My father is a United Methodist minister, and has been since my childhood. It’s a fascinating life, and definitely worthy of a few books full of candid expose. As a kid, it’s a unique way to grow up. There was the delight of eating all of the left-over communion wafers and drinking all of the left-over communion grape-juice (oh how we longed to be Catholic!) There was the thrill of going to new churches, meeting new people and wearing a little suit jacket and vest in a church where jeans were a fashion statement (and I was seen as an alien creature). There were tons of other aspects of church culture that made it, in retrospect, quite a hilarious time.
It continued through my wedding. The wedding plans and vows were edited by my well-meaning father. The wedding was populated with many friends and family, but also with a great many people from previous churches that would have been, I was told, ‘offended’ if not invited. These were people I didn’t know from Adam’s housecat, and who left the reception at super-sonic speed. I think they were afraid, like so many good protestants, that it might turn into something like a party. Not likely, since we weren’t allowed to have alcohol. Overall, it was a speedy, vague affair, that left us free to meet friends afterwards.
But even as I have grown up, symptoms of ‘preacher’s kidness’ persist. There is this conversation, known to every preacher’s kid on earth.
‘Do you remember Mrs. Dickenson?’
‘No Dad, I don’t.’
‘Yes you do.’
‘No, I really don’t’.
‘She was your baby-sitter when you were three, and we were at Cow Barn Methodist Church. She also taught your first grade Sunday School class.’
‘Sorry, I really don’t remember her.’
‘Yes you do. She always wore a hat, and gave you a penny every week.’
‘I can’t remember her face.’
‘Yes you can. She always wore lots of makeup and smelled like honeysuckle. Her son went to your high school, but was ten years ahead of you. Did you know him?’
(Conceding defeat), ‘Yes, fine, Dad, I knew both of them. We used to meet after school and commit petty thefts. She drove the getaway car.’
‘Don’t be a smart aleck. I’m glad you remember her now’.
‘Oh, she died last week’.
‘Fascinating. Maybe I’ll call her.’
I know that preachers’ children get a lot of bad press. I can say, with utter confidence, that we do earn most of it, sooner or later. I have known some preachers’ kids who would have found a stay at Hef’s Playboy mansion, or a chance to model for his magazine, a welcome respite from assorted church activities. They wouldn’t have batted an eye when the limo pulled up to take them off to a weekend of debauchery. Looking heavenward, they would have simply said, ‘Praise the Lord!’, and would have accepted the subsequent months of ‘we’re so disappointed’ lectures with a nod of the head and a knowing smile.
They weren’t, and aren’t, bad people. Sometimes, they just get a little too much church. Their fathers (or ministerial mothers) see faith as a combination of career, calling, hobby and social circle. The children don’t quite feel the same way. They see it as a constant, regular interruption of their family life, and as the thing that removes their fathers from their lives as suddenly as the ring of a phone, or the intestinal blockage of an ancient, hospitalized parishioner.
The children want to spend, occasionally, Wednesday night going to movies, Thursday night at a ballgame and Sunday morning asleep. But that very realistic desire sometimes runs afoul of their parents’ frantic efforts to ensure that their children will attend seminary, pastor churches, fly off to the mission field, and basically continue the ‘family business’. Their parents too easily fail to recognize the special gifts their children possess; gifts that may have great value to God, but may not fit into the mantra of ‘full time Christian service’.
I have seen this burden. It falls into what one writer calls ‘Churchianity’, and it weights heavily on young people raised in faith. Even my own dad, who is proud of my accomplishments in life, has suggested that I might consider seminary sometime. I think he should consider medical school sometime, but that’s another discussion altogether. He has desperately wished seminary on my younger brother (a preacher’s kid in the truest sense of every broken rule, every late night, every misdemeanor), to whom it holds as much appeal as hair-dressing or rattlesnake roundups.
The thing is, when pastors or persons otherwise very devout, force super-sized church life on their children, it’s a recipe for disaster. I’m thankful that I was raised in this glorious faith, Christianity. As I grow older, I love it more and understand its message more deeply. But I know this for certain; even the disciples would have found it difficult to be the children of preachers. ‘Peter, do you remember Menachem? He was your Yeshiva teacher when you were small.’ ‘No father, I don’t.’ ‘Yes, Peter, you do!’
And they would have gotten a bad rap for their subtle (and not so subtle) rebellion, just like we did.