Dear Future Pastor,
You are called, or at least you’re pretty sure you are. That’s why you are heading into the great unknown called “vocational ministry.” I understand that. I believe that. I believe God lays it on people’s hearts in an undeniable way to serve His church as pastors.
But you must know that this calling makes life difficult for your family, your children. While you feel the tractor beam of the pulpit they don’t. Your kids aren’t called to ministry, and they don’t want to challenge your calling either because that would mean challenging God. Neither, though, do they always like being the children of a minister. It can be difficult, but are they free to say so? Your calling casts a long and intimidating shadow, even if you don’t.
You may think the challenges of being a pastor’s kid (PK) are overstated. As one who spent my entire childhood, my college years, and my young professional and married life as a PK I assure you they are not. You may be inclined to think you know what the challenges will be, but I suspect some are subtle enough as to have escaped your notice.
The scrutiny, for example, is a subtle thing. Most people in your church will have good intentions and will be predisposed to like you and your family. All that liking means a whole lot of noticing, though. Parishioners will notice everything about your kids – bad habits, misbehaving in the supermarket, flirting, talking during service or Sunday school, running a stop sign, seeing an R rated movie, Who they’re dating, who they just broke up with, and so forth. Of course you’ll unwittingly encourage this by telling stories about your kids in your sermon too. No matter how kind people are, all that noticing piles on the pressure. It leaves no room for mistakes and erodes their sense of freedom.
You are likely prepared for the double standard you will face as a pastor, the expectation to be morally flawless. Did you realize your kids will face the same? They will be expected to behave better, to believe better, to profess better, to lead better, to set an example. People will overlook the fact that by nature they’re just like every other kid, and will expect something a tick more angelic. This is annoying at best, but it can have a devastating effect on your kids’ identities and souls.
Will they define themselves by others’ expectations? Will they base their worth on an extra-biblical moral standard? Will they be people pleasers or rebel against the expectations? Or might they hide their true selves, their questions, their fears, and their doubts behind a faux moral façade just to survive all the while not being sure what they actually believe. Will you be able to tell?
Teaching is what you do. Each Sunday you will stand in front of a congregation and, if you’re doing your job well, expound upon God’s word, His character, and His gospel. You will lead your family in devotions and have theological conversations. You will fill your kids with biblical truth as much as you can. The foundation of their faith will be laid and they will have a storage shed full of building blocks for belief. But will they know how to believe?
One of your greatest challenges will be discerning which answers your children give you are merely the “right” ones and which ones are truly windows to their souls. You will try to determine what they believe versus what they know they ought to believe. And the hard part is they often won’t know the difference themselves. PKs are adept at giving the right answers and then giving the right answers to the follow-up questions. But answers and belief aren’t the same thing. One is mental assent or mere mimicry. The other is a life changed from the inside out.
The scrutiny, the expectations, the double standards, and the lack of clarity about belief can create a witches brew of doubts and confusion. But to whom can PKs take their questions. Where is it safe? If they are expected to be “just so”, to have the answers, and to be more mature believers than their peers then doubts and questions aren’t ok. The church, where they ought to feel safest, becomes off limits. Even your job security will rest on their behavior and profession of faith. What are they to do? Will they view you as safe to confide in or will doing so be an assault on your calling?
Your children will need you to be their parent before you are their pastor. Talk with them; don’t preach at them. Listen to them as a confidant not a professional counselor. When you can, protect them from the double standards heaped upon them. Your standing for them will be Supermanesque. While you won’t always be able to protect them in public, be sure to make your home a haven of grace and consistency where you admit your faults and ask forgiveness so they know they can do the same. And have fun with them. All your lessons will pale in comparison to baseball, Barbies, Legos, fishing, biking, drawing, or hiking. Enter into the hobbies they love and have a hobby you can fold them into so they feel part of your life. (Reading doesn’t count; it’s not a group activity.)
Be patient with your kids. They are kids, after all, just like all the other little delightful knuckleheads out there. They will hear you. They will know what you believe and what you stand for. They will absorb what you say, even if it doesn’t show. Be patient and be present. Many PKs bloom late because it takes time to sort through the pressures and expectations to find their own identity and faith. They need your love, grace, and prayers along the way. And they need to know that you don’t care what expectations anyone else has for them. All you want is for them to live a life that pleases Jesus.
For more on serving pastors’ kids well and the challenges they face check out my book The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity. If this blog is all the reading you can handle you can get the audio book which I read instead. I’m no Morgan Freeman, but it’s not too bad.