The Pastor’s Family: Daughters Speaking

By John Frye

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Phil Miller

    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.

    I can understand where this is coming from. I grew up in a small church, and for a long time, my family actually literally lived in the church building. The parsonage was a wing of the building that had been converted into something like an apartment, but it was only a quick trip through a set of double doors that led into the church proper.

    So I think like many pastors’ families, especially in smaller churches, we grew being the church custodial crew off an on. My brothers and I cleaned building, mowed the lawn, changed the sign out front, etc. Really, there’s not much we didn’t have to do in that building at one point or another. From before I could drive, I had a key to the front door of the church building on my key ring. So a lot of this sense of ownership, as the author puts it, has bled over into my adult life. I simply don’t know how to be part of a church where I don’t feel like I need to take responsibility for these sort of mundane things. Sometimes I think my wife thinks I’m crazy because of it. But one thing I learned as a pastors kid, is that if I or my family doesn’t take care of it, it probably won’t get done.

  • Susan

    My father was a Baptist minister. There was always an expectation that we, the PK’s, had to be better than any other kids. For some reason, some church members took it upon themselves to tell my parents every small moral failing I had (for the record, I wasn’t a crazy, drug-addled teenager). The mantra, “you could ruin your father’s ministry,” was heard over and over. You want these kids to grow up loving God and the church? Cut them some slack!

  • Phil Miller

    It seems to me, at least from my anecdotal evidence, that pastor’s daughters have more pressure put on them than sons. I don’t have any sisters, so I have to say that some of the pressure you speak of is a bit foreign to me. I don’t doubt it’s true though. There were, of course, some busybodies in our congregation at various points, but I think my parents did a good job of shielding us from them. I never felt my parents would believe the word of a church member over us, for one thing. I imagine that pissed some people off.

  • Susan

    My parents believed church members over us kids, sadly. Our sect was very fundamentalist, very restrictive. I’ve known PK’s from more mainstream sects who didn’t experience this as much.

  • Jeremy B.

    I never experienced the scrutiny as pressure to conform to some ideal, thankfully. My dad tells me that there were people that tried to do it, but his response was immediate and unequivocal. I DID feel like everyone knew my business. Only God knows how often we were subject to gossip disguised as prayer requests.

    That said, the Pro really resonates with me. I’ve never experienced the same sense of belonging in a church since.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    I have two daughters (one 19 the other 25) and they grew up when I was the senior minister of one congregation for 12 years. For my youngest this was basically the only church she really knew–my oldest was 8 years old when we took this position. Before I was a youth minister for 18 years.

    I’ve asked them about this very thing. They tell me they’ve never really felt the pressure to perform or to be better than other kids or to be an example. (I did have one guy come to me privately about my oldest daughter’s behavior once–while I was a bit aggravated, he was correct–she was misbehaving in public, but I did resent his pointing it out!) But that happened only once in 12 years. For the most part the congregation understood that kids are kids and people should have some leeway in raising their children…even staff members!

    All of the positives mentioned in the article describe my daughters’ experience, too. They felt they belonged to a family. The church wasn’t perfect (not by a long shot)–and there were many conflicts we experienced they never knew about. (In fact, when my oldest daughter was in college she said once: “Did you have a problem with so-and-so?” When I confessed it she said, “I never knew that! Someone just mentioned the other day they thought there had been some difficulties there in the past.”

    I know the glass bowl does exist and some kids catch the brunt of it. But I can’t say we experienced it ourselves.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    I also loved what one preacher once said: “My kids aren’t ‘PKs’–they’re a cut above. They are ‘TOs’ (Theological Offspring)!” 8^)

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I appreciate this look at PK daughters. I am sure that in some ways they face more scrutiny than pastors’ sons. Nothwithstanding this difference, I highly recommend to all Gary D. Schmidt’s “Lizzie Bright and Buckminster Boy, the story of a Boston pastor’s family and their move to a small town in Maine. I have always enjoyed the way that fictional accounts (This one is historical fiction) equip us for dealing with real-life situations.


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