Surviving and thriving as a PK

Life can be good for a "preacher's kid."

Laurie Denski-Snyman, a social worker in Lansing, Michigan, shares from her own experiences as a mother and pastor's wife.

You're lucky!" Kristen's friend Amanda exclaimed. "You get to go so many places just because your dad is the pastor." Our daughter at that moment was happy with her place in the parsonage, but there were times she didn't think being a "preacher's kid" (PK) was such a great thing.

During my college days, after I announced plans to marry a minister, my roommate responded with a warning. Being an unhappy PK, she felt duty-bound to prophesy grief for my future children. Bitterly she recounted her own trials: "My clothes were under constant scrutiny by church members. And once my father was scolded because I accidentally smiled at my brother during a serious sermon." She went on to describe other examples of criticism from her father's congregations, such as the time her school took a field trip to Disneyland. A fellow classmate's mother smugly re marked: "I was surprised that the pastor's own daughter went along to the amusement park."

After I married and we entered the ministry, my roommate's trepidations proved realistic. In our first church the senior pastor's daughter confided that her peers ostracized her from conversations. "I suppose," she surmised, "they fear I might tell my father about something and they would get into trouble." Another PK told me at a retreat that he was tired of pretending to members that everything was okay at home. "When my parents fight, or something bad happens, we go to church and have to act like nothing happened." Actually, all families experience difficulties---whether a parent is a pastor, physician, salesperson or zookeeper---but the expectations placed upon pastors puts unusual demands upon their children.

How to cope? Instead of moving to a deserted island or shunning members who injure our child's feelings, we can learn to manage problems appropriately. When handled well, these dilemmas can be opportunities for family discussions and education, all leading to growth and maturity.

Prioritizing parenthood

Although ministry is a calling from God, whenever children are born into the parsonage God also calls the pastoral parents to be mothers and fathers. The Bible offers no exceptions. One's calling as a parent remains firm even in these hectic times with excessively busy lifestyles and church responsibilities. The situation is compounded by the fact that the majority of pastoral spouses must work outside the home, which heightens the need for God's grace to maintain equilibrium in the family and care for the children's emotional needs.

Safeguarding PKs

1. Get real. Don't relate to your children as a pastor or pastor's spouse. Be honest and vulnerable with them. Talk about your mistakes, things you have learned, and circumstances you wish could be different. Admit your weaknesses-but make sure you are doing it for their benefit and not for your own needs. Let your children know how God is helping you change for the better. For small children, tell stories about errors you made and what you learned. Teach your children that making a mistake is not as significant as learning from that mistake.

2. Invest time. Relationships with family come first in your dealings with people. Schedule time to spend with them, just as you do with church members. Try to share one or two meals on a daily basis. Don't let mundane tasks interrupt your meals. Answering machines are excellent for screening calls from "Come quickly, Pastor: my father was in an accident" to Mrs. Johnson calling for the sixth time that afternoon about a phone number she needs. My former room mate, mentioned earlier, knew her father was a good man, but she was resentful that all the church members came before family. Don't let your congregation's unrealistic expectations overwhelm family responsibilities.

3. Pray for your family. Ask God to protect your children from the snarling sheep in your flock and the fiery arrows of Satan. Any church has both supporters and opponents of the pastor. When people aim anger at the pastor or spouse in front of the children, they should be stopped and redirected. Pastor's children who listen to a constant barrage of criticism can become fearful, disillusioned, angry, and even permanently bitter. A disenchanted member stopped by our house, angry over a typographical error and threatening to sue the church. My child stopped playing and clung to me, fearful of the member's harsh tone. This opened my eyes to the effect that this uninvited guest was having on my child. Kindly but firmly I said, "Take this issue up with my husband in the privacy of his office, not in front of my family." The member became more infuriated, but I stood my ground and opened the front door. My child's spiritual experience was at stake here. The member abruptly left. The experience joyfully resulted in a written apology, which I shared with my child. "People make mistakes, but apologizing shows how wise they are," I explained. Although not all stories have happy endings, it is of utmost importance to protect your children from people who are negative about the church. Educate your members about when, where, and how to air their grievances with out threats and disrespect for others.

4. Let your children be themselves. At the end of a youth program a video ended with music that had a rapid beat. In full view of the members, my 3-year-old daughter danced to the sounds. I scolded her firmly while people laughed at the silly situation. Had this been at home, I might have laughed myself. But looking back, I realize that I was reacting to the embarrassing question "What are my church members thinking?" Before publicly reprimanding my child, I try to ask myself: "Am I doing this to save face, or is she doing something needing to be stopped?" Rebuking children because of embarrassment communicates a double standard to children. Often this explains why PKs rebel.

Children do need discipline, whether they are pastor's kids or church members' children. As pastoral parents, however, we must fight the attitude that everything done and said is linked with the ministry. We are responsible to God, not to people.

5. Be available. Set times when your children can freely interrupt you. Take their phone calls; give them your beeper number. Don't allow others to rob you of the fulfillment of educating your children, listening to them, and watching them mature. Always remember: the "Lord's work" involves nurturing your children.

6. Have regular family meetings. Every week or month, get the family together to discuss appropriate ways of handling angry people, repetitive phone callers, busy church schedules, and school concerns. Prepare your child for upcoming crises you know about. If a member targets a PK for a complaint about the church or his/her parent, practice ways children might respond, such as "Perhaps you should talk to an adult about that, because I'm not a part of that problem" or "Do you think this is something a kid should listen to?"

Good communication doesn't mean telling all the negative things about the church and its members. It involves addressing issues that impact the family and also recounting positive developments. Discuss problems before they become storms, and talk about how to turn them into learning experiences.

7. Nurture the pastoral marriage. However much there is to do, spend time on a routine basis with your spouse. It will relieve anxiety and bolster morale in the family. Children feel more secure when parents communicate well between them selves and provide a role model of how they should ran their own homes some day. Besides that, being too busy to nurture your marriage encourages the denial of problems until it is too late. Expensive outings are nice, but there are also thrifty methods of adding spice to any marriage: walks together, picnics, and romantic phone calls during the workday.

Fortifying PKs

Sometimes PKs really enjoy living in the limelight. One Christmas my child was deluged with gifts from members. Other times I've seen the look of pride when a member introduces her to a visitor as "the pastor's daughter." Older ladies have greeted, hugged, and asked her about her week while inadvertently overlooking her friends nearby. But there is the opposite extreme a member is angry at the pastor, and the family becomes a vulnerable target. With some foresight, we need to fortify our children for these inevitable experiences. Not by chance are pastoral families healthy and strong. Nurturing takes time and effort, but the payoffs last a lifetime.

Ultimately, children make their own choices whether to follow God. Pastoral couples have an opportunity to guide them, with the help of Jesus, through the challenges of ministerial life. And with a solid family life and strong marriage comes in creased strength to serve God in our churches.

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Laurie Denski-Snyman, a social worker in Lansing, Michigan, shares from her own experiences as a mother and pastor's wife.

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