We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin,” says Canadian novelist André Berthiaume. As a pastor’s kid I appreciate this statement, maybe more than most. I’ve always heard that pastors’ kids “have issues” and tend to wash out of the Church. What I haven’t heard is intelligent discussion on why this might be true. This is my story of why I left the Church, why I came back and the skin I lost in the process.
Growing up a pastor’s kid was somewhat of a beautiful contradiction. At an early age I learned that Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest. But my experience was that Sabbath was the day Dad was never at home and we as a family worked hardest. I experienced being a part of some amazing churches, where people were genuine and God really did work. But I also watched as a group of church members attempted to destroy the people I loved most because of church politics and power. I was told I was valuable, but, as the pastor’s daughter, I felt crushing judgement everywhere I turned in our community.
By the time I was 15, I had come to the conclusion that if I wasn't good enough for church, I wasn't good enough for God.
As a teen, I struggled with the feeling that I was not as important as everyone else because I was the pastor’s kid, the given, the good kid who should know all the faith stuff already. We had to bend over backwards for “the lost”, but I was the “found of the found”, and the expectations were impossibly high. I tried desperately to be the perfect pastor’s daughter but no matter what I did, I always fell short.
By the time I was 15, I had come to the conclusion that if I wasn’t good enough for church I wasn’t good enough for God. By the time I started university I could recite the textbook Adventist answers with the best of them, but under the smile and the “Happy Sabbaths” I was angry and desperate—silently struggling with addiction and an eating disorder.
When I graduated from university, all I wanted was out. Not from my family, who I admired and loved, but from all the pressures of church life that surrounded them. So I ran as far as I could—all the way to Denmark as, ironically, a student missionary. I enjoyed being where no-one knew me, my family or that I was a pastor’s kid. For the first time in my life I was anonymous and felt safe from judgement. I was free.
What I didn’t know is that while Denmark is one of the richest countries in the world, it has among the highest teenage abortion, suicide and alcohol consumptions rates. And the normal family? There was no such thing! Working at Vejlefjordskolen, an Adventist boarding academy, those statistics became real as I interacted with kids dealing with trauma. But unlike Papua New Guinea where I had spent the first four and-a-half years of my life, no-one needed any material stuff in Denmark. Many of these kids had more brand name items than I could ever imagine owning and my shallow textbook Adventist answers were useless. What they needed was what I didn’t have myself: real love, real acceptance, real forgiveness and real grace.
What do you say to a kid who describes their weekend with: “It was terrible—my dad just went to prison after I testified against him in court.” What do you say to the 14-year-old threatening suicide after having an abortion the weekend before? My religion had equipped me to explain the 2300 days, not to provide genuine love when someone had experienced a profoundly traumatic day.
After a particularly distressing night I asked one of the other student missionaries: “Why do you believe in God?” Her answer wreaked havoc with my brain for months: “Because God is love and without Him, without His love, I’ve got nothing to give anyone.” I desperately wanted something to give these kids, but at the same time I wanted nothing to do personally with a God who I saw as harsh, judgemental and condescending; or a Church that I saw as ruthless, unforgiving and two-faced. But after months of fighting with myself and the calling of the Spirit, I decided to give God another try.
It’s been a little over a year since that day. I won’t lie and tell you that everything is perfect now, because it’s not. I still struggle with the consequences of past decisions, there is pain I still have to work through and there are churches I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to walk back into again. As they say, “pastors’ kids have issues and many of them leave the Church”. It may be because of what we’ve seen, because we don’t feel supported, because we don’t believe that we are good enough or because we’re sick of the two-facedness of it all. But often—maybe most often—we leave simply because we’ve been incredibly hurt.
Some of us come back, some of us don’t. The reason I came back is because I met God. I met a God who is bigger than our Church. A God whose love is big enough to take our hurt, our anger and resentment and say “I love you. I accept you. You are enough”. I saw what His love did in the lives of students. I know personally that He took an angry pastor’s kid from New Zealand and showed her that she is loved, her story is important and His grace really is enough.
To paraphrase the apostle Paul: “God’s grace; it’s all you and I need. His strength truly comes into its own in my weakness.” And once I realised that; once I let go and trusted that He knows me far better than I know myself, I could quit focusing on my imperfection and begin appreciating the gift. It became a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. That’s why I can be so sure that every detail in my life can and will be worked into something good. Because these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks—I can just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become in Him.
So, here I am, a pastor’s kid cliché; only I came back—missing skin and all. And now, next time you hear talk about the trouble with pastors’ kids, you’ll have an insight into maybe why some of us are troubled. One of the most poignant expressions of my prayer to Jesus today, is put this way:
“I have not much
To offer You
Not near what You deserve
But still I come
Because Your cross
Has placed in me my worth.”
—Unashamed by Starfield
Rebekah Rankin is working while studying for her Masters in International and Community Development at Deakin University, Melbourne.