14 Realities of Being a Preacher’s Kid

I was a PK for most of my childhood. When I was born my father was a Southern Baptist minister in training, He would start pastoring his own church before I developed a longterm memory, and only ever stopped to finish Seminary, and even then was pastoring most of the time that he was also in school.

It could be just me, but it seems like there are many aspects of life as a PK that are rather unique to the “position”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but these realities of my own upbringing probably don’t translate over to other kids whose fathers went to a so-called “normal” job. I know they don’t translate to my own children, and I’m also fairly certain that most other careers don’t become such a part of kids’ lives the way that a preacher does.

I want to make one thing clear: I am NOT complaining about my poor childhood as a PK. I think I turned out okay, and I bear my father no bitterness about his career. In fact, I’m a member of his church today, as is my wife. I’m writing this post mainly for nostalgic and comedic purposes. That is, I was thinking about it, and thought others might get a kick out of reading about it. If some of it sounds like complaining, let me assure you that while I find some aspects frustrating, I still overall think I had a pretty good upbringing. If you were a PK yourself, or a PGK like my wife and kids are (guess what the G stands for), you might agree with much that’s on this list. If you’re not, you might still get a bit of a chuckle.

14: You learn the word “secular” and assume it means “not godly”. Chances are pretty good that you rarely or even never heard the word “secular” growing up. You might not even hear it much, if at all, today. Secular is defined as “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” In other words, anything that is spiritually or religiously neutral. Since most things in today’s world likely qualify, you probably have no need of the word “secular” in your daily life, and honestly, that may even be true if you attend church. If you were a church-attender as a child, I would say the chances of the word “secular” being a regularly spoken word in your house was slim to none. I know for a fact that many of the kids I went to church with didn’t know the word at all. If you were a pastor’s kid, you likely heard it every week. In my house, for example, recording artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, MC Hammer or Metallica all fell under one big heading: secular music. For some reason, music was where the word was most heavily applied. When I was younger, there was a pretty strict rule that “secular” music was not allowed in the house, and even after my parents relaxed a little bit on that rule, they still put anything “secular” through a rigorous screening process looking for any hint of inappropriate material, and even then the radio was NOT allowed. By the time I was 13, I had decided that “secular” meant “ungodly” and actually thought of secular music as somehow lesser than Christian music, and not just in meaning but in artistry. Or, to put it another way, I was the reverse of most kids, seeing Petra or Michael W. Smith as “normal” music and the music my friends listened to as borderline pornography. Borderline pornography that I had an intense desire to listen to myself.

13: You pick up on all the repeated things your father does in services. I heard several sermons more than once growing up. One that sticks out is one about the lame man who was healed and began “hopping and leaping and praising God”, which, if you didn’t grow up in church, and maybe even if you did, you won’t know is from a song. But moreover, I could dictate what Dad was going to say multiple times. I knew, for example, that the sermon had really, truly begun, when Dad would invite the congregation to “take your bibles, if you will…” He changed that later in life and mixed it up more (“turn with me in your bibles”; “let’s open our bibles”), but he said that so many times while I was growing up that it now seems odd when he doesn’t say it. Also, whenever he would perform a baptism, he would always say the same thing as the recently-saved person would leave the baptistry: “Buried with Him in baptism, rising to walk in newness of life.” He would always stress the word “walk”, which I used to think meant he was admonishing them not to run in church (like my mother often did me).

12: Your dad is at home way more often, but then, he’s never really NOT at work. There’s a misconception that pastors work only one day a week, or possibly two days if the person understands that pastors usually actually prepare their sermon in advance. At the very least, they seem to think that the job of a pastor involves less work than a normal job. And, a casual observation of my family during my childhood might even seem to confirm this myth. And it is a myth; being a pastor not only isn’t a job that involves less work than, say, an accountant, it actually involves MUCH MORE work. To be honest, Dad was never really off the clock, even when he was supposed to be, such as family movie night, or meal times. Our phone would ring randomly at any hour of the day (or night), and Dad NEVER let the machine get it if he could help it, because he knew it was most likely someone who needed to talk to their pastor. Some bosses have an “open door” policy. Dad had an open LIFE policy, and more than once got up in the middle of the night to go visit someone in the hospital or meet with a wife who had just left her abusive husband, or who knows what. True, Dad didn’t spend a set amount of ours at his church office, but my dad was also involved in a lot of church planting, which meant working from home. We always had a home office for Dad, which was lined with books, and this impressed me because when we did have a church with an office for Dad, he had tons of books there, as well. So, yeah, Dad spent some time at home, but he spent much of it working. And it didn’t seem to matter what was going on, Dad was always at work to some degree or another. This was a bit hard to explain to other kids, who all seemed to be under the impression that my father never had a real job. Even with adults, it often turned out that…

11. Being asked what your dad does was an awkward situation. This was true on at least two levels. It was both because the nature of his work was hard to explain and because most people felt like they knew what it entailed, even if they weren’t church attenders. First, it is not possible to explain that your father is a minister without people starting to ask you odd questions about your faith, and what you believe in, etc. As an adult, I welcome these questions (which, strangely, don’t get asked much anymore) but as a kid I dreaded them, because I wasn’t sure how to explain my faith to an “unchurched” person. I always felt like they wouldn’t understand church terminology, which I was steeped in, and yeah, I always felt a little bit like I was being made fun of. Yes, even by adults. This was especially true when the adult in question (such as a friend’s parent or something) was a militant atheist. I also got asked a lot if Dad’s job was basically just showing up on Sunday to deliver a sermon, and nothing else. Even worse, most people acted floored when I told them that, no, Dad did quite a bit more than that. I’m sure most kids have been asked by adults what their parents do, but I’m reasonably sure that other jobs don’t have the adult asking all kinds of follow-up questions, each of which makes the kid less comfortable, both in the assumptions the questions often make (“So, I guess you pretty much live at church, right?” “Are you home-schooled?”) and the distinct tone of incredulity in their voice as they ask more questions.

10. You’re at every church event, even those not meant for you. Ah, the memories of getting up early on a Saturday to head to church for a picnic, which, naturally, I was to help set up for. Or how about those summer programs, or Serve the Community Day, the latter of which I always seemed to be the only kid to show up for (other than my brother)? In fact, a great majority of church events, be they special dinners, special services, choir practices, business meetings, etc. were attended by my brother and myself over the years, and in most cases, we were the only kids there. We went to funeral services for people we’d never met. We were there at adult Bible studies. Well before I was in the youth group myself I was at youth events. I even ended up at a youth camp at one point, despite being only 9 or 10, and yes, I mean as one of the campers. One event, which I barely remember except feeling like a complete sore thumb, was for senior citizens, and yet there I was, all of about eleven or twelve years old. Now, I don’t mean that my brother and I went to a nearby room and hung out or did homework while the event went on. We were there, dressed up, sitting with the adults and you better believe we were expected to pay attention. This was especially true at special services, such as one at my father’s Seminary, which had four sermons, all delivered by old men who were afflicted with “Southern Preacher Syndrome”, which is a tendency to confuse good preaching with long preaching. This expectation that his sons would attend whatever event he was at stayed with my father until I was nearly grown and moved out. When I was fifteen, he dragged me along on a Men’s Prayer Retreat, which my brother got to miss out on because he wasn’t quite old enough. Needless to say, I was the only teenager there. One other man had brought his son, but the son in this case was over twenty, which to a fifteen year old might as well be 45. In fact, I was at so many church events, that after a while…

9. You begin to feel like an employee of the church yourself. At least, without the best part, which is getting paid. At most or all of the aforementioned church events, particularly the ones like meals, serve days or “fun” days, my parents, and therefore my brother and I, were usually among the first to show up and absolutely the last to leave. My brother and I were naturally expected to pitch in and help, whatever was going on, and yes, even if we probably shouldn’t have been at the event in the first place. There’s a comedian named Tim Hawkins, who likes to talk about how in church, telling someone they have a servant’s heart actually means “start stacking chairs.” I laughed probably a little harder at this than a lot of people might, because I have MANY memories involving chair-stacking, or setting up/breaking down tables. But then, plenty of other church members were there, too, and they weren’t employed by the church, either. So why did we feel like church employees that weren’t paid? Well, for one thing, there were plenty of times that just our family would be there, either cleaning up inside the church, vacuuming, dusting, etc., and even when others were there, my brother and I knew there was a difference; that they were there by choice, whereas we had to be there. And, as with so much else, we often were the only kids. In those situations, we thought the other adults were looking at us funny and wondering why we were there. I had no idea at the time that it would have looked far stranger if we had stayed home.

8. Sundays are the strangest, often hardest, days. For your average kid, Sunday is another day to sleep in, maybe later in the day finish whatever homework you didn’t finish either on Friday or Saturday, and spend the evening snarking because tomorrow you go back to school. You might watch a little TV or go to a friend’s house. For a church kid, it’s basically the same except you might, mind you I said might, get up a bit earlier and spend a couple of hours at church. For the pastor’s kid(s), Sunday is probably your busiest, most stressful day of all. I would wager that it’s more stressful even than it is for other churchgoers even if those churchgoers have kids themselves. For a PK, Sunday means getting to church very early and standing around like a doofus for at least half an hour before others start showing up. You are intensely aware how awkward you look when they finally do show up and you end up being the unofficial greeter. After that, you’re at that building until around 1:30. This means Sunday School, church service and then standing around while your parents talk to every single parishioner (we just called them the church members) and then we would help Mom and Dad do some minor cleanup, taking the coffee/tea supplies back to the kitchen, etc., and then making sure all the doors were locked. After that, the protocol would change here and there. Sometimes we would go home for lunch, or go to a restaurant, but if it was the latter, it was usually because there was a special guest we were taking out to eat, and that mean maintaining church behavior. If a church member had invited us over, it was strict church behavior plus lack of surrounding distractions, plus feeling like we were under a microscope (my brother and I, at least, not my parents) and possibly being served something we would have to pretend we liked, which I have a hard time doing even as an adult. Sometimes it meant having someone over to our place, which did have the benefit of familiar surroundings, but still required church behavior. Over the years, my brother and I came to really value our Sunday afternoon meals at home with no company, even if Mom literally served roast beef every time (which I got very tired of as a kid, but love today). Sunday afternoon, once we got home, assuming we didn’t go home to eat, might be more restful, except for a few issues, like: there was still homework to do, and this was usually when we did it, even though we didn’t get the rest in the morning other kids did, plus we were not allowed to watch TV or listen to music that wasn’t Christian, even if we had finished our homework, not to mention that we still had evening church (at least up until I was about 17), which meant that we spent the entire day in our church clothes. Speaking of, I don’t know how many times it would happen that we might spend part of the afternoon with a church family that might have kids our age, meaning we could play around the neighborhood with them. Because we had come directly from church, we’d still be in our church clothes, even while the other kids were dressed in normal street clothes. We felt about ten kinds of absurd playing in slacks and cuffs (and sometimes, ties).

7. You will end up being mentioned in sermons. Both by name and just by implication, my father worked stories about my brother and I into his sermons. Sometimes he’d actually say which son he was talking about. Other times, he would just mention “a certain redhead” which unfailingly had church members coming up to my brother or myself asking if the story was about me or him. The stories could sometimes be cute, or funny. Often they were embarrassing. I was mostly embarrassed whenever Dad would tell a story about me and get details wrong in ways that made me look stupid or immature. For example I remember once after having watched a religious cartoon, I found a flaw in its theology, which focused heavily on how much God loves everyone, even mean or spiteful people, but never talked about repentance for said mean or spiteful behavior. I was about 11 years old, but even at that age it bothered me that the cartoon stressed God’s love so much with no mention of repentance that it almost seemed to suggest that we’re all perfect the way we are and have no need to turn from evil ways. Dad was impressed with my insight, but when he told that story in a sermon, he changed the details. He suggested that I actually went to him and asked “So, Dad, if God loves us just the way we are, does that mean we never have to repent or turn from evil?” And when told no, I supposedly said “Well, that cartoon said it.” I went from being a kid insightful beyond my years to a little moron who questioned biblical truths because cartoons said so. I was not happy.

6. Everyone forgets your name. You’re just “Pastor So-and-So’s kid.” This gets more common the older you get, for some reason. Everyone wants to know the name of the pastor’s cute little baby, toddler or five-year-old, but even there, if he has a brother close to the same age, he’ll get called by that name, too. Even as an adult, I’m asked if I’m the one that plays the guitar, if I’m the one that just became a first-time father recently (I’m asked this with my twelve-year-old right beside me sometimes) or if I’m the one who lives up north, even though I’m there every Sunday. Everywhere I go within the church community, the shadow of my father looms. People I’ve never met will hear my last name and ask if I’m my father’s son. After I admit that I am, we then for some reason talk about nothing but him for a while. People I’ve known for years but haven’t seen for a while will talk to me for several minutes straight, usually asking me to say hi to my father, but will then say “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.” Sometimes they’ll call me by his name, or think that his first name is my last name. For example, if my father’s name was Wallace (it’s not), people would refer to me as Josh Wallace. But that’s as an adult, as a kid between the ages of 10 to teenager-dom, we didn’t even get asked our names half the time. We didn’t need names. We were “the preacher’s boys”. The only difference was I was “the big one” and my brother was “the little one.”

5. In a majority of situations, you are expected to not act like a child. I’m sure that every PK reading this is nodding their head right now. I know most kids have the odd situation where they’re told to be on their best behavior, but for a PK, multiply that by a factor of ten. I mentioned “church behavior” earlier. I didn’t really explain what that meant, but it means that you act as though you are a perfect child. No, worse; act as though you are an adult, and a particularly saintly one at that. It doesn’t just mean watching your mouth and sitting up straight. It means no getting silly, no staring off into space, no singing or even idly humming anything but church music, not even acting like you wanted to fidget, pretending you weren’t tired and needing a break even though you really did, pretending to love food that you hate, etc. And doing this on Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon if we were in other company, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening or anywhere that I might go with either of my parents. This wasn’t entirely my parents’ fault, of course, because as any pastor reading this knows, pastoral families get judged more harshly than other families for any lapses, and these lapses can include having kids that behave like kids. If your kid is a teenager, it’s a little easier to impress on them the importance of trying to keep in line (but can make you want even more to step out of line as a result). As a kid, it just means you wonder why you’re not allowed to get involved in impromptu games of tag your friends have started in the church foyer. Of course, once you get older, it’s also worse because…

4. Everyone unfailingly thinks you must be extremely religious. And maybe you are, compared to other kids. But not all PK’s want to be thought of as hyper-religious goody-two-shoes, and I certainly didn’t. Understand; I don’t mean people thought I was a spiritual kid, and I wasn’t. But people assumed that I was religious, which is more about strict observance of external practices than it was about spiritualism or faith. I’ve never cared for religion. Don’t get me wrong; I have faith, I believe in God, and I definitely am still a Christian. But I was never a very religious person, and in fact, people who place too heavy an emphasis on the “religious” aspects of Christianity have always bothered me. But frequently in my childhood, I would run into people who just naturally assumed that I was a very religious person, and often who would be very surprised to learn that, no, I don’t know the Bible backward and forward, no, I don’t necessarily love singing hymns, no, I am not a goody-two-shoes who never swears or laughs at off-color jokes, no, I’m not easily offended, no I don’t necessarily only read/listen to/watch religious stuff, etc. As an adult, I watch shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, and I love ’em. I listen to rock music (actually, I listen to a great variety of music, both Christian and secular). I read, and write, fantasy and horror. My brother is actually the front man for a local rock band. This throws a lot of people for a loop. After all, shouldn’t a pastor’s son be hyper-focused on their religion? Well, no. However, that doesn’t stop people from assuming…

3. You’re an example, one way or the other, to the other church kids. Oh dear. The dreaded E-word. My parents expected me to “set an example” and warned me that I would be an example either way. Sunday school teachers and youth leaders talked about my “example” as well. Basically, it’s expected that your behavior will set the example the other kids will follow. If you’re perfect, they’ll be closer to perfect. If you’re bad, they’ll be bad. This is a ton of pressure to put on a child, but literally every adult in my life expected it of me. I probably got this a bit worse than even my brother, because I was the older one, and also because he was generally better behaved. This was probably one of the biggest causes of some of the other expectations on this list, such as that I wouldn’t act like a child or was abnormally religious. Unfortunately, it also often meant that I took blame for other kids’ behavior, even if they were older than me. And it didn’t help at all that…

2. The other church kids think of you as a narc. There’s a song by a little-known Christian rock group called “DA” (it stands for Daniel Amos) which is titled “Hide the beer, the Pastor’s Here!” Yeah, well, among church kids, it was more like “put away your Walkmans and stop telling that dirty joke, the pastor’s kid is here!” More than once I remember conversations stopping when I walked into a room. This was mostly after I became a teenager, but it happened a few times as a child as well. It wasn’t constant, but it happened enough to be hurtful, as did the number of times I would hear someone say “I wait, I can’t say that, Josh is listening” or even “cover your ears, Josh” or “Don’t tell your dad I said that.” This would usually be a dirty joke or sex talk (I’m sure some of the kids might have been sexually active, but not nearly as many as the ones who talked about it). They, again, probably assuming I was a goody-two-shoes religious boy, apparently thought I would “report” on them to my father! They apparently had no idea that I wanted to be included in their sex talk, “worldly” music, etc. not because I was a little pervert (at least no more than your average teenaged boy) but because I desperately wanted to feel like just a normal kid. When I would try things like tell dirty jokes or talk about dirty things myself, or try and learn lyrics to popular songs to prove I listened to them as well, the other kids would assume I was a “try-hard” or that I was putting on a personality in order to win them over. And they were right, but not for the reasons they assumed. Most of them probably assumed I was judging them, regardless of whether or not they thought I would tell my dad. It may have also contributed to my pathological need to be liked which drove away so many people. And then, there’s the adult version of that:

1. You’re constantly asked if you’re going to follow your father’s career path. This might be less true if you’re a pastor’s daughter, but even they probably get this to some degree. I don’t know how many times I was asked if I was going to be a preacher when I grew up. All I know is, it was a lot. Sometimes other kids would ask me, but mostly it was adults who assumed it to be true. Of course he’s going to be a preacher! He’s a preacher’s son! It’s all he knows, or something! I’m pretty sure lawyer’s sons aren’t asked if they’re going to be lawyers when they grow up, or, if they are (same for any other career), these questions stop when the person reaches their late teens. Not with me, though, at least among church members. I was asked even as a 16-year-old if I was going to be a minister myself. Reactions when I said no were genuinely baffled. I mean, it was like they never expected I might have other goals in mind. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure if my brother got this to the same degree, but it could have been because he was younger and therefore fewer people focused on what he wanted to do when he grew up. I’ll have to ask him if he remembers anyone asking him this. But this came back to my mind recently when a man I went to church with from ages 14-16 came to visit Dad at the church he now pastors and I attend. Now, it was pretty clear that I was a member of this church, as I was standing at the visitor information desk with my wife. It was also obvious that I was not on the ministerial staff at this church because this man sat through two services in which all I did was sit and listen. Nevertheless, he asked me if I had followed in Dad’s footsteps and become a minister myself. And yes, his face displayed shock when I told him no.


2 thoughts on “14 Realities of Being a Preacher’s Kid

  1. Daniel says:

    Wow, couldn’t be more true, thank you for being blunt and honest about clergy family life, I especially agree with the show up early and look like a dufuse, and where you’re a sermon illustration… such a good article thanks for writing

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