(RNS) The day Franklin Graham was born, he received a telegram.

Billy Graham tried to save the world, traveling for months at a time to more than 170 countries to preach the Gospel to tens of millions. In a rare moment at home in 1965, he spends time with sons Ned (left) and Franklin. Photo from Graham collection published in his book, ``Just As I Am'' by Harper San Francisco

Billy Graham tried to save the world, traveling for months at a time to more than 170 countries to preach the Gospel to tens of millions. In a rare moment at home in 1965, he spends time with sons Ned (left) and Franklin. Photo from Graham collection published in his book, “Just As I Am” by Harper San Francisco


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“Welcome to this sin-sick world,” the Western Union message said, “and to the challenge you have to walk in your daddy’s footsteps.”

It didn’t take long for Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, to realize that being a preacher’s kid would be both a blessing and a burden.

“I love my parents,” Graham said in a recent interview, “but there came a time where I couldn’t let my parents live my life.”

After a rebellious youth, Graham found a straight and narrow path that took him to the pulpit and the helm of his father’s Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

But for every Franklin Graham, there’s a Friedrich Nietzsche, the atheist philosopher whose father was a Lutheran minister. For every Condoleezza Rice, there’s an Alice Cooper, the heavy-metal singing, fake-blood spouting son of a preacher man.

Evangelist Billy Graham (r), with son Franklin Graham, at a crusade in New York on Sunday (June 26). Photo by Michael Falco

Evangelist Billy Graham (r), with son Franklin Graham, at a crusade in New York on Sunday (June 26). Photo by Michael Falco


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Beneath the stereotypes of preacher’s kids as either goody two-shoes or devilish hellions lies a tense and sometimes taxing reality, the children of clergy say. Studies show that many PK’s, as the lingo goes, struggle with issues of identity, privacy and morality. There’s even a support group, Preacher’s Kids International, dedicated to the “celebration and recovery of those who grew up in the parsonage.”

It’s unclear how the pressures of life as a prominent pastor’s child affected Matthew Warren, who took his own life on April 5. Warren was the son of megachurch pastor Rick Warren. 

Warren and leaders of his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., declined to comment on Matthew, who was 27 when he died. After his son’s death, Warren said in a statement that Matthew had “struggled from birth from mental illness, dark holes of depression.”

If Matthew Warren also battled with his role as the son of a world famous pastor and bestselling author, Rick Warren did not mention it in his brief statement.

Still, after Matthew Warren’s death, several pastors and children of clergy stepped forward to offer empathy.

Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, said he identifies with Matthew Warren as a fellow PK and as someone who has also suffered from depression. Photo by Mindy Tucker

Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, said he identifies with Matthew Warren as a fellow PK and as someone who has also suffered from depression. Photo by Mindy Tucker


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Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, said he identifies with Matthew Warren as a fellow PK and as someone who has also suffered from depression.

“It’s especially hard because his dad wrote the book `The Purpose Driven Life,’ which has this incredibly optimistic tone,” Bakker said. “My parents wrote the same kind of books, and it was like, `Things are good for everyone else. What’s wrong with me?’ I can’t imagine the pressure he must have felt.”

Preacher’s kids are often considered an extension of their parents’ ministry, Bakker said, and are expected to put on a happy face, even during tough times.

At the height of the Bakker’s success during the 1980s, before their fall from grace, they sent thousands of copies of Jay’s school photos to loyal viewers of their show “PTL.”

“You start to feel like you’re a prop,” Bakker said, “because you know that, behind the scenes, mom and dad fought on the way to church.”

Baptist pastor Corey Hodges said Matthew Warren’s death prompted him to reflect on the lives of his own three boys.

“A pastor’s family has to share him or her with church-members,” Hodges wrote in his hometown paper, The Salt Lake Tribune. When tragedy strikes, pastors are expected to counsel their congregation, even if it means missing their children’s basketball games and school plays.

Evangelists Franklin Graham, left, and Billy Graham, right, stop on North Galvez Street in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Religion News Service photo by Ellis Lucia/The Times-Picayune of New Orleans

Evangelists Franklin Graham, left, and Billy Graham, right, stop on North Galvez Street in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Religion News Service photo by Ellis Lucia/The Times-Picayune of New Orleans


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“My boys masked their disappointment, but being a child of a pastor myself, I understood how much it hurt them,” Hodges wrote.

The children of non-Christian clergy struggle with similar issues, writes Israel N. Levitz in “A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling.”

“It is well known,” Levitz writes, “that the higher expectations placed upon children of clergy create for them inordinate difficulties in growing up.” As Levitz notes, many rebel against those expectations, acting out to gain attention from their parents and to assert their own identity.

For Franklin Graham, his crusading father was often away from home, schoolmates tested his toughness and his behavior was scrutinized for chinks in the Graham family honor. He struggled to forge his own identity while remaining true to his father’s evangelical ideals. He didn’t always succeed: he fought, drank, smoked and got kicked out of college.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to rebel against God or my parents,” Graham said, “I just wanted to live my own life. But the more I thought I was going to have fun and show my independence, the more miserable I became.”

A similar battle between piety and promiscuity, between rebellion and obedience, takes center stage in the Lifetime series “Preachers’ Daughters.” Three teen girls test the boundaries of PK life – and their parents’ patience – mainly by showing an avid interest in boys.

preachers kids

A similar battle between piety and promiscuity, between rebellion and obedience, takes center stage in the Lifetime series “Preachers’ Daughters.” Three teen girls test the boundaries of PK life – and their parents’ patience – mainly by showing an avid interest in boys. Photo courtesy Lifetime


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“It is so much harder to be a preacher’s kid,” said Kolby Koloff, 16, one of the daughters featured in the show. “Preachers in general are held up to a high standard, and their kids are held to an even higher standard because we are a reflection of them.”

“The things that I do,” said Taylor Coleman, 18, another star of in the reality show, “a lot of people make a bigger deal of, only because I am a preacher’s daughter.”

In one episode, Coleman nearly gives her Pentecostal father a heart attack by joking that if she wasn’t a preacher’s kid, she’d be a porn star.

The show has drawn criticism for focusing almost exclusively on sexual temptation, though one daughter has also struggled with drinking and drug use.

“The parents on this show treat their daughters less like full human beings to be loved and cherished and more like walking libidos that have to be suppressed at any cost,” writes Amanda Marcotte in Slate magazine.

“It is so much harder to be a preacher’s kid,” said Kolby Koloff (pictured here with her father), 16, one of the daughters featured in the Lifetime series “Preachers' Daughters.” Photo courtesy Lifetime

“It is so much harder to be a preacher’s kid,” said Kolby Koloff (pictured here with her father), 16, one of the daughters featured in the Lifetime series “Preachers’ Daughters.” Photo courtesy Lifetime


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Others argue that “Preachers’ Daughters” shows only a narrow slice of Christianity (all the families are evangelical) and exploits common teenage troubles to drum up dramatic plots.

After a series of its own dramatic twists, Jay Bakker’s life has arrived fairly close to where it began. Like his infamous father, he’s a pastor. The first service at his new Revolution Church in Minneapolis will be on May 12.

Bakker is married but doesn’t have children of his own yet. When he does start a family, he’s sure of at least one thing.

“I wouldn’t use my kids in my ministry,” he said. “I’ll probably be a stay-at-home dad.”

 

17 Comments

  1. Preachers’ kids have the same need to be seen as individuals that other kids do. I’ve seen my kids pigeonholed by teachers, parents of their friends and by church members. The labels weren’t intentional (and were often meant as a compliment) but the result could have been damaging. It’s good to see an article accurately portraying the realities of being a preachers’ kid. Thank you.

  2. While looking at PK’s – preachers kids, do not forget “MK’s” missionaries kids. Very similar issues plus a cross cultural component. I survived mostly OK, but many of my cousins have been badly scared. The problem is for parents to walk the fine line of what is the best for the children, yet not compromising the Call. There are many graves of children and spouses often in more difficult parts of the world from doing this.

    However the success rates of PK’s and MK’s is quite high. Probably the combination of poverty and a high respect for learning.

  3. The article seems to focus on the children of pop-megachurch pastors who have a high-profile.

    While there is certainly overlap between the high-profile cases and the average pastor, I don’t think my siblings and I felt anywhere near the pressure they do. We also grew up in a denomination that has a very different sense of piety and expectations than most of American Christianity. As a result, I believe the expectations did not pressure us as much.

  4. Fellow posters -

    We seem to have a new, rather churlish and power hungry, moderator on CNN’s religion blog. His name is Daniel Burke, a new CNN employee, and he is abusing the power of his position by deleting posts, not because they are offensive or frivolous, but simply because he, personally, does not enjoy the ideas expressed in the posts. This is abuse of power and I believe we should all protest by emailing our objections to CNN. Join me if you will.

  5. Maybe pastors could pastor after their kids have grown up? I’m not Roman Catholic but the unmarried priest idea sounds ok after reading this article. I can’t imagine the pressure but I think it’s the church’s responsibility to give the kids some breathing space and remember they are kids like everyone else.

  6. I agree that the current TV show is rather bogus and presents a very small subset of preachers/families who have only a few things in common with the average clergyman /family. Most struggle financially, fearful of becoming a burden to their congregation in churches that find an emphasis on wealth to be contrary to Christ’s message and use any excess funds for charitable purposes. I was raised in the Episcopal Church in a small town. Other PKs I knew (and bonded with due to our unique circumstances, be they Lutheran, Methodist, Ukrainian Catholic, etc.) wore mostly hand-me-downs, dreaded the 60 degree temperature in our drafty parsonages/rectories/etc. during the winter, and learned early that our purpose in life was to be a friend to all (regardless of whether that friend was kind) in order to draw others to church or lest a parent become miffed and criticize Daddy or (heaven FORBID) be lost as a parishioner. Too much of the above could result in the dreaded vestry meeting where we could be, and some were, rendered homeless. My brothers and I still suffer from a lack of boundaries, the need to be pleasing regardless of our own needs, and the still intractable pain of knowing that something, anything could be deemed more important than their well-being and peace of mind. Oh, and yes, the sexual behavior of my peers and I was
    also of huge concern, but not primarily because of the damage that promiscuity and illigitimacy can do to lives, but because of the judgement that
    would be brought to bear from church and community. I used to believe that my parents handled these issues more poorly than other clergy parents, and, yes, they did. However, I have met very few adult PKs who, when they feel safe in the presence of another, do not feel the same pain.

  7. Angelo Ricafrente

    I hate knowing that I am a pastor’s kid myself…. I never had the privacy that I needed because there’s always ‘visitors’ at home every day and they always go home late at night,…. I hate the uncertainty that I am feeling knowing that my father is barely at home because he has to be with the church members,…. it made me feel like I’m just a church member myself…. I know that they ‘love’ me and all but they do the same to other people anyway…. I hate seeing fellow ‘Pastor’s Kids’ suffer from all this confusion and depression that I bear the thought that I might end up like them…. I hate how the church people seem to always have the right to just use use/take my stuff because my parents always says ‘to love with no condition’….. I hate how I cannot use my weekends to do my homework and study because I have to be at church the whole time….. I hate how I cannot hang out with my friends because they think they’re ‘demonic’ just because they’re not christians…. I hate how people are telling me that I have a huge responsibility as the pastor’s son to continue the ministry as if I don’t have control over my life…. I wanted to be an Audio Engineer…. but it seems unlikely…. I hate how they always tell me that I have some demon inside me when I tell them my problems…. and now I stopped telling them my issues….. I hate having to sleep having that feeling that I am being watched every night…. turns out that they’re gathered around me with their palms directed at me most of the time….. it’s weird…. and now I am just waiting to graduate and get out of the house…. I understood why a lot of my fellow PK’s actually hated the church….. and finally….. I hate hearing my parents preach about ‘God first, the family second’…. and honestly….. I really feel like I have no future that I am bound to live under my mom’s basement…..

  1. [...] Beneath the stereotypes, a stressful life for preachers' kids Billy Graham tried to save the world, traveling for months at a time to more than 170 countries to preach the Gospel to tens of millions. In a rare moment at home in 1965, he spends time with sons Ned (left) and Franklin. Photo from Graham collection … Read more on Religion News Service [...]

  2. [...] But for every Franklin Graham, there’s a Friedrich Nietzsche, the atheist philosopher whose father was a Lutheran minister. For every Condoleezza Rice, there’s an Alice Cooper, the heavy-metal singing, fake-blood spouting son of a preacher man…. Read this in full at http://www.religionnews.com/2013/05/02/beneath-the-stereotypes-a-stressful-life-for-preachers-kids/ [...]

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