Nurturing the faith of pastors’ kids

Nurturing the faith of pastors’ kids: Reflections on a pastoral family stress study

Explore with the author the biggest pastoral concern of all that of saving other children while losing our own.

Elaine Oliver, MA, is associate director, family ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States. She is currently pursuing a PhD in educational psychology from Andrews University.

Katy Perry. Jessica Simpson. Rick Warren. Jonas Brothers. Franklin Graham. What do these people all have in common? All of them are pastors’ kids (PKs).1 They all fit into one of the many stereotypes that abound regarding children of clergy. This includes everything from the model pastor’s kid who does everything by the rulebook to the rebel child who has backslidden from the faith and everything else in the middle. Yet these stereotypes come with many underlying assumptions and expectations that, in many ways, can contribute to pastors’ kids becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Unlike many other professionals, pastors live their professional and, sometimes, even their private lives in a public arena. Their spouses and their children join them in this public spotlight that often comes with intense spiritual and moral scrutiny and the expectation to exemplify a “perfect” spirituality and commitment to the church. These expectations, or scrutiny, can be a challenge to children of pastors as they transition to adolescence and then to adulthood.2 As these children of clergy experience these challenges and other normal developmental tasks of children their age, they are often labeled as having the worst reputation of all.

Parenting pastors’ kids

As a mother of now adult children who were raised as PKs, I have long been interested in the faith development and spiritual nurture of children. The passage found in the book of Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, NASB) was a refrain I had heard my entire life, and it resonated for my husband and me as we raised our children.

Pastors and their spouses often wonder what they should be doing or could have done differently to nurture the spirituality or faith of their children. We often blame ourselves for not doing enough to foster their faith or for being too strict or for being too lenient. Did we spend enough time with them or live by example? My husband and I have often questioned whether we had done enough or too much—did we have enough family worship, did we have too many spiritual activities, were we too lenient regarding spiritual matters, or were we too strict?

During my early parenting years, I was fastidious as a mother hen in trying to protect my children from being caricatured as the proverbial “PKs.” And I did my best to shield them from the barrage of unrealistic expectations from church members and even their own friends. Their dad and I tried not to put pressure on them to do things just because they were our kids but to do things only if they felt inspired to do so. Of course, there were times that they were strongly encouraged to participate in certain religious activities and other activities because those were the “house rules.”

Influence on spiritual beliefs

All parents are aware that values, especially spiritual and moral values, are primarily transmitted from parents to children. For clergy parents, this transmission is especially important; however, when it does not happen, there can be a lot of pain, shame, and blame.

Parents, whether clergy or not, have the most influence on their children’s spiritual beliefs and practices, usually, through adolescence. However, while they may continue to influence them through their transition into adulthood, there are other socializing agents and normal developmental processes that influence their religiosity and spirituality.

Other adults. As adolescents transition to young adulthood, they will interact with adults other than their parents. This influence may come in the form of faculty and staff in their high school or university, youth group leaders at church, or other family members with whom they connect. Some researchers on spirituality of young adults have found that many students look for answers to their questions on faith and spirituality from their teachers.3


Peers. During their children’s transition from adolescence to early adulthood, parents have less influence on their children than do peers. A primary predictor of religiosity in young adulthood is having religious friends and role models during high school.4

Media. In today’s world, most of us find it nearly impossible not to interact with the media in some shape or form. Without a doubt, our lives are impacted by this interaction. Our children, adolescents, and young adults hear concepts that appeal to them, combine them with their previously held traditions and religious beliefs, and then construct their own religious identity. Many are exploring their faith while listening to music or watching the latest music video or movie.5

Spiritual struggle. Struggling spiritually is a normal part of human development and usually occurs when there is a clash between previously held worldviews and newly acquired experiences or information. As adolescents enter young adulthood, this “crisis,” or point of transition, is a contributing factor to spiritual development.6 Spiritual struggle can lead to spiritual growth or may lead to rejection of values held from childhood and may never be replaced with anything else.

Perception is reality

Personal spirituality and the struggle that comes with it seems to be a challenge common to most people of faith, and children of clergy may be no different from other children in general in their spirituality and religious commitment. Yet many pastors’ kids perceive there is an expectation that they would not have such challenges. In a study conducted at Andrews University on pastoral family stress children of clergy who participated in the focus groups reported feeling there is an expectation from others that they should be more spiritually mature than their peers. One participant shared how difficult it was to deal with this expectation “starting at a young age, even though we haven’t developed that connection with Christ yet . . . and you don’t want to disappoint anyone, so you work harder to compensate for what you don’t have.”7

For pastors’ kids, the pressure of living their private lives on a public stage is one that does not allow much room for personal struggles and normal growth development, in contrast to other children, who often get to go through their development behind closed doors. This reality for PKs has a potential impact on their emotional health, including anxiety and guilt. One participant in the pastoral family stress study shared that “sometimes there is a sense of if I don’t meet these expectations of people, like they are all going to go to hell because of me.” For some, the emotional pressure leads to depression; for others, it creates an “I don’t care what the church people say, or what they think” attitude.

Another perception or reality that pastors’ kids have is that they have no one to turn to in their spiritual struggle. When they are struggling with issues and make mistakes, there are things that they would want to perhaps share with their pastor, and not necessarily their parents, but the pastor is also their parent. Thus, they must keep it to themselves or go through issues alone. For many, it feels as if they are going to church without a pastor. Others, however, feel that these struggles lead to deeper spiritual growth.

Parents are still important

The well-known passage in Proverbs 22:6 mentioned earlier is not only a relational directive but also a promise. Per the Bible Exposition Commentary,8 Solomon, the author of Proverbs, reminds parents and instructors of children of their great responsibility in propagating wisdom and transmitting values, so that they do not die with them. Children are to be trained in the way that loving parents believe is the best direction for them to go, but it should be done with tender care. And when they are old, even if they depart from their early teachings as Solomon did, this early training may be a means of recovery. That is the promise—parents can be comforted that they did their best with their children.

During adolescence, parental support serves as a protective factor against certain risk behaviors and is associated with increased commitment to God and church. It appears that the same is true for pastors’ kids.9 Familial support appears to enhance a positive spiritual experience and increased commitment to the church. Many parents falsely assume that once their children enter adolescence or young adulthood, they no longer need them or want them interfering in their lives. During this stage, they are trying to differentiate from their parents and gain a better understanding of their role at home, school, church, and in society at large. However, this does not mean they no longer need or want their parents. The contrary appears to be true; they certainly need us, even if they need us to enter their world in a nonjudgmental and sincere way.

Strategies for nurturing the faith of pastors’ kids

Put first things first. Schedule family time. Many pastors’ kids perceive that their pastor parent is often absent or unavailable. Make time for the people who are most important to you. This seems like a good way to model to the congregation healthy family boundaries. Our kids feel special and appreciated when they feel that they are most important to us. 

Be warm, loving, affectionate, and authoritative. The results of the pastoral family stress study suggest that pastors’ kids whose parents establish a warm, loving relationship with them, spend time with them, and are consistent in their spirituality will more likely be religiously committed in adulthood. Parental bonding (or attachment) pertains to the level of closeness between a parent and child and is critical for healthy child development. An authoritative parenting style means one in which parents provide a warm, loving, nurturing environment, where clear boundaries are established and open communication is encouraged.10 This is not to be confused with an authoritarian parenting style, which sets boundaries without warmth, where parents are strict and inflexible and have high expectations without providing support. Authoritative parenting is also not permissive, where there is much warmth and affection but few or no boundaries are set. Our children know we love them when we show them love and set healthy, age-appropriate boundaries.

Provide a safe environment for their spiritual struggle. Remember that spiritual struggle comes as a normal process of faith, and spiritual development takes place during adolescence (and possibly earlier) and their transition into early adulthood. Do not panic! Remain calm. Remember that creating a safe space for open dialogue about their doubts, fears, and questions about God’s existence and the relevance of the church will keep the lines of communication open now and in the future. Parents should consider reading books or attending seminars on how to better understand their children as it pertains to their lives in the pastorate and regarding their spiritual journey.

Encourage peer support. Many of the participants in the study said they benefited from the opportunity to express what they were experiencing as pastors’ kids. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, we can suggest that they felt validated. Their individual and collective voices had been heard, and they realized they were not alone on their journey. Many requested that more forums on this topic could be regularly held. The Seventh-day Adventist world headquarters has a committee for pastors’ kids, and several successful “PK” conferences have been held in various parts of the world.11

Protect your children. Be sensitive to the pressures that uniquely affect your children. The pastor and spouse can protect their children when the congregation or other well-meaning individuals set unreasonable expectations for them. Pastors should defend their children when necessary and educate their parishioners on how to relate to their children, encouraging them to be more understanding of their children and family’s life in a “stainedglass fishbowl.” Also, allow your kids to make mistakes. Use those mistakes as an opportunity to exhibit grace and forgiveness. Hopefully the children will learn from their mistakes.

Pray, pray, and keep praying. Parenting, known as a huge blessing, comes with many challenges. We should approach it with humility and in reverence to God for giving us the opportunity to prepare His children for the kingdom. In the book Child Guidance, Ellen G. White says, “Build a fortification of prayer and faith around your children, and exercise diligent watching thereunto. You are not secure for a moment against the attacks of Satan. You have no time to rest from watchful, earnest labor. You should not sleep a moment at your post.

This is a most important warfare.”12

1 Barna Group, “Prodigal Pastors’ Kids: Fact or Fiction,” Barna, November, 11, 2013, /research/prodigal-pastor-kids-fact-or-fiction/.

2 Elaine Oliver and Willie Oliver, “Managing Pastoral Family Stress,” (presentation, Second Global Health Conference on Health and Lifestyle, Geneva, Switzerland, 2014).

3 Carolyn McNamara Barry et al., “Religiosity and Spirituality During the Transition to Adulthood,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 34, no.

4 (July 2010), 311–324. 4 Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe and Kristin A. Moore, “Predictors of Religiosity Among Youth Aged 17–22: A Longitudinal Study of the National Survey of Children,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 4 (December 2002), 613–622. 

5 Barry et al., “Religiosity and Spirituality,” 311–324.

6 Kenneth I. Pargament et al., “Spiritual Struggle: A Phenomenon of Interest to Psychology and Religion” in Judeo-Christian Perspective on Psychology: Human Nature, Motivation, and Change, ed. William R. Miller and Harold D. Delaney (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2005), 245–268. 

7 D. Sedlacek et al., “Executive Summary: Seminary Training, Role Demands, Family Stressors, and Strategies for Alleviation of Stressors in Pastors’ Families” (report to the North American Division Ministerial and Family Ministries Departments in conjunction with the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists, September 2014).

8 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2003).

9 Sedlacek et al., “Executive Summary.”

10 Based on Diana Baumrind’s Parenting Styles.

11 For more information, contact the Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventhday Adventists, at their Team PK website

12 Ellen G. White, Child Guidance (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1954), 185.

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Elaine Oliver, MA, is associate director, family ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States. She is currently pursuing a PhD in educational psychology from Andrews University.

May 2017

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