How to not bring up bitter ministry children

Mikey has posted helpfully on work and rest in ministry recently (while Al posted on play, generally). Mikey’s “ministry as lifestyle” framework is pretty on the money I reckon. But someone in this picture has to think of the children (he did respond (as did his wife) in the comments on that post with some wisdom).

I like claiming to be an expert on things based on my own personal experience. I’m not claiming to be unique here, just claiming that I have a possibly relevant insight as the “son of a preacher man” – if I can’t reach you, then what hope do you have? My dad is a minister at a fairly successful church, he would also somewhat unfairly be described as a (possibly reforming) workaholic. Both he, and my mum, invested their time pretty heavily into their ministry. It’s taken quite a few years for them to appear comfortable taking holidays (and now they can’t get enough of them – they’re currently blogging their way through Europe). I am not bitter, though I can’t speak for my sibblings, in fact I’m in the process of entering the family business… So if you’re in ministry and you’re asking “how do I get my kids to grow up not hating me for making sacrifices for ministry” then this might be a post for you. I don’t want to endorse everything my folks did, nor paint them as perfect parents the nature of raising a headstrong lad like myself meant there were plenty of “interesting” moments. But here are some things they did that I think were helpful (and some things I would change).

  1. Make sure your children know the eternal importance of the Gospel – this is a bit of a given, but it will help them to understand why you (possibly) gave up a much more exciting and lucrative career in order to tell people about Jesus. Frame it as a job of eternal significance. As a little kid there’s nothing cooler than thinking your parents are doing something as cool as the guy whose dad is a fireman or rocket scientist.
  2. Read the Bible together – I’m pretty sure mum and dad test drove some of their Sunday School material on us (including, if I remember our little Bible/craft folders they made for us – the Bible in Ten Easy Lessons/King, the snake, and the promise).  You want your children on board (especially as kids) and other kids will inevitably ask them hard questions running around after church.
  3. Everybody is looking at your family as standard bearers. Everything from the clothes they wear, the shows they watch on TV to how much they know is an area of comparison. And they’re fully aware that this is happening. Other kids tell them. It was my fault that my friends couldn’t watch the Bill, and I was used as a justification in another friend’s campaign to watch the Simpsons. Make it clear to your children that you don’t judge them like other people do, and discourage this paradigm.
  4. Involve your children in your ministry – ask them for feedback, listen, take their ideas on board – two of my proudest moments as a child are suggesting a lolly jar in church, and spotting something significant (a comparison between Psalm 23 and the feeding of the 5,000) that dad used in a sermon (with attribution). Developing some sort of sense of involvement (though a balance) is useful.
  5. Try not to talk about them too much – either in the context of your parenting, or in illustrations where they look silly. For a long time if you googled my name the top result was the text of one of dad’s sermons that said “Nathan Campbell has lost his shoes“…
  6. Make sure your children understand pastoral sensitivity – if you practice hospitality it’s likely your kids will overhear stuff they shouldn’t (especially in a small house with thin walls), or be involved in awkward moments. Don’t leave these unexplained – and make confidentiality a big deal.
  7. Encourage your children to get involved with their own ministries as they get older, let them know that this makes you proud. Don’t ever take their participation in church stuff for granted. Encourage them to participate as members and as leaders, and let them know that you like that they do.
  8. Be available – while your children will no doubt want to take advantage of your presence (probably for games of table tennis) take advantage of the fact that you work from home and recognise that your flexible hours free you up to say yes to doing some fun stuff during the day. Particularly do things that allow for conversation. Talk about theology stuff, answer questions, that sort of thing. This is one of the greatest privileges of being a preacher’s kid – you’ve got your minister on tap.
  9. Give your children access to visiting speakers who are staying with you – access to your own father is a plus, but access to a network of incredibly gifted guest speakers for your own post-event question time is without doubt one of the things I’ve appreciated most. I’ve shared a room with Chappo. I’ve picked the brains of guys like Mike Raiter, David Cook, and dad’s contemporaries, and once I played a game of table tennis with Leigh Trevaskis.
  10. Try not to make sacrifices on your children’s behalf in every area – One of the things I am the most bitter about is how frugal some decisions my parents made were (they once bought me brown shoes and black shoe paint for school – saving $5 on a pair of black shoes and forcing me to paint them fortnightly). For a long time, I attributed this to the terrible pay ministers get, in hindsight we probably sacrificed in some areas so that we could do extra-curricular stuff like sport and music… which has turned out to be pretty valuable.

On the whole I reckon mum and dad maintained a pretty good balance, we always had food on the table and the assurance of their love. In less lucid and more emotive moments I probably felt a bit ripped off by how much time (and other stuff) their ministry took away from me. But the more I understand point 1 the easier that is to forgive. It’s easy (as a kid) to watch how much time your parents are spending solving other people’s problems and how little they’re spending on yours. So I think it’s pretty important (as a parent) to know what’s going on for your kids and remember that they’re members of both your church and your family.

12 Comments How to not bring up bitter ministry children

  1. Stuart Heath

    Nathan, I knew I shouldn’t have clicked through. But I did. And I was angry enough to comment :P

    I think the biggest favour you can do your kids is to recognize that that ministry is a lifestyle for all of us: all of us are supposed to be serving Jesus with our whole lives, whether or not we’re paid by a church.

    A stipend’s not a licence for the kind of godlessness that you’d rebuke in someone doing any other kind of work.

  2. Al Bain

    It’s easy (as a kid) to watch how much time your parents are spending solving other people’s problems and how little they’re spending on yours.

    True.

    Same principle for husband and wife too.

    Rachel is a PK. I’m not. She can relate to your post much better than I can.

    I’m an idealist by nature and wonder why it is that the “Minister” and “ministers kids” ought be singled out for special treatment.

    And I wonder, in a general sense, if the same sorts of problems/challenges that you are talking about can be experienced by any kid who has a parent who overworks? I know as a lawyer it was very easy for me to work insane hours. As a church worker I can actually choose to work reduced hours, in comparison, and everyone is a winner. Particularly my kids.

    Another thing. If churches were smaller then I reckon Pastors would be less busy. So if we had as a norm a church of 80 – 100 with an understanding that there would then be a plant after that, stress levels may decrease and the minister” might be less relied on.

  3. Gav

    Thanks Nath. V helpful for us going into min with a young boy.

    Thanks stuart for your input too.

  4. Nathan Campbell

    Stuart,

    I don’t see how we disagree – I’m writing particularly about children of those in vocational ministry – I understand that we’re all called to be in ministry but I think you’re arguing from a construct that is still (for want of a better word) emerging – and I’m arguing from my experience. So we’re always going to be at slightly cross purposes.

    The reality is that if you are in a family paid by a church members of that church have certain (unwarranted) expectations about how you, as a child, should behave. The children of ministers are still sinful humans and I don’t think their buy in to the sacrifice of ministry should ever be taken for granted.

    Al,

    I’m an idealist by nature and wonder why it is that the “Minister” and “ministers kids” ought be singled out for special treatment.

    Ideally they shouldn’t, but like I said to Stuart – I’m really writing from my experience of reality here rather than how I think things should be. We can do all we like to “educate” people on how they should be thinking about ministry and the children of those in ministry, but you become a yardstick of sorts. I don’t want to keep banging on about Driscoll (I actually like the guy) but I worry that it’s really easy to talk up your pudding with no proof. His kids are young, the oldest is a tween, from my experience the kind of pressure he puts on his kids by constantly talking about them has the potential to be pretty unhelpful. It’ll be fine, as long as they stay perfect.

    I guess part of the singling out comes from the sometimes helpful notion that those of us who end up in ministry may have a responsibility to call on people to imitate us as we imitate Christ…

    I wonder, in a general sense, if the same sorts of problems/challenges that you are talking about can be experienced by any kid who has a parent who overworks?

    The problems, yes, the solutions though are very different. I can’t see any of the things on that list that would work for the children of lawyers – unless you make them your office juniors or something.

    If churches were smaller then I reckon Pastors would be less busy. So if we had as a norm a church of 80 – 100 with an understanding that there would then be a plant after that, stress levels may decrease and the minister” might be less relied on.

    I agree, in principle, though I think there’s something about the “lifestyle of sacrifice” that requires a little bit of effort to make sure the kids are willing to be part of that sacrifice.

    If your kids desperately wanted you to quit your ministry would you? I didn’t cop a whole lot of bullying for being a PK at school – I was a little too quick witted for that (and too busy being bullied for being too quick witted) – but there is a fair bit of baggage that comes from being known to be the preacher’s kid (especially in a regional area where everybody knows and is just waiting for a slip up).

    I don’t want to sound like some sort of martyr here – I actually love being a preachers kid. I just promised to write this in response to Mikey’s post.

  5. Al Bain

    I can’t see any of the things on that list that would work for the children of lawyers – unless you make them your office juniors or something.

    I was thinking more of the “availability” aspect and the tendency of kids to see their parents investing in people other than them.

    You don’t come across as a martyr. And your comments which apply to Stuart and me are spot on.

    If your kids desperately wanted you to quit your ministry would you?

    A very real issue for many missionaries who come back to Australia on furlough. I think we need to allow “yes” to be an OK answer.

  6. Nathan Campbell

    Hey Al,

    Sorry, yeah, I think the availability issue applies. I think it’s easier (for the Christian) to justify not being available for your kids as part of the “sacrifice”… I think it’s wrong to do it… but easier.

    I agree that the answer should be yes. Which is why I think it’s really important (if you want to stay in ministry) to almost think of your kids as part of your ministry team who need to constantly be won over to your ministry vision. Or something. With terms of engagement regularly renegotiated.

  7. Nathan Campbell

    I’ve got no idea how that last idea would work in practice, but I kind of like it.

  8. Stuart Heath

    My beef is with the insistent use of the language of ‘in ministry’ for someone who’s paid by a church. It always implies that the rest of us aren’t in ministry. But why do I teach English for a (relatively low-paid) living, rather than taking up a church/Christian publishing job? It’s so that I can do ministry: I work alongside unbelievers; I get to love unbelievers all the time in a range of ways. And the hours are manageable so that I can love my biological and church families properly.

    (I recognize that this is only possible because I don’t require a big mortgage. I wouldn’t be able to work cheaply if we needed to borrow $500K for a house.)

    Meanwhile, I can’t stand ethics which are merely idealistic. If I make an ethical suggestion that can’t work in the real world, I want to go back and change my suggestion — not pretend that the real world’s not there.

    So I’m sure for some people reading your blog, they’re in a situation where their church job description is encouraging them into ungodliness. I know it’s counter-cultural, but I think that’s untenable. I think they need to change how they work so that they can lead by example, not just word. For others, though, whose job descriptions aren’t that bad, I don’t think it’s enough to say, “Here’s how you can minimize the damage for your kids while you work in a broken system.” I think we need to say, “Change the system.”

    I think almost all the points on your list (except 5, 9, and to a lesser extent 3) are all applicable to people who run their own business. They have to juggle this kind of thing the whole time. So perhaps paid church-workers could get some advice from small-business owners on how to manage time.

  9. Leigh

    Hi Nathan,

    I can vaguely remember that ping pong game…

    Though we’re all in ministry (Hi Heath), whether we like it or not it seems that a stigma is more likely to attach to kids of those paid by the Church r.t. a law firm. I don’t feel that this has to be so. But unless some thought is put into the raising of kids within the context of paid Christian ministry (like the stuff Nathan suggests) some kids may struggle with their upbringing. For example, someone told me the other day that there is a culture within some Pressie circles to take the kids to Assembly for the week while they’re on holidays. Fun eh?

    Leigh

  10. queenstuss

    I’m not a ministry kid, but I am married to one.

    He’s turned out okay.

    My father-in-law is a workaholic. No matter what job he was doing he would have been working too hard. Even when he was a lecturer (both at a Bible College and a University) he still worked too many hours. My mother-in-law is over generous. No matter what line of work they were in, the kids would have still missed out on a lot of things that their friends did. They turned all three of their boys away from the church, at least temporarily. The middle brother still isn’t interested. (But has a lot of people praying for him.) My father-in-law left the ministry because he felt his eldest son in particular had gone too far off the rails.

    I say this because a) I think you’ve got a useful list, Nathan b) they are useful principles for anyone. Don’t work so hard that you push your kids away. It’s incredibly easy to do, especially if you are in a line of work that can be never-ending.

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