Son of a Preacher Man

Anyone who spends any significant amount of time about me will, fairly quickly, learn two things: First, that they made a huge mistake and would like to leave, and second, that my dad is a minister. “Ohh! You’re a ‘PK[1.]!'” is something that I’ve heard a number of times from people when this is revealed; it’s always said with what seems to be a sense of palpable relief, almost as if Maury Povich has just told the person that they are not, in fact, the father of quadruplets.

When I was younger I found this reaction curious; as far as I knew, there were few other professions that one’s parents could hold that would produce a similar reaction (i.e., succor). Over time, though, I came to realize that this was apparently because most PKs are both (1) socially (and probably otherwise) damaged in a way that is fairly unique, and (2) largely oblivious to this damage. It doesn’t seem to matter the denomination, or even the size of the church–PKs are all part of the same demented private club, though this is not the type of club you’d ever want to pay to join. In fact, most of us would quit and ask for a refund if we could.

This started to make more sense to me as I got older, particularly once I actually met other PKs (aside from my siblings). In many instances I would detect something “off” from the get-go, and then it would turn out that they too were part of the club. One kid, who I first encountered in high school, was squinty and mean (the first day of my freshman year, he randomly singled me out at lunch, sat down next to me, and without a word, grabbed my bag of chips and ate them one by one, staring me in the eyes, while I sat paralyzed in terror). He drove one of those hideous late-8o’s flat-front Toyota minivans that he and his friends would allegedly go and smoke pot in during lunch. I don’t really doubt the veracity of this rumor, as it would have easily explained why he always seemed zonked and giggly during Algebra II.

One older lady I met during a summer church trip to Kentucky softly exclaimed “Oh!” when she discovered I was a PK, then she quietly said, “I’ll pray for you… our preacher’s son is in jail for arson.”

Another guy was tall, super charismatic, hilariously funny, and one of the best actors in our school; he was always cast in the leading role of essentially anything, whether it made sense or not. Unfortunately, after high school, he spent the better part of a decade unsuccessfully looking for acting work. Apparently when this didn’t pan out, he decided to spend exactly one year working as an investment banker in New York; this coincided with the period I lived there, and we reconnected randomly exactly one time thanks to Facebook. He told me that at the end of that year, he was going to kill himself in a cocaine/whiskey/hooker binge; I thought he was joking, but he did it. I suspect he spent every penny of his bank earnings on that blowout, based on what I heard about it after the fact. (Think The Hangover except not funny at all.)

A pair of sisters from my high school, a couple of years apart, were pretty and nice and friendly with everyone, but it turned out that one had severe OCD that manifested in strange ways (think turning the lights on and off dozens of times or else the oceans would dry up). The other was apparently a pathologically lying nymphomaniac, if the rumors were to be believed, but then again, perhaps the nymphomania was simply a part of her lies. Either way, it wasn’t a good look.

Yet another girl who I became acquainted with in AP Biology class had long hair that she could sit on, both because it reached nearly to her knees, but also because her amply-sized bottom spilt over the edges of her seat, which sort of made it inevitable. She had an irritating high-pitched laugh that was more like a shriek, and she did not seem to own any clothing other than leggings and solid neon-colored T-shirts that were three to four sizes too large. Also, she was stupid.

Lest you think that these folks are not representative, I can assure you that I have talked to many, many people about this phenomenon, and it seems as though the PKs I have interacted with were all relatively mild in comparison to the PKs that other people have told me about. One older lady I met during a summer church trip to Kentucky, I think, softly exclaimed “Oh!” when she discovered I was a PK, then after a pregnant pause, she quietly said, “I’ll pray for you… our preacher’s son is in jail for arson.” (Why she thought I might need divine intervention to prevent me from becoming a felon remains a mystery to me; I do not have the constitution for prison, so a life of crime must remain nothing more than a dream.)

I have to assume that I too carry the PK curse. I have actual medical diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder and attention deficit disorder, both of which I take medication for, but you don’t “cure” these things so much as you try to “manage” them. In my case, this means that at any given time, my mind is unsuccessfully attempting to split itself between about seven different things, meaning that I will say and do things that I am largely oblivious to in the moment. Afterwards, though, my stomach works itself into knots and I acutely feel dread and remorse when I remember just what exactly I blurted out earlier. The meds help, to an extent, though they mainly (1) help me keep my trains of thought on just one or two tracks instead of thirty and (2) make me slightly less concerned about other people’s perceptions of me. So I guess that means that my horrible personality is the constant, but it has two equally awful modes: absentminded, or heedless.

So even though I don’t have empirical proof, I feel confident in saying that apparently some part of being a PK leads to inevitable and likely irreversible brain abnormalities, but what specifically is the culprit?

Before I go any further I need to first note that I respect my father immensely, and I do not blame him personally for my “condition.” As of this writing, he has been the pastor of the same Southern Baptist church in a small city in central North Carolina for 30-some years, which is both a bit of a triumph and an anomaly[2.]; he has overseen the church as it has grown, both physically and in terms of membership numbers, over those three decades. He went back to school part-time and earned his Doctor of Ministry degree (in church growth, not ironically) while doing this, which sadly means that I was not in fact the first doctor[3.] in my family. Like me, he is also a professor, and is one of the trustees at the seminary he graduated from. He is now enjoying his role as a grandfather, which he does not hesitate to mention to anyone with ears, functional or not, including Walmart cashiers and non-English speakers. In short, he’s a well-respected member of his local and professional community, and there was nothing defective about his parenting that I can recall (particularly as his better half, my mother, is one of those women who was apparently destined to be a mom; she has been described by pretty much all of my friends and my siblings’ friends independently as “the nicest lady in the world”). I mean, I’m pretty sure preachers don’t deliberately take on the task of damaging their children for life.

Rather, my theory is that the church environment, which for many people is a wonderful thing, is not necessarily the best incubator for a minister’s offspring. That is because people are, in a word, stupid jerk-faces. (Okay, that’s two words… or does a hyphenated word technically count as two? Never mind.) Even within a body that exists primarily as a means of worshipping a higher power and secondarily as a kind of social support network, you can’t get around the fact that people–even God-fearing Christians–have egos, opinions, and attitudes, and these things can (and do) cause dustups between otherwise friendly people. Clashes are more-or-less inevitable when you are dealing with a heterogeneous body of random individuals who are expected to voluntarily cooperate and socialize, even though they may have nothing in common other than their religious beliefs.

I hope that this isn’t some sort of badly-kept secret that I am exposing here, because my experience as a PK (or as a church-goer, for that matter) can’t possibly be particularly exceptional. But when you’re required to go to church at least three times a week[4.] starting even before you’re sentient, you see and hear things that your average “casual” church-goer is likely to miss. Gossip is constantly flying around, and people’s noses are constantly in other folks’ business. There’s so much butt sniffing going on in your average church that it makes dog park decorum look like the United Nations assembly. And people’s feelings get hurt a lot, usually because of silly misunderstandings, false rumors, or other ridiculously small trifles. The fallout from these things is oftentimes grotesquely disproportionate, with people and their families essentially “quitting” the church in the most extreme cases, even if they’ve been faithful members for years.

Consequently, I feel bad for my dad. He’s had to ride out any of a number of various feuds, schisms, and foofaraws over the years; I would not be surprised if the weeks during the past three decades when there weren’t any fights going on could be counted on his fingers and toes. And like I said already, these conflicts are usually about as substantive as a playground quarrel over whose turn it is to use the monkey bars.

The earliest one of these blow-ups that I can remember happened when I was maybe six or seven. Once a quarter, the Sunday evening service would be preempted for a church business conference, which typically my father would moderate. These meetings would be the type where people could stand up and vent for ten minutes about the fact that the flower beds had marigolds instead of coneflowers, or object to the fact that the worship services now included a guitar instead of just the piano and electric organ, or complain that the church library had used actual money to obtain VeggieTales video tapes.

During this particular business meeting, it was time for the annual budget approval, a particularly fraught discussion that always included dozens of questions about specific line-items (“What’s this ‘building maintenance’ thing? Do we really need that?”), not to mention a winemaker’s vat full of sour grapes because Group A had been allocated several tens of dollars more or less than Group B.

The discussion turned to the ministerial salaries, and so my father and the two or three other ministers–along with their families–were asked to leave the room so as to allow the parishioners to snit openly about how grotesquely overpaid they all were. I was too young to really understand why, exactly, this formality was requested, but my brother and sister and I were herded out into the narthex behind the front of the sanctuary until some consensus was reached.

The stairs to the baptistry[5.] were just off the hallway that we found ourselves waiting in, and as it had particularly steep stairs that doubled well as seats, my little brother and I climbed nearly to the top and perched there, waiting for this weirdness to conclude. Apparently, though, someone sitting in the meeting was situated at such an angle that they could see diagonally into the baptistry’s opening at the top of the stairs–which meant that person could see my brother and me obliviously sitting there.

There was a sudden kerfuffle audible in the sanctuary, and abruptly one of the parishioners darted into the narthex[6.]. In a pinched whisper, she hissed, “Ryan and Casey can’t listen to this!” before scurrying back out to the meeting. Eyes wide with alarm, my dad ordered us down–wisely he just told us to go outside and play until the meeting was over.

Now, I don’t know about you, but all of the early-elementary-school-aged children that I know are completely and utterly uninterested in pretty much anything “adult” (aside from genitals, mostly because they are “private”/hilarious/associated with peeing). This disinterest most definitely includes business meetings, which might as well be conducted in ancient Sumerian anyway–how many seven-year-olds even slightly understand how to read an itemized budget? And yet my brother and I were apparently determined to be pint-sized spies who were obviously feeding the details of the deliberations back to their father. Apparently we were accomplishing this telepathically, as we were neither moving nor speaking aloud.

That story illustrates, in a small way, one of the biggest challenges associated with being a PK, at least until you are old enough to go off to college or otherwise move away–there is a persistent, crushing expectation that you will be a perfectly angelic paragon of virtue with no discernible faults, simply because of who your father is. This overwhelming, unrelenting demand is something that many other PKs have also told me that they experienced, too, so it wasn’t just me (…for once). No one, goes the “logic,” could possibly go to church three times a week every week starting at birth, and have a man of God for a parent, and turn out anything other than faultless. Presumably these factors are supposed to somehow completely obliterate the PK’s free will and make the PK completely immune to any outside influence whatsoever. After all, can you really trust a minister whose children are awful and bratty?

The answer to that question is apparently “no,” as the daughter of one of the youth ministers that worked at my dad’s church for a time was definitive evidence, even though she was just a toddler. This blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl–let’s call her “Cassie”–was almost certainly Satan incarnate. She had an unnerving, unblinking stare that would frighten even Clint Eastwood, and when she brandished this stare, she would simultaneously do some horrifying thing (e.g., pull out a clump of another child’s hair; maliciously smash something that didn’t belong to her; drop nuclear warheads on major world population centers) because she knew that you were standing there transfixed in terror. It was like she could beam the Imperius Curse directly out of her eyes.

Her father (let’s call him “Gunther”) was, as I mentioned, the youth minister for a while. Gunther had the exact same body shape as Veruca Salt did in the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when she puffed up into a blueberry, which is to say, he looked like a ball. He had one of those hideous half-mustaches where hair only grew immediately above his upper lip, with a gap between the hair and his nose. And he had the same extraordinarily pale, creepy eyes as his daughter. I made a deliberate effort to avoid him because I always got a grotesque and threatening “Chester Molester” vibe from him, and yet there were a good number of churchgoers who were absolutely enamored with him in an unhealthy way.

I suppose this endearment made Gunther feel empowered to do things that were, by any conventional measure, repugnant. One particular instance stands out in my mind. My brother’s high school girlfriend, Joanna, had been raising money for some cause or another, collecting the contributions in a zippered banker’s bag. One Wednesday night, she stashed the bag in a Fellowship Hall[7.] storage cabinet for safekeeping so that she wouldn’t have to carry a bunch of other people’s money around for two hours. She didn’t tell anyone that she did this, but apparently someone had been watching her, because when she went to retrieve the bag at the end of the night, it had vanished without a trace.

Joanna is one of the most headstrong and sensible young women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, so to see her in near-hysterics and weeping mournfully was incredibly upsetting. She, my brother, and a couple other folks formed a small posse to sweep the area, questioning anyone they could find as to whether they had seen anyone even look askance at the cabinet the bank bag had been taken from. No one seemed to know anything; Gunther said he’d not seen anyone go anywhere near it. And so Joanna remained inconsolable for a couple of days, not because she was worried that she’d have to replace the money herself, but because she felt horribly irresponsible. (Totally stand up gal we’re talking about.)

I don’t remember exactly how this whole episode ended, but it turned out that Gunther himself was the culprit; he had seen Joanna hide the bag, and so at the first opportunity, he grabbed it and hid it in his locked office, lying to this poor girl’s face about it and seemingly not caring about the consequences. When he was finally found out, he first claimed it was a “joke,” and when that didn’t quite track, he then insisted that he had done it to “teach Joanna a lesson about responsibility,” despite the fact that she was in need of such a lesson about as much as a hole in the head.

Gunther ultimately ended up leaving the church under less-than-amicable circumstances that I largely didn’t pay attention to, since by this time I had escaped to college, and frankly I didn’t want to think about his noxious face or his odious spawn beyond “…good riddance.”

In retrospect, though, I suppose I should’ve been a little more charitable to Cassie, since clearly she was affected by the PK curse similarly to the rest of us, even though (1) she was still more-or-less a baby and (2) her father was both a minister and a creep. In all likelihood that combination means that wherever she is now (if she’s even still alive), two decades later, she’s probably riding around on an obnoxiously loud ATV, terrorizing neighborhood dogs with a bat studded with nails.

…I think comparatively speaking I got off pretty easy.

—2020

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  1. “Preacher’s kid.”[]
  2. Depending on which survey you look at, the average Protestant minister stays at any given church for between three and ten years.[]
  3. Yes, I actually have a real Ph.D., and yes, it was granted by a legitimate university. I have both the diploma and student loan debt to prove it. So suck it.[]
  4. Sunday mornings for Sunday school and then the main worship service, Sunday evenings for a less formal worship service, and Wednesday evenings for various activities/meetings/Bible studies were all de rigueur at our house growing up. On top of that, once or twice a year, usually during the summer, we’d have a full week of “revival” services. That meant church every… single… night.[]
  5. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a baptistry is a sort of open pool that baptism by immersion takes place in. Many Baptist churches have these things at the front of their sanctuaries; they typically look like a big open window in the wall up behind the pulpit and choir loft.[]
  6. What a bizarre word, right?[]
  7. Essentially a church-y name for a large multipurpose room. Ours had a commercial-grade kitchen with a serving line as well as a stage platform, plus a screened porch off the back.[]