As most of you know, I write novels about the Amish. At the beginning of my career, I visited Abram and Leah’s Old Order Amish home for dinner. Abram is an extraordinarily spiritual man who speaks openly about God and grace. He is also an extremely social person and seemed delighted to have company. The invitation had come through mutual friends and so this was the first time I had ever met Leah. She was quiet and seemed to be deep in thought as she prepared our dinner.
It was early days in my research of the Amish and I thought perhaps this was just the way of Amish women. Quiet. Pensive. Allowing their husbands to carry the conversational ball. Abram was well-read in the Bible and he and my minister husband were having a discussion about Bible translations while Leah silently worked, and I tried, quite awkwardly, to help in her unfamiliar kitchen.
I didn’t know if Leah was resentful of the fact that we were there and was just being an obedient Amish wife, or if the woman was depressed out of her mind. Our conversation was halting and stilted.
After we’d eaten and were sitting around watching their children play. Leah asked if we had any children.
I assumed this was her attempt at polite conversation.
“Yes, I have three grown sons.”
“And your husband is a preacher?”
She gave this some thought. “For how long?”
I counted up. “He’s preached full-time for over thirty years.”
She looked me in the eyes for the first time since we’d arrived and asked, “How have your sons turned out?”
It was a strangely intimate question from a woman who’d barely said two words all evening, but I answered truthfully. “By the grace of God, they have grown into fine men who love the Lord.”
It was at that point that the verbal dam broke and I discovered that Leah was not quiet by nature, or depressed, or simply being an obediently silent wife. The woman was worried sick.
“Our church is going to choose another minister soon,” she said. “And I’m afraid that Abram will be chosen.”
I had read enough about the Amish church to know that the men didn’t become preachers by choice. They were selected from within their church after a lengthy process of elimination. I also knew that this position was considered an honor in their culture so I did not understand why she was so upset. “Why are you so worried?”
“Because,” she answered, sadly. “In the Amish church, sometimes the preacher’s children turn out very badly.”
I was surprised by her statement. “Sometimes preacher’s children in non-Amish churches turn out badly, too,” I told her.
“Do you know what they call preacher’s children in the Amish church?” she asked.
“No.” I wondered what awful name Amish kids might have come up with.
“PK’s,” she answered, obviously offended. “They call them PK’s! That stands for preacher’s kids. People expect them to be perfect.” Then she added mournfully, “They expect the preacher’s wives to be perfect, too.”
Ah. Now I understood. The old stereotype of the perfect preacher’s wife. I had been painfully aware of it for most of my married life, and equally aware that I had never come even close to achieving it. I was surprised to find that it was part of the Amish culture as well.
My heart went out to her. It’s a rare preacher’s wife who doesn’t wrestle with feelings that unachievable expectations are being thrust upon her and try as she might, she can’t measure up. The preacher’s kids have to deal with it, too, which can cause a lot of problems.
“How have you done it?” she asked. “How have you raised sons who love the Lord when your husband is a preacher?”
I was old enough to be Leah’s mother, and had a lifetime of watching many preachers’ families crash and burn while others managed to thrive. I’d learned a few things that I thought might help her. Things like how I’d given up on being the perfect preacher’s wife a long time ago, and had given up on my kids acting like little angels as well. I had learned that it was just best to be who I was and let my kids be regular kids. I told her how the women at the churches we’d served had always seemed a little relieved when they found out I was struggling along in life just like the rest of them.
She explained that the Amish culture was much less flexible in their expectations of preacher’s families than ours. For the next hour we had our own, private conversation about how to survive as a preacher’s family–while our much more spiritual husbands had a rousing discussion about Biblical passages.
Leah and I bonded that evening, and we have been friends ever since. The next time I saw her two months later, she was a different person. She was bubbling and smiling. All signs of depression were gone.
“What happened?” I asked. “Was Abram chosen to be your church’s minister?”
“No!” she exclaimed, obviously giddy with joy. “He wasn’t chosen! We’re safe until someone else dies!”
I’ve learned a great deal about Amish ministers since then and have spoken to several. There are some things about being an Amish minister that would make even my husband cringe. There is no feeling of a “calling” involved. An Amish man does not have the luxury of deciding whether or not he wants to preach. If chosen, it is a position he will hold for life, with much responsibility. Once chosen, most Amish men take on that responsibility with great dread….and yet they do take it on.
The way I understand it, most Amish churches have one bishop, three ministers, and one deacon. The bishop is chosen from the ranks of the three ministers when the old bishop grows too infirm or dies. To become a minister basically involves two steps. First, people privately give the bishop names from within the church of men they think would make a good preacher. Then the bishop decides which of those men mentioned are viable candidates for the office.
If there are, say, five candidates, there will be a service where five hymnals will be laid out, and after much prayer these five men will each come forward and choose a hymnal. The one who chooses the hymnal with a paper inside that says something along the lines of “You have been chosen” will become the new minister.
The paper in the hymnbook is the Amish way of “casting lots,” of allowing God to have the final, ultimate, say.
Being a minister is a responsibility most Amish men do not desire. Neither do their wives. It means that for the rest of his life, he’ll be expected to preach, teach, and watch out for the needs of the church—without pay—while trying to also make a living and care for his own family. The only way he can get out of this responsibility is the same exit path as the bishop. He must become too infirm to function, or die. Either that or leave the church entirely, which a few actually do.
One minister described to me the sick feeling he had in the pit of his stomach when he opened the hymnal and found the “you are chosen” paper inside. He said he had dreaded the possibility so much, and felt so ill when he saw it, that it was all he could do not to throw up.
He did, however, shoulder the responsibility and began to spend much time in prayer, in Bible study, and in learning how to prepare sermons and preach.
Knowing well how hard the responsibilities of the ministry have been for my husband who was a man who actually desired it, trained for it, and got a salary for it–I can only imagine how hard it is for someone like an Amish farmer to step up to the plate and handle all the responsibilities involved.
And on top of that is the fear that, as Leah said, the preachers’ kids will turn out very badly—and it has very little to do with the particular church. A friend of mine who is the wife of a Unitarian Universalist minister confessed to having the exact same worries as she was raising her own children. It is hard to find a church more liberal than hers, and it would be nearly impossible to find a church more conservative than Leah’s, and yet the concern for the children is the same. Will the pressures of living in a preacher’s home destroy them?
Here’s some advice to anyone involved in ministry—from a veteran preacher’s wife—the same things I shared with Leah that night.
- Don’t hold your kids to a higher standard than the regular members of the church. One of the biggest mistakes preacher-parents can make is to tell their children that they are forbidden to do something or have to do something just because they are PK’s. The standards should be high because of being a Christian family—not because of the artificially imposed standard of their father’s job.
- Make sure that what your kids hear from the pulpit is the same as what they see modeled at home. I can’t think of any surer way to destroy a child’s faith than to have a parent who preaches one thing and does another. Hypocrisy in anyone is toxic, but in a preacher’s family it is deadly.
- Loosen up. Don’t make a federal offense out of every little thing. Kids are kids. Even the Amish realize that their teens will have their “running-around” period. Love them no matter what. Don’t kick them when they’re down just because they might have embarrassed you by bad behavior.
- It’s extremely wise NOT to enter the ministry at all until you have a secondary skill or degree that can provide an income in case you need to leave. There is nothing sadder than a preacher hanging on after losing heart, just because it’s the only job he knows how to do. Learn to be a “tent-maker” like the Apostle Paul just in case. If nothing else, it keeps the leaders of your church from taking you for granted if they know you have other options for employment.
- Never, ever, ever make church a greater priority than your family. Congregations come and go—but your greatest responsibility is the souls of the people who live beneath your roof.
- Don’t be afraid to have fun. The healthiest preacher’s family I ever knew, and the one I tried to model my own parenting on, had so much fun together. The father was a Godly man, but one who knew his way around a practical joke and his kids were often the recipients. They all grew into adults with great integrity who adored their parents and also loved the Lord.
- If it gets too hard on your family—get out. I always knew that if the kids or I could no longer deal with my husband being in the ministry—he would get out if it became really important to us for him to do so. He did not love us more than God, but we always knew he loved us more than the people who made up his congregation. Just knowing that we were “giving” our church the gift of having him in the pulpit made a great deal of difference in our attitude. It still does.
Sometimes preachers’ children do turn out very badly. Sometimes preachers’ kids turn out very well. Either way, Leah is safe….for now. The last time I talked to her, she said their bishop, ministers, and deacon are all looking wonderfully healthy and she is praying that their good health continues for many, many years to come so that a replacement will not have to be sought until her children are grown.