Those Preacher's Kids! | Pulpit and Pew
Pulpit and Pew Equipping Churches with Resources and Research
Home Overview Publications

Those Preacher's Kids!

by Jackson W. Carroll

Hang around many churches for long and you’ll almost surely hear tales of various preachers’ kids, "P.K.s" as they are sometimes affectionately called. Typically it is a tale of some wild adventure or prank that the P.K. was involved in to the embarrassment of his or her parents.

Another story about P.K.s takes a different turn: A number of P.K.s end up themselves as pastors. Indeed, in some instances, they are the latest of several generations—from a pastor grandfather, a pastor father (less often a pastor mother), to a pastor son or daughter. In our national sample of clergy, 10 percent of Protestant clergy were sons or daughters of clergy. In several cases, both parents were pastors, sometimes serving as co-pastors. As might be expected, no Catholic priests were P.K.s.

Does being a P.K. make any difference in one’s decision to enter ordained ministry or in their attitudes and expectations about ministry? We might well expect to answer both questions affirmatively, since P.K.s should early on have gained a perspective on ministry that might not be as readily available to non- P.K. sons or daughters. They should know what the profession entails—what they can expect or what is expected of them. In sociological terms, they have had an early socialization into ordained ministry that their non-P.K. peers are not likely to have had. Although the 10 percent sample of P.K.s is too small for detailed analysis (80 of the 799 Protestant clergy in the overall sample), it is large enough to make several comparisons. In making these comparisons, it is important to remember that the P.K.s represented are only those who are serving congregations. Clergy offspring serving in other forms of ordained ministry or as associate pastors are not included in the sample. The following comparisons are for Protestant clergy only.

P. K.s by Denominational Family

As the following graph shows, Conservative Protestants have the largest percentage of P.K.s, followed by clergy in Historic Black denominations. Mainline clergy, with 7 percent P.K.s, are slightly less likely to reproduce themselves by having a child enter parish ministry.


Gender Comparisons

Although not all denominations ordain women, for those whose parents are not clergy, the percentage of women becoming clergy is greater than that for men. For clergy children, the opposite is true. However, when we take denominational family into account (table not shown), there are no female P.K.s whose parents were clergy in Conservative Protestant or Historic Black denominations. All come from Mainline traditions—all of which ordain women as well as men. Although there were only a small number of P.K.s with a clergy mother, all were males.


Religious Involvement at Age 16

Do P.K.s differ from other clergy in the their religious involvement as youth? We asked several questions about level and type of involvement. The table below shows reported church attendance at age 16, broken by parent’s occupation. It is of interest that no P.K. reported weekly attendance or that he or she never attended; however, a statistically significant percentage of P.K.s attended two to three times a month—over 26 percent more than for clergy with parents in other occupations.

Although we have not included the tables here, P.K.s were also significantly more involved in church youth groups at age 16 than those with parents in other occupations—88 percent versus 69 percent, and they were also more likely to serve as leaders of these groups—79 percent versus 58 percent. Thus with the exception of weekly church attendance, they were more involved in church activities in their youth than was true for those with non-clergy parents.


Call and Ordination

It is not surprising, as the next graph shows, that P.K.s were lightly younger on average than non-P.K.s when they first felt called to ministry. They were also ordained at a slightly younger age, and have served on average a few more years than non-P.K.s. There is no difference, however,
in their current age.

Although we do not show the comparisons here, when we take into account the number of years clergy have served as in ordained ministry, we find that both P.K.s and non P.Ks. who have been in ministry less than ten years were significantly older when they were ordained (average age of 37) than those who have been in ministry more than 10 years. Those in ministry from 10 to 20 years averaged 32 (non P.K.s) and 31 (P.K.s) when they were ordained, and those in ministry 21 to 30 years were, on average ordained at age 28 (non-P.K.s) and 25 (P.K.s). In the longest serving group (31 years plus), both P.K.s and non P.K.s averaged 25 years of age when they were ordained. These differences illustrate how the second career phenomenon is affecting P.K.s equally as much as non P.K.s. Both groups are entering ministry at an older age. Nonetheless, P.K.s still feel the call to ministry earlier than non P.K.s, regardless of how long they have been ordained ministers.


Commitment to Ministry

Do clergy who are P.K.s differ from others in their commitment to ministry and, more specifically, to parish ministry? In the following figure, we show three commitment measures. Each asks how often in the past 5 years the pastor has doubted his or her call, considered leaving parish ministry for another type of ministry position, and considered leaving ministry altogether for a secular position. Responses could vary from 1, signifying "never," to 4, signifying "very often." The figure reports the mean or average score for each commitment measure, broken by father’s occupation. As is evident, the average commitment level for both groups of clergy is high. Both groups, on average, score less than 2 (signifying "Once in a while.") But it is also clear that P.K.s differ from non P.K.s on the three commitment measures: They doubt their call less, but they are more likely to have considered leaving parish ministry for another form of ministry and dropping out of ordained ministry altogether.


Satisfaction With Ministry

Given P.K.s relatively higher commitment to their call, but an apparent tendency to consider leaving parish ministry, what might we expect with regard to measures of satisfaction with various aspects of their ministry situation? The bar graph below shows comparisons on selected satisfaction measures. Only on two measures are there statistically significant differences, though they do not show greater satisfaction by P.K.s. Instead, non P.K.s are significantly more likely to report that they are satisfied with their overall effectiveness in their current position and also with their spiritual life than are P.Ks. P.K.s, in contrast, are slightly more satisfied with their current position and salary and benefits, but the differences are small and not statistically significant.


Commending Ministry to Others

Are P.K.s more or less likely to commend ordained ministry to others? Also, might there be a difference in the number of people who actually go into ministry from the congregation if the pastor is a P.K.? Obviously, the answer to the latter question may be determined by a number of other kinds of influences, but it is not improbable that P.K.s convey views about ministry that are different (either more or less positive) than those whose parents were in some other occupation. The following graph shows the mean or average number encouraged to consider ministry and the mean number from the congregation actually in ministry.

As the graph shows, non P.K.s report a substantially larger number of persons encouraged to enter ministry than do those who are P.K.s. This, however, is a bit misleading. Only a few non P.K.s report encouraging a large number to consider ministry, thus somewhat skewing the distribution. Although we have not shown it, when we compute the median or mid-point rather than the mean, the median for non P.K.s is practically the same as for P.K.s. P.K.s, however, report, on average, slightly more persons from their congregation who are in ordained ministry than non P.K.s. This is true whether the mean or median number is computed. Neither of the differences is statistically significant.


Is the Number of P.K.s Declining?

The data that we have is for only one point in time. We don’t have trend data for the number of P.K.s over time. It is, nonetheless, tempting to compare trends for clergy P.K.s and non P.K. clergy based on how long they have been in ministry. The following graph shows the numbers of P.K.s in our sample when the clergy are grouped according to their years in ordained ministry. If this can be taken as an approximation of a trend, it would appear that the number of P.K.s has declined over time. That is, the number of P.K.s increases slightly with each cohort of clergy grouped by years in ministry. Thus there are 14 P.K.s in the cohort in ministry less than 10 years, but there are 23 in the 31+ year group. Comparatively, the number of non P.K. clergy remains relatively constant for the first three cohorts and declines sharply in the 31+ group. We emphasize that the data can’t be taken as definitely showing a trend, but it is suggestive that there have been fewer clergy sons and daughters entering ordained ministry in recent years than was true in the past.


Some Concluding Observations

Because the number of P.K.s in our sample is small, these comparisons must be made with caution. Nonetheless, they have highlighted several apparent differences between those whose parents (usually fathers) were clergy and those whose parents were in other occupations.

  • On several of the comparisons that we examined, P.K.s do seem to have had an earlier socialization into the ministry than non P.K.s. They were more active, on average in church and church youth groups, they felt called to ordained ministry somewhat earlier, and, until recently, they were ordained at a younger age than non P.K.s. Recently, however, they are about equally likely to come into ministry later, probably as a second career, as is true from non P.K.s.
  • Their earlier socialization into ministry may be the reason they are less likely to report doubting their call. Yet, they are more likely to have considered leaving pastoral ministry for another type of ministry position and to have considered leaving ordained ministry for a secular vocation. Why these differences is an interesting question that we cannot answer from the data.
  • We wonder why Conservative Protestant and Historic Black Protestant clergy seem more likely to be P.K.s than are Mainline Protestants? To be sure, the differences are relatively small, but they are large enough to as lead us to ask why this is so. Is being a pastor a more positive choice for clergy children in the former groups than for Mainline clergy children? Is it perhaps a matter of socioeconomic status; that is, is being a pastor (and thus following one’s parent into ministry) viewed as higher status by Conservative Protestants and in Historic Black denominations but less so by Mainline Protestants?
  • At the same time, we note that it is only among Mainline Protestants in our sample that we find clergywomen who are P.K.s. Most Conservative Protestant and several Historic Black denominations do not have women serving as senior or sole pastors of congregations. None were in our sample.
  • We also wonder why clergy who are P.K.s seem slightly less likely
    to encourage others in their congregation to go into ministry than non P.K. clergy, and why it is that there appear to be fewer P.K.s going into pastoral ministry today than in times past?
Pastor Speaking to Ladies

Pastor Holding Baby