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.