By Tony Vincent
It was the last day of high school my junior year and my first official day as a rising senior! It felt like the perfect start to what would be a perfect summer followed by a perfect senior year. Then I came home from school to find my father sitting in the living room of our house with tears in his eyes. Dad had been fired unexpectedly from his ministry position at our church, throwing our family into crisis. A few moments later Mom would arrive from work and we would hug and comfort each other with the words, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.”
I’m not sure how much we believed them at the time, but those hope-filled words ended up being true. It surely wasn’t the path Dad set out upon when he surrendered to God’s call to ministry, but it was the path he walked in faith. It wasn’t easy. Dad had to moonlight at a hotel front desk for several months to make ends meet, but it was in the faithful footsteps of my parents that I followed into my own call to ministry.
Before I could fully embrace that call, I had to grow through the grief of losing much of my identity, my youth group and maybe my misguided notions of what the church was and was not. As a teenager prone to the usual teenage angst, this was a lengthy, sometimes ugly, process. Rather than push me to respond to this crisis in the way they thought I should respond, my parents let me be me through it all. They were constant in their faithfulness and love. They undoubtedly prayed for me, but allowed me to work through the experience on my time.
Upon hearing my story, I’ll never forget my divinity school mentor, Dr. Doug Dickens, immediately asking the question, “What the heck are you doing here, then? Most preacher’s kids who experience something like that run as far away as possible from the Church!” My response was, “I did, for a while. But I figured out that the Church still needed folks like me who have been hurt and yet can still find ways to forgive each other and go on together.” For several years to follow, Doug would have Dad speak to students about the experience of termination and our family’s response to it.
If there’s something from my experience that I would like church-folk to hear, it is this: how churches relate to their ministers directly impacts how ministers’ kids view the church. I have been witness to meanness and a lack of grace through the years that was (and still is) unsettling for a kid to witness. But thankfully, I have also been blessed throughout my life by wonderful, life-giving relationships that began when I was someone’s “PK” and that continue to bless me and my family today.
If there’s something from my experience that I would like other ministers to hear, it is this: recognize that you cannot shield your children from all of the ugliness of church life. We’ll pick up on it, no matter how hard you try to cover it up. Instead, try to offer them a balanced, fair look at what the church is and isn’t. It won’t ever be perfect. It will be made real with grace. Don’t gloss over real pain, but celebrate the goodness and try to model grace in the face of ugliness. Parents, trust your kids to figure out their own way.
My wife Kristen and I are both “Preacher’s Kids,” and now we’re raising our twin girls as “PKs.” In many ways our childhood experiences with the church are shaping how we want to raise our children.
Kristen and I both came of age during the conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention, and we both remember our families’ involvement in the birth of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. We remember tears shed over broken relationships and hopeful new ones. We are both products of ministry opportunities through CBF (for her, Global Service Corps, and for me, a CBF-partner education and church ministry position). These opportunities were born out of painful conflict, but are beautiful and formative parts of our identity. We know that we won’t always be able to protect our girls from ugliness in our world, or maybe even in our church. However, we can continue on that path of faithfulness so that as they figure out their own paths, they’ll have a steady journey to follow as we did.
Rev. Tony Vincent is Associate Minister at Trinity Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., where he has served since 2004. He is married to Kristen, and they have two daughters, Caroline and Carter.