When pastors’ kids (PKs) choose not to remain in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is a heartbreaking experience for their parents, who have dedicated their lives to building up and nurturing the church. Why do these kids choose not to be part of the church?
This was the question I set out to answer with a survey sent to over 900 adult PKs. Nearly 600 responded. I analyzed each questionnaire, looking for themes in those PKs who did not call themselves Seventh-day Adventists (many still called themselves Christians and attended churches of other denominations) and those who were still Seventh-day Adventists and felt very positive toward the church.
A picture did emerge from these two groups of pastors’ children. Interestingly, the themes had more to do with the PKs’ perception of their parents and their child-rearing practices than with the church as a whole. However, while these themes illustrate trends between the two groups, they do not account for unique variances. Despite parents’ best efforts, children still have freedom of choice. Children from the best homes can make religious choices that differ from those of their parents.
When asked what had most influenced their religious choices, PKs frequently mentioned their parents’ love and support. One PK mentioned that although she and her mother seldom saw eye-to-eye, she was important enough that her mother kept working on their relationship even when her daughter was too stubborn or too inexperienced to return the favor. She describes how her mother won the battle, and they are now closer than ever. If her mother wouldn’t give up, she says, then God wouldn’t either.
Parents’ love and support is expressed in many ways, one of them being time spent together. One father made it a priority to be home in the mornings to play with his preschool children. Another made breakfast a special family time; the family always ate it together. Still others had special family vacations.
These parents also did not force their own opinions or ideas on their children. Their children explained that they had the freedom to be themselves, make choices, and develop their own personal relationships with Jesus Christ. One PK said that his parents “were wonderful and consistent role models. They allowed me to make my own choices while providing strong guidance. Their approach was firm but gentle. I never felt the need to rebel because their beliefs were not forced on me. I have been able to develop my own relationship with God and recognize the value in the way I was raised.”
Another PK appreciated how her parents had the ability to stand back and let her make her own choices when the time was right. She felt they believed that love comes first.
PKs who felt positive toward the church also expressed similar thoughts and feelings about their parents: “They were not perfect, but I always felt I was more important than churches or members. They were great!” Another said his father never “made us feel that church work was more important. He spent time with us. It gave us a good picture of our Heavenly Father (and I love both!).” These parents were somehow able to say No, when necessary, to church demands and focus instead on their children. Boundaries between work and home were not blurred.
These parents also modeled a genuine, vibrant, and growing relationship with God. Their children sensed that their parents’ religion was genuine and recognized that their parents practiced what they preached and were not hypocritical. What other people saw at church and in public was not a facade—it was real. These parents lived what they preached and taught. Even though they and the church weren’t perfect, they acknowledged their humanity and encouraged their children to focus on Christ.
For example, one father finally found the gospel when his PK was 16. This was a life-transforming experience as this PK watched his father change and grow in a grace relationship with God. For most of his growing-up years, this PK did not see the gospel modeled in his father, but his father’s openness to change and growth was overall a positive experience.
Another PK was thankful for her father’s prayers and her mother’s consistency. Her dad spent hours praying for her; when she was tempted to do wrong, she says she often couldn’t follow through because she knew her father was praying for her. She loves him for his prayers. These parents demonstrated a genuine, real, and working religion.
Open communication was encouraged in these homes. Children were free to express themselves. One PK said his family did a lot of talking, especially during meal times. Another PK, in describing what made her home positive, said that “my father was one I could talk to and was not too busy to be concerned about me. I later found out he had turned down some calls because of us in the family.” Not only did this father communicate with his children, he also had their best interests at heart, not the advancement of his own career.
The extra expectations placed on the pastoral home can be difficult, especially for children; however, parents in this group found a positive way to handle the extra expectations. One family told their children that extra expectations would be placed upon them but expressed how they would always support and be there for them. Motivation to behave in a certain way was not because of what other people would think but because it was the right thing. This PK said of his parents, “I honestly feel they did a great job. They always loved us, never expected perfection, and always let us be ourselves—always.”
But not all homes were like those described above. The extra expectations placed on PKs were often mentioned by children who chose not to remain Seventh-day Adventists. This was usually coupled with an overly strict home where religion felt forced and where there was very little freedom. Overall, there was an emphasis on behavior.
Listen to this PK’s evaluation of his father: “My dad was too rigid—we couldn’t even visit another SDA church in the area with our friends unless it was a school requirement. He was also too strict—we were ‘the example.’ He made all our choices for us, stifling my own growth toward independence and confidence.” Another PK wished her parents had “eased up on me. I was a straight-A student who never got in trouble, but they leaned on me so hard whenever I did something they didn’t approve of. I also wish I had been given a chance to discover God, rather than having it force-fed to me till I couldn’t tell the difference between acting and belief.” Another PK commented that he felt that everyone was more concerned with the uniform than with the game.
The extra expectations and perfection required of these PKs made them feel that God wouldn’t accept, love, or save them if their behavior didn’t measure up. Listen to this PK discuss her situation: “The lack of choice concerning church and meeting attendance; the harsh, dictatorial manner in which every ‘right’ was enforced and every perceived ‘wrong’ punished—I have just started to internalize the fact that God isn’t a dictator trying to catch you in the wrong.” Or this PK: “The authoritarianism I grew up with—the horrendous black cloud that hung over me every second. Each moment was to count for eternity—feelings were wrong, so I couldn’t express myself and ended up being that perfect, sweet PK because that’s where I got strokes. My view of God was that He would only accept me when I behaved in a specific way.”
Not only did these homes emphasize behavior; they often had little family time. This made the children feel that church came first. One PK talked of how he hardly ever saw his dad and when his dad did finally come home, he punished his son for what he had done several hours before. He continued to say, “I wish my father would have placed our family on an equal basis with the church. I never knew my father and still don’t; he didn’t have time.”
The PKs in these homes also perceived their parents’ religion to be hypocritical and inauthentic. One PK felt that when his father was in front of church members or potential church members, he was the model Christian—kind and loving. However, when he dealt with his wife and sons, he was impatient, unforgiving, and, in this PK’s words, vicious and cruel.
And, finally, a few of these PKs chose not to remain Adventists because of extremely negative events: sexual abuse by their fathers or mental or physical abuse. Some had had especially disappointing experiences with church members or church leaders.
The stories of these PKs seem rather bitter and bleak, even extreme; however, their experiences can be helpful for the pastor considering raising a family in the pastorate. Although PKs cannot be shielded from all the pressures and negative experiences inherent in pastoring, these can be minimized and the positive aspects enhanced. According to many PKs, developing a strong relationship with them and letting them know that their parents will make time and ultimately place them in first place shields them from many negative perceptions and experiences.
In addition, parents making their expectations and the reasons for them very clear without church, father’s job, reputation, or God’s love attached to good behavior will also lessen the impact of extra expectations placed upon PKs because their father is “the pastor.” Combine this with a home open to discussing and exploring ideas or beliefs, giving children the freedom to learn about themselves and make age-appropriate choices, and, according to the PKs in this research, the chances are increased that their religious choices will be similar to parents’ choices.
On the other hand, pastors who devote time primarily to the salvation of the masses, focus on the health and well-being of their parishioners, try to enhance their reputation by the behavior of the family, are very strict and authoritarian, and in general have poor boundaries between the church and home, risk losing the salvation of the most important people in their lives their children.