At many Christian colleges, when a student gets into trouble, one of the first questions asked is, "Are your parents pastors or missionaries?"
Sadly, a decision to serve God full-time as a vocation seems to increase one's risk of family problems. Let's look at a few of the unique challenges placed upon the children of today's pastors and ministry leaders, as well as the steps we can take to safeguard our families from them.
Ministry places inordinate stress and outside expectations upon its leaders. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth published a survey of 2,500 pastors that revealed some disturbing findings:
- 90 percent of pastors work more than 46 hours per week.
- 80 percent believe that pastoral ministry is affecting their families negatively.
- 33 percent say "being in the ministry is clearly a hazard to my family."
- 33 percent felt burned out within the first five years of ministry.
I know that in the early years of our children's lives, I was only able to give them a fraction of my emotional energy. It wasn't that I didn't love them or want to give them more; I just didn't have it in me. The ministry had taken the best of what I had, and what was left wasn't adequate for my children's needs. I was emotionally and relationally exhausted and in need of serious adjustments, even though those adjustments would require me cutting back in certain areas.
I discovered, though, that as I made the necessary adjustments to better meet the needs of my family, God also brought other called and qualified people who were able to share the load, and our ministry increased rather than decreased.
Many Christians place inappropriate expectations upon the children of Christian leaders. "I felt like we were always living under a microscope" is a line I've heard countless times from children who've grown up in ministry homes. Many feel tremendous pressure from Christians who don't see them as individuals but as "the pastor's kid." Rebellion against such expectations is common among those whose parents haven't yet learned to protect their children from a congregation's unrealistic expectations. While some children thrive in such an environment where they're seen as unique and given special status, others run the other way.
"One Sunday morning at church I couldn't find my son," recalls one pastor. "I looked all over, and then I saw him sitting in the car in the parking lot. As I marched out there I felt like yelling, but instead asked, "Marc, what are you doing out here?"
"These people don't like me, Dad. And they expect me to be something I'm not just because you're the pastor." I knew he was right. Punk rock hair with umpteen earrings made him quite suspect, especially as the son of the pastor. But my wife and I had made a decision years earlier to not major on minors with our children. Hairstyle and fashion were not major issues for us.
"As I sat with my son in the car that morning, I renewed my vow to put him above the image of a pastor's son that many of my parishioners were concerned with. I determined never to allow their perceptions to drive a wedge between my son and me, and especially between him and the Lord. That's a decision I'm very thankful I made. We've since moved churches and I no longer have contact with most of those people. But, thank God, I still talk with my son every week on the phone, and we have a friendship that I treasure greatly."
This raises an important question. Should you require your teenager to attend church? While most parents I interviewed tended to hold the reins rather loosely on this topic, they also worked very hard to accommodate their teenagers' desire to attend a different church or youth group, knowing that it's difficult to be both parent and pastor to a child. And because the stigma of being a pastor's kid didn't follow their children into another youth group or church, it was a more comfortable environment for many of them.
Another pastor's family gave each of their high-school-aged children the choice of any two of three options: attending church, Sunday school, or youth group. Though their oldest two were very rebellious in their later teenage years, they never rebelled against • church because they felt they had a choice in the matter.
Children reared in ministry families are more prone to disillusionment with Christians and Christianity. A friend of mine who has only recently begun re-attending church tells me, "I see more integrity in the business world as an attorney than I ever saw on the missionary compounds where I grew up."
His conclusion is not an isolated one. The Search Institute cites a new survey that indicates that one in every two children who are raised in a pastor's home don't go to church as an adult. This is a dramatic increase over their previous study that said one in four pastor's children abandon church as an adult.
When children are exposed to the many conflicts and personal attacks that happen in the name of God and Christianity, it's no wonder so many conclude what one pastor's son did: "I love you, Mom and Dad, and I love God. I just don't want anything to do with church."
We need to help our children understand the grim reality that Christians are sinners who struggle too, without them becoming completely disillusioned in the process.
As we can see, there are many issues that put pastors and ministry leaders' families at high risk for rebellion, not to mention the continual attacks of the enemy that target Christian leaders and their families. I know it scares me as I attempt to raise healthy, God-fearing, and loving children in such an environment. What proactive steps can we take to ensure we're doing all we can to protect our families from casualty?
Try to live as normal a life as possible. Growing up, my wife, Hanne, was always nervous that teachers, classmates, or friends might ask what her parents did for a living. She loved her family immensely, but to have to say that they were missionaries, and then to explain what that was, was very embarrassing for her. "I just wanted to have a normal family," she recalls. To be normal is a goal of every young person. And let's face it—in our culture, having parents who are pastors, missionaries, or ministry leaders just isn't normal. That doesn't mean there aren't many more advantages that our children can glean from growing up in such a family, but to expect them to be proud to explain to their friends what their parents do may be a bit unrealistic. That's why playing other roles in our communities can be very helpful. Being also known as a coach, town committee member, or music teacher makes us far less intimidating for our children and their friends.
Though Christ is at the center of all that we do, every function we participate in doesn't have to be spiritual or church-related. In fact, our children are more likely to be open to spiritual things if they see us engaging with them in their own areas of interest. One pastor I know regrets that the only activities they ever participated in together as a family had to do with church. "My son was in a lot of sports, and my daughter played in the band. But I almost always had church functions happening on those evenings when they were performing And now as they've gotten older, we just don't have much in common."
I know another pastor, though, who made it his goal to connect with each child in an area they were interested in. With one it was hunting and fishing, with another tennis, and with his third they assembled model cars together. All three are now grown, but they often participate in those same activities when they come together.
Allow your children the opportunity to struggle and explore. One pastor's teenage son informed him he was going to look into Buddhism. Though shocked and profoundly disappointed, he didn't overreact to his son's announcement. Instead, they engaged in a very open dialogue about world religions that ended with his father saying, "I'm really proud of you for being willing to talk with me about this, Son. And for your deep concern to know what is true—not just accepting what your mother and I've taught you, but really seeking it out for yourself. I want to encourage you with what God has said in His Word, 'Whoever seeks me with all his heart will find me.' I'm confident that as you truly seek him, this will happen in your case as well."
This approach was definitely not what this father was feeling at the moment, but it was the right thing to say to his son. His son already knew everything his father believed and how passionately he believed it. What he needed was permission to explore it for himself. As it turned out, his son didn't really explore Buddhism very extensively at all. In fact, he now attends an alternative-style worship church thA better fits his interests in the arts and music than the one his father pastors. It's a good church, and for that his parents are eternally grateful.
Recently I read a survey taken of people serving the Lord 10 years after high school. Two common denominators emerged: First, they were raised in an environment where they saw authentic faith lived out. And second, they rebelled against it for a time. Resistance to church isn't necessarily the first step to atheism. In fact, when handled correctly, it's a natural progression in the discipleship process.
Engage outside support. "On my first Sunday as pastor at Bethany Community Church, which was also our 30th wedding anniversary, my wife, Susan, and I found out that our daughter Stephanie was a heroine addict," recalls John Vawter. "We had no idea."
This painful time prompted the Vawters to organize a conference for couples in ministry who were struggling with a child's alcohol or drug addiction. The response was astounding, as ministry families came out of the woodwork (see www.notalone.org for further information). According to research conducted by the Barna Research Group, 17 percent of the pastors in our country have children who are abusing or have abused drugs or alcohol. Even more alarming, 76 percent aren't going anywhere for help.
I was at a pastors' retreat recently where a pastor broke down in tears, recounting the pain he and his wife had been feeling, knowing that their oldest daughter was working nights as a dancer in a striptease bar. "I've felt so ashamed of her and of us. Even though we've known that Carrie has been doing this for two years, we've never told a soul."
Immediately, two pastors came to him and explained how they had gone through similar experiences with their daughters.
Satan has so much more power when he can isolate us and convince us that we're the only ones struggling with issues like this. But bringing our pain into the light through expressing it to another serves to remove the sting (James 5:16). And more often than not, we find others who have gone, or are going through similar situations.
Deal with your own issues as they arise. Many people who enter full-time ministry carry a load of personal baggage with them. Perhaps this is because those who decide to enter the pastorate are often sensitive, broken people who've been through difficult issues. And that's good. The Bible says that when God comforts us in our troubles, it's so that we can comfort others in their troubles with the comfort we've received from Him (2 Corinthians 1:4).
But whenever someone has experienced significant pain, there are generally unresolved issues that linger. And there's nothing quite like a rebellious child to bring those issues to light. Rather than trying to hide or deny them, I've found it most helpful to trust that God's bringing them to light because He wants to bring us to a place of fuller healing and wholeness.
Several years ago I was bold enough to pray, "Father, conform me into the image of your Son." I realized that, more than anything else, God has used my experience of re-parenting more than 30 troubled teens who have lived with us after being released from jail, to answer that prayer. Truly they have afforded me some of the best—and most difficult—days of my life. But more than that, because of them I'm not the same person I was 10 years ago—or even one year ago. And for that I'm most grateful.