Not all children of pastors choose to remain in the church.
To find out why, I sent a survey to more than 900 adults who were pastors' kids (PKs). Six hundred responded. I divided these responses into two groups: one group that did not want to identify themselves as Adventists, even though some of them called themselves Christians; another group that still remained part of the Adventist Church. I analyzed the responses to identify possible themes that would help us understand why some PKs leave and others stay in the church.
Interestingly, the themes had more to do with the children's perception of their parents and their child-rearing practices rather than with the church as a whole.
The PKs that stayed: parental strengths
How did PKs who stayed in the church perceive their parents? My survey revealed five general perceptions. These are by no means exhaustive.
Parental love and support. When asked what they thought had influenced their religious choices the most, parental love and support came out on the top. One PK mentioned: "My mother and I seldom saw eye-to-eye. But I was important enough to her that she kept working on our relationship even when I was too stubborn or too immature. Finally my mother won the battle, and we are now closer than ever. If my mother wouldn't give up hope in me, neither would God." Here is a person who could transfer parental love and patience to her understanding of God.
Parental love and support can be expressed in many ways. One is spending time together. One father made it a priority to be home in the mornings to play with his preschool children. Another made breakfast a special family time during which the family was always together. Still others had special family vacations that everyone looked forward to.
Freedom to choose. A second factor cited for staying in the church is the freedom that clergy parents gave their children to make choices. Without forcing their opinions or ideas, but gently guiding them where necessary, parents encouraged their children to be themselves, make choices, and develop their own personal relationship with Jesus. One young man said, "My parents were wonderful and consistent role models. They allowed me to make my choices while providing strong guidance. Their approach was firm but gentle. I never felt the need to rebel because their beliefs were not forced on me. I have been able to develop my own relationship with God and recognize the value in the way I was raised."
Building self-esteem is another significant factor cited by PKs who stayed in the church. "My parents are not perfect," said one, "but I know I could count on them. They always made me feel wanted and more important than anything else, including church programs. My father spent time with me. Such acts gave me a good picture of God as my heavenly Father. I love them both." These parents were able to draw a definite line between work and home. Church demands did not come in the way of communicating and being with their children.
Modeling. PKs who expressed positive feelings toward the church remembered their parents as models of a genuine, vibrant, and growing relationship with God. They sensed that their parents' religion was not a put-on, and realized that their parents practiced what they preached. There was no hypocrisy in their faith, and their life was not a facade. It was for real. Even when things were rough and not all was perfect in the church, these parents admitted the shortcomings and encouraged the children to focus on Christ.
One PK related how his father finally found the gospel. The boy was 16. He watched his father change and grow in a grace relationship with God. His father's openness to change and growth had a positive and transforming experience on his teenage son.
Another PK was thankful for her father's prayers and her mother's consistency. "My dad," she says, "spent hours praying for me. When I was tempted to do wrong, I couldn't because I knew my father was praying for me. I found strength in that. My mother was a consistent person. Together they showed me a genuine, real, and working religion."
Open communication helped in appreciating religious values. "We talked a lot," says one PK who continues to love the church. "As a family we discussed all sorts of things. During meal times, play times, worship times, any time, there was open communication in our home. That facilitated our appreciation for religious values my father was preaching." Another PK, in describing what made her home positive, said, "The fact that I could talk to my father any time, and he was never too busy to listen to my concerns. He even turned down some calls because of us in the family." Communication breaks down barriers and builds positive relationships.
PKs that left: parental shortcomings
What were some of the perceptions of PKs who chose not to be part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in which they grew up? Five perceptions were most common. And again these reflect more on their parents than on the church.
Expectations. PKs who left the church often mentioned the extra expectations placed upon them by their parents and the congregation. This expectation was usually coupled with an overly strict home in which religion was forced and in which there was very little freedom. The family was built around outward behavior.
One PK evaluated his father thus: "My dad was too rigid we couldn't even visit another SDA church in the area with our friends unless it was a school requirement. He was also too strict we were 'the example.' He made all our choices for us, stifling my own growth toward independence and confidence." Another PK wished that her parents had eased up on her. "I was a straight-A student. I never got into trouble. But whenever I did something they didn't approve of, they came down heavy on me. I was not given a chance to discover God. Religion was forced upon me till I couldn't tell the difference between believing and pretending."
Authoritarianism. The extra expectations and perfect performance required of these PKs made them feel as if God wouldn't accept them, love them, or save them if their behavior was not up to par. "I just couldn't take it," says one PK. "It was the harsh, dictatorial manner in which every 'right' was enforced and every perceived 'wrong' punished. I know God isn't a dictator trying to catch you in the wrong." Another says, "I grew up with authoritarianism. A black cloud hung over me every second. Each moment was to count for eternity, and I was deadly conscious of my life each moment. My view of God was that He would accept me only when I behaved in a specific way."
Lack of priorities. Most PKs who left the church perceived that their parents placed higher priority on their work than on the home. There was very little family time. Children were made to feel that the church should come first. One PK says, "I hardly ever saw my dad, and when he finally did come home his role was to punish me for what I did several hours before. I wish my father had placed our family on an equal basis with the church. I never knew my father, and I still don't."
Hypocrisy. PKs who left the church perceived their parents' religion as hypocritical. One PK said that when his father was in front of church members or potential church members he was the model Christian kind and loving. However, when he dealt with his wife and sons he was impatient, unforgiving, and cruel.
Abuse. Physical or mental abuse in childhood by pastoral parents was cited as a factor why some children chose to leave the church. Some cited disappointing experiences with church members and leaders as well.
A lesson to learn
These stories seem bitter, but they reflect a real situation in our homes and churches. They can be helpful for pastoral families in relating to their children and for congregations in dealing with the children of the church. Although the PK cannot be shielded from all the pressures and negative experiences inherent in pastoring, these can be minimized and the positives accentuated. According to many PKs, parental commitment to develop a strong relationship with them is highly significant. That commitment means pastors should let the children know that despite the busyness and unpredictability of pastoring, they will make time for their children, placing them first in their order of priorities.
Parents should not relate their children's behavior to pastoral roles, reputation, or even the availability of God's love. A home open to free communication, discussion, and exploration of ideas and beliefs, giving children the freedom to learn about themselves and make appropriate choices, increases the possibility of PKs making religious and life decisions similar to those of their parents.