How to Help a Preacher’s Kid

By Charity M. Walker-Byers

I am a preacher’s kid. Being a PK has influenced every part of my life. It has influenced my values, my self-concept, and my life goals. I have lived through the joys and challenges of growing up in a ministry family. I know what it is like to be proud of a father and mother who give all they have to the service of God.

I also know what it’s like to have my family life centered on, and at times almost overtaken by, service to God. Growing up as a preacher’s kid taught me the intense value of living a God-centered life. It also taught me that being part of a ministry family isn’t always easy.

Talking to other kids of ministry families has confirmed that growing up in a ministry family brings both immense blessings and difficult challenges to the lives of youth and young adults. When asked about the benefits of growing up in a ministry family, one PK stated, “I got to experience God at work in unbelievable ways all the time. Being a PK helped me grow and experience faith earlier than most other kids.”

Another PK shared her thankfulness for growing up with the example of ministry impacts. She believes this background created her vibrant passion as an adult for women’s ministry and children’s mentorship.

A PK’s exposure to God and his incredible work at an intimate level obviously creates invaluable opportunities. However, with this undeniable benefit also comes the exposure to the difficult side of ministry life and the potentially unfavorable impact this can have on a growing child, teen, or young adult.

For example, one preacher’s kid highlighted the immense pressure that can be imposed by perceived expectations of parents, the church, and the greater community. This PK explained how the experience of having successful and impactful parents doing “great things” led to a perception that “it is not OK to mess up.” She was afraid when she realized she could not “achieve perfection” as her parents had. As a teen she questioned, “Will I be able to live up to what my parents are doing?”

Another child of ministry parents shared that his “mess-ups” seemed to be a “bigger deal” than for other kids because they reflected poorly on his ministry family’s reputation. Another pastor’s kid identified the barrier that perceived expectations of “perfection” had on her ability to have an open and honest relationship with her parents.

Listening to the story of a PK named Timothy further opened my eyes to the challenges minister’s kids can face. Timothy was a young kid everybody liked. Throughout his childhood he was told, “You’re going to be a preacher just like your father.” Initially he took pride in that, but not so much in the ensuing years. Increasingly he thought being a preacher didn’t sound so good. He had observed the way his father was sometimes treated in the church, and it seemed so unfair. Periodically he heard his mother and father talking about being so tired of the pettiness in ministry.

One day he tried to talk to his mother about life in ministry, but all she could say was, “That’s just the way it is.” At that moment, Timothy decided he would never be a preacher. He began to look and sound different from a “model PK.” No one ever asked what these changes were all about. Instead, he and his family were criticized for his “uncontrolled behavior and bad attitude.”

All this solidified Timothy’s decision never to be a preacher. The more he felt he was being controlled, the angrier he became at the church, his family, and even God. Today Timothy is in Afghanistan, in harm’s way, a long way from home and feeling a long way from God.

 

They Have Issues

After talking to numerous ministry kids, the following emerged as their biggest issues:

“I don’t measure up to what’s expected of me.” Most preacher’s kids feel pressure to meet a very high standard and have concluded they will never achieve it. The assumption is that their parents are unbelievably holy. PKs are acutely aware of their own imperfections and often become discouraged and suffer from an internalized sense of low self-esteem.

“I’m not sure it’s real.” The children of ministry families often struggle to find their own faith. They know their parents’ faith is real, but are often afraid to voice their doubts and uncertainty about the reality of God. These unspoken doubts are driven inward, and consequently are rarely explored and understood. Doubting PKs struggle with their identities, fearing they aren’t really believers.

“I don’t fit in.” Acceptance is a primary issue for any child or adolescent, yet it is often more acute for PKs. They desire to fit into their family and their peer group, but often believe the two are incompatible. They try desperately to be fully accepted at school and in the family, but often feel they aren’t accepted in either setting.

“I think God is disappointed in me.” Guilt and shame plague many preacher’s kids. They have a strong performance base to their self-understanding and haven’t learned grace personally. They assume their misbehavior, sin, or shortcomings put a frown on God’s face. Insecurity sneaks into their lives, and they assign way too many human characteristics to God and suffer for it.

“I don’t think my parents care as much about me as they do the church.” Children of ministry parents often feel neglected, whether neglect is taking place or not. They see their parents extending themselves for others and believe others to be more important and more deserving of attention. A lot of assumptions are internalized, and the child feels insignificant.

 

You Can Help

The goal in helping kids of ministry families is to increase meaningful dialogue and subsequent influence. To avoid unnecessary rebellion, great care should be given not to create a sense in the child that he or she is being controlled. In addition, remember what’s unique to many children of parents in ministry. The following suggestions should aid communication between ministers and their children:

Adults should communicate a sense of acceptance and understanding. This is often difficult because parents and caring others really do have something to say. When they work at communicating acceptance and understanding before giving any advice or direction, they soften the kid’s heart and make it easier for him or her to “hear” and not be defensive.

Listen first and save advice for much later. One of the biggest mistakes adults make with kids is to advise first, before the child has been heard. When that happens, both sides are insistent in making their points and little dialogue takes place. Monologues get louder, or no talking happens at all.

Stay calm. Avoid anger or shock. Parental anger, excessive exasperation, or horrified reactions to what a child is saying simply shuts down good conversation. The child can become afraid to speak, or the conversation can escalate into a shouting match.

Ask good questions that can’t be answered in a simple yes or no. Be careful of imbedded judgment or put-downs in your questions. Instead of saying, “What would make you do something so stupid!” try asking, “Would you tell me what you were thinking or feeling when that happened?” Conversations can benefit from asking questions related to the previous section about typical PK issues.

Watch for teachable moments. There comes a point when a child is ready to listen, not because they have been “made” to listen, but because they have been heard, their heart has softened, and they have become less defensive and more receptive. At this point, advice can be given, and it will be heard.

The next generation of Christian leaders has already been born. We should do our part to preserve preacher’s kids by encouraging, understanding, and assisting them as they navigate the often difficult course of growing up in a ministry family.

 

Charity Walker-Byers, clinical director for Blessing Ranch Inc. in Livermore, Colorado, grew up a pastor’s kid and has experienced the joys and challenges of ministry personally. She holds a PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Denver.

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LONGER BIO: 

Charity M. Walker-Byers is the clinical director of the Blessing Ranch Inc. programs for children, adolescents, and young adults. Walker-Byers received her PhD in psychology from the University of Denver and specialized in the care of childhood and young adult disorders. She grew up in a ministry family and can personally identify with many of the issues mentioned in the associated article. 

She served on the staff of Blessing Ranch prior to being named clinical director. Her passion is to care for ministry and missionary children, young adults, and their families in the ranch’s one-week intensive program. Individual counseling, family therapy, and parental coaching are provided. She also works with minister’s wives and with women-in-ministry issues.

These new programs focus on meeting the needs of ministry youth and young adults in order to promote continued ministry vitality in the next generation. Blessing Ranch initiated these programs in September 2011. These programs provide psychological services and spiritual formation to children, adolescents, and young adults of ministry families. The unique needs and struggles of pastor and missionary kids are at the forefront as theology and psychology are integrated into the services that are provided. The goals of Blessing Ranch’s new programs are to promote effective kingdom service in the present, as well as to support ministry vitality in the next generation. 

Walker-Byers is the daughter of Dr. John Walker, founder and executive director of Blessing Ranch. For more information, go to www.blessingranch.org, e-mail info@blessingranch.org, or call (970) 495-0920.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Callie
    April 27, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    Some years ago, I went out to lunch with a group of about a dozen women from various branch offices of the company I worked for. We didn’t work together on a daily basis, so this was something of a “getting to know you” event. I’m a preacher’s kid. I discovered a co-worker was the ex-wife of an Assembly of God minister. We began talking about the horrible things congregations do. We regaled each other with story after story – it was a “can you top THIS?” moment. After a certain amount of time, we realized everyone else had stopped talking and they were looking at us with big round eyes. I have to say, that was one of the most cathartic conversations I‘ve ever had in my life. (I’m 50-something.)

    PS, never get me and my brother talking about the subject of death. We saw so many dead bodies growing up – our father’s congregation was elderly – that we both have a lot of black humor about the subject.

  2. Juanita
    March 8, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    This made a lot of sense. I’m a pastor’s kid, and I’m starting to process all of the issues that goes with that. I wish my parents were more aware of what being a pastor does to their kids. I don’t hold them responsible, sometimes I just wish. The acceptance was never there growing up because I had to be the perfect pastor’s family image. There were high expectations for me. There was never a listening ear just counseling thrown at me. My professors tell me all the time how much of a skeptic I am now. No matter what I said I was never actually heard. I was told how things would be, and what I was to do. I was to be perfect. When I hit middle school, I learned quickly I could do whatever I wanted, and I did just that. Everything here would have made such a difference to me growing up.

  3. MARIA
    March 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I know that being a PK affectedly me profoundly growing up. I was very religious oriented as a child and also very self conscious. I grew up in a very Catholic neighborhood and always felt and was treated differently than other kids. I desperately wanted to have neighborhood friends. I started to do very rebellious things and could not talk to my parents at all. To top it off, my mother was mentally ill when I was in Middle School and had to hospitalized a couple times (all very secretive of course). For a long time, I felt a tremendous need to distance myself from my parents, even though I loved them. I felt that they were not in touch with popular society and I desperately wanted to be “cool” and fit in. I am now in my 50’s and still have ambivalence about being a preacher’s kid though I loved my father tremendously. Just being in such a different situation as other kids is very confusing, to say the least. I wish I had someone to talk to back then and maybe I wouldn’t have had to go through such a tumultuous time.

  4. Dan
    March 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I had to post this link to my new community organization FB page Preachers Kid Advocate. there isn’t too much help out there I think a lot of things are just started off as misconstrued to Preachers kids I know because I am one https://www.facebook.com/pages/Preachers-Children-Advocate/317598118343445

  5. November 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I have recently begun perusing the comments on various websites addressing this issue. It is maddening to read responses such as, “I don’t see why it’s any different than having a parent who is a physician, teacher,” etc. However, I have yet to speak to an adult child of a politician, doctor, or any other professional who has experienced the all-encompassing, pervasive effect that being the child of a clergy person has on every aspect of one’s life, both public and private. Does a daughter’s teen pregnancy means that a teacher is perceived to be lousy at what he/she does? If a child sees little of her father because he spends long hours healing others, must she share him with patients who would also like to join in one long-awaited daddy-daughter outing to a baseball game? How many kids suffer from stomach aches after dinner on the 2nd Tuesday of the month because the vestry meets, making it probable that a parent will return home with the news that fewer parishioners and increasing rectory heating bill could render the family homeless at any moment? If a child is being mistreated by another, must she simply accept it and remain friend to all lest another parent be angered and leave the church or said little friend’s parents not join? How many adult non-PKs feel a crushing, often suffocating sense of personal responsibility for others’ feelings or the success of any type of event with which he/she is involved? This sense of vulnerability and anxiety associated with being a PK is still palpable to many of my peers (be they Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, etc.).

    And while most former kids can identify issues related to parental employment, I’ve not met any non-PKs who could identify to this degree. Warning to clergy: There is no calling more important than raising your children.

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