When I heard of Rick Warren’s son’s tragic suicide I immediately thought of the issues of Preacher’s Kids (Elder’s and Deacon’s Kids can also be included). The symptoms that preacher’s kids carry into adulthood are:
2. Feeling like a fake or a fraud
3. Dependent on others’ opinions
4. Low self-esteem
5. A feeling of entitlement
6. A need for attention
7. Sexual addiction
8. Depression or anger
Why would adult children of preachers have these symptoms? There are many reasons:
1. The congregation has high expectations of preachers’ kids.
2. The preacher would prefer that his kids not embarrass him. He is supposed to be an example to the congregation of how to lead a family. If he can’t lead his own family, how can he lead a congregation? So he puts far more pressure on his children to behave. Even when he doesn’t say anything, the children feel the pressure.
3. Preachers’ kids have experienced a pressured father driving them to church on Sunday morning, yelling at them for making him late, and then seeing him jump out of the car and greet congregants cheerily. His reputation, self-esteem and salary depend on the preacher showing the world that he can grow a congregation. The kids wonder if the worship is genuine, yet they can’t admit to themselves that they doubt, because doubters are not permitted in their house.
4. Whenever a preacher’s kid expresses negative emotions her parents are tempted to tell her that she does not feel that way, and certainly God is not pleased when she expresses those feelings. By age three she knows that if she feels negative, not to express it, and good people don’t’ feel that way. She hates the way she feels inside. She is ashamed.
5. He doubts himself whenever he is angry, lonely or afraid. He needs others’ to affirm him, but their affirmation is never enough.
6. The long hours that the preacher puts in take their toll on the child. She learns to gain attention by performing, but the performing gets her attention for her fake self, not her real self, so it is never enough.
7. He is deeply lonely. No-one knows the real person inside, so he is vulnerable to addictions that promise to alleviate loneliness: like sex. Sex is never a comfortable subject in a preacher’s house to begin with, and all the campaigning around sexual sin just makes sex a taboo subject. Sexual addictions make him more ashamed, more lonely, and more vulnerable to more addictions.
8. Preachers are sometimes (often) drawn to preaching because of low self-esteem and a need for attention and adoration. They become stern and angry towards children who stand in their way of receiving love and admiration from their congregation. Many preachers are the children of alcoholics, or of a parent with bipolar disorder. Many preachers are vulnerable to having an affair with a congregant (statistics range as high as 30% of preachers have had an affair with a congregant and 77% say they do not have a good marriage). These family dynamics leave the children lonely.
9. These issues are exacerbated by a sect or church that has a tacit agreement never to say anything personal in a Bible class or sermon. No emotional pain, loneliness or doubts are discussed in a real and open way. The children learn to keep all these feelings to themselves.
If you know a child of a preacher, go out of your way to make a safe place for them to express real emotions. Start by expressing real emotions to them yourself.