I held a meeting with my congregation’s worship and music director the other day to tell her that my eldest child wouldn’t be attending children’s choir for the near future. I fretted quite a bit about this conversation. Not because I don’t like the choir program. Not because I don’t like the choir director. We had to quit a church activity due to too much church. I worried tremendously that I would hurt the feelings of my treasured colleague; the last thing I want is a member of my staff to feel that I am not supporting her ministry.
Thankfully, the music director was great. She completely understood why we were quitting the choir. She gave me a hug and reminded me that she is the mother of two grown daughters who grew up in the midst of her working for various churches. Whew.
As a clergy couple with three children under the age of six, my husband and I are pretty well swamped. Take this past week for example – night meetings or church-related activities were on the schedule every night but one. I can’t remember the last time we managed dinner at home as a family two nights in a row. Between church board meetings, denominational committees, Stephen Minister groups and seminary teaching commitments, things are crazy on our calendars. Add ballet, karate, birthday parties, baby showers and dinners out with friends—we finally reached our limit. We made a decision that would allow our family to have more Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at home, alone.
It is hard to explain these decisions to church members sometimes, even when they aren’t asking the questions. My large, suburban congregation is supportive of my parenting needs 99% of the time. The children’s choir is a good example—not all church staff members who have choir-aged children participate in the program. But I still find myself succumbing to that voice in my head that says if we don’t participate in every program, we are not a good church family, and I, by extension, am a bad church employee. I want to protect my kids (and myself, truth be told) from criticism that they are not appropriately involved in the life of the church.
A 2004 survey* of PKs growing up in the Netherlands from the 1930s until the present day concluded that most of the now-adult children felt that “they were public property, whether they liked it or not; they were watched (or at least they had the impression that they were watched) and they had to set an example for other kids.” When my husband and I decided to become parents, we talked about the ways in which the “Preacher’s Kid” stereotypes were alive and well. I was sure I would be able to protect my kids from the less-than-well-meaning adults in our congregations and, for the most part, this has worked well. We’ve developed a group of close “church grandparents” who we can trust with our kids on those occasions when my husband and I are actively involved in ministry. But it is still hard sometimes, and my feelings on this subject are varied, depending on the week.
In order to see how PKs who’ve grown up in the U.S. over the past thirty years are faring, I decided to do an extremely informal survey of PK friends of mine who are now well-adjusted, funny, loving adults, (and a number of these friends are now clergy themselves). My favorite anecdote from their responses came from an adult PK who is now a young clergy woman: “My dad taught a mid-week class on church history and theology for grades 3 through 5 (which our church demanded in addition to Sunday School because most of the parents wished they sent their kids to a Christian school, but there was nothing that fit their desire in the area). I was terrible to him…I refused to let him just teach and not have to deal with me being a pain the butt because my dad was in the room. I think he kicked me out of class probably 2 or 3 times. Once, he even told me to leave and walk home.” This story is a positive memory for the author because she was testing her dad and he still acted consistently as her parent.
The thing that jumped out at me from all of my friends’ comments is the fact that their clergy parents made a concerted effort to be their children’s parent first, not their pastor. These clergy parents gave advice as moms and dads, not as pastors. One friend even went so far as to say that her clergy parents never made her feel too obliged to attend every single church event and another felt that her parents were an effective buffer between her and her siblings and those particularly difficult congregation members. The common denominator seemed to be this: those adult PKs who are still in the church had clergy parents who strived to make them feel safe about their relationship as a family. As one adult PK wrote: “None of my siblings have screwed up feelings about the church because we were not presented with distorted and jumbled ideas about who our dad was.”
And so I am working to be Mom for my kids. This may mean making the decision to participate in fewer church activities, but my prayer is that my discernment will lead to our children feeling that the body of Christ is a safe and loving place for our family in the long run. This may mean I will kick them out of some future confirmation class, but a mom’s got to do what a mom’s got to do.
*Hijme Stoffels, Faculty of Theology, Vrije Universiteit: “Preachers’ kids are the worst”, Results of a Survey among Dutch clergy children.