Some people believe that before we are born, we choose the parents we want to be born to. I admit I’m skeptical about that. I have three brothers, and I know one of them for sure would not have chosen to be a pastor’s kid. Being a pastor’s kid was a very negative experience for him. It was a mixture of good and bad for me; because our relatives lived all over the world and so faraway, I found adopted family in the church. Who would I be if I hadn’t grow up as the pastor’s kid? I’d be a completely different person, as would my brothers. Better or worse, I don’t know.
But this is my story, which is the only story I have the authority to tell.
When John Wesley came up with the model of itinerant pastors, he wasn’t thinking of the future, necessarily. The circuit riders, who rode on horseback from town to town to preach the Gospel, didn’t live long lives. It was a harsh life, and not one conducive to family life. Yet the modern church took on the model of “itineracy” for its structure.
In the United Methodist Church, you don’t apply to a church that you’d like to go to. You don’t go and “try out” by preaching for them and letting the church decide whether they want you or not. In the UMC, you are sent. By the Bishop. He or she, in conversation with the Cabinet (yes, the UMC is modeled after the US government–red flag!!), decide where the pastors will live and work.
It’s an arrangement you sign up for at ordination. The Bishop asks you Wesley’s Historical Questions, (written in the 18th century, mind you), “Will you go where the Bishop sends you unreservedly?” And you are to say an enthusiastic “yes!” In my long history with pastors and the UMC, I know for sure we all failed the “unreservedly” criteria.
As you can imagine, it all gets very political. When I was growing up, they printed the salaries of all the pastors in the annual journal, so pastors were able to compare their salaries to others’ and know what churches to “shoot for.” They don’t do that anymore, but there are always those churches that some pastors drool at with desire, and hope to be in the Bishop’s good graces so they will be sent to the “prime appointments.” And, of course, there are churches that ambitious pastors hope to never serve.
It goes the other way, too, unfortunately. If a pastor acts up, doesn’t respect the authority of the Bishop, and/or offends the Bishop in some way, Bishops have been known to send the pastors to certain appointments to “punish” them. That doesn’t work out well for the pastor or the perhaps innocent congregation who receives one ticked-off pastor.
Into all of this complicated human mess comes children. Pastor’s kids. Or, as one of my mentors back in the day called it, “T.O.”, for Theological Offspring. They are thrown into this situation without any say. Of course, one might argue that no children get to choose their parents’ vocations. Children of movie stars, political leaders, or any celebrities, also don’t get to choose to be the children of people in the limelight. (Nor do they get to choose their names, like “Elijah Blue” or “Apple.”) But PKs are unique, and I can speak about the experience with some authority.
I can only speak of the experience in the UMC, which is not like the call system of other denominations, where children can actually go to one school their entire lives. As a PK in the UMC, you usually move quite often. I was actually more fortunate than others, as I only moved three times from the age of 3 days to 18 years. My daughter moved 6 times in as many years, and didn’t move anymore after that only because I left the pastoral ministry and decided to live in one place for the duration of her education. (You’re welcome, Sarah)
It’s very common for PKs to have nothing to do with the church after they are out on their own, and that is mostly true for my family. Only one of my brothers, who married a Catholic woman, attends church. The other two don’t have anything to do with church. I took the more complicated way of becoming a pastor, and then having nothing to do with Church.
Being a pastor’s kid, as I’ve said before, decided the day I was born. No kidding! My father was moving to a new church when my mother was 9 months pregnant, and I was actually due after the moving date. So the doctor was asked to induce labor over a week early, which as you know, back in those days, inducing was even harder on the mother than it is now. (My daughter was induced because my water had broken and things weren’t happening, and I can attest, it is not fun.)
I moved when I was three days old, and of course, that move didn’t affect me as much as it did my mother. I moved again when I was 5, and I don’t remember that being much of a big deal either. I spent the next 9 years in Red Bank, NJ, and moving away from there at 14 was really awful. I’d made all my friends from the time of kindergarten through middle school. I was a shy and nervous kid, so the thought of uprooting and starting all over was devastating. My friends were all going to the new regional high school in Red Bank, that was brand new with rubber floors in the gym (I thought that sounded cool).
From a pastor’s perspective, you are told what salary you will make, where your kids will go to school, and you move into a house that is not your own. More pastors are buying their own houses and getting the church to rent out the parsonage, but that causes huge conflicts in the church for the first pastor to do that. It also causes a mess for the pastor who comes in afterwards and can’t afford to buy his own house, and there’s now no parsonage. The housing allowance provided is not nearly enough to rent a house, much less buy one. If a pastor does what he or she is supposed to, and moves into the parsonage, they don’t buy a house until they are retired at 65 or so. For the less fortunate pastors, this is a huge financial crisis. They find that they can’t afford a mortgage or their mortgage is over 30 years and they never pay it off.
As a pastor’s kid, you are on display. The expectations of the congregation for that child’s behavior vary, according to the congregation. My oldest brother had expectations put on him that I never experienced in my father’s later churches. If a pastor has hundreds of bosses in the congregation, the pastor’s kid has hundreds of people with an opinion on how they should behave. And they always share it.
In the last church where I lived with my parents, I had a mostly good experience. The congregation was very kind to me. I had lots of adopted family there. I was very active in the church, in Youth Group, Bell Choir, the Adult Choir, and Sunday School. I heard people talk about how wonderful my father was, and I also heard about people who couldn’t stand him. I knew about the biggest church conflicts (like moving the first worship service back 15 minutes and the second service forward 15 minutes so they could have Sunday School in between. People actually left the Church over that.)
In my new high school, of course, everyone knew I was the new Pastor’s kid. The other pastor’s kid in my grade, the Baptist kid, went full-out the opposite way of myself. He grew his hair long, didn’t always bathe, and did drugs. He wanted it known, for the record, that he was not some goody-two-shoes just because his father was the Baptist preacher in town.
I was the goody-two-shoes, but I’m not embarrassed by that. I loved Church then, for the most part. I didn’t think drugs was very good for my body, nor did I like the way alcohol made me feel. I didn’t have sex with any boyfriends, because I knew that could result in pregnancy (and no one was telling me about birth control!), and I guarantee that would have been a shame that I would never live down. I couldn’t imagine how my parents would react to that, and I didn’t think it’d be unconditional love and support. Sex was a big no-no. Shame was a big motivator.
However, oddly enough, I did have parishioners who did think I was “too good.” One in particular, who adored my father and thought he could do no wrong, at the same time told me I should “get laid.” She thought I needed to live a little. I was close to her at the time, and really looked up to her. I cared way too much about what other people thought (which is deadly for a pastor’s kid) and wanted to please her. But the stakes were too high. I wasn’t ready to shoulder the burden of that much punishment.
I didn’t go into pastoral ministry because of my father. I had a very real, very profound call of my own. However, I do realize, that because my father was a pastor, I was in the right environment to be “primed” for the call. But I think that being a pastor’s kid, too, was part of the reason I also had to ultimately leave. I’d lived the fishbowl life. I’d already been moved around by someone who didn’t always have my best interests in mind (“Induce labor!”). I’d seen the underbelly of the Church from my living room. I’d seen all three of my brothers wrestle through their own struggles with being on the church stage, and ultimately reject faith altogether. I’d wrestled with the expectations of the church and of my parents, which always conflicted. I’d undergone criticism for being too “uptight,” “too good,” or “ungrateful.” I’d dealt with the pain of leaving all my friends 80 miles behind and having to be the new kid in school.
I’d dealt with lifelong anxiety, depression and guilt. After all those things piled up on me once again as a pastor, I decided it wasn’t a healthy life for me or for my daughter, who remembers all the people in the church that were especially mean to her mother. She’s not impressed with Bishops and D.S.’s. She’s seen how cruel they can sometimes be, and how un-Christlike many of them can be in their political positions. When my husband left the church ministry, his blood pressure went down considerably. In the ten years that I’ve been out, my anxiety and depression have decreased and I’ve learned how to be healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically. I think my relationships with my daughter and husband are much much healthier.
All four of us in my family of origin have our painful stories of life as PKs. My oldest brother and I share those freely and seem to get each other.
I can’t say whether or not I would have chosen the that life before I was born or not. It wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t all good. I did the best I could.
I do wonder how children of John Wesley would have turned out. I kind of shudder. I suspect he knew reproduction would not have been a good idea for him.