Prodigal PKs

What happens when the children of ministers go wrong?

The ringing phone stirred Mike Johanson from his sleep. "Not again," he groaned as he struggled out of bed. Only the night before, he had accompanied a distraught father to the police station to bail out the man's teenage son.

But the news on this Saturday night jolted Mike awake: His daughter, Erica, was in a hospital emergency room recovering from a drug overdose.

Nancy Markel was caught by surprise when her 14-year-old son was suspended from school after a police crackdown on gangs. "I expected God to take care of my family," says Markel, who serves a large church in Columbus, Ohio. "If I did a good job as a pastor, surely I could count on God to keep my children safe."

Chris and Cathy Newton, who serve a church in the Midwest, were summoned to a family meeting by their older son. Paul, then 22, calmly told his parents and his 16-year-old brother he was homosexual and was moving to Atlanta with his male companion.

In most ways, parents in ministry are like any other parents. They want the best for their children. They pray and hope their offspring grow up honest and faithful. And they live with the knowledge, often gained from counseling other parents that, even in the "best" homes, children may rebel.

In most ways, parents in ministry are like any other parents. They want the best for their children.

But when their children become prodigals, parents in ministry must grapple with complications that other parents don't experience. A family crisis is measured not only by the impact on the children, but also by the effect on the parents' ministry.

Escape From the Pressure Cooker

Teens in Western society live in a pressurized world where peers, parents and media messages make constant and competing demands on them. But members of a minister's family must think about additional expectations that come from the church.

Sadly, some ministers only increase this pressure. If teenage PKs feel they must sing in every youth-group concert or live flawlessly because they exist in the spotlight of their parents' vocation, they may want to escape the glare of expectations. That desire may grow even stronger if the family's commitment to church life rules out other interests, such as athletics, drama, Scouts or 4-H Club.

Lack of time is another common problem, according to Sharon K. Collins, a minister's wife, mother of two teenage sons, a counselor and instructor in social work at Anderson (Ind.) University. "Kids don't get enough time," she says. "Often the church infringes on every aspect of the pastor's home." The evening and weekend nature of church life can make ministers seem like absentee parents who don't have the time or energy to be involved with their children or provide oversight.

In their desire to help their kids maintain high moral standards, ministers may also shelter their children too much. "Ministers are exposed to so many hardships caused by sin and mistakes. We don't want our kids to be exposed to them," Collins says. "But being overprotective may actually push them toward greater rebellion and make them more vulnerable by keeping them more naïve."

Shame, Shame, Shame

When Markel's son told her, "They (the gang members) care more about me than you do," the Ohio minister was emotionally devastated. "You will never know what a sense of failure I feel as a parent," she says.

Almost any parent feels shame, fear or confusion when his or her kid goes wrong. But the feelings are compounded by the relationships with the church.

Almost any parent feels shame, fear or confusion when his or her kid goes wrong. But the feelings are compounded by the relationships with the church.

After the Newtons' son announced he was homosexual, dad Chris wondered about his ministry with the 230-member church. "People may find out," he said. "What will they do? What will they say? Something traumatic may happen to us. Our ministry may be over."

Chris discovered a dissonance within himself. As a pastor, he tries to be vulnerable, transparent, authentic. "Now," he says, "there is something you cannot talk about with your congregation. Now you find yourself closed, covered, less than transparent about something that is important."

Some ministers have discovered, however, that silence is not always golden. Benefits often come from sharing the burdens.

When his son dropped out of high school and "got into a little trouble," Walter Tiesel confesses, "I was far more concerned with my own reputation for a few weeks than I was concerned for my son." When Walter realized what he was doing, he "repented."

The time, Tiesel and his wife, Margaret, were missionaries to Barbados. He confided in fellow missionaries, only to find that most of them felt the same kind of shame at some time.

"Out of my confession came quite a fellowship and friendship," he says. "Together we found better ways to heal and cope with the situation."

Melvin Hart, who has ministered with the same Midwestern congregation for more than 20 years, did not have the option of keeping the family's troubles secret. A decade ago Hart's daughter, then 18, was arrested on prostitution charges, and her name appeared in the police blotter in their small town's newspaper. With prayer and tears, Hart maintained his pastorate. But most members of his congregation "are very supportive, and while not affirming our daughter's lifestyle, they are loving toward her and toward us."

One member says that Hart "lives out the story Jesus told about the loving father who had two sons. We only hope and pray that Melvin's prodigal comes to herself and returns to those waiting arms of love."

Prevention and Reconciliation

How can parents minimize the risk of rebellion and increase the chances of prodigals returning to the family? Counselor Collins offers these suggestions:

  • Be close your mate. A stable marriage builds a stable home. Take time with your spouse. Get away once in a while. This is not time stolen from your children — your strong marriage is a gift to them.
  • Be involved with your children. Encourage your teen to invite friends over to your house, and get acquainted with them. Attend your children's ball games, school programs and other events. Try to find activities you can share as a family: playing board games, cooking, visiting museums and parks.
  • Be clear about relationships. The children of ministers sometimes feel that they have more than one set of parents. Let your children know that, while other people in the church may have opinions about them, you are their parents. You also have a responsibility to help church members understand relationships between them and your family. Having caring adults in the church can be a real plus — any child can benefit from the attention of adults who are not their parents. But be sure the lines of authority are clearly drawn.
  • Be reasonable. In their desire to help their teens avoid sin, ministers and spouses can set unreachable standards of behavior or achievement and unwittingly push their children into rebellion. Here is a test question: Do you expect a certain behavior from your child because he or she is a Christian, or because he or she is the child of a minister?
  • Be hopeful. The good news is that many ministers' children work through their problems and take their places in service to Christ and his church. Martha Collins, who ministers in rural Kentucky, prays for her adult son every day. "He's not a bad person," she says. "He just has never given his heart to the Lord. He knows the way. Someday he will realize that he needs Jesus." Collins likes to speak about a friend, the wife of pastor in a nearby church and the mother of a prodigal son. She prayed for her son for 30 years. Her prayers were answered when he returned to the church. The son now teaches Sunday school.

Taken from Pastor's Family magazine, Oct/Nov 1996.
Article copyright © 1996, Richard L. Willowby.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Richard L. Willowby, former senior editor of Vital Christianity magazine, is an ordained minister and free-lance writer. He and his wife, Cheryl, have three children and live in Anderson, Ind. All incidents are true, but the names of several people have been changed to protect the privacy of families. Some accounts are composites
of more than one family's experience.