Family business

I asked some pastor friends, “Looking back on your career, what would you do different?”

And one answered, “I would have never been a pastor. If I knew what kind of toll the pastorate was going to have on my sons, I would have never gotten into the job.”

“Really? Then, what would you have become?”

“Anything. A secretary in a law firm. Anything other than this, really.”

It was shocking to hear. I had a sinking feeling that made me want to run home and hug my daughter. Because my husband is also a pastor, we have to be vigilant about not letting it completely consume our lives. It’s easy to go from doing something that we love doing, to letting that something grow like a cancer, until there is nothing left of our lives.

There are certain things that we can’t avoid. We have to work evenings and on weekends. And on most holidays, we have to ratchet the hours up even more. We all have cell phones and email, so that we’re on-call a lot. (But, lest I sound too pathetic–we have perks too. I take my daughter to work a lot, and everyone is happy to see her. And we have vacations. Four weeks of holiday that I have learned to relish with great intensity.)

The message of how a parent’s work can destroy a life was certainly one that stuck with me when I read Crazy for God. It’s an interesting memoir, filled with the antics of a missionary kid, who had a fantastic childhood, in many ways. 

But, there are the strange, painful realities too. Francis Schaeffer, who was known as the intellectual evangelical, who was educating the world about art and literature, was letting his young son, Frank, flounder without basic schooling.

Edith Schaeffer, who was an extraordinary hostess, setting out fine china every night, and treating every person as if he or she was royalty, welcoming anyone in their home, was also crowding out her introverted son.

As Francis and Edith allowed themselves to become martyrs for their work, they could not be there for the person who depended on them the most, who needed for them to be very much alive.

The memoir wasn’t sad. It was an interesting, inside perspective of a far-from-perfect famous Christian family. A third-culture kid (as many missionary children are called) who never felt at home in Switzerland or the U.S.

As with most dysfunctional families, there is always a scapegoat, someone who calls attention to the unhealthy system and is subsequently discredited. We’ve seen them. It’s the rebellious teenager, who seems to be sole source of the otherwise flawless family’s problems. Until you spend about five minutes with the family together and realize that he’s probably the healthiest one.

Frank Schaeffer plays that role perfectly.

Although the memoir wasn’t sad, subsequently, reading some of the reviews has been heartbreaking. It seems that Frank Schaeffer has destroyed the life work of his parents. How? By telling his perspective. By choosing a different path. By allowing himself to have his own voice.

Frank Schaeffer is in his fifties, sorting out his complicated family history, as we all must. And yet, I think the most dismal part of this story is what was not written. It’s that there is still no space for him, for his feelings, and for his voice. His parents’ ministry led to a neglect that shattered his life in very basic ways. And, as a writer, in order for Frank to put his own self back together, he will have to continue to tell his sordid story, with all the truth he can muster, even if it destroys our glossy image of what his family ought to have been.  

The tragedy of this tale is in the fact that even though his dad is dead and his mother is in her nineties, it seems he still can’t have his own room.


28 thoughts on “Family business

  1. Dear Carol: A lot has been written about my writing of late, especially “Crazy For God.” I read some things, ignore others, and probably don’t see most. So it was a special and serendipitous Christmas gift to happen to click on yours today. Your kindness and empathy touched me. You are in the right profession. Lucky people who have you for a pastor.
    Love, Frank

    PS. You nailed the reaction of some folks, but things are looking up. My grandchildren provide a warm escape from introspection. There is always a second chance.

  2. Wow, I actually have a review copy of that book which I haven’t gotten to yet, and I’m going to read it as soon as I get a chance.

    As for being a pastor and parent, even though Juliette is only 11 months and still has a long way to go, so far I feel like my vocation has been a blessing to our family. The flexibility and extended family of faith are invaluable.

  3. Frank,

    It’s a wonderful memoir. It takes a great deal of courage to sort out a life internally, but it takes a particular generosity to sort it out on the page. It’s a gift that you were able to do it. Thank you.

    I hope you have a full and rich holiday with your grandchildren. Peace to you.

  4. I think in the past it was assumed that the “preacher’s family” would be neglected to some degree. Just like they were excpectecd to be better behaved. That was part of “the call.”

    My wife experinced this as a “pk.”

    We were at an important nonworship church event a few months ago when our pastor left becuase his wife had taken their child to the ER for what turned out to be a minor injury. And everyone at the gathering encouraged him to go.

    Later when we were talking my wife noted that her father most likely would not have left had that happened 40 years ago when she was that age. If he had left he would have hell to pay from the leadership at most of the congregations he served.

  5. It’s certainly posts like this that make me wonder “what on Earth am I thinking?” for perusing a call. Indeed, the fact that I’m re-entering the process after a 7-year-gap must be a sign of insanity.

    And then there’s the fact that my wife is seeking ordination in an entirely different denomination….

    Either this is really from God, or we should both be removed from society altogether….

  6. I think there is a generational aspect to this topic. I have been clear with my session and leadership from the start that my family comes before the church. It is not only my first calling, but in many ways my “first church.” When I did my first in-depth self-reflection, shared with the personnel committee (and other staff), the church was 4th on my list of priorities, with all my church ministry responsibilities broken down in sub-categories under #4. I shared that with the other ministry staff as well, hopefully encouraging them to think through their own priorities.

    I think that perspective comes partly from knowing some PK’s and MK’s who were burned by parents (mostly fathers) in the ministry. But, the fuel for that perspective mostly comes from having a workaholic father. I mainly decided I wanted things to be different for my kids (and marriage).

    I think this question is one, not just for folks in ministry, but for a whole generation moving into the working world. I know my 36 yr. old brother in law is in a medical practice where all the physicians under 40 have an expectation of more family time (and how being on-call) works out than the doctors >40. He chose a practice that would allow him to put priority on his family.

    I’d like to think that might be one way my GenX generation is quietly and significantly impacting the culture.


  7. There’s a gender component here. Being the minister and the mom is rougher than being the minister and the dad. It is a pioneering trail, culturally. But even more difficult — is that the internal expectations of being “mom” are different than being “dad” they just are. My husband and I are as egalitarian as they come — he stayed home full time with the kids while I had my first ordained call. Despite that egalitarianism, there are certain things that fall to “mom”. Also — I wonder if it is literally “too much” for some kids — to have a mother (which is such a powerful relationship) also be the minister, who “speaks for God.” It’s a load. I don’t hear this addressed much. I should blog about it myself sometime! Thanks, Carol.

  8. I truly grow weary of the whining attitudes of so many pastors and missionaries who want to place the blame for their own unwillingness to define boundaries on the congregations and the settings in which they serve. Having served as a PC(USA) pastor and missionary for over 20 years, I proudly proclaim and functional and loving family not in spite of or because of the ministry but because of the Lord’s conviction that it is my first ministry – I Timothy 3 is a good lesson for all in family issues when considering church ministry. The reality however is that it is no more difficult for pastors or missionaries irrespective of their gender) than it is for lawyers, doctors, stock clerks, or custodians. It’s simply a matter of setting the right goals. We can’t always have our cake and eat it too…

  9. Carol – interesting to read because parents in many demanding professions (and a lot of them are demanding) face these issues today. When our kids were at home I was just Dad. I assume the kids know what a “PK” is but it is an expression that we never used! Our family was our #1 priority even as our work at times could assume that ranking. People like Charlie Shedd who said, “Eat out once a week with your spouse if you are married or with a close friend if you are not and once a month with every child” and other such words of great common sense made a world of difference in the midst of manic busyness. At the same time all of us parents know rather well our parental short comings. I regret Frank’s growing up challenges as his parents were a great encouragement to many who were in seminary in the 1970s when radical theology upheld godless religion(which is an oxymoron if ever there was one). Merry Christmas to you, Brian and your family – Stan

  10. Glen~

    I hesitate to say this but I found your comments somewhat sanctimonious and quite whiney in their own right. As a person who has been both a stock clerk, custodian and pastor I can assure you that my demands were much less rigorous at the first two positions.

  11. I don’t think the comparisons to other professions are particularly helpful. If somebody calls a doctor at home and the doctor’s kid picks up the phone, that person doesn’t start asking the kid’s medical opinion about their ailments. And if a custodian’s kid makes a mess at school, the school board doesn’t have a meeting to discuss the custodian’s job performance. But PKs field pastoral phone calls from upset parishioners, and you better believe that the public behavior of a PK is taken as a reflection of the job the pastor is doing. Glen, I’m happy for you that you’ve found it as easy as setting goals to protect the integrity and privacy of your family. You are truly blessed. But speaking as a double PK, the child of two Episcopal priests, for my family it was never that easy. Lord knows that my parents did their absolute best to shield me, but the cultural weight of 1 Timothy 3 was cause for a lot of my childhood heartache.

    I have…..well, way too much to say about this topic in general, so I think I’ll stop there and just go put Crazy for God on my Amazon wishlist.

  12. Yes, indeed my comments do read a bit sanctimonious and they certainly were not meant to. Noir wer they meant to sound whiny. My apologies to those so offended. My background is, as well, a stock clerk, clothing saleperson, garbage truck driver, and housepainter and my comments were meant to share that each profession has it’s own unique and unreasonnable demands (i.e. our garbage trucks had to be washed out each night and then parked between 6-8″ apart as measured at the side views mirrors…weird, I know). I simply think that as pastors we seem to do a lot of whining about expectations and I sense that much of it stems from inadequately shared goals within families and congregations. I have noticed an incredible “busyness” amongst Americans of all walks, even and especially stay at homes moms since returning to the USA this past summer after almost 9 years in the mission field. And I hear a lot of complaints from all professions regarding “bosses'” expectations. I just don’t think any of this is unique to the pastorate, etc… just different areas of weird expectations. Too often people make choices like Frank’s parents they sacrifice their children on the altar of ministry, or medicine, etc. It just seems especially weird to see it in this particular “caring profession.”

    As for the ability to speak for both genders, I don’t see this as a gender specific issue as much as a gender transcendent issue…

  13. Glen, to say that it’s “gender transcendent” means you didn’t take notice of my comment. Stop. Reread. This is my life for 20 years, I have something to say about it. My gender, my calling, my mothering. I’m glad everything has been nice and smooth for you. (and I’d like to hear your wife’s comments)

  14. Ruth, I appreciate your comments and I don’t mean to deny your say as a woman. That was not my intent although I must admit the comment can be read that way. I just don’t have time to continue this conversation.

  15. Thanks for your insights, all.

    Stan wrote, “I regret Frank’s growing up challenges as his parents were a great encouragement to many.”

    I guess that’s the difficulty that we face as we look to religious leaders. There are certainly many people whom I appreciate, but then I’m not thrilled with their personal lives. (I’m thinking of Paul Tillich, who wrote such beautiful sermons and theology, and then kept a shoe box of *ahem* distasteful photos under his bed…). Though it’s disappointing to hear, I’m not sure that it diminishes the power of his work (although many feminists would disagree with me). What do you think?

    As religious leaders ourselves, we are in difficult positions. We’re all imperfect. I know that my family couldn’t stand up to the rigors of I Tim 3.

    I am thankful that we live in a time when people don’t seem to expect as much from the pastor’s family. You know, I always hear of the days when the spouse was basically an unpaid employee. Now, 90% of my congregation would not even recognize my spouse. And, thank God, children are not encouraged to “submit” in our culture. My daughter’s a free spirit (her fashion sense alone would drive some churches nuts), so I always have to take that into consideration with any position.

  16. David asks, “Is it a ‘career?'”

    I think so. It’s also more than that–a calling, a vocation. But for me, to think of it as a career puts it into perspective on those days when I don’t feel like doing the mundane things that I’m not all fired-up and passionate about.

    But I also think of many ordinary careers as vocations and callings.

    What do you think? Does career connote a certain striving or ladder that causes discomfort? Do you think it diminishes the idea of vocation?

  17. Carol,

    Okay okay okay, I put “Crazy for God” on hold. And not just because I’m a TCK and the daughter of a PK. The fact that this is at least the second time you’ve mentioned it, and written about it provocatively clinched it for me.

    Thank you for the post and the comments. I always come here in the morning if I want to read something that will make me think.

    I would not have traded my life as a TCK. Nor would I have traded the glee my father (now retired) gets from his “glory days.” It was NOT easy. But what life lived fully ever is?

    Will I ever feel entirely at home in this culture that I now call home? Probably not. Will I ever feel comfortable talking about my experiences with people who have only been tourists? I hope so.


  18. As a pastor, I think one of the huge benefits of our calling is the flexibility of our work schedules. Yes, we have night meetings. But we can often leave during the day or come in later in the morning if need be.
    I don’t have to sit in an office all day. I am constantly switching tasks, alternating between a building supervisor, scholar, therapist, office manager, writer, janitor and cook. As someone who is a bit hyperactive and hates doing the same thing for too long (ADD?), it is the perfect job for me.
    Granted, it is not a job for all people but what is? But for those of us who like to do a lot of different things and hate the idea of a formatted day, it just about perfect.
    Prior to entering the seminary, I was a meat packer and janitor and found those jobs much more challenging than my current job as HOS. Punching that clock made me nuts.

  19. Glen~

    Thank you for the clarification. I appreciate your candor. It sounds like we had similar working backgrounds. I do think that you have hit something at its core. The inherent class issues that are present amongst clergy. There is in the PC(USA) very overt class distinctions amongst the clergy. This often sorts out who goes where and when. Thank you again for being willing to engage in this topic. Have a wonderful Christmas and holiday.

  20. john w,

    A lot of the comments here have been interesting and helpful, but I wanted to especially thank you for yours. Besides pursing a ministerial call because that’s what I (and my wife) feel God is calling us to do, your post reminds me of some of our own particular personalities and talents, that seem very much to be helpful in an ordained profession. Things that would actually help to make such a profession enjoyable! There is hope!

  21. Quick Response:
    Our sons – – 38 & 35 years of age, wouldn’t trade the PK life.
    One’s an inner city high school teacher. The other a pastor of a thriving church.
    I credit God, lots of focus & Marriage Encounter training for my wife & I that blessed them.

  22. Carol
    thanks for your thoughts. I have the book sitting in my office, but haven’t had time to read it yet….but it now has moved up to the top of the pile as the next to be read.
    I am a pastor and grew up as a PK. Yes it is a different life, but I have to admit that I can’t imagine another lifestyle for my children.
    While there are difficulties with the choice of being a pastor (times when my children –including my special needs child–is judged harder than the average kid because they are the pastor’s kid and should be better behaved) but they are also are the recipients of a wonderful extended family who constantly are sharing their love, time and gifts with my girls.

  23. Carol, I spent all of yesterday reading Crazy for God. Wow. I loved it. I’m still absorbing it but WOW. I think the message of the book was that there are second chances, and that we are ALL broken.


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