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The family business

Pastors’ kids get front-row seats to the broken, bloody spectacle of the church. It’s both a challenge and a blessing

Illustration by Andrew Cherry

The family business
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Mom returned home from her Friday night community group with red-rimmed eyes and a dribbly nose. As a pastor’s wife, my mother had heard many criticisms from church members before. But that night, the words hit the most tender spot: A church member had told her within earshot of everyone, “Just look at the state of your daughter. Isn’t it obvious? God is disciplining the pastor for hidden sins. He needs to repent!”

I am that pastor’s daughter. At the time, I was a college dropout living at home with my parents, struggling and failing to recover from anorexia. At 5 feet 6 inches, I hovered between 50 and 60 pounds, between hell and death. For years, my parents hid that night’s incident from me, but I was already flagellating myself with self-accusations: “The pastor’s daughter, anorexic? You’ve not only failed your family—you’ve shamed God!”

That was a lie I carried for a long time. My parents told me repeatedly that I’m beloved, blessed, a blessing. But I allowed my identity as a PK to cloak my true identity in Christ, which then tainted my perspective on everything with negativity and insecurity.

Every Sunday at church, I shambled around restrooms and dark corners, wishing my disgrace wasn’t so blatantly exposed on my shrunken face. Pre-anorexia, people used to look at me and smile, nudging at newcomers, “That’s the pastor’s daughter! She leads the youth group and plays the piano for the church.” Mid-anorexia, I dreaded the look on newcomers’ faces when they realized I was the preacher’s kid—that instant look of aghast, quickly reassembled into polite smiles. When they disappeared next Sunday, I had all sorts of self-pointing theories why. It was also hard not to blame myself when I watched a quarter of our church members leave in a drove, even though they’d had their rumblings for some time. I felt like a disappointment to my parents, a feces stain to their ministry, a dishonor to God whom my parents had served so faithfully. Many times I wished, “If only I wasn’t a PK ….”

All PKs have their stories of their complicated relationship with the church. I’ve interviewed more than a dozen PKs of various ethnicities, ages, regions, denominations, and church sizes. Though details differ, our stories share remarkably similar narratives: At some point, our parents made the conscious sacrifice to serve God and His people, but we were involuntarily born to share the unique burden of our parents’ ministry—way before we were prepared to do so.

A pastor’s family faces the typical family drama plus that of the church. Church issues follow the pastor’s family on the drive back home on Sunday, to the dinner table, to family vacations. Even in the calmness, shepherding a church is never-ceasing war. We remember our father agonizing over the next day’s sermon past midnight, or postponing family plans to counsel a sobbing church member. Our life revolves around church, and when the church shakes, so does life at home.

But as God leads us through the long and often painful process of refinement, we discover precious blessings in the challenges. This is our story as PKs.

TALES OF PKS REBELLING, leaving the church, or abandoning the faith are all too common. That’s unsurprising: PKs get front-row seats to the broken, bloody spectacle of the church—and sometimes, it looks like a boxing match, with their parents in the ring getting pummeled.

Rob Litzinger remembers the Sunday mornings when his church would wordlessly split into two sides at the pews: one side liked the pastor; the other did not. A third-generation PK, Litzinger was raised in a tight-knit Amish Mennonite family. His father preached at tiny rural churches mostly in Upstate New York. Because the Litzingers moved churches every three to five years, they had no friends but each other. The parents poured out their ministry woes to their three sons. Whatever mean things the church folks said or did, the boys heard about it. And it broke their hearts.

At one church meeting, his parents sat surrounded by church members hurling accusations and complaints. The pastor listened with his eyes down; his wife wept by his side. Meanwhile, their three sons stood watching, seething, and writhing in guilt that they couldn’t protect their parents. At 8 years old, Litzinger concluded, “These church people are evil! They have nothing for me, nothing I want, nothing I want to be around.”

Litzinger remembers his father being a funny, sweet, happy man. But over the years, the color faded out of his father’s personality. At the pulpit, he would briefly become his old passionate self, but at home he would shut himself in his room for days. After 27 years in ministry, his father finally quit. With no other marketable skills, the ex-pastor pumped sewers and did factory work to pay the bills. To this day, his wife trembles visibly whenever someone mentions past church issues.

As Litzinger watched his parents shrivel up, his disappointment and anger at God swelled: “God, they did all this for you, and this happens? How can you allow them to end this way?”

It’s no wonder PKs have a complicated relationship with the church. PKs learn early on that church is not a gallery of perfectly holy people, but a hospital stinking with sick bodies and beeping with one crisis after another. How the pastor responds in the midst of the chaos then significantly affects the PK’s image of the church. It’s the pastor’s chance to show his family that ministry is hard and humbling—but never hopeless.

Barnabas Piper, author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and youngest son of Desiring God founder John Piper, recalls one “particularly ugly” discord in the church when he was about 11. A few dozen families left the church, including people his father considered friends. As John Piper’s ministry and fame expanded, so did the persecutions, which grew noisier with the age of Twitter and blogs.

Yet Piper doesn’t remember a negative word from his father. Instead, he remembers his father responding graciously to fair criticisms while maintaining his theological integrity. He remained calm and composed under pressure—both in public and at home. “That left an impression on me more than anything else,” Piper told me. “It actually gave me a lot of freedom as a child, because if he doesn’t seem all too bothered by the criticisms, then I have freedom from feeling like I have to defend him.”

But God is gracious and works even through the tears of a pastor’s family. After years of hating the church, Rob Litzinger now finds refuge and strength in a nondenominational church in Santa Maria, Calif., that he planted and pastors with his third-generation PK wife, Cindy. “The church has really blessed us and our kids, and we try to show our kids that being a pastor for us is an incredible blessing,” Litzinger said. Their six children—two biological and four adopted/fostered—help serve the church and dream of marrying pastors. Because he freely shares his testimony in sermons and in a self-published book, his church attracts many hurting ex-pastors and PKs.

Now that he’s a pastor and father, Litzinger can pinpoint certain mistakes and shortcomings in his father’s leadership instead of decorating him as a victimized hero. Today he constantly encourages him, “No, Dad, don’t say you’re a complete failure. I’ve learned all the things I know from you. The fruits in my church are yours.” Only God can pluck out what Litzinger calls his “generational negative faith seed” and plant a fertile love for the church.

WHOSE CHURCH DO I TRULY LOVE? That’s a question PKs must one day ask, especially those who enviously compare their parents’ tiny church to the megachurch across the street. A lot of the PKs’ grief trickles from their natural longing for their parents’ ministry to flourish. It’s easy to forget that they are not CEOs of their own company but servants of God for His kingdom—and sometimes it takes a storm to remember that.

The Ascols, a pastor’s family in Cape Coral, Fla., had to re-evaluate their love for the church during a particularly tumultuous season in their church in 2010. A team of deacons—people the Ascols kept on speed dial, whose children they taught and baby-sat—ganged up against the senior pastor with the explicit goal of firing him. They called the pastor a liar, accused him of gossip and bad temper. Meetings ended with people jumping up and yelling. Many members shunned the pastor’s family, confused about whom to trust. People who had left the church reappeared to chip in their past grievances. A tornado had swept into the church—and into the Ascol family.

By then, most of the six Ascol children had grown up, but they still attended the same Baptist church their father pastored. Doubts against their father infiltrated their minds too; but after investigating all sides, they concluded, “The devil is attacking the ministry.” Still, it was a “very emotionally difficult” season for the Ascols. When the siblings got together, emotions were so raw and thick that sometimes all they did was sit silently, each clutching their wounds. “That year was probably the closest I got to being, ‘I’m done—done with this church. I’m walking away,’” said Sarah Ascol, the oldest. “It shook us—shook our whole family.”

But it was ultimately edifying and unifying. Throughout the trials, the six PKs witnessed their parents wrestle and ache but also “go hard after Christ all the time together.” Their parents’ marriage strengthened—so did the whole family and the church. After all the rabble-rousers rolled out, every PK jumped in to fill the gaps left in various ministries.

“There is a different kind of love for our local church now,” said Joel Ascol, one of the PKs. “It’s like we’ve gone to war to fight for this church, and it’s made us realize this church is worth defending.”

It’s tempting for PKs to blame the church or the pastor for their disillusionment, but at some point PKs must actively seek God’s good will inplacing them in that particular family, that particular church. Blessed are the PKs who develop a grace-filled, humble, grateful love for their church—its warts and all.

IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO FEEL BLESSED AS A PK. The blessings felt more like a curse when I was constantly trying to earn them.

As a kid, I hated family worship because inevitably, my eyes would wander or close, and worship time would end in shouts and scowls. Church life was stressful because my father always forced me to sit in the front pew at Sunday service, where everyone would see my head lolling and nodding about as I fought to stay awake. It frustrated my father that I didn’t hunger for the gospel as he did—and he tried hard to convince me how awesome Jesus is. I agreed Jesus must be awesome, because my father obviously loved Him more than he loved me. The church felt like a leech, sucking away my father’s time and love from me.

Then something beautiful happened.

The day I was first hospitalized at age 17 with anorexia, my father asked God, “Why?” He instantly remembered John 9:3, when Jesus met a man born blind and said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” That day, my father resolved first to guard his heart and mind against all discouragement, fear, and shame in Christ Jesus—and no matter what happened, all glory would go to God. My father held fast to that conviction throughout the five years of my struggles. He never let it deter him from ministry, but also doubled his efforts to live out the gospel as a father.

It took me a while to feel blessed as a PK. The blessings felt more like a curse when I was constantly trying to earn them.

Then one wintry Wednesday night, my heart started acting funny. We all knew what that meant. I lay on the sofa with my mother next to me. My father had to preach that night, and he considered canceling in case that night was my last. He prayed to God for direction, and felt a strong conviction to go—for the sake of his family and the church. So he prayed for me out loud, kissed me, and slid on his gloves, saying, “If God calls you home tonight, I’ll meet you in heaven. Don’t be afraid. Let us find peace in God’s sovereignty.”

That night, my father wept in the pulpit as he told the congregants what was happening. There was not a dry eye when the service ended. Everybody got on their knees to pray for me, the pastor, our family, the church. All this happened at a time when the church was still aching from the recent loss of a quarter of our members. Had God not helped protect my father’s heart and mind, the church might have crumbled under discouragement, doubts, and despair along with him and his family.

On the flip side, had the church not embraced my family with their love and prayers, perhaps we would have faltered. I would have been the first to buckle under intense guilt and shame. Instead, in the midst of great sorrow, our church united and healed as people began praying harder for the church, the pastor, and his family. The works of God were being prominently displayed through the trials of a pastor’s family—and it opened my own eyes to the bigger cosmic warfare, and how the church is called to manifest the fullness and richness of the gospel together as the body of Christ.

When I finally recovered from anorexia, the whole church rejoiced with my family, because they too are family. Today, church members nudge newcomers and say, “That’s the pastor’s daughter. She almost died from anorexia, but look what God did!”

THE SPIRITUAL WARFARE PASTORS FACE IS BRUTAL AND EXHAUSTING. In this world of corrupted worldviews, beautiful idols, and false prophets, pastors bear the responsibility of purifying the church of legalism, mysticism, humanism, liberalism, prosperity gospel, social gospel, and all the other duplicitous “isms” and ear-tickling “gospels” that many prefer over the true gospel. No wonder the enemy strategizes to destroy the pastor and his loved ones: Destroy the leader, destroy the church.

A pastor doesn’t just preach the gospel. True gospel is living and breathing; it flows abundantly down from the pulpit to all areas of life. That means PKs are daily witnesses to how much of the gospel the pastor preaches in the pulpit is continuous, living, and transforming. His first mission field isn’t the church, but those closest to him. A pastor practically lives out the gospel by first being a Christ-imitating husband and father at home. Of course, no pastor is perfect, and his family is the first to detect his flaws and mistakes. Yet that too is a blessing, for PKs learn young that no human should be put on a pedestal except Christ Jesus, the perfect Man.

These blessings aren’t limited to pastors’ families, however, and neither is the spiritual warfare. We as a church celebrate the triumphs and joys together whenever a battle is won: a soul saved, an illness or marriage healed, a life transformed. The church is our life, our life is the church, and we blossom together as the church.

See Sophia Lee’s “PKs answer: How should we pray for pastors?”

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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