m going to go over and check out the pastor’s son.” So he went over to Starbucks and Trevor was working the drive through window. But he asked the man who was working the counter, “So which one of the guys working here is Trevor?” And this guy standing at the counter was this sweet older guy that worked at Starbucks and he was like, “Oh, Trevor is on the window. He is the greatest kid. We just love him.” And this guy is going on and on. And we find this all out months later. And so this guy who had checked out our son, he said, “He was a good clean cut kid. He didn’t have any weird tattoos or strange piercings.” And I thought, “What if he did?” But there’s that expectation. What if he had been a kid with, you know what I mean, like a ponytail. Is he going to be judged by what he looks like?
Parents can control the messages they send to their children but they cannot control the actions and expectations of other people. For younger kids in the early, developmental years of life, beginning to discover what church is about while in the spotlight as a pastor’s kid can lead to significant questions as they grow older. And as kids come of age through the emotional and spiritual growth many of us experience as teenagers–discovering our own independence while also deciding what among our familial beliefs and practices to embrace as young adults–they discover the kinds of supports most kids have from a church community look different for them. The youth pastor may be their mother or father’s colleague or perhaps their mother or father. One pastor described how he tried to make up for his kids’ potential need for pastoral care during deeply formational seasons of life:
[W]hen my kids were in high school we had a good relationship with the other pastors in town and I talked to one. I went to my kids at one of our family meetings and I said, “If you guys ever have a problem where you need a pastor but you don’t want your dad the pastor, I’ve talked to this other pastor at this other church and he will not divulge anything that you talk to him about to me. He will not even tell me that you’ve talked to him. But he said he’s very willing to be your pastor. He knows you can’t come to his church because your dad is over across the street, but he’s very willing for you to come and say ‘I need a pastor.’ And he’ll be your pastor since your dad is your pastor.”
Clergy family concerns for raising kids in the church go much deeper than avoiding stereotypes–they hit at the deep significance spiritual formation holds for people of faith and questions over how best to navigate this when church is also mom or dad’s employer. As another pastor noted,
“I try not to be gone too many nights so they don’t associate the church with my absence. I’ll often tell them I’m going to work rather than going to church so they don’t associate all of that together.”
Indeed, parenting as a pastor involves ongoing negotiation of very complex and blurred boundaries between work, family, and religious life and out of this many challenges emerge. But like all the intersecting elements of an integrated life, there is also a unique, positive side to raising kids in the context of vocational ministry. How do parents draw from these benefits to alleviate the challenges? It is yet another way clergy families weave together a complete whole and the topic of my next post on parenting as a pastor.
Lenore Knight Johnson