PKs face unique pressures

Published December 1, 2000

Andrew Asbil shown with his daughter Bridget. A ‘Sunday school dropout,’ Mr. Asbil said ordination ‘was a very slow process for me.’

EARLY November brings Take Our Kids to Work Day, when parents are encouraged to familiarize their offspring with exactly what they do all day in the great wide world.

Clergy families really don’t need a special day, since their offspring are usually intimately involved with mom and/or dad’s church work – a state of affairs that has always created a unique kind of stress. Today’s PKs, a universal slang for preacher’s kids, say some of the pressure has eased in our more relaxed society, but new strains have emerged, stemming from Christian involvement in North American politics.

In the Book of Common Prayer, candidates for the priesthood are asked, “Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own selves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make both yourselves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ?”

Right from the beginning, then, a priest’s family is part of the equation.

“There is almost a sense that all eyes are on you,” said Rev. Andrew Asbil, 39, recalling how he felt when he walked into church on a Sunday. “You can almost feel the snickers, the adults elbowing their kids, ‘Why can’t you be like them?'” said Mr. Asbil, son of Walter Asbil, retired bishop of Niagara.

“The psychological pressure is not to be underestimated. I was worried about failure,” said Rev. David Harris, 41, former editor of the Anglican Journal and descendant of 13 generations of Anglican clergy. “I was always being bullied by other kids.”

At one time, of course, when the influence of the church was stronger, the pressure to be “good” (at least in the eyes of the public) weighed even more heavily on clergy offspring. Now, however, the attitude of many ordained parents is expressed in a document written by Bishop Duncan Wallace of Qu’Appelle when he stood for election in 1997: “My family members are not extensions of me, but, rather, are members of the church in their own right.”

Andrew Asbil said that in his household “there was never a sense of ‘you’ve let down Jesus,'” although he said he’s heard from some PKs who have been subject to that kind of pressure.

Clergy parents, faced with family difficulties, may find it hard to turn to the diocesan bishop who is, after all, the boss, noted Rev. Dawn Davis, human resources officer for the Diocese of Toronto.

“The clergy are supposed to have such perfect families. The last thing I would think is they would come to me,” she said.

Mrs. Davis said that 80 per cent of people seeking help from Toronto diocese’s employee assistance plan mention family issues, with the rest citing work, financial, or substance abuse issues. The plan reports access rates to the diocese, not names.

Simon McDermott, 27, whose father, Rev. Mark McDermott, is rector of Grace Anglican church in Milton, Ont., recalled that he usually didn’t tell his schoolmates right away what his father did. “I would say he was a teacher,” he said.

He believes that the increasing involvement of fundamentalist Christians in politics caused people to think “I was a religious nut and I couldn’t think for myself.”

Andrew Asbil notes, “the rise of TV evangelism and the rise of the religious right has become the face of religion.”

Even now, Simon McDermott doesn’t feel comfortable telling people at work (he is a computer engineer) about his background, until he knows them. As a teenager, he said, “I left the church. I thought it might be easier to fit in if I could stop believing. As I got older, I knew how much I missed it, how much I needed it, and I was confirmed.” Now, he says, he “can’t imagine life having meaning any other way.”

Finding one’s own place in the church – or not – is a struggle for many PKs. Mr. Harris broke off his ordination procedure in 1982, only returning 12 years later to become a priest in 1994.

Andrew Asbil remembered that “I was a Sunday school dropout in fourth grade. I said, ‘I am so sick and tired of drawing Jesus. I am just sick of it.'” His parents said he could choose youth choir or attending the regular service. Ordination was “a very slow process for me,” said Mr. Asbil, who studied environmental toxicology at university.

Among the positives of growing up in a clergy household are that “you get to interact with adults and meet interesting, -educated people,” said Mr. Harris. “Although you don’t have money, it’s kind of a privileged upbringing. There are lots of books, lots of reading, history, literature, music, poetry.”

Mr. Asbil said his parents “did a tremendous job protecting us from the pain of the church – standing with a family at an open grave, feeling the pain other people are experiencing in their marriages, balancing a budget. The politics they left at the door.”

Mr. Asbil has two daughters: Bridget, 1 1/2 and Hannah, 3 1/2. The reality of being a PK will likely change again for their generation. “The long-term hope I have for my own kids is that they develop a deeper sense of self, wedding that with God and spirituality,” said Mr. Asbil.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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