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Opinion

THE PRODIGAL PASTOR’S KID – What it Means to be the Atheist Son of a Pastor

OPINION — June 13, 2021

by Z. S. Roe //

My dad is the pastor of an evangelical Christian church.

I, however, am an atheist.

For a long time, I assumed my lack of faith as a pastor’s kid (or PK) made me something of an oddity. And then a month or so ago, while listening to CBC Radio One’s show Tapestry, a guest mentioned a stereotype that paints PKs as being more likely to abandon their faith than kids of regular church-going parents.

To which I did a sudden and surprised about-face.

What? Was my experience as a PK not an anomaly? Was I not the exception that proved the rule?

So I did some digging, which is to say I consulted Google.

To be honest, the results are unclear, though the term “Prodigal Pastor’s Kid” came up a lot, referencing the parable of the prodigal son who hates farm life, takes his inheritance early, then squanders it in the city, becoming destitute. The son then comes crawling back home, properly humbled, and ready to beg his father for forgiveness.

That’s me, apparently.

The only study conducted on the issue asked pastors to report on the religious status of their children, as opposed to asking the children themselves. The results, then, might not be accurate.

In any event, the study concluded that, no, PKs do not leave the faith any more readily than regular church-going kids do.

Maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not.

What most interested me about the study’s results, though, are the reasons these surveyed pastors gave for their children’s questioning or leaving the faith.

As a real-life atheist PK, I figured I might have some valuable insights here, and may also be able to offer advice for parents whose children have similarly left the faith.

REASONS FOR LEAVING (apparently)

For the complete breakdown of the study’s findings, click here to head over to Barna Research Group’s full story. In short, though, the following are their supposed reasons for pastor’s kids leaving the faith:

1. Unrealistic expectations others place on them

2. Exposure to the negative aspects of the church

3. Pastor is too busy for them

4. Faith is not modeled consistently at home

5. Worldly influencers or peers

6. Self-discovery and free will, resulting in rebellion

7. Failure to make their faith their own

You know, I suppose I can relate to some of those, but my general reaction is to think that the pastors surveyed here are tip-toeing around the obvious elephant in the room.

The first four, I think, are the ones to consider most seriously, and they are probably experiences many PKs can relate to, though only the second one hits home for me in any way. As for the last three? They’re totally off the mark.

Still, I see a genuine effort here to try and confront some of the reasons many PKs don’t always have a positive experience. And any of these proposed reasons is a far shot better than the old saw that suggests, “They left the church/faith because they wanted to sin.”

Do you want to know the real lasting impression of being a PK? It’s seeing the church for the completely ordinary and clumsily conceived thing that it is.

THE CHURCH

As I see it, a church provides a valuable service to its community, instilling in many of its members a sense of structure and purpose in their lives. That’s no small thing.

Pretty soon the church members come to depend on this service, then they come to demand it.

But this service is provided at no cost (though donations are encouraged), which seems fair and right to most people, yet those same people using this service rarely consider how all the staff are paid, how the lights stay on, how the buildings are maintained. It costs money, a lot of it. The vast majority of churches are not the wealthy megachurches you see on TV. In fact, I’d wager that most churches stay in the black only by a hope and a . . . well a prayer.

A church is literally the worst business model. You want to saddle someone with an unhealthy amount of financial stress? Tell them to become a pastor.

All this to say, being a PK fully demystifies the very idea of what a church is. It takes the shine off of it. It becomes not so much a house of God, but rather a building filled with everyday people, organized in a way that will likely lead to it having to close its doors for good.

THE PEOPLE

Speaking of people, while researchers in the above study worried about worldly influences, their time may have been better spent looking inward.

One of the unique experiences of being a PK is your exposure to the vast number of people who think they know what God wants and how He’d like what he wants accomplished. They think they know this because they believe God has told them directly (in one way or another).

Yet is it at all surprising that what God has apparently told them is at complete odds with what He’s told other people, and that it always seems to line up with the person in question’s own personal viewpoints? It’s almost as if . . . nah, couldn’t be. Right?

You see where I’m going with this. Trouble is, as a PK, you can’t help but notice all the people coming to your dad with one criticism or another, always about how your dad is not running the church they way they think it should be . . . or, uh, excuse me—the way God thinks it should be run.

It’s enough to make a kid wonder if all this talk about God is merely projection.

BELIEF

Which brings us to the heart of the issue—belief, or lack thereof.

It’s the one thing the above researchers didn’t consider, though it’s the most obvious reason for someone to leave their faith: they just don’t believe it anymore.

And that’s a hard truth for some parents to swallow. None of the above factors may be at play at all. Your kid might simply realize one day that they just don’t believe in God.

It’s not a rebellion, it’s not a phase. They just don’t believe.

And it doesn’t happen all at once. When I first left the church at sixteen, I didn’t exactly believe in God, but I also didn’t not believe in him, if you see what I mean. The first thing to go was belief in the Christian narrative (i.e. Jesus dying for our sins). It just didn’t make sense to me. But I remained undecided about God.

Being away from the church, however, gave me the ability to consider the divine on my own terms and from an objective distance.

Once I’d removed the church from my life, I discovered that I had no underlying sense of God’s presence that might bring me back. In fact, the older I became, the more it seemed obvious to me that God likely didn’t exist at all.

Did being a PK play a part? I don’t know. It might have. My childhood was certainly steeped in the teachings and traditions of Christianity. We were devout evangelicals who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. And while I would say that lifestyle did more harm to me than good, it’s a kind of upbringing that isn’t exclusive to PKs. Then again, the perspective that being a PK afforded me (as discussed above) certainly didn’t do the faith any favours when I began to question it.

But what about the pastor and his/her spouse? They still believe. How should they respond to this change in their child’s beliefs? How should any believing parent respond?

HOW TO TREAT A CHILD WHO’S LEFT THE FAITH

With love.

That should be obvious, I’d think.

And to be fair, many Christian websites discussing the issue of “prodigal pastor’s kids” give the same advice. That’s encouraging.

Full disclosure here: my parents did exactly that. And, hey, guess what, we still have a happy, healthy relationship with one another. There’s been a few bumps along the road (as there are with any child/parent relationship), but they’ve been consistent in their love since they allowed me to leave the church in my mid-teens.

Things not to do? You know how atheists trying to debate you and prove that God doesn’t exist is obnoxious and zero-percent convincing? The reverse is also true. By all means, have open discussions with your child about their change in faith, but make it good-natured and reciprocal. Actually listen. Don’t try to out-debate them.

Otherwise, do everything you can to continue to be a part of their life. Encourage their passions. Support them during disappointments and failures. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Be with them.

You don’t need to hide your faith when you’re around them, but do give them the space to step aside, a space where they can feel included but also comfortable.

First and foremost, though, forget the whole prodigal model. It presupposes that this is just a phase, and that they will eventually see the error of their ways and return to the faith. And they might, but they might not.

Be ready for that—this may very well be a life-long decision for them.

Take me, for instance. It’s been twenty years since I left the church. At no point have I ever wanted to go back. The opposite, actually.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As a PK, I always thought I was something of an oddity. I don’t know that it’s necessarily comforting to learn that I’m not, though it is fascinating.

And it’s hard to know how much being a PK, as opposed to simply a child of devoutly religious parents, led me to my current atheism. To my mind, I think the latter had the greater influence, but if we’re being honest, I don’t think religious life would have ever been the right fit for me, regardless of what job my dad held.

Which is to say, I’ve always been an atheist at heart. That may not be what some parents want to hear, but that’s the simple truth of it. And, as I’ve been told, the truth will set you free.

Opinion is a sometimes column of just that, my opinion. While opinions are like noses and everyone has one, mine are especially snotty. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.

Discussion

One thought on “THE PRODIGAL PASTOR’S KID – What it Means to be the Atheist Son of a Pastor

  1. Love it Zac. Well written. AND seems honest, which seems to ruin my stereotype of a true atheist. But it does help with my relationship with a younger sister. AND provide hope. If I have to do her funeral, I can say ” God never forgets His own!” And she comes to mine she will cry.. AND i will too.

    Posted by Anonymous | June 16, 2021, 7:45 am

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