Pastors / PKs / March 25, 2014

Pastors Kids as Prodigals – Barna Research and Reality

Late last year The Barna Group published their findings from a study about pastors kids and whether the stereotype is, in fact true, that so many of us are prodigals. “The underlying assumption of this stereotype is that Christians believe those who’ve grown up closest to the church are the quickest to leave it,” says the article. “Are those who grow up as the children of faith workers really more inclined to “grow out” of church later in life? And is it as big of a trend as it is often perceived?”

It seems like a worthy study. Is it true that PKs really are more likely than others to leave the church? Have we earned our reputation as prodigals and rabble rousers?


Infographic courtesy of

The survey’s results say no. Barna found that PKs leave the church, experience periods of doubt, and abandon their Christian faith at a rate pretty equivalent to our peers. I wasn’t all that surprised at these findings. All my interactions with PKs haven’t led me to believe that our collective faith hangs in the balance and we’re at higher risk of walking away from Jesus. The problem, however, with numeric results like these is that they’re, well, numeric. They only measure data that can be put in a statistic.

In order to rightly gauge the spiritual condition of PKs one can’t ask our parents. Barna went to pastors for this information, likely because they’re a clearly defined, easily identifiable group. When looking for hard data, this makes sense. When trying to discern the soul condition of PKs it doesn’t. PKs are master suppressers, chameleons, hiders, and actors. We don’t reveal our true doubts and often we aren’t even able to express them. Many of us don’t know what we believe, but we know what we aren’t supposed to believe, and that includes doubts or rebellion. We know our parents are in the business of gospel proclamation, so if we aren’t sure about the gospel – or are sure we’re opposed to it – it’s often easiest to just keep it to ourselves. As perceptive as parents are, there is just no way they can discern the true state of a PKs heart in many cases.

One of the most significant issues PKs face is that our doubts and struggles are felt and done under duress, so even if we ask the same questions and go through the same periods of rebellion it is a different experience altogether. The pressure is profound. What a PK feels when he or she is struggling is something more pronounced than someone who isn’t under scrutiny or held to ridiculous expectations. This can’t be quantified. It isn’t a statistic. It is real, though. God’s grace saves many of us from caving to the pressure, apparently at about the same rate as all the non-PKs.

I don’t trust Pastors who speak too easily of how well their kids are doing or how the pressure doesn’t affect them. That sounds more like someone who is out of touch with his kids and doesn’t know what they’re going through. Or maybe it’s a pastor afraid to honestly admit how much his kids are struggling because he too is under immense pressure to be perfect. What I fear is that this study is skewed by the responses of such pastors.

I don’t intend to question the honesty of pastors as a whole but rather to challenge them (and everyone) to pay a little closer attention, ask a little better questions, and develop a little deeper empathy. PKs are in a unique spot, a uniquely challenging spot. And it can’t be measured by statistics.

For more thoughts on the life of a PK and the unique challenges PKs face, check out my forthcoming book, The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity. (David C. Cook, July, 2014)



You might also like


Mar 25, 2014

Fascinating! I confess that even as a pastor’s kid, I still completely buy into the stereotype of us. I had one of the most classic PK tales – teen pregnancy, scandal, depression, loss of faith. Yet even though I choose to no longer attend church, I love the community of church.

Mar 25, 2014

Barnabas, I’d be interested in this data for teens of youth pastors. Its only been in the last year or so that I see (and the kids agree) the pressure pick up for my 3 oldest (all in the youth group I pastor). As a 20 year youth min. vet my kids have only been seen as a “PK” by one or two of the more ignorant variety within our body (easily dismissed). Largely the church has let them be individuals first. In the last two years with them in youth ministry, they feel pressure to be friends with everyone. I hate that elevated expectation for them and regularly remind them they are children of God first (just like the other students) and that alone should affect their decision making. My occupation should not.

Mar 25, 2014

[…] Are pastors kids prodigals? […]

Mar 27, 2014

[…] Pastor’s Kids as Prodigals […]

Jun 03, 2014

Barnabas, don’t be too quick to dismiss kids who navigate this challenge reasonably well in terms of faith. My kids got the double whammy – first as MK’s for 9 years, then as PK’s for the last 9. At ages 24, 22 and 18, they all have an active faith and are involved in their churches. The two oldest went hrs away to a secular university and the first thing they did was to get involved in a local church young adults group that helped to mature their faith beyond what they experienced with their dad as their youth pastor. Both the older ones have also traveled and served overseas, exploring that very important part of their identity, and the youngest will do that this year in a gap year program. Thankfully, our mission went to great lengths to make our mission experience as good for our kids as it was for us (they attended national schools), and we thankfully serve in a church that has never put undue pressure on my kids or my wife to perform. We as parents are grateful that in God’s sovereignty, the decisions we made have marked them, but not scarred them. Having worked with lots of families, I know that is not everyone’s story, but by God’s grace it is our story thus far.

    Jun 03, 2014

    I don’t mean to be dismissive, and I know there are those who come through unscathed. I think it’s both remarkable and wonderful. Thanks for sharing about your kids’ stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *