It is a heart-wrenching thing to spend one's life in ministry and then have one's children leave the faith when they become adults. Yet, pastors' kids often see the least attractive features of church life and are exposed to the greatest amount of cynicism and doubt.
My friend Martin Weber has completed research for his doctoral dissertation (which won't be defended until May) on this topic, the result of interviews and a survey of 113 clergy with adult children in a Midwest judicatory of the Adventist denomination. He finds that the most significant factors in avoiding adult children of clergy leaving the faith are (1) being able to discuss church problems in the parsonage while also (2) managing to sustain joy and togetherness in the family circle and (3) giving teens the freedom to develop their own faith experience without the expectation of being super-saints because they live in a parsonage.
Some other interesting findings:
- Parents who are conservative about lifestyle is not statistically significant in predicting dropouts.
- Legalism regarding soteriology is moderately significant.
- Legalism regarding practicing the principles of the gospel is highly significant.
- Clergy parents who hold their children to a higher behavioral standard is one of the most significant correlations with dropouts.
- Lack of relationality in the clergy family is the most significant correlation with dropouts. Pastors with the highest retention rate among their own adult children managed to provide the most positive and fun family experience and were close enough to talk about anything in an atmosphere of freedom that allowed their children and teens latitude in developing their own faith.
- Closely related with family relationality is the freedom and trust to discuss controversial issues. A major cause of dropouts is to attempt to shield the children of clergy from or resist discussing with them conflicts in the congregation or the denomination.
- The most significant predictor of adult children of pastors who are still in the faith is whether the child took initiative in approaching a clergy parent to discuss spiritual things.
- When members of the congregation criticize the children of the pastor, they are contributing to the future lack of faith on the part of those children.
Keep your eyes open for more good information. Weber tells me that he's been asked to write an article about his research for Adventist World and Jim Gilley, the new president of the Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN) has asked him to tape a short series. I hope that 3ABN will produce that in DVD. Of course, his complete dissertation will be available from University Microfilms by the end of the year. Weber is a pastor and communication director for the Mid-America Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church with offices in Lincoln, Nebraska.