When I was a kid growing up in church, my dad was the worship leader, and one of my best friends, Josh, was the senior pastor’s kid. When we were in about 2nd or 3rd grade, a guest speaker came through our church and told a story I don’t remember about pastors’ kids. What I do remember is that he said with a smile, “The preacher’s kid is always the worst kid in town, right?” Josh and I turned to each other with raised eyebrows. We didn’t realize this was an expectation we were supposed to meet. We reorganized our priorities immediately. Mayhem ensued.
When I became a youth pastor, both my senior pastor’s daughters were in our youth group. They were lovely, brilliant, funny, wonderful people. Really, they were. But one of the things I look back on in 20 years of youth ministry with some uneasiness is the way I handled having the two of them in youth group.
They didn’t have it easy. We live in a small Missouri Ozarks town where everyone knew they were the pastor’s daughters. While our local church was fairly open and accepting of all kinds of people, our denomination was working its way painfully through emerging from a history of “Conservative Holiness Movement” legalism. My boss was known to some as the leader of “that church where they compromise to get bigger numbers,” or even less charitable criticism. His family’s speech, wardrobe choices, hair length, and sleeve length were commented on unflatteringly at times. Their every move was analyzed and criticized. Sometimes I even piled on with the criticism, not realizing how injurious it was (though my criticisms were more about their imperfect youth group attendance or their not volunteering for something).
I’ve thought several times that I’d do some things differently with them if I were granted a mulligan. But then when I think about it again, I decide I’d do it yet another way entirely. Then I decide all those ideas are terrible. So I got some help thinking it through.
I got input from a few friends of mine: PKs (pastors’ kids) who are now youth pastors or otherwise serve in church.
I’m going to have conversations with some other pastors’ kids on this, because I want to learn more from their stories. There’s an urgency here. Our new associate pastor has some kids in youth group this year. One of the above-mentioned senior pastor’s daughters now has her own son in our youth group. Next fall for the first time I’ll have one of my own in youth group: our daughter Laura. I really don’t want to mess this up. So I’ll keep learning.
In the meantime, I’d like to share what I’ve learned. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
I met JayLee at a DYM conference in the fall of 2022. We started talking about this topic while waiting in a food line, and I asked her if she could jot down a few thoughts. She went above and beyond, and gave me a wealth of insight. (You can catch JayLee’s popular TikTok Series “Things People Get Wrong About Christianity” at @jayjaysapphire)
- PKs have abandonment issues. Be a consistent person in their life.
- PKs are lonely. Many of them think their friends are only their friends because of who their parents are. Help them make connections.
- Give them a space to vent or pour out. PKs are flooded with the drama, gossip, and secrets of others.
- Be careful and kind with reprimanding.
- Some PKs need a voice. Help them feel safe to express themselves and speak freely.
- Help them find their own relationship with God.
- Maybe give them something that they can use if they’re stuck spending tons of time at church. (My youth pastor gave me an adult coloring book).
- MAKE INSIDE JOKES!! This connects the two of you, and also gives them something to look forward to.
- Treat them too differently. Some like special treatment. Many don’t.
- Only talk about life within the church.
- Bring up their pastor parent too often.
- Assume they have the exact same beliefs and worldview as their parents. (My parents and I are very different.)
- Be surprised when they make a (possibly cutting) joke at your expense.
- Take their jokes too seriously. (Some pastors can take a joke from literally everyone except their own kid.)
JayLee also mentioned that most PKs have some form of religious or family trauma. They are forced to be a part of a family and represent both the family and the church. They feel constantly watched and judged. Many PKs abandon the faith altogether. PKs need to feel safe, secure, heard, understood, and treated like their faith is their own (not just their parents’ faith).
Seth is the son of Travis Sayler, one of my best friends in ministry. His dad was the pastor of their small church, and also the youth leader. Poor Seth and his brothers couldn’t escape their dad! They seem to have turned out okay in spite of it. Here’s what he had to say:
- I think it’s important to help them establish their faith independently from their parents. They need to learn and read and discover for themselves just like everyone else.
- It is important that they have a trusted confidant that they can confess to. Since my dad fulfilled the role of both pastor and youth pastor, as well as other leadership roles such as coach, I can attest to how difficult it can be to confess your shortcomings to such an important person in your life. It is important that pastors’ kids develop that kind of accountability relationship with other people.
- Just make it known that you are available, but don’t be pushy.
Deborah Spooner is the student ministry director at Mariners Church in Huntington Beach, CA (another campus of the student ministry team that includes Doug Fields and Josh Griffin). She contributed these thoughts:
- Don’t push PKs into leadership. If they’re interested, encourage and equip. But let them take the initiative.
- Don’t share too much insider info. Let them just be youth group students who don’t feel pressured to protect the brand.
Deborah’s last thought here is so important. I’ve had terrible judgment in this area at times. Sometimes pastors are as guilty of the sin of gossip as anyone, especially when we’re around people we consider to be “on the inside.” Don’t sin against pastors’ kids by making them listen to your gossip. Also, don’t burden them unnecessarily with heavy issues – this can contribute to their becoming disillusioned and jaded with church life. They’ll see enough on their own.
Ella Oliver is the daughter of my good friend Kevin Oliver, a DYM author and longtime youth pastor. Ella is now serving in youth ministry as well. I’m planning to creepily follow Kevin around and steal all his parent-pastoring secrets, because Ella is awesome. Ella agreed with several of the above tips, and added these:
- Don’t expect them to serve, stay late, or offer a hand constantly! Every person should serve – we are called to be servants – but help them find their place. Don’t expect that because they’re at the church they are there to work. (Comment from another PK: they might just be stuck at the church because they can’t get their parents to take them home.)
- Don’t make them feel bad for not being there for a week (but if missing church becomes consistent, check in and ask about their personal life (school, sports, friends, etc.))
Rachel Painter is one of my best friends in the world. We’ve worked together on a ton of ministry projects and played a lot of music together in a lot of places. Our kids call her “Auntie Rachel.” She’s a counselor who specializes in working with traumatized children and teens. I’ll share her thoughts here last.
I’ll start off by saying that I think that I’ve been fortunate not to have had some of the more harrowing (in the category of “religious trauma”) experiences that perhaps other PKs have had. I feel remarkably fortunate to have been raised in the family I was, with the parents I had. I was never made to feel that church/my dad’s work was more important than I was (or our family was).
In talking to other PKs/MKs (ed. note: MK=missionary’s kid), I know this wasn’t always their experience. I remember hearing a quote(s) from Billy Graham once, where he was giving advice to some young pastors/evangelists, and one thing he told them (essentially) was, “Don’t neglect your first ministry: your family.” I can’t tell you how beautiful and important this is. I’m fortunate to have been raised in a home where this was lived out.
Further, I didn’t have the experience that [the two senior pastor’s daughters mentioned at the beginning of this article] had of being raised in a more legalistic/works-based denomination and church. I see the effects of that mindset, pressure, and the need to perform or be “perfect” on many pastors’ kids.
I personally don’t recall that anything any of my youth leaders/pastors did was inappropriate or made me feel “other than.” But I would just say that IN GENERAL, people both in and out of the church do tend to treat you differently as a PK (or MK). You are placed on a pedestal and generally feel more watched – expectations are higher. You’re given the “goodie two-shoes” label, other kids treat you differently, and the loneliness is very real. So in general, I agree with your friends’ advice: treat them like any other kid who is inevitably going to have struggles (with faith or otherwise) and who also needs a safe place to just “be.” Let them develop their own authentic faith.
I will say that the loneliest part of being a PK was when we were going through church conflict, and I watched the character or competence of my dad challenged, and watched the deep pain of the way he was treated by persons in the church. My dad isn’t a fighter, so when accusations or mistreatment would come, he would take it and bow out, rather than cause further church splits and discord. The alienation you feel when you are suddenly separated from your worshiping body, and one of your primary forms of support – THIS was the hardest part of a being a PK for me. That didn’t have anything to do with how a youth pastor treated me/us. This was just a part of being in fellowship with sinful and flawed human beings (and the pain in general of ministry).
Rachel’s last phrase: “…the pain in general of ministry…” – too many pastors’ kids know exactly what that feels like. When they’re experiencing pain and stress due to the church, be a safe person for them. Keep their confidences, and don’t use them as leverage in any way whatsoever. Also, be very hesitant to “tell on them” to their minister parent. Do your best to patiently and lovingly deal with any issues yourself. They’re dealing with enough.
Let’s wrap up with some good news: if you mess it up, it doesn’t have to be final. Both the pastor’s daughters mentioned at the beginning of this article remain dear friends of ours today. Their kids and our kids are good buddies. Thank God there is grace for imperfect youth pastors!
So what would you add? Do you have comments on the above? Disagree with anything here? Let’s learn together how to serve PKs, and by extension how to serve our coworkers in ministry, and by further extension how to better serve the Body of Christ.
Jim Purtle is married to an incandescently radiant math teacher named Cindy. They have four small children. Those children occasionally make Jim and Cindy very proud, and sometimes make them pray fervently for the children’s future sanctification. Jim has been in full-time youth ministry at the same church in rural Missouri since 2002, and feels like he might be starting to figure out how to do it. He’s made a ton of mistakes, and is willing to tell anyone who will listen how not to do youth ministry! He’s really glad he doesn’t have Jesus’ job – but he’s also really glad Jesus called him to be part of His Kingdom.
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