By Barnabas Piper
Doubt is common to all Christians. We struggle for a million reasons ranging from difficult intellectual questions to times of extreme suffering to feeling like God is absent.
And sometimes the people you think are the least likely to struggle with doubts actually struggle the most.
My father was a pastor of the same church, Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, from three years before I was born until he retired on my 30th birthday.
The church grew steadily from just a few hundred to a few thousand during his ministry, so I experienced a range of pastor’s kid (PK) environments.
After moving away from home I began to connect with PKs from all over the country and I discovered that our experiences, regardless of denomination or church size or region, were strikingly similar—including a remarkably common and profoundly deep struggle with doubt.
Here are five reasons why PKs struggle deeply with doubt.
1. People’s Expectations vs. Jesus’ Expectations
“You shouldn’t do that; you’re the pastor’s kid” is a common refrain for many PKs. Even if it is not expressed explicitly, the sentiment is very clear: PKs are held to a different standard than our peers.
The eyes of the church, strangers and acquaintances alike, are on them constantly. This perpetual sense of pressure to live up to arbitrary and excessive expectations is brutal emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.
Worst of all, it can drive a wedge between a PK and Jesus as it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between legalistic demands and what Jesus actually calls His followers to.
2. Borrowed Belief
One of the most difficult things for a PK to figure out is the difference between what he’s been told to believe and what he actually believes.
The inundation of sermons, Bible memory, Bible trivia, theological argument, family devotions, and dinner time conversations about all things church- and Bible-related leaves a PK with an over-stocked pantry and no idea how to cook or even what food he enjoys.
A PK can often describe faith without having it, argue theology without believing it, and quote Scripture without thinking about it.
This isn’t necessarily hypocrisy as much as it is confusion. It’s what happens when someone is handed belief instead of discovering it.
For a PK the discovery often happens much later, after much doubting and confusion.
3. No Room for Questions
When a person is new to Christianity we expect and love their questions about faith and the Bible. It’s a sign they’re growing and pursuing a deeper understanding of God.
But in many church environments the same expectation and love is not afforded to long-time Christians, especially not if they share a last name with the pastor.
One of those false expectations I mentioned above is that PKs should have answers, not questions.
When a PK struggles with his faith and the deeper mysteries of God where does he take his questions? At many churches the answer is “nowhere”—PKs are seen as a threat or a failure. So doubt grows in the dark with no place to take it.
4. No Room for Failure
All of us fail. We sin. We disappoint people. We face the same temptations over and over again with varying results. And it’s hard for anybody to confess and ask for help.
How much more so when you’re held to a higher standard? When everyone is watching. When people would like you to keep your questions to yourself even if you don’t know what you believe.
This is often the atmosphere when PKs live, so what do they do when they screw up? Where do they go when they’re struggling with temptation or have absolutely blown it?
Few things feed the fire of doubts like guilt and shame, and when grace is absent those things flourish.
5. An Undefined Identity
When your faith is handed to you fully formed before you are fully formed, when people expect you to be a wholly sanctified Christian before you can spell “sanctified,” when you know you must hide your questions and your sins in a closet, well, it’s awfully hard to figure out who you truly are.
So many PKs define themselves by what they’re expected to be. Others define themselves by what they refuse to be. And many others waffle between identities, trying to figure out what to be.
A PK can describe what it means to have an identity in Christ infinitely easier than he can find his own.
After all Jesus is daddy’s boss, the topic of a sermon, or the subject matter of a debate much more than He is a savior, redeemer, and friend.
Without an identity in Christ doubts don’t just abound, they overwhelm. They are the sea on which a PK is tossed to and fro because he has no anchor in Jesus.
I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture of all PKs. A huge number of us are blessed to come from homes that valued God’s Word and served God’s Church faithfully.
A disproportionate number of us, myself included, come through our struggles and end up serving the Lord faithfully.
But we don’t do it without scars.
The life of a pastor’s family has unique challenges, even in the healthiest church. And, while PKs may not struggle with doubts more often than other believers, they do struggle alone more often and with deeper intensity. They need your prayers, your patience, and your grace.
Barnabas is a pastor at Immanuel Church in Nashville. He is a husband and the father of two daughters. He is also the author of several books, including The Pastor’s Kid and Help My Unbelief as well as a small group study, Ecclesiastes: Finding Meaning in a World of Passing Pursuits.