Prodigal Pastor Kids: Fact or Fiction?

November 12, 2013 — Katy Perry. Rick Warren. Anne Graham Lotz. Franklin Graham. The Jonas Brothers. Frank Schaeffer. Jessica Simpson. All of these names, disparate though they may seem, have something in common: They are all pastors kids.

When it comes to the children of the clergy, stereotypes abound. First, there's the model child, who lives by the rulebook and follows in the footsteps of his or her minister parent. In many churches, this is an expectation as much as it is a stereotype. Yet perhaps the dominant stereotype of the pastor's kid is the prodigal—the wayward child, the rebel who has fallen away from the faith, the backslidden who'd rather strike out on their own than live in the shadow of the steeple.

The underlying assumption of this stereotype, however, is that Christians believe those who've grown up closest to the church are the quickest to leave it. And as with any stereotype, it's worth closer examination to see if any of these perceptions are really true.

After all, those named above have chosen different routes. Some have willingly taken up the ministry as their own calling, while others have disassociated with the Christian faith entirely, and others still have gone through a period of rebellion only to return with a renewed sense of spiritual purpose.

So where does this stereotype of the prodigal pastor kid come from? 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? The latest Barna study put these questions to the test, with surprising results.

The Faith of Pastors' Kids

Certainly those who have spent their childhood in the front row seat of the sanctuary are given a unique vantage point of church—for better or for worse. If it's for the worse, one might understand how this could contribute to a rejection of the faith later in life.

Two out of every five pastors (40%) say their child, age 15 or older, went through a period where they significantly doubted their faith. One–fifth of pastors say this is "very" accurate of their children and another 22% say it is "somewhat" true. This is about the same rate as today's Millennials, about 38% of those with a Christian background say they have experienced a similar season of doubt. In other words, pastors' kids are pretty normal—about as likely as other kids raised in the Church to experience significant spiritual doubts.

When broken down into types of congregations, the pastors most likely to agree their children have faced significant doubt are pastors serving white congregations (43%) or mainline churches (51%). In contrast, the pastors least likely to say this describes their children are pastors serving non–white congregations (25%) or non–mainline churches (37%).

Overall, one–third of pastors (33%) say their child is no longer actively involved in church. Yet when it comes to the rejection of Christian identity altogether, the occurrences are even less.

When pastors were asked if their children no longer consider themselves to be Christians, only 7% said this was "accurate" of their kids—that's less than one in 10. This compares to the nationwide prodigal rate of about 9% among Millennials. The parent–pastors who are most likely to say this is not at all accurate of their kids are non–mainline pastors (98%) or Southern Baptist pastors (97%).

Top 7 Reasons Pastors Believe their Kids Struggle with Faith

Yet even if pastors' kids are more spiritually grounded than many might give them credit for, it's hard to argue that they don't face distinct social and spiritual challenges.

First of all, pastors' kids are raised in a unique culture of expectation. They share the name of the one in charge, and as such, they often live in the awareness that their words, attitudes and actions are a reflection of the family's spiritual position. But while their parent may have been called to ministry, the social expectations placed upon them can leave some pastors' kids thinking, "I didn't sign up for this."

The survey results show pastors are not oblivious to this heightened scrutiny of their family. In fact, pastors (28%) name unrealistic expectations of their kids as the number one reason pastors' kids struggle in the development of their own faith. The second reason listed by pastors (18%) is exposure to the negative aspects of church.

But next, the reasons for stunted spiritual growth hits closer to home. Nearly two out of 10 (17%) pastors link their own preoccupation as too–busy parents with the frustrated faith of their children. And about one–sixth of pastors trace the prodigal tendencies of their children back to the lack of faith modeled consistently at home (14%). Other reasons given by pastors include the influence of peers and culture (9%), the child's free will (7%), and their never making faith their own (6%).

The Parenting Successes and Regrets of Pastors

Like all parents, pastors are only human. And their self–confessed failures and successes in parenting provide an intriguing study in contrast. Overall, the research reveals pastors feel they've parented successfully in teaching their children right principles to live by—in terms of faith, values and moral choices. Yet when asked about their parenting regrets, pastors' answers reflect primarily relational deficiencies.

When asked what they feel they've done best in raising their kids, pastors (37%) overwhelmingly answered that they introduced their children to Christ and maintained a Bible—focused home. Only 5% wish they had done better in this area, by giving their children more biblical instruction.

Overall, a startling 19% say they wouldn't change anything in their parenting methods, even if they could turn back time. Yet for those who do admit parenting regrets, things get a little more personal.

While 21% of pastors believe they were good parents in terms of supporting and spending time with their children, twice that amount have regrets in this area—42% say they wish they had spent more time with their kids. Perhaps in reference to the unrealistic expectations pastors agree are placed upon their children, 8% of pastors also said they wish they had been more understanding with their kids.

What the Research Means

David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me, directed the research on pastors' kids. He comments, "The numbers show that pastors' kids—at least as reported through the eyes of their parents—are about average when it comes to their struggles with Christianity and with the Church. This is perhaps to be expected, yet also disappointing. The children of pastors are not destined to become prodigals, but more than one out of 14 seem to have left their faith behind. And nearly two-fifths of these church-raised kids go through a period of significant doubt—we call this the spiritual journey of nomads, those who still call themselves Christians yet are no longer connected to a local church.

A pastor's kid himself, Kinnaman stresses the importance of pastors and churchgoers maintaining realistic expectations for the children of clergy. "Pastors are feeling the pressure. Their children are living in a moral and spiritual fishbowl; their actions are evaluated by all sides in the church. This constant evaluation is only compounded with the rise of social media and always-on leadership. In fact, it is telling that the most common improvement pastors would make to their parenting, looking back, is to have spent more time with their children. It is a haunting question: Are faith leaders sacrificing their best hours for the sake of other people instead of their own children?"

"On the one hand, a pastor's family should aspire to be a great example of what a healthy, functioning and grace-filled family looks like. It's natural to look to our leaders as examples of how we should live. And in the face of cultural disillusionment with fallen leaders, it's hard not to expect something more from faith leaders. Still, it's a problem when heightened expectations are piled on families that are typical in every way. After all, even faith leaders and their families are in need of spiritual renewal and transformation."

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ABOUT THE RESEARCH

This report is based upon a nationwide, random sample of 603 senior pastors of Protestant churches throughout the continental United States. Questions related to parenting were asked of the 456 pastors in the study who have children 15 years of age or older. The study was conducted via telephone interviews from April 20, 2012 to May 1, 2012. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with a sample size of 456 is ±4.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to regional and denominational variables.

Mainline Protestant denominations include American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church. Non–mainline Protestant denominations are Protestant churches other than those included in the mainline category described above.

ABOUT BARNA GROUP

Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non–partisan, for–profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

If you would like to receive free e–mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research–based resources are also available through this website.

© Barna Group, 2013