What pastors’ kids need from their parents

By Luke Campbell

Most of my memories from childhood involve waiting around an empty church. Since I was too young to be left at home, I would often be dragged there to sit around, probably playing Pokémon on the original grey brick Gameboy, while my dad prepared for a service or event.

One such day is seared into my mind: Dad sent me to the front of the sanctuary to do a sound check on the main mic; I intoned “Check, 1, 2 . . .” in my meek young voice. Dad smiled at me from the front, and my eyes roamed to the carpet in front of the stage where they fell on the wrinkled, grey face of a deceased elderly man in an open casket. I whimpered into the mic as my dad laughed from the sound booth, pleased with his well-executed prank – the kind only a pastor (or perhaps a mortician) could appreciate.

As I grew up in the church, I would sometimes hear a cynical aphorism about the destinies of the pastors’ kids, or as we were always (affectionately?) called: PKs. The saying – which always came from people with some experience in ministry – suggested that PKs will go down one of two paths: vocational ministry or alcohol misuse. The comment was usually offered as a joke, which I never found particularly funny. But it did cause me to reflect, especially as I matured: What was present in the ministry experience that would even give birth to such a statement? It would probably be too simplistic to suggest that being exposed to corpses was the cause.

I think the message of the comment is clear: Being a PK has the potential to polarize someone in relation to their faith.

Seeing behind the scenes

PKs have the unique opportunity to see behind the scenes of church and watch very real, very flawed people who are, hopefully, in the process of sanctification. We see our pastor parent(s) come home from board meetings discouraged and burned. We see them get sick following a church campaign; their immune systems wrecked from the stress of ensuring everything comes together while their parishioners and elders look on with critical eyes. We see them deal with frustrated congregants like they were in customer service. We see them cope with all of this in very normal, human ways.

Since the trials of ministry will most certainly come – and since PKs are always getting a glimpse behind the curtain – I believe that there is a deep need for pastors to ensure that they manage the challenges of ministry well because their children will be watching. Just as children learn from their parents in so many areas of life, they can certainly learn to be resilient in the face of the sometimes disappointing reality of church as they age. Your ability as pastor to be healthy mentally, emotionally, spiritually – even physically – in the midst of the challenges of church life may be the difference between a PK who sees church as a flawed, complex, but ultimately beautiful institution that is God’s plan for our point in history, or a broken, toxic organization filled with hypocrisy and pettiness that is a poor reflection of the character and purposes of God.

Your kids will see the trials, that is certain, but let them see you wrestle through those trials with the fruits of the Spirit, keeping in step with the Lord every inch. They see the struggles; let them see you cope through them in healthy and adaptive ways. They see you struggle with your calling – even your faith; let them see you come through the flames like gold refined. They see you make mistakes; let them see you repent and seek forgiveness and transformation. Because they will face the same trials, the same discouragements, the same obstacles. A part of your role is to model how to get through them well. Let us not mince words: Church can sometimes be a trial, a discouragement, an obstacle.

Work-life balance

With this in mind, a major part of managing these ministry challenges well, and demonstrating that you manage them well, is setting boundaries between work (yes, being a pastor is a job, albeit a unique one) and home. This is important for everyone to manage – their relationship between work and home. It is of paramount importance for pastors since the demands of ministry have a knack for bleeding into the home.

Remember, your primary identification isn’t as a pastor – you are first and foremost a follower of the Risen Christ. Let that journey shape your children, as it is lived out before them – defeats and victories all. Because that should be the journey you prepare them for: being a follower of Christ, not a pastor, not even a parishioner.

One of the striking things about being a PK is that you (hopefully) get to see the pastor when they “deactivate” pastor mode. They lounge on the couch in their pyjamas eating baked beans. They get angry at other drivers on the road or become impatient with poor service at a restaurant. Sometimes you even see them argue with their spouse. There is a certain amount of incongruence between the image of those conflicts and the has-it-all-together pastor, but a certain amount of dissonance – when appropriate, healthy and lawful – is crucial.

Learning from my pastor dad

When I was in university, my dad and I would go to a movie every Monday evening, with some exceptions. It was a sacred time, and we talked on the way there and back, often about frivolous things, and sometimes about serious things. Relationships. Marriage. And yes, sometimes ministry. But ministry itself was never the centre of our relationship. My dad, despite his deep commitment to Jesus and the church, never made everything about those things.

Often, he was simply Dad, and that was all I ever needed. Thankfully, that’s exactly what I got. In my eyes – and I mean this with the weight of all affection and good faith – he was a dad who moonlighted as a pastor. It was never the other way around. He had a thick, unbreakable boundary between work and home. Mondays were his day of dad-ness that he folded me into.

I watched my dad thrive through ministry, and I’ve watched him wrestle with incredible loss. I’ve also witnessed him come through that loss and out the other end in a healthier place of service in ministry. This is because when his title as pastor was stripped away from him, he wasn’t left without a designation. He remained my dad – and more so, he remained a follower of Jesus.

Returning to the aphorism, I suppose we proved them wrong: I am not a pastor, and I am not one to misuse alcohol. Both designations don’t stick.

I am simply and gratefully a follower of Jesus.

Thanks, Dad.


Luke Campbell is a counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada and a lifelong PK.

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