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The Clergy Child: Hidden in Plain Sight? 

What impact does parental church-based ministry have on clergy children? Baptist minister Brian Jones is studying this under-researched area of ministry life


Child bible

I think every ministry trainee I have ever talked with has voiced concern for their children in the place they occupy within the vicarage or manse family. At the very least schooling is right up there with the main concerns: those who make the transition from college to church already will undoubtedly give it prominent thought. Other concerns (it seems to me) tend to centre on moving house and loss of existing friendships.

Yet what life these children will subsequently lead is largely un-researched and unaddressed, at least here in the UK.

From both this perspective, and that of experienced practitioners, my research exploring the impact of parental church-based ministry on their children is timely and relevant in that it clearly demonstrates what pastors/ministers may have suspected intuitively: that the child's ministry environment can both positively and/or negatively impact their life experience, both in the shorter and longer term; joys intermingling with heartaches that make a lasting impression on young lives. Of course personality types of individuals will to some extent determine how young people respond to expectations placed upon them by their parents and other people.  

During the course of my work – which was awarded a Doctorate in Practical Theology from the University of Manchester – I was privileged to be able to ask a number of clergy children (all of whom were now adults) to participate and to tell me about their experiences in their own words. I interviewed some personally, and an online survey brought in some 100-plus comments on the "joys and heartaches” of being a clergy child.

It proved to be quite an innovative undertaking: every single respondee related poignantly how this was the first time these views have been sought, at least from outside the immediate family circle.

The response was somewhat overwhelming, but cathartic. I discovered a largely “hidden sphere” of joy intermingled with grief. A world that we know so little about, people we do not understand as well as we might, but nonetheless people who are directly affected by the church-based ministry of one or both parents.


Hidden in plain sight?

The children of clergy (“clergy” used here in a generic sense and includes participants from a number of denominations) have been described as one of the “Lost Voices” in the Christian community (Bruce W. Hardy, Pastoral Care with Clergy Children, Review and Expositor (Fall, 2001), 98, p.545). The British writer Andrew Irvine said something very similar in referring to clergy offspring as ‘the silent victims of stress’, ‘who share the space closest to the minister, the home […] silent not because they have failed to raise their voices, but rather because they have often not been heard’ (Andrew Irvine, Between Two Worlds - Understanding and Managing Clergy Stress (London: Mowbray, 1997).


Who and where are these “Hidden people” and how many are there in any given denomination? 

Honestly? We just do not know, as denominational authorities tend not to gather and retain data on who they are, their names or where they live. This of course may be changing as the question itself may have influenced the research field.


What is life in the "Goldfish Bowl" (a popular description) really like?

Let us just stop and think for a moment what clergy children see and hear. My research findings suggested that they:

  • Overhear snippets what happens in church business meetings if these are held in the home of the minister.

  • Listen to what people in the congregation really think about their parents.

  • Hear, dare I say, what their parents really think about church folk (A long family car trip can be a rich source of juicy bits of information, you might think they are engaged in something else but they can hear great deal from the rear seat).

  • Are aware that their home is not really “their home” especially if it is owned by the church;

  • See and meet strangers in distress and real need.

  • Know that their family time together can be interrupted at any moment if the phone rings and their parents are needed. I recently attended a Sunday service where the minister told the congregation that his son’s birthday had been celebrated on the previous day: he could not celebrate it on Sunday because his parents were busy in church. It would be interesting to hear that son's view in the years to come. What do you think he might say?

  • Hold a mental dossier of other people’s expectations of them.

  • Could experience times when they witness their parents arguing and even fighting at home whilst wearing a different persona in public.

  • Be acutely embarrassed if they are used as sermon illustrations in the church. 


The Good:

I discovered that clergy children have the opportunity to increase their social skills as a result of their many encounters; develop a keen spirituality of their own; participate in ministry for themselves or sense a call to full-time ministry as a result of what they have seen, heard and lived.


The Bad:

While it is great to hear of any child leading a healthy and flourishing life, and while we would always seek to do our very best as a caring Christian community to avoid harm, it is also an inescapable fact that some can experience distress and heartache. I found myself asking: “What about those occasions when clergy children find the taste of their life is bittersweet in the very place where they should be feeling nourished and cherished, in circumstances which we may find difficult to acknowledge or face?"


The Ugly: (Thankfully very rare)

One clergy child relates how she became very angry over an incident she experienced, and ‘Went into my own depression and finally became totally incapacitated.’ By not feeling able to express her feelings in a ‘parsonage family (in which) anger was so unacceptable (that) we repressed it, and sent it underground to have it appear in less threatening disguises.’ In spite of ongoing therapeutic care, she admits that ‘the shadows [which she attributes to the psychological blindness of her sincere and loving parents] still remain in my life’ (Edith Feiner, The Long Shadows of the Parsonage, Los Angeles: Sky Line Writers Publications, 1996).


Why is it so important to listen to the voices of clergy children?

We need to enable and empower clergy children to speak up, to tell us their experiences. After all they are the “experts” of their own lived experience.  

  • We may discover that they have something important to teach us about ministry and theological formation (Matthew 18:2,4: NIV).

  • Careful reflection on their insights will highlight gaps that need to be filled in pastoral care and support, reminding us that what happens in church-based ministry has implications not only for the life of the pastor but also for her/his own family.

  • They demonstrate an ability to pay serious attention to a person’s story, especially from people, who like clergy children, occupy a marginalised space in ministry. To do so can be quite challenging for adults, who need to put to one side what Karen-Marie Yust describes as any ‘misguided notions of “mature faith”’ (i.e. real faith is found only in adults) and of “theology” (as the sphere of scholars rather than the responsibility of all Christians), and credit children with the capacity and ability to tell their own story in their own words.

Keeping a church programme going takes a lot of energy. It would be a sad state of affairs if in doing this the precious souls of those we love and care for – our children – are overlooked or feel they come second place in the process.

Picture: Ben White/Unsplash

This article is abridged. For further information on this topic visit www.dunrevin.com/blog, a place where this debate is being fostered and developed.
The Revd Dr Brian Jones is a Baptist minister, who recently retired from church-based ministry. He remains active as a Researcher in Practical Theology and Pastoral care, and he and wife Brenda have two adult children



Baptist Times, 07/12/2016
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