Growing up in a pastor’s home

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(During my 13 years as a pastor in Wheaton, Illinois, eight of our members, including one of my daughters, heard God’s call in their lives, went to seminary, and pursued ordination so that they could serve the church of Jesus Christ as pastors. It was an extraordinary season of ministry, one that still astonishes me.  One of those eight, Ericka Parkinson Kilbourne, is now a Presbyterian pastor in Michigan City, Indiana. She did her theological studies at Princeton Seminary, where she won the Jagow prize in homiletics and speech. Today, she is a mother of three, and like me she is a blogger. Recently she asked me to reflect in a guest blog on the dual vocations of pastor and father. Here’s what I wrote.)

If we had listened to every horror story about the difficulties of raising children in a pastor’s home,
we would have made the decision to remain childless – and felt pretty good about it.

Everyone who talked to us seemed to know of at least one situation in which a child, raised in the
wretched fish bowl of a pastor’s home, reacted in extreme and scary ways – including drug abuse,
petty crime, mental illness, and juvenile detention.

And now that I think about it, that’s odd because every person I know who grew up in a pastor’s
home has been a remarkably good and loving person.

My best friend during my teenage years was the son of a pastor, and life at his house always seemed
pretty normal to me. They didn’t sing hymns together around the piano every night, which I half
expected and which I definitely would have rebelled against. Instead, his dad occasionally enjoyed a
cold beer in the evenings.

Nothing in that household ever seemed alarming to me, but I might have missed something.

Anyway, I became a father while serving my first church after seminary, and the church responded
generously and thoughtfully to the birth. I was regularly overwhelmed by it. And because the
biological grandparents lived hundreds of miles away, dozens more at the church were more than
willing to take their place. Plus, a pool of reliable babysitters could always be found in the church’s
youth group. If anything, raising children in the church always seemed like an enormous advantage
we enjoyed – a perk of the career, you might say.

Our children, now well into adulthood, have talked occasionally about their experiences of growing
up in a pastor’s home, though it’s not something we dwell on, and mostly their memories of the
church seem to have been positive. To explain my work to her friends, my younger daughter used to
say I talked on the phone a lot – in a distinctively ministerial tone – which she thought was
hilariously funny. And that seems to be the strongest memory of my work from that period of their
lives – me talking on the phone.

My children don’t appear to have been harmed by their experience. One of them, the older one, is an
ordained Presbyterian pastor, which doesn’t seem to me like evidence of deep emotional scarring.

The younger one joined a church recently, soon after moving to a new city, and her only comment
was that she liked the old days when she was a child and people would regularly invite us over for
dinner. Now she says that she has to work harder at the relationships within the church.

So, our experience was good, and I am more grateful than I can say for it. We were blessed, of course, with some strong churches during their childhoods, churches with excellent Sunday Schools, large youth groups, and loving people. My children were witnesses to faith being lived out in some wonderful and obvious and very mundane ways. I suppose things could have been different.

Maybe what most needs to be said is that people should resist the temptation to tell about-to-be parents about all the horrible things that might happen. Instead we should probably say, ‘Do your best and you’ll be fine.’

Or as a farmer in my first church said to me, ‘Babies are like newborn calves. Keep them dry and well fed, and they’ll thrive.’

That was the best advice about parenting I ever received.

(Photo: That’s me a few months ago holding my new grand-daughter who – good for her! – is going to grow up in a pastor’s home.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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