It’s telling that a book is titled Life in a Glass House: The Minister’s Family and the Local Congregation. A glass house. I asked my daughters to write the pros and cons of growing up in a pastor’s family. One of my daughter’s wrote this as a con: “Scrutiny. It seems that all eyes are on the ‘pastor’s family,’ whether the church family or non-believers. People were always watching how we acted, what we said, what we wore and measuring that against what they thought pastor’s kids should be like. There were times when it felt like our mistakes (sins) were worse than everyone else’s because we were ‘the pastor’s kids.’”Another daughter wrote, “We had, whether put on by the congregation or by ourselves, to make sure we seemed above reproach. I don’t know if this was necessary, but it felt like it as I became a teenager.”
When Julie and I read these comments from our girls, we recalled a time when an (allegedly) very spiritual couple, with kids the age of ours, came to us to inform us of about some questionable behavior of one of our girls. The couple’s concerns came across as judgmental and condescending. We felt humiliated and defensive on behalf of our child. The behavior of their children did not matter, but our daughter’s did. Why? She was in the pastor’s family.
A pastor can contribute to this scrutiny if he or she comes across to the congregation, because of the position the pastor holds, as a ‘cut above’ the rest of the congregation. Some pastors do come across as pompous and morally superior to their congregations. People will naturally press to see if that unspoken, but clear self-description is authentic sometimes by examining the children. On the other hand, when a pastor is transparent and honest about his or her own spiritual struggles and personal weaknesses, about the agonizing challenges and vibrant celebrations of family life, about trying to raise children in a culture of competing moral values, a congregation will feel the sense of identity and become allies, not adversaries to the pastor’s family. Failure and suffering in the process of raising a family, a pastor’s or otherwise, is more community-forming than child-rearing success stories. A pastor has to emphasize our common humanity in life and not foster any sense of privilege because he or she is the pastor.
Our same daughter who wrote about scrutiny also wrote this as a pro: “Fellowship: We grew up surrounded by families and friends within our church who loved and supported our family during times of need and just doing fun things (beach days, vacations, etc.).” Our girls grew up in just one church. I served in that church for 24 years. Over that time we did build relationships with many families with whom we were closer than all the other families. In seminary, I was taught to avoid and to never buy into the idea that a pastor’s family should not be close friends with people in the church. The reason for this old-style pastoral advice was that the pastor should not be viewed as having “favorites” or of being susceptible to “pressure” from the people. Pastors who have buy into that supposed wisdom will eventually turn around and complain (sometimes bitterly) about of being very lonely in ministry. The Apostle Paul used the metaphors of a nursing mother and a caring father for his and his companions’ relationships with the Thessalonian believers. Those are metaphors of closeness and even intimacy, not distance and, therefore, safety.
The daughter who wrote about the need to appear above reproach also wrote this as a pro: “I loved feeling like we belonged and had ownership, if you will. That’s the biggest struggle I have now as an adult with church. As a kid, I always felt like the building, the people, the pros, the cons, like all of that belonged to me and I belonged to it. As an adult, I want to know the church staff, I want to be a part of their lives in some way, I want my kids to feel comfortable running through the hallways, racing through the auditorium. I want to feel like we belong. That was a huge pro for me as a child. I think it provided a lot of security in my life and it makes the church building on Belding Road (in Rockford, MI) a special place for me still.”
The Pastor’s Family: Scrutiny. Above reproach. Fellowship. Ownership. More to come.