Lessons from the Fishbowl
JANUARY 26, 2021
I grew up as a PK (“preacher's kid”) underwater in a tiny fishbowl. I've never been that good at breathing. My recurring nightmare (from childhood on) is one of chewing bubblegum which expands and expands in my mouth, threatening to suffocate me. I don't even own a turtleneck. And allergies are a constant hassle. (I always knew I was allergic to Florida...and then it was officially confirmed.)
My father—who once worked as a lifeguard—taught my sister and me how to swim. While I can swim and don’t think I’d drown, I’m not big on putting my head underwater.
For good reason.
There is in me this essential need to breathe.
The pastor, the pastor’s spouse, and their kids all live in a fishbowl. It’s a cliché, but an apt one. People on the outside come and point, gawk and judge. We swim around. Bump into the sides. Long for escape into the real world, into the fresh air. (I don’t want you to think that it’s all bad. I had it better than most. And the mound of Christmas presents is the best.) But the truth is, your kids didn’t sign up for this…you did. So on behalf of preacher’s kids, allow me to say a few things.
Put Your Family First
Competing with God and God’s work is hard…well…impossible. I know. I tried. There is always a sermon to prepare, a meeting to attend, a sick person to visit in the hospital, a hurting person with wounds to bind up, a lost person to save. Make time for your family. Schedule it in, if necessary. Just once, I’d encourage you to skip or cancel an appointment to spend time with your children and spouse, and under no circumstance, make them feel guilty about that time spent. It’s one thing to promise: “If you ever need me, I’ll be there.” It’s quite another thing to prove it. Dad made that promise, meant it, and would have kept it (and did at times, I suspect), but that didn’t keep me from wondering and doubting it at times. (And for the record, it’s not a bad thing, at least here and there, to have a Thanksgiving or Christmas alone as a family. I still remember the stranger at Thanksgiving who hid her bottle of alcohol under our bathroom sink…for my sister to discover the next day.)
Be clear with your congregation that your family is “off limits.” Decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate when it comes to your family. Draw a line in the sand. Defend them. She was a troubled young woman I idolized and adored…who handed me at age 12 a suicide note to give to my father, making me promise that I wouldn’t read it. (Which of course I did.) When Dad read the note, he was clearly rattled by it and worried about her, but was also angry…very angry…that she had used me as a messenger. She was fine and Dad got there in time; but looking back, I get the feeling that if she hadn’t already killed herself, he was going to do it for her. My mother, in particular, took a lot of flack and criticism for putting her role as “mother” first, above all else, including the church’s demands. Back then at least, there was a lot of pressure put on the pastor’s wife to be involved in every church function…while at the same time keeping a perfectly clean and open house at all times. Mom saw us, her daughters, as her top priority for which we’ll always be grateful.
Don’t Force God Down Your Kids’ Throats
There is such familiarity with God and the “things of God” within the pastor’s family, that it is “just” a job. It might as well be marketing, accounting or product sales (and there certainly are similarities). This is especially true for your teenagers who are learning to think abstractly, to reason and to question. Give them the space, time and patience to come to their own faith in God. Give them the space, time and patience to doubt. I’m really tempted to add here…Don’t force church attendance, prayer and family devotions. There was a time in which I refused to go to church. It was “just” the Sunday night service and I was 10, but still. I don’t even remember the reason. And as a teenager, I sat there and fumed as we had to “do family devotions” each night. I remember thinking, “You can make me sit here, but that’s all.” The point is this, be careful in this area…very careful. You want your kids to see the reality, goodness, grace and love of God. Try to not get in the way.
Allow Your Kids To Be Themselves
They have a hard enough time trying to fit in. Don’t make it worse by insisting on perfection. Enough said.
Be Honest About Your Own Struggles & Failures
One of my Dad’s best qualities is his willingness to apologize. Many times he lost his temper and took out the stress of his job (the stress is even greater when God is the boss) on us. But what saved Dad’s relationship with both my sister and me was that he always came back and apologized. It was like clockwork, 15 minutes following an outburst. Still happens. You’re modeling reality to your kids. So—for God’s sake—be real.
It’s Really Okay To Outsource At Times
David taught me how to ride a bike. Louise taught me how to put on make-up. Dot, our substitute grandmother, babysat us in her own home (which I’ll always remember as a warm and safe place). Kathy (who was with Campus Life/Youth for Christ) took my writing seriously and nurtured my faith. John encouraged me to read C.S. Lewis. Cathy listened to me rant and rave about my parents without judgment. Vickie brought creativity and fun into our lives (and many cakes “just because”). And the list goes on. All children need loving and supportive people in their lives aside from their parents, but I think this is especially true for preacher’s kids. There is something cynical in us—or at least there was in me—that makes us distrust our parents. It’s the disconnect between the hype and praise lavished upon our parents and the reality of them we know and experience. So we need other people to whom to turn…who are loving, trustworthy and balanced.
It’s All Love & Grace
Love your kids well. Rely on God’s grace. Do that and everyone will survive, if not also thrive, in the life aquatic.