5 Things I Learned as a Pastor’s Kid

Listen to this post:

1. Pastors are people too!

There seems a resilient misconception that pastors are less prone than the rest of us to things like exhaustion, temptation, frustration, and loneliness. I’ve seen that the opposite is actually closer to the truth. A pastor is especially vulnerable to all these things because of the constant emotional vigilance of his calling. Most of us are grateful, even unconsciously, that our spiritual lives and our vocations don’t overlap to the degree that they do in the pastorate.

If I had one piece of advice for all evangelical churches, it would be: Generously grant rest to your pastor. If everything falls apart when he’s not there, that’s not a reason to limit his rest, it’s a reason to seriously rethink the culture of the church. A pastor who feels like he has to choose between stewarding his mind, body, and family, and making sure the church functions well, is a pastor who is on a path to burnout (or worse).

2. A childhood filled with church attendance isn’t an immunization against sin and unbelief. But neither does requiring such attendance automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals.

Two seemingly omnipresent misconceptions: Kids will be fine if they’re in church regularly, but requiring them to come with you will foment rebellion. Both ideas are intuitive to different kinds of people in evangelical churches, but both are wrong.

My brother in law likes to say that evangelicals often think the gospel is something you catch like a cold. If you’re around infected churchgoers, eventually you’ll come down with salvation. I don’t need to go into detail about all the stories I could tell of how this cliche was proven false, sometimes with grave consequences. Youth ministry is as good a substitute for home discipleship as going to the ER is a good substitute for diet and exercise. If there’s no prayer, bible reading, or parent-child discipleship going on in your home, and everything “seems” OK, that’s cause to be alarmed.

On the other hand, I’ve seen so many parents sheepishly acknowledge that they didn’t require their 14 year old to get out of bed for church because they were nervous such requirements would turn him against church. This might be more true if human maturity and development stopped at 16. But it doesn’t, and it turns out that when the teenage years are in the rear view, it’s still pretty easy for most folks to remember what their parents did and didn’t think was important in their home.

3. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows.

This is one thing that my Dad has said he wished he’d done differently with me and my siblings. Seasoned saints are more equipped to handle the frustrating parts of church government, business, or discipline than teens are. You can’t hit a button and make your child resent the local church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before he is able to see the beauty.

Here’s a very practical tip for pastors with kids: Think of your kid seeing business meeting fights and hearing moral failures similarly to how you think about them seeing conflicts in your marriage. You won’t be able to keep them out of the know on every tense or sinful moment with your spouse, but when they are witnesses to it, most couples will talk to them instead of assuming they’re processing it correctly. Apply that same logic to the dark side of church life. Keep your PKs out of the ecclesiological trenches as long as possible, but when they must see it, help them respond.

4. The most freeing thing a PK can feel is that his Dad and Mom don’t view him as a PK.

Hearing my Dad encourage me as I approached high school graduation that he wanted to me to follow God’s call on my life, and that that call did not at all need to be ministry, was absolutely crucial. I don’t think most pastors set out to put pressure on their kids to follow their footsteps, but what they can communicate unwittingly is that vocational ministry and “true spirituality” go hand in hand. How is this communicated? One way is by holding PKs to higher standards merely because they’re dad is the pastor. Not only is that frustrating, it communicates that the pastorate is closer to heaven than the regular jobs.

5. PKs need Dads who are more than theology nerds.

I don’t know if I can remember even 3 of my Dad’s sermons growing up, but I can remember dozens of chats over milkshakes and trips to ball games. One of my fondest memories is watching an incredible Super Bowl alone with my Dad in a hotel somewhere in Indiana while the blizzard of the decade pummeled us outside. The conference we attended later was fine, but I don’t remember most of it. I remember that night with my Dad perfectly.

In a lecture to his divinity students, Charles Spurgeon urged them to be as normal as possible, rather than bland, flavorless ministry machines.

I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways. If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us. Baxter’s remark still holds good: “The want of a familiar tone and expression is a great fault in most of our deliveries, and that which we should be very careful to amend.” The vice of the ministry is that ministers will parsonificate the gospel. We must have humanity along with our divinity if we would win the masses. Everybody can see through affectations, and people are not likely to be taken in by them. Fling away your stilts, brethren, and walk on your feet…

What’s true of “working-men” is even more true of pastor’s children. Pastors who cannot connect with their kids on a level beyond, say, reading (or, God forbid, politics) need to expand their horizons. Love is attention. Being attentive to more is the best way to tell a PK that their pastor-Dad loves them for the K, not the P.

Against Child Missionaries

Why it is profoundly wrong to look to children to become leaders of our culture

In conservative evangelicalism, the phrase “salt and light” can often be used as a magic elixir. Summon it at the appropriate time, and suddenly none of your parenting decisions can be questioned. Are the folks at church wondering why you let your 13 year old watch any sitcom or film they want? “I just want them to be able to be salt and light when talking about pop culture.” Feeling guilty over sending your 6 year old to the gender-bending local public school? “They will be salt and light there.” Needing to explain at Bible study why your teenage daughter is dating a future Hugh Hefner wannabe? “She can be salt and light to him!”

The reality is that many conservative Christians have a deeply flawed view of their own children. They see them as potential deep cover agents for the kingdom, carrying their unwavering beliefs and values into the nooks and crannies of culture where adults can’t fit. The temptation to think of children as just miniature versions of adults—with all the fortitude and none of the career concern—is overwhelming for many, not least because it often works. It’s one thing for a 35 year old to go door to door in the neighborhood with gospel testimony. That’s just religion. If a 7 year old does it, though…well, that’s impressive.

It turns out that the same dynamics work in secular politics too. Look no further than the eager appropriation of children as the foremost agents of critical social change. They march for their lives, prophesying with adolescent lips against the NRA and Republican Party. They likewise “lead the way” on the latest gender theory novelties. If you want the biggest media outlets to respond to your political cause, the best way to ensure it is if you have some kids you can put out in front. If a 35 year old demands gun control legislation or affirms the liquidity of his sexuality, he’s just an activist. If an elementary student does the same, she is a “generation:” nothing less than salt and light.

Child missionaries, sacred and secular alike, are a powerful force in our society. In a recent post, Alan Jacobs references Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s as documentary proof of just how far our cultural factions can go in using children as culture warriors. Beck’s book documents the hysteria and disinformation surrounding day cares and preschools in the Reagan years and the widespread manipulation of children by well-meaning (and perhaps otherwise) adults into giving false testimonies of abuse and perversion. “The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed,” Jacobs writes. “And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.”

In fact, that kind of manipulation often goes unpunished. Why? Because of the extraordinarily sensitive and volatile nature of contradicting the words of earnest-sounding children. In most cases it is simply unacceptable to contradict or argue with another person’s child when they are sincerely telling you what they think. To do so, even with great care, is tantamount to assaulting their self-esteem, erasing their sense of identity, and bullying. Of course, in most conceivable situations, the benefits of engaging a child in this kind of serious debate (unless you are a tutor) are negligible. So most clever adults learn how useful weasel words can be for escaping this situation (‘That’s very interesting, dear. I’m sure you’re right”) without having to look forward to a far more uncomfortable confrontation with an affronted parent. Predictably, many adults have now caught on to how powerfully they can leverage this dynamic in favor of their pet ideologies.

As much as I’d like to pretend that secular progressives are worse than I in the weaponizing of children, I cannot do that. Because I grew up in evangelical culture, I’ve seen the true depth and skill with which Christians can turn their children into missionaries (figuratively and literally). Don’t misunderstand me. Believers have a clear mandate to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This includes catechesis and practical discipleship. Any Christian home that is being faithful to Christ in this will feature young children who express their spiritual formation publicly. But the proper relationship between spiritual formation and public expression is one of predominantly quiet, intimate faithfulness, not of spectacle or parental expectations of super-spirituality.

For years now I have quietly cringed when I see small children at pro-life rallies holding up placards and handing out literature. I get it! The pro-life movement is about children after all. It’s indeed powerful to see young, smiling faces in a moment of advocacy for life itself. But I cringe because I sense that something is fundamentally off. I want my children’s generation of pro-life advocacy to be shaped first and foremost not be public protests or political mobilization but by the gentle joys of viewing human life the way that God does. Experiencing those joys and learning that vision takes time, and time is what children need far more than roles of leadership.

Likewise, I don’t want to commission my children to be “salt and light” in ways that demand spiritual resources that they haven’t formed yet. This is, I think, what leaves the poor taste in one’s mouth when seeing children march for gun control. Many of these kids bear no weight of responsibility toward people who are utterly dependent on them for safety and provision. Of course they don’t, they’re children! The marching youth cannot fathom the complex issues of self, family, and country-defense that make up the historical foundation of the Second Amendment. They shouldn’t be expected to, because such comprehension is adult in nature, and it is a moral abomination—the spiritual logic of Roe v Wade— to desire a democracy made up of only politically savvy citizens without the naïve and foolish children. Asking our children to become our sociopolitical guardians is the same as telling them we wish they didn’t have to exist.

It is a great hypocrisy that we as a culture decry child labor but glorify child activism. It is a greater hypocrisy that often the people of the Way do no better. Remember that to the disciples, Jesus promised the opportunity to become fishers of men. What did he say to the children? “Let them come to me.” Children belong at the feet of Jesus, not full-time out in the boats.