As a kid, Joanna used to always get annoyed when she was introduced as “Billy’s daughter,” instead of her actual name. That’s just one of the many side effects that come with being a Pastor’s Kid, also known as PK (Footnote 1). Growing up as a PK has its perks and its discontents. Even though we are from the same family and church for the most part, we have experienced our own unique experiences as PKs. We recognize that PKs are a special breed in the Church. In this piece, we discuss our childhood growing up as PKs, how that experience has shaped us into the women we are today, and how our journeys have differed.
Footnote 1: Pastor’s Kid: (noun) Definition – a child of a pastor forever, whether you believe in God or not. Individuals who are especially prone to spiritual and emotional trauma due to growing up in dysfunctional churches.
Jo: What was it like growing up as a PK?
Symphony: Um…I need some wine before I answer that question. Growing up, I spent most of my time in and out of church. Instead of school, my social circle was mostly centered around the church community because we would spend our entire weekends at church in Chinatown. Intellectually, growing up as a PK taught me how to care for people – following my parents’ model for interaction with the community. I would overhear my parents’ conversations with people, as they counseled them over the phone, and I grew up with a knowledge of how messed up people really are. Just because you’re 50 years old and you have a job doesn’t mean you have it all together. The most formative part of being a PK was learning to look at the world beyond the surface, to never take people at their face value.
Growing up as a PK also isolated me from other kids at church. I had a “special status”. This did not mean that I was most loved or most popular among my peers in church or even out of church. In my teenage years, I saw myself as awkward and weird, but being a PK forced me to grow out of that awkwardness. In that “forced community,” I had to learn and cultivate social skills, build my own identity, and discover who I truly was.
Jo: What did that “special status” mean to you?
Symph: In a Chinese church, being a pastor is highly regarded. Being a daughter gave me pressure but also perks. There was pressure because I had to be nice to everyone, be good, and “holy” because if I wasn’t, it would reflect poorly on my parents. In addition, being an older sibling meant I had to set a model for my sister Harmony and even younger kids at church. I had the older sibling syndrome, which meant I was always “on” and my actions were always in the public eye. People will come up and recognize me, but I would have no idea who they are.
Special status also meant that I was expected to do more ministry in the church. I felt I was expected to take leadership roles. It was both good and bad. I did have the opportunity to cultivate leadership skills. But maybe it could have been better if I could have had more time to develop other skills.
When I got to college, I mostly hid my PK identity so that I could be free to be my own person. I never used that identity as an opener unless someone really asked me. I wanted to explore what it meant to be Symphony Chau without being under the shadow of my parents, my family background, or how I was perceived as a leader. I needed to re-evaluate my identity and let people view me through a lens of my choice instead of a filtered lens chosen by others. Once someone knows I am a PK, they will always see me as that. I can never go back. I wanted the freedom of being my own person.There are also all these labels that immediately attach themselves to being a PK. I wanted to steer away from that.
Jo: Somehow there is significance attached to your actions as a PK because you’re a PK. What is that significance? Somehow you’re representative of the faith?
Symph: Why does that matter so much to the church? Whether the PK is a goody two shoes, or PK gone wild or off the rails. If it’s a random Christian, their actions don’t have the same significance attached the way a PK does. It goes back to the parents’ success or failure.
Jo: For example, my dad and I have conversations about his parenting. In the same way that the spiritual leader has to model all sorts of behavior, they are also expected to model good parenting. If your kids are f*^$d up, then you did something wrong. The pastor’s family has to be redeemed, there are all sorts of associations that church folk make about what that means about a pastor’s leadership of a church as well, not just of his family.
Back to you. Your identity is more complex, and particularly, your spiritual journey is also more complex. Does being a PK lead to a particular path of spiritual formation that doesn’t exist for others?
Symph: Compared to others, PKs always have to think about it, and it is not an option. You have to make a decision. I felt that as a child, I had to know the answers and defend my beliefs. Later, I developed a healthier attitude and was okay with not knowing the answers. A lot of PKs I know were atheists for a while. Most of my friends have had a long period of wrestling with atheism or agnosticism. Even though they believed in God, they didn’t like the church. Or they were hurt by the church.
Jo: It’s like what I’ve heard the Amish do – you grow in the faith and then make a decision as opposed to coming to the faith from another perspective. While I think there’s an idea that you still make an individual choice, in reality, those choices are made for you because you are surrounded by the culture. And it takes another level of internalizing your own spiritual journey and making your beliefs your own.
Symph: What was it like growing up as a PK for you?
Jo: I think from the time I could remember having a mind as a child until probably 9th grade, I was a zealot. I really thought everybody should be Christian. I really thought the idea of a Kingdom purpose drove what I thought about the world as a child. And I think that was because of my dad, who spent a lot of time getting people to understanding their purpose.
Specifically, I learned from my father that purpose and meaning in life was countercultural – altruistic, non-conformist to the status quo, ultimately going against the drive to acquire money, power, and fame.
Symph: What about your relationship to the church community as a PK?
Jo: People spiritualize my family’s experiences in a way that I don’t think is accurate. They attribute all these spiritual characteristics to us in a way that they shouldn’t. For example, my mother’s chronic health issues. Because my mother is a pastor’s wife, there has always been an expectation that she is this angelic, sacrificial, and supportive person, and a medical miracle. There’s this idea that my mom is an example of God’s grace. To me – my mom is an example of how screwed up life is. It’s not grace. It’s not a pretty picture, and yet there is a need to spiritualize, to smooth out the wrinkles because we’re a pastor’s family. But we’re normal, we’re a normal family.
Symph: People don’t want pastors’ families to be normal families. They want them to be special.That goes back to what I was saying earlier about perception versus reality. I think being a PK gives me the ability to not take things at face value when people want goodness where sometimes there may not be “good”.
Jo: People project spiritual explanations onto my family. When you have a very public role, people interpret things about your family for the sole purpose because your family is public in this community.
Symph: So everybody and their mother thinks they know you, your struggles, your story. But do they really?
How does being a PK affect you even though you aren’t involved in the faith community anymore?
Jo: People are always praying for my soul – they’re very concerned that I am going to hell! They ask my dad questions.
Symph: And your cousin!… “How is she…..” — and the questions seems to imply something other than general concern.
Jo: They do have a genuine concern, but there is also judgment that comes with the territory. It’s annoying that people spend their time convincing me that I should believe in God, rather than questioning or even challenging me to understand how I have come to change my beliefs. But at the same time, that’s one of the perks of being a PK. I think it’s something special. In a time of need, I will have loads of people who will come and rally around me, and I will have loads of people to go to for help. That is a real perk to being a PK. When I got sick with a blood disorder when I was a kid, I had access to good medical care because my father was friends with some very good doctors.
Symph: Why do you think we have taken such different spiritual paths, even though we came from the same church and family?
Jo: For a long time, I thought it was possible to have a deep intellectual AND spiritual journey at the same time. But at some point I realized I couldn’t do it – that there were too many contradictions on both of those journeys. It made it impossible for me to continue doing both and I felt I had to pick one or the other. Most PKs leave the church because they can’t deal with the social or cultural expectations, but I left in large part because of my politics, and my intellectual misgivings, my disillusionment with the capacity for the church to engage in social justice issues.
Symph: Even though we often critique the Church in similar ways, I’ve remained in the Church. It’s interesting because in my college faith community, it wasn’t that everyone thought the same way or had similar theology, but it was more of we had a platform to discuss a variety of opinions and ideas.
Jo: That might be a major difference between you and me. When you were in college, you were actively involved in the faith community and I was not. I ran the mentoring program and did ministries in different ways. But I don’t think I plugged into a spiritual community, ever. Other than my home church, I never found another spiritual community I thought I belonged to because nobody thought like me. I was always an intellectual and spiritual outlier. You found a way to stay plugged in, while I felt alienated because I didn’t find a community where the reality of what I saw was aligned with the way churches constructed reality.
It could also be generational. You went to college 10 years after me. I think there has been a sea change, especially on certain issues. It is more likely now than it was when I was in college (not that long ago!) that someone can come out as gay in a Christian fellowship in this time. Maybe I would have stayed if I had found a more forgiving and open-minded faith community.
Symph: What about your interactions with believers now?
Jo: I think the remaining people in the church that I can interact with are those who are not tunnel visioned when it comes to understanding faith. They also tend to be more liberal, less orthodox. Just because I have left the church doesn’t mean I don’t need Christians in my life. Having spiritual people in my life is really important because their spiritual perspective is a good thing to have.
How do you feel about expressing your views about the Church as PK, especially when they might be considered controversial?
Symph: I don’t think people realize that I am pretty liberal in my views “as a Christian” but I personally think that I am actually more in the middle of the spectrum. It just has to do with the context that we are in, being surrounded by Chinese Christians in the East Coast. In the past, I cared a lot about what people thought of me, maybe I would have been afraid to be outspoken. But now it is more of a consideration of, well, “Would my political and social ideology affect my parents, especially my father the pastor”? It goes back to being a PK, which is magnified by the Chinese culture of “saving face”. My actions, whether either of us care will inevitably affect him and the church so it is a lot safer to not broadcast my personal convictions.
Jo: I feel that way, too. I am not always sure where the line is between advocating for what I think is right and having to be considerate of my family. It’s not a responsibility I enjoy having, for sure. Either way, it feels like I have to compromise something I value. But that tension also puts us in a unique position to move the discourse on issues and problems that matter. And that is why I still need to consider my identity as a PK, regardless of whether or not I still believe in God.
To read more about how Symphony and Joanna developed their understanding of social justice as PKs, read PKs Gone Radical.