BY MARY WICOFF
The Rev. Jimmy Hopper recalls seeing a cartoon some time ago: Two young boys are walking past a home shaped like a fishbowl, and they see a family sitting down to dinner. One boy says to the other, “Our minister lives there.”
Indeed, many pastors, ministers and their families feel like they’re living under a microscope, always being scrutinized by people who expect them to live perfect lives. The children, especially, feel this pressure to be on their best behavior at all times, or else they’re labeled as rebellious “preacher’s kids.”
Several books, magazine articles and websites look at the pressures of being a pastor and a member of his or her family. A website, http://www.preacherskids.net, is devoted to this topic.
Now, a Lifetime television reality show, “Preachers’ Daughters,” perpetuates the stereotype of teenagers who struggle with the restrictions of growing up under a pastor’s roof.
A handful of pastors and adult children interviewed by the Commercial-News criticized the show for its shock value and its unrealistic portrayal of preachers’ children.
“I know ministers with wonderful kids and others with children in jail and drug rehab,” said Hopper, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “Most preachers’ kids fall somewhere in between.”
Pastors and their families face the same struggles and choices that other families face, he said.
Bonnie Downing, co-pastor at the Rock Church, saw part of the TV show and dismissed it as “stupid,” adding, “I don’t know any pastor’s family like that.”
She and her husband, Randy, are both licensed ministers, and Zach had no trouble being a preacher’s kid. He hung out with a good group of friends, she said, and was involved in sports, especially soccer.
“He’s amazing. I couldn’t ask for a better son,” she said.
Being under the spotlight is just part of the job. “If you know it’s something God called you to do, he gives you the grace to do it,” Downing said. “If you’re fulfilling your purpose in life, then you feel happy and fulfilled and it’s not a burden at all.”
Bishop Ronald C. Henton, pastor of Israel of God’s Church, agreed that his three children grew up without any issues stemming from being pastor’s children.
Referring to himself and wife, Rose, he said, “We raised them to be normal kids. We didn’t have a problem with it.”
He was made an elder in 1986 and started pastoring in 1989, when his children were small, and so that’s the only type of lifestyle they knew.
Henton hasn’t seen the reality TV show, just previews, which he described as “pure drama,” adding, “I can assure you our family isn’t like that.”
The Rev. David Rumley, lead pastor at Danville First Assembly of God Church, said his children, ages 6, 9 and 11, haven’t had any major negative experiences as preacher’s children.
“It all depends on the healthy boundaries that any father puts around his family,” he said. “We create culture; we don’t react to it. If we’re creating a healthy culture, they can thrive in it. If everything they hear is negative, they’ll grow up that way.”
His children know the three main family values: Love God. Love people. Do your best.
When a child has to make a decision, he uses those guidelines.
Rumley also said he doesn’t put on his pastor’s hat to impress people. Instead, his character and values come through consistently — whether he’s at home, behind the pulpit or out having coffee. The same applies to his children.
If a father says, “Don’t mess up because you’ll make me look bad,” that can create an unhealthy atmosphere, he said.
Gerald McPhillips, pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Georgetown, said it’s true, to some extent, that pastors’ families live in glass houses.
“People expect you to practice what you preach and that extends to your family,” he said. “People don’t realize we’re just like they are.”
He and his wife, Kathy, have raised two children, who are in college. The biggest focus for the children was meeting mom and dad’s standards, he said. For the children, they were frustrated with other people holding them to a higher standard.
“Boys are going to be boys and girls are going to be girls,” McPhillips said. If one of his children misbehaved, he would tell the child that he was doing wrong and was responsible for his actions.
“As a parent, our job was to teach the principles they would need to make the right choices,” he said, adding, right now, his children are making the right choices.
God is the perfect parent, he said, but Adam and Eve made the wrong choice in the Garden of Eden. “It doesn’t mean God failed,” he said.
“God will hold all of us accountable for our actions equally,” he said.
Time for family
Besides feeling like they’re living in a fish bowl, pastors and their families have to handle the stress of a job that demands a lot of their time and energy. Ministers work Sundays, some evenings, and are sometimes called away to handle emergencies.
All five ministers interviewed said they make time for family.
Hopper and his wife, Katie, who’s also a minister, have been fortunate to serve at churches that have respected their days off and their need for family time while raising two children. Also, he said, his children were fortunate to have friends who accepted who they were.
Children can become resentful of the time that the church takes from the parents, he said.
He and Katie used the New Testament passage “do not provoke your children to anger”; in other words, don’t put unfair expectations on children.
“It’s not fair for preachers’ kids to have higher expectations on them that other kids do not,” he said.
Hopper said, “I try to live by that and love my children the best I can and use tough love, when necessary. As a parent, you plant seeds that you hope will grow.”
He also accepts when they make mistakes or make decisions he doesn’t agree with.
Henton said he also has been fortunate that the churches he’s served in have let him have a normal family life. “We didn’t have too many issues,” he said.
Rumley said he purposely schedules time for his family and is good at setting boundaries. For example, he’ll set up meetings for daytime, so the evenings are free for his family. Sometimes, the family will have to celebrate a birthday or an event on a different date because there are some things he can’t control.
He also noted it’s important to raise a child in a healthy environment, and then let him choose his own path when it’s time. All a parent can do is provide a good example and surround the children with healthy values.
“Life has a way of pulling people in different ways, no matter how you raise them,” he said.
McPhillips, who has been pastor in Georgetown seven years, also said he’s been blessed to have congregations that understand the need for family time. Some of that comes from the Baptist emphasis on families, he said.
“Family is so important. Family is the backbone of the church and the backbone of society,” he said, and his congregation expects him to spend time with his family.
As for the Lifetime reality show, McPhillips noted that most reality shows don’t reflect reality. The stereotype of the preacher’s kid who behaves badly isn’t accurate, he said, and is just that — a stereotype.