Children of the parsonage

What's it like to be a PK? The author's survey of a number of young people from pastoral families turned up some surprising responses-most of them quite positive. She suggests practical ways to help your children benefit most from life in the parsonage.

Betty Gibb is the editor of Current Christian Abstracts. Her articles have previously appeared in MINISTRY. She writes from Columbia, Missouri.

Preachers' kids. They grow up in a fishbowl, move frequently, and see all too clearly the human weaknesses of both parents and church. You hear a lot of criticism about how they turn out—the common lore being that PKs are more demonic than angelic.

"If your father is a minister, you have to give the impression that you are the soul of virtue ... I learned to smile and lie beautifully—the first thing in a budding actor's agenda—and almost managed to keep my halo in shape," actor Laurence Olivier recently told a Family Weekly reporter.

However, little research has been done on what life in the parsonage is actually like for its younger residents. A review of religious periodicals turned up only three or four references in the past five years dealing with clergy children.

To get some reaction to life as a minister's child, I sent a questionnaire to sixty-five high school- and college-age children of pastors in the Mid-America Union of Seventh-day Adventists. Twenty-five young people responded.

Although they admitted that growing up in a parsonage is a mixed bag, 80 percent of them answered Yes when asked, "All in all, do you like being a PK?" "

I wouldn't want it any other way," reported an 18-year-old girl. "I'd rather be a PK than anything else in the world," enthused a 15-year-old boy.

Yet these young people sense that their lives are a bit different from those of their peers. Most of them said they felt strong pressure to conform to church members' expectations, and 56 percent observed they are more involved in church activities than their friends are.

Eighty-eight percent replied that adults treat them differently because of their minister fathers. Eighty-four per cent noted people pay more attention to them. Only 28 percent, however, said that their father's profession makes a difference in how friends treat them.

Although 56 percent answered that their house rules are different from their friends', an overwhelming 92 percent felt those rules were fair. Without a single exception, the young people said their parents treat them fairly.

Only 20 percent feel that many personal problems are related to being a PK. Eighty-eight percent expect their adult belief system and moral attitudes to be much the same as their parents'.

The questionnaire asked some open-ended questions about the advantages and disadvantages of being a PK. The responses showed thoughtful insights.

Among the advantages of growing up in a parsonage, the young people mentioned a wider exposure to people, places, and ideas than most of their friends have; a more spiritual family life; and greater understanding of and involvement in the church.

"I've had the opportunity to make a wider circle of friends than kids who have lived in one town their whole lives," said a 21-year-old son. "I think that's given me a more open mind."

A 19-year-old boy commented, "I always felt that Jesus was in our home and that He was able to help me and my family with problems. I knew I could be honest with my parents because they would try to understand."

"I don't worry about divorce all the time like so many of my friends do," declared a 17-year-old girl. "I've had the happiness and security of a solid, loving family. Since my dad's a minister and my mom is a minister's wife, I feel they are dedicated to providing a Christian home. They are examples of having a relationship with Christ. I look up to that."

Several said they liked being part of the "real action" of the church, knowing some of its leaders as friends instead of just names and being a member of the family of church workers.

Almost half mentioned frequent moves as a disadvantage, although a few pointed out benefits. While the degree of trauma may vary, many of the young people experience moving as a loss.

"Just when you get to know people, you move," said a 21-year-old daughter. "It's really hard to make any close friends."

"Through the years, it's moving away from my friends that I've hated the most.

It's so hard to leave a place just as you finally begin to feel at home there," commented another.

Preachers' kids strongly dislike being stereotyped. "People seem to assume that you are the extreme of either a saint or a hellion," voiced a 22-year-old. "Also, everyone assumes, if you're a fellow, that you're going to follow in your father's footsteps." "I don't like people thinking I will or won't do something just because I'm a preacher's kid," said one 18-year-old.

Surprisingly, only one of the young people mentioned his father's time away from the family as a problem.

While ten of the young people said their position as a minister's child had made it easier for them to become a Christian, thirteen felt it had been a disadvantage. "It is much easier to see hypocrisy both in your own family and in the church," replied one.

"I've let people see what they expected. It's easy to fall into a role and not really mean anything by it," added another.

"I found myself in academy trying to prove that I was like everyone else. I started cussing just so I wouldn't be thought of as a goody-goody. When you live your life trying to keep up with (or stay ahead of) everyone else, it makes it difficult to come back to God," expressed a 20-year-old boy.

One girl said she felt she had been too sheltered. Now in college and on her own, she doesn't feel prepared for the decisions she faces. She also feels left out of many conversations because her background in music and movies is so different from her friends'.

When the respondents were asked what advice they might give a PK just turning 13, the same answer was repeated again and again—"Just be yourself. " Maybe the majority attitude is summed up by this college sophomore: "Be normal. Don't be too goody-goody, and don't be too wild and terrible. Your parents are valuable to you, even if you don't think so now. Don't disappoint them. Don't flaunt the fact that your dad is important because he is the preacher. No one cares. You will lose friends, not gain them. Do enjoy your teen years as a PK. It is both a responsibility and a privilege. Not just anyone is a PK."

Another college student gave this advice: "Try to understand how confusing it is, even for adults, to combine religion as a way of life and a job. Try to be patient with church members who choose to forget that the pastor's family members have identities outside his ministry. Most of all, don't betray the trust the church puts in your father."

In general, it seems these young people feel they are managing their lives quite well. While some find certain problem areas distressing, most are satisfied with parsonage life.

Dr. Raymond Brock, chairman of the behavioral science department at Evan gel College in Springfield, Missouri, says only 10 to 15 percent of preachers' children have trouble with their role.

"It's getting easier to be a PK as society and churches are changing their expectations," he says. "In general, church members are far less demanding on pastoral families than they used to be."

Brock offers several suggestions that might make life easier on the minister's children, adding that churches need education in their role also.

He suggests the pastor broaden the base of leadership families in a church to include those of elders, deacons, and others as well as his own. Together these families could discuss appropriate standards for Christian families; these standards are no different for a preacher's family than for others.

When church members criticize, Brock says children need to know how to be respectful and also to know that they don't have to defend their behavior to church members.

A pastor's family must not live for the church alone, Brock says. A pastor should develop hobbies and friendships outside the local church. Some PKs go from Christian grade school to a Christian high school to a Christian college and never seriously touch the alien society around them. The minister's family should not be isolated from the community outside the church.

Communication is crucial, Brock states. Pastors must listen to their children and respond to their needs.

They must accept their children as individuals in their own right, not products of church thinking. Children need to learn that spiritual values are personal. Families need to talk about beliefs and standards, not just impose them as part of church tradition.

Dr. Robert M. Stevenson, a pastoral care and counseling director in the United Methodist Church, writing in the periodical Pastoral Psychology, said the twin issues of isolation and pastoral moves are the greatest problems of pastors' children.

Stevenson suggests that greater attention should be given to the needs of young people in the moving process. "Children, as well as parents, need greater opportunity and time to deal with the grief of moving and starting again," he said. "Congregational farewells, for example, need to include the entire family in more than token ways." *

He also suggests that church organizations need to provide greater opportunities for children of the parsonage, particularly adolescents, to make con tact with each other and with people who understand their situation. He suggested special retreats for PKs, where they could get help designed to their needs and have a chance to share with others in like circumstances.

Perhaps the most important thing a pastor can do for the children of the family is express love. God has called ministers not only to preach, pray, and organize but also to love. Love will draw out personal gifts and potential. Love will set children free from expectations that fetter. If ministers sacrifice their children for their public ministry, they will lose both.

* Robert M. Stevenson, "Children of the Parsonage," Pastoral Psychology, Spring, 1982, pp. 179ff.

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Betty Gibb is the editor of Current Christian Abstracts. Her articles have previously appeared in MINISTRY. She writes from Columbia, Missouri.

January 1986

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