Church / Ministry / Parenting / July 2, 2012

Sinners in a Fishbowl

This article was originally posted in Table Talk Magazine.

Being a pastor’s kid (PK) is the only life I know. I was born one, and though I am no longer a child, I am still a PK. The greatest advantages and blessings in my life are products or bi-products of being aPK. Those blessings are not what I am setting out to describe, however. I am out to set forth the unique struggles PKs face.
Pastors’ kids have a reputation. We are the rebellious ones. We are the contrarians and the problem children. We are hell-raisers and hypocrites. Not all of us, mind you, but the shoe definitely fits for many. (I, for one, have been each of these and more.) This reputation is so common it’s become a joke. “Oh, you’re a PK? That just makes so much sense.” Hardy har har.
I can’t give a comprehensive psychospiritual analysis of why PKs are so often messed up, but there are contributing factors that need conscientious care. There are circumstances that do make life uniquely challenging for the children of church leaders, and the church itself often unwittingly and carelessly contributes to these.
PKs live in a fishbowl, or at least it feels that way. Everyone in the church knows the names and faces of the pastor’s children. There is never the safety of anonymity. Details of our lives are known by people we recognize only from the church directory. Big church or small church, the same holds true. And while this isn’t inherently harmful or problematic, the fact remains that fishbowls are for fish, not people. It is mighty hard to live a life surrounded by people knowing your every move, romantic interest, misbehavior, athletic triumph (or failure), college choice, and seemingly every other personal detail.
This fishbowl experience magnifies the already elephantine expectations that PKs feel. With people watching every move, what room is there for a mistake? There can be no missteps, no dalliances, no failings. In short, there can be no humanity. See, PKs are no different than anyone else. We sin. We fail. But there is no being normal when everyone is watching.
Pastors are to be models of the Christian life to their congregations. They are to set a standard for a Christlike life. This is part of the job, the mission. The spouses of pastors are called to the same mission and come arm-in-arm. But the kids? They have no say in the matter. They couldn’t possibly know that they too would be expected to be the model of Christian faith and obedience. But that’s reality. That’s just life when you are born into the home of a pastor.
I do not envy those Sunday school teachers, youth pastors, and small group leaders who have to (get to?) shepherd PKs spiritually. Because of the expectations, real or imagined, of holiness and biblical fluency that PKs feel, there are two temptations that roil within our hearts, sometimes taking turn, sometimes both at once.
The first is that of hypocrisy. This PK has the right answer for every question, the right verse for every occasion, the right theology for each perplexing dilemma, the best argument to defeat any opponent, the right everything for every situation. He is a farce. His heart is dead. But nobody would know that because the veneer is so shiny and perfect and seamless. The hypocrites, at least the skilled ones, are so adept at staying in character that they can even answer questions aimed at peeling back the veneer. There is no spiritual waterway this PK cannot navigate. And yet he is utterly lost.
I have been this farce, and it is rubbish. It can be penetrated by nothing but the Holy Spirit from the outside or the explosion of pent-up sin from the inside.
The other temptation is that of outright rejection. This is no worse than hypocrisy; it’s just more obvious. This PK hates the fish bowl but can’t escape it, so he simply gives the metaphorical finger to all those watching. He rejects God, the church, the life, and the standard of his parents. It’s all just too much, or too little. It infuriates him. It all seems farcical and hollow to him. Nothing is left to this PK but fight or flight.
The thing that cannot be forgotten in all this is that PKs aren’t different from anyone else. We are just sinners under the microscope. It isn’t a different gospel that is needed. It’s not a different Jesus. It’s just a real gospel and a real Jesus. See, when every day of our lives is doused in a deluge of Jesus/gospel/Bible talk from our earliest memories, it is so easy for it all to become rote or rubbish to us. Satan’s greatest weapon against church kids is familiarity, and the contempt it breeds. So we need our families, biological and Christological, to show us the gospel.
Pray for your PKs. They face the see-saw battle between prideful hypocrisy and resentful rejection. Pastors wage a spiritual war, and too often their kids are either the weapons in the devil’s hands or the casualties. Love your PKs with a genuine care. Raise them up. Encourage them. They didn’t ask for their place in life, and it can be a hard one. Remind them of God’s perfect goodness, sovereignty, and wisdom. Just not in clichés; they’ve heard those all before.
From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: Email: Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.


Jul 02, 2012

Spot on! As I PK myself I really identify with your experience. Living under a microscope can make it very hard to trust people. PK’s need the freedom to fail and the grace of forgiveness just like everyone else.

Jul 02, 2012

As a fellow PK, bravo for speaking to all parts of this subject.

Jul 02, 2012

thank you, Barnabas, good reminder to me as a PK and regarding my own PK’s living in my home.

Jul 03, 2012

I totally understand, and it’s not just the PK’s, it’s the DK’s (Deacon’s kids), too. I was that kid, the one that knew how to put on the mask for the church, while chasing after and indulging in the pleasures of the world. Praise God for his grace because he has sure given me a great abundance. 🙂

    Jul 03, 2012

    I agree. I was talking to my cousin about this. He grew up as a Missionary Kid. A co-worker who grew up as a Military Chaplain’s kid resonated as well. I think it’s all Ministry Leader’s kids who face some of these challenges.

    Thanks for your kind feedback!

Jul 04, 2012

I grew up as an MK (missionary kid) but am now a pastor who has a PK. I would appreciate hearing what you think, from your own experiences, would be helpful for pastors and their wives to consider in raising/training their PK children. What are things your parents did that were wise (in your own experience) and what are others things you think they might have done/not done? You could probably also generate a list of things pastors/wives should try not to do….

    Jul 04, 2012


    This is something I have been stewing on for a while. I suspect I’ll write more about it as time goes on.

    Thanks for the prompt.

Jul 05, 2012

I think there is a third option….the PK who hears and sincerely believes the gospel early in life, sees his parent(s) living it out, tastes the goodness of the Lord, feels the love and care for his/her parents and family from a thankful body of believers under their care, and then goes on to follow their parent’s example of faithful service and devotion. ? I am an avid reader of both Dane Ortlund and Ray Ortlund Jr, and just bought a book by what must be the grandpa!

    Jul 06, 2012


    You’re right that there is a third option. I was mostly addressing the challenges particular to PKs (and other ministry kids). God can redeem any person/situation, but sadly there is a lot of pain and struggle in the homes of ministry leaders.

Jul 25, 2012


I am working on my doctorate degree and my dissertation subject is “The fight for the family.” The main subjects are PKs and MKs. I would like to communicate with you in order to hear your ideas about how seminaries and denominations can train and work to change the toxic environment that PKs and MKs are dealing with. By the way I am the father of four adult PKs! I have seen and heard so much and we need to deal with it. I surveyed 130 adult PKs and MKs and what I have learned from them is amazing!

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