I was at my son’s high school, standing in line outside the vice principal’s office, angrily reflecting on the trouble that my eldest son was in and musing about the similar struggles of the son of our clergy assistant. That was when I realized that the tall man three people in front of me was our new rector, also there to talk to the principal about school discipline issues with his son.
Three clergy families, three clergy children, almost endless problems. And our boys aren’t alone. The rebellious clergy child is a cliché for good reason. Studies suggest that as many as 40% of the children of church professionals leave the faith as adults. And it’s clear from the Bible that it’s been an issue for a long time; look at the children of Eli (1Sam 2), Samuel (1 Sam 8), or even Israel’s kings!
Now, obviously, not all clergy children have problems, many excel. (My second son did fine.) But that does highlight the contrast. What are the factors involved in being a clergy child that lead some teenagers to do great and others to rebel?
Clergy Kids Deal with Resentment
Like my son, most of the clergy children I interviewed mentioned issues of resentment. Unfortunately, the ultimate root of the resentment comes from something almost all clergy parents have in common: they’ve made sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel. Clergy parents have given up larger paychecks in the secular world; they work long hours for the sake of their churches; and, they are always open to interruptions in family routine because of pastoral emergencies. Clergy parents are willing to make these sacrifices because of their strong sense of God’s call and the rewards that come from public ministry.
Clergy children share the costs of these sacrifices. They pay when mom or dad isn’t at home because someone is in the hospital. They pay when forced to stay at church an hour after everyone else has left. They pay when people in the church carefully watch their behavior. At the same time, our children haven’t heard their own personal call to sacrifice for the sake of Christ’s church and they almost never receive the rewards of ministry. They are forced to make the sacrifices, but without the sense of call that would make those sacrifices bearable.
Under a Microscope
Many clergy kids feel like they are always watched more carefully than other kids. One study called this the “Glass House” phenomenon—they feel pressure from their parents and other church adults to be good examples in ways that their peers aren’t pressured. Even worse, their friends often stereotype them as goody-goodies, which they sometimes react violently against.
They also report that their parents put extra pressure on them to behave well for the sake of the church. It’s not hard to understand why parents might do this (Titus 1:6) or hard to understand why children might resent it and blame the church!
Affected by Church Conflict
Clergy children also talked about the effect of church conflict. The stories typically went like this: Dad and a church musician have a disagreement. Dad thinks the musician has said unfair things and he’s angry and hurt and venting to his wife about it. The children overhear and naturally take up the offense on the side of their father. The children are now angry with the musician. Dad, who works with the musician every week will eventually resolve the conflict. But what about the children? They never have the opportunity for resolution and are left holding the offense, often into adulthood. This resentment sometimes crystallizes into mistrust of the Church.
Competing with the Ministry for Parents’ Attention
Another frequently reported cause of resentment was competition with the church for parents’ attention. They battled with feeling like the church was more important to their parents than they were.
Mixed Messages About Their Role in the Church
In a sense, and even with the pressure to behave, clergy kids are treated like celebrities around church. Everyone knows their names, people are nice to them; they even get talked about from the pulpit. Many clergy children talk about feeling special around church.
Interestingly, this sometimes makes their participation in church youth programs difficult, when instead of treating them like celebrities, youth leaders expect them to actually behave better than the other children.
Here are five ways to help:
1) Talk to your children!
Ask your children how they feel about being pastor’s kids. Give them room to vent but don’t get defensive. Ask them about resentment and how they are treated and whether they feel like the church is more important to you than they are. In addition, deliberately teach your children about forgiveness, reconciliation, and handling resentment and help them practice.
2) Keep church conflict details private!
When venting about church conflict, take special care not to expose your children to the details (except in the most general sense: “Honey, sometimes even Christians disagree”). One of the duties of a clergy parent is protecting the reputation of Jesus’ Church in the mind of their children.
3) Shield your kids from the expectations of the church.
Another duty of the clergy parent is to protect the reputation of their children in the mind of the church. Try as much as possible to shield your children from the church’s expectations.
Be careful about using the church as a reason for discipline. Saying things like “How do you think it makes daddy look when you act like this…” makes the church the bad guy.
Some of the kids I interviewed reported that it had been helpful to them when their parents told them that they didn’t have to try to live up to clergy kid stereotypes.
4) Get your children involved in your ministry
Children who feel like they are a part of their parents’ ministry do better in dealing with the issues of resentment. I saw it in children who grew up in church plants, where there is a sort of “every hand on deck” mentality that requires the involvement of children and teenagers in meaningful ministry roles. Having age appropriate responsibility gives children some sense that they really are included in their parents’ ministry and helps to balance out resentment.
5) If your child is having trouble consider another church’s youth program
If your child is having trouble with the church’s attention, consider allowing them the freedom to be involved in another church’s youth programs. I know that this is a thorny issue, but participation in a group where they are just a regular kid can be a life (and faith) saver.
Raising godly children is hard—for anyone. It takes time, prayer, constant attention, and is messy, both figuratively and literally. For those of us in ministry, the difficulties are often compounded by our children’s resentment against the church. While every child, family, and church is different, the advice presented in this article offers a starting place for helping our children deal with resentment.
Finally, for those in the midst of struggles with your own clergy children, remember two things: First, God cares very much for you and your child. He has not forgotten you. He pays special attention to parental prayers. Second, extra grace is often required to balance out the extra pressure that clergy children experience.
The Rev. Cn. Steven Tighe is the Provincial Canon for Youth Ministry.