My entire life, I’ve struggled with how to talk about my childhood. Not because it was damaging or scarring or because I underwent some intense psychological trauma. I’ve struggled with it because I often wonder how to talk about my childhood in a way that doesn’t alienate people. In a way that makes people want to listen to my story. Why would anybody who didn’t grow up in the church care that I was a Pastor’s Kid for 20 years? Don’t I sound like a whiny brat complaining about nothing
How do you explain the crushing pressure? The expectations? The feeling that you’re never quite good enough? The constant desire to live in such a way as not embarrass dad?
There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding pastor’s kids. You’ve probably heard them all. We’re two-faced. We’re power-hungry. We think we are better than the rest of our peers. While, to some extent, these have all been true of me at some point in life, and have been true of every pastor’s kid that has ever lived, I can assure you this isn’t true for all of us.
We aren’t two-faced. We just don’t always know how to deal with the pressure of being perfect all the time. Being perfect on Sundays (or whenever else we are inside the walls of the church) takes its toll. I was in my twenties the first time I ever answered the questions “how are you?” with anything other than “I’m great.” We are scared to be honest. Terrified even.
We aren’t power-hungry. We are mostly trying to figure out how to live life while dealing with all of the perks of being a pastor’s kid. We get invited to parties with important families. We get Christmas gifts from people we don’t even know. We make use of people’s boats, lake houses, and whatever else we can get our hands on. Most people have no idea how to handle this kind of privilege as an adolescent teenager.
We don’t think we are better than anybody else. We live our lives being told that our pastor dads are the greatest thing since sliced bread. They’re life changing. They are brilliant. They are such men of God. Naturally, if Dad is the smartest and most noble man on the planet, what does that make us? Is it any wonder, being raised to believe that our dads were perfect and infallible, that we grow up with a superiority complex?
Please understand: I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for us PKs. Most of us grow up in loving homes. We have parents who love us, love Jesus, and love the church.
But not everybody grows up that way. Some grow up with pastor dads who are distant, cold, aloof, and overworked. They’re dictators. They lord their spiritual authority over their families like a military rank. Their position as a pastor is something they use to make others feel week, in turn making themselves feel strong. Those kids are dealt an untold amount of damage, and I try to remind myself every day to pray for them.
After years of trying to put my experiences into words, someone has done it for me. Barnabas Piper has written a fantastic book called The Pastor’s Kid. The son of pastor John Piper, Barnabas is certainly qualified to write on the subject.
He does this without resorting to generalizing, name-calling, or dragging his father’s name through the mud. He has written a touchingly honest account of what a large majority of pastor’s kids go through, but perhaps are too afraid to say publicly.
Rather than try to paraphrase what Piper says, there are some passages from the book that I’ve found particularly moving.
“A child doesn’t know the call of his pastor father. All he knows is the effects it has on his life. He doesn’t feel moved to ministry, because he’s not. Yes, it is the call of the child to honor his parents, but that is not the same as a call to vocational ministry. The call of the father is not the call of the child, but the ministry of the father creates an anvil-like weight on the child. He just feels the pressure of it. Even the best pastoral parents can’t protect their kids from this. And it is this pressure, in part, that drives so many PKs to break.”
“PKs are like everyone else in that we want to be known; we want people to know our hearts and our fears and what makes us us. But this sort of scrutiny creates a horde of people who know volumes about us”
Please understand something: I had a fantastic childhood. I was one of the lucky ones that turned out to be a semi-normal, functioning adult. My father was never involved in a scandal, he didn’t drink, didn’t beat us, didn’t manipulate and control us with his spiritual authority. He was busy, devoted to his job, and devoted to his family. We didn’t always see a lot of him, but when we did, he made it count.
He was the same person at church preaching as he was at home. There was no “church dad” and “home dad.” He was just “dad.”
Not everyone gets so lucky. I think of Mark Driscoll’s kids and the soul-crushing pressure they’re going to live with for the rest of their lives. I think of Jay Bakker (son of Jim & Tammy Faye.) He’s pastoring a church now, but living through his parent’s fall from grace had to take a devastating impact on him emotionally and spiritually.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect pastoral family. Pastors are people just like anyone else. They’re humans. They’re fallible. They get upset and yell at their wives. They get frustrated and scream at the dog. They’re normal people. Just like us all.