Keeping PKs in the church

What is the greatest predictor of whether or not pastors' kids will remain in the church when they become adults?

Martin Weber, DMin, is communication director for the Mid-America Union of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States.

What shall it profit pastors to baptize the whole city but lose their own children? To dedicate one's entire lifework to the salvation of other people's children while losing one's own is not only a tragedy but a travesty.

The following facts of spiritual life in the parsonage emerged among 40 attrition factors in my doctoral data,1 from responses to my research question: What influences from Seventh-day Adventist clergy parents may affect whether their children experience attrition from that denomination upon becoming adults?

The greatest predictor of future faithfulness is whether the pastor's kid (PK) during their childhood takes initiative to approach a clergy parent to discuss spiritual matters. Among the most significant predictors of future attrition (or loss) is having parents enter the pastorate during their 30s. Whereas pastors who enter ministry in their 40s are the least likely to lose their adult children.

I emailed a 111-point questionnaire to each of 222 active and retired clergy in the Mid-America Union2 who have adult children. Data collected from 113 questionnaires reveal the following summary of conclusions:

• Having a clergy grandparent is a significant stabilizing factor in the spiritual life of a PK.

• Parental conservatism regarding lifestyle standards is not statistically significant in attrition.

• Legalism regarding gospel doctrine is a moderately significant cause of attrition.

• Legalism regarding practicing the principles of the gospel is a major cause of attrition.

• For clergy parents to hold their own children to a higher behavioral standard is one of the highest causes of attrition. In other words, whether mother and father tend to be conservative or liberal makes no measurable difference in the attrition of their children-as long as they are nice about it.

• Lack of relationality in the pastoral family is the most serious cause of PK attrition. Pastors with the highest retention rate of adult children are those who managed to provide the most positive and joy-filled family experience in the parsonage and were close enough to talk about anything in an atmosphere of freedom that allowed children and teens latitude in developing their own faith experience.

• Closely associated with family relationality is the freedom and trust expressed in discussing controversial issues. No greater cause of attrition exists than to attempt to shield children from knowledge of, or to resist discussion about, church or denominational conflict.3 Congregational criticism of pastoral family members portends future attrition of adult children.

While these attrition factors are serious concerns, informed clergy parents need not feel that the souls of their children are necessarily imperiled.

Preventing attrition of clergy children

Many negative factors are unavoidable in parsonage life, but parents can be proactive in safeguarding the spirituality of their children. Consider, for example, the prospect of entering ministry during one's 30s-that uniquely treacherous entry point for their children. College theology departments should offer older students specialized instruction and perhaps help them find family counseling to resolve issues that could eventually hurt their children in the parsonage. Employing conferences should provide PKs and their parents nurture and fellowship. Retired clergy in the congregation could serve as spiritual grandparents to their pastor's children and might even mentor these thirtysomething pastors and their spouses.

Most significant in avoiding attrition is being able to discuss church problems in the parsonage while sustaining togetherness in the family circle and giving teens sufficient freedom to develop their own faith experience without the expectation of being supersaints. The parents' best defense against attrition includes fostering the positive elements of joyous relationality and intrinsic spirituality in the family while avoiding negative factors such as suppression, rigidity, and legalism.

Perhaps unexpectedly, I propose another preventative infl uence against future PK attrition: a gracebased practical application of the Seventh-day Adventist fundamental belief about heaven's sanctuary and its celestial judgment.

In the heart of Romans 8, a passage beloved by Christians everywhere, is comfort and instruction that highlights the role of both Father and Son in the heavenly sanctuary, "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (Rom. 8:33, 34).4

Nobody in the church has the right to judge PKs-not even clergy parents. Pastors and their spouses do have a responsibility to train their children in the ways of God, but not even they possess the right to oppress older PKs by imposing human interpretations of right and wrong. God is the only Judge of human behavior. He alone has the authority to condemn, yet His predisposition is forgiveness and vindication. Jesus works with Him toward that purpose in the sanctuary.

In such a nurturing context of spiritual freedom, PKs as children and teens will feel safe about initiating spiritual conversations with their parents. Not only is this the greatest predictor of future faithfulness as adults, there is compelling evidence of what happens when PKs don't feel this freedom. Section III of my doctoral report notes that five PKs filled out questionnaires of their own and sent them to me. Their data is not sufficient in quantity to be scientific, but it provides anecdotal evidence of the spiritual carnage that comes from a lack of freedom.

All but one of these PKs described their church experience as rigid, not flexible; closed, not open; exclusive, not inclusive; unfair, not fair; cold, not warm; dark, not bright; and dull, not exciting.

They reported strong disagreement with Adventist lifestyle standards. They seemed particularly offended about what they experienced as heavy-handedness in enforcing these standards and unwillingness to even dialogue about it. It was interesting to note that most of these five alienated PKs still embrace many fundamental Adventist doctrines such as the Sabbath, yet they resolutely reject the church that teaches them. When asked if they might possibly be active members in the Adventist Church 20 years from now, if time lasts, they each replied "small chance" or "no chance."

One of the PKs responding to my questionnaire is not in attrition, being both a faithful attender and participant in church life who will "absolutely" remain committed to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He testified to the opposite in most of the above options, describing his parents' churches as warm, kind, bright, inclusive, fair, open, and exciting-yet still he experienced them as "stiff." It was interesting that this PK, an active disciple, seemed just as disappointed as the others with being "loaded down with restrictions" and rules that "almost always" "just didn't make sense." When asked whether programs at church while he was growing up made him think, he said it was "not at all true." Although he believes every Seventh-day Adventist fundamental belief, he seriously questions the church's traditional behavioral standards and particularly an unwillingness to dialogue about them.

Together these PK responses provide a nonscientific yet compelling need for a church atmosphere that offers flexibility rather than rigidity and freedom rather than oppression. While not only essential for avoiding attrition-it is also scriptural: "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Cor. 3:17).

I believe from my data that many Seventh-day Adventists fail to realize not all moral issues are absolutes. While some things are clearly right or wrong, with other essentials God has left some ambiguity for the conscience to sort out. Prayer, for example, is a profoundly moral matter, but exactly how much to pray remains open to one's own conscience.

Modesty also is a moral issue- but standards of modesty are not universal absolutes, as evident from various cultures around the world. For Adventists, jewelry has been an issue of enduring controversy. Many PKs express frustration with church policies, written or informal, that permit "acceptable" adornments like cufflinks and gaudy gold pins but forbid even the most demure necklace. Also frustrating to many is when obviously out-of-shape adult members lecture healthy teens about dairy or caffeine consumption while not even mentioning exercise and other basic health principles.

None of the PKs in my research demand that the Adventist Church adopt their views on lifestyle issues; they just want some latitude in living out their own conscience. Indeed, this is scriptural: "Let each be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom.14:5). Notice that Scripture doesn't say "Do what feels good" or "Do what you want to do" in moral matters that are not absolutes. Rather, do what the Holy Spirit persuades you to do amid moral ambiguity.

Worship music is one of the top five issues of congregational conflict reported by clergy in my data.5 Some members canonize their personal musical preferences and go about imposing them upon the church. They care not that young adults and others want some variety. The psalms are thousands of years old, yet singing them in a contemporary tune becomes somehow problematic for many members who have no qualm condemning those who might see things a different way.

It may do little good to pray for PKs in attrition or other prodigals to come back to church if the person greeting (confronting) them in the church foyer stands as the frowning older brother of Christ's Lucan parable. Condemning and divisive members must themselves be confronted by the church and disciplined if they refuse to cease their ungodly oppression and gossip. Church discipline for such members is a sacred responsibility from Scripture, "Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition" (Titus 3:10). Warn disrupters of church unity once and then again. If they cause trouble yet a third time, subject them to church discipline as Christ outlined in Matthew 18.

Surveying the data of my research project, both positive and negative, I envision a church that will be a safe and healthy place for its clergy and their children. I propose the Hebrew concept of shalom, commonly and superficially translated as "peace." Some tend to regard peace as the absence of negativity, such as anger and conflict, guilt and shame. By contrast, biblical peace is proactive and energetic, fulfilling God's eternal purpose for the cosmos. Shalom includes wholeness, safety, fruitfulness, equality, and so much more, in the context of a loving faith community.

Jesus came to earth as the Prince of Shalom ( Isa. 9:6). Being Jewish, He had shalom in mind when declaring, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Seventh-day Adventist clergy parents desperately need this blessedness, both ministering and receiving shalom within their churches and their families.

For the sake of preventing attrition of PKs and other young adults, the Seventh-day Adventist Church would do well to heed the time-honored wisdom: In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.

1 To obtain the data found in my paper titled, Denominational
Attrition Among Adult Children of Seventh-day Adventist
Clergy, visit the Web site of the General Conference
Ministerial Association,

2 The Mid-America Union includes the nine-state region
of the United States stretching north and south from
Canada to the Oklahoma border and then from the eastern
boundary of the Mississippi River west to the border of
Utah, plus the northwest corner of New Mexico.

3 Not that every detail of every church issue should be
revealed to PKs, which would violate confidentiality.
The point is that instead of pretending that nothing bad
happens in the church, parents should dialogue with their
children in an age-appropriate manner.

4 All scriptures are from the New King James Version.

5 The top five problems in Mid-America Adventist churches
as reported by the clergy subjects of my study: (1) power
struggles among members, (2) pastoral conflict with lay
leaders, (3) worship music style disputes, (4) disagreement
about lifestyle standards, and (5) general church gossip
(perhaps surprisingly, church finances tied for only 14th).

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Martin Weber, DMin, is communication director for the Mid-America Union of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States.

April 2009

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