When Preachers’ Kids are ordained, are they “following in their parents’ footsteps?” Not exactly.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Michigan Conference Communications
“I think it was the community—the fact that old people knew my name and would ask me how I was doing.” That was the first thing my son David said when I asked him what he remembered about being a PK, a preacher’s kid. He said he thought most PK’s grow up to be good with people and community-minded, regardless of their career because of their life as a child of the parsonage and the encouragement of the congregation. David said, “The negative thing was we always had to be the last family to leave the church, but overall, the church community helped me become the person I am today.” Though not a pastor, David’s sentiments reflect the experience of those who followed in their parents’ or grandparents’ footsteps into ordained ministry—PK’s who became preachers.
In the Michigan Conference we have a significant number of PKs who did just that, including a set of twins, the Revs. Glenn and Carl Litchfield and the Rev. Jj (Jeremiah John) Mannschreck, pastor in Ishpeming, who is actually 4th generation clergy. Jj’s father, Dr. Jack Mannschreck is the pastor at Waterford Central UMC and his maternal grandfather, the Rev. O. William Cooper, served 25 years in the Detroit Conference before transitioning to mission work to establish a seminary in Haiti. His uncle was at one time in ordained ministry and his great-grandparents were missionaries from Germany to China prior to World War II. Jj says, “What’s interesting is we have the pattern of clergy daughters marrying clergypersons,” certainly a unique way of passing on the mantle of ministry.
“The negative thing was we always had to be the last family to leave the church, but overall, the church community helped me become the person I am today.” ~ David Harnish
Like so many PKs, Jj says his first response to “The Call” was resistance. “I fought like crazy,” he said, “because doing what your parents did just seemed so lame”. He was in seminary preparing for a career in teaching religion when he felt called to pastoral ministry, not because of his father, grandfather or great-grandparents, but simply because he sensed God had a place for him in service for the sake of Christ and the church.
The experience of the Rev. Jodie Flessner, pastor at Caledonia, represents the history of United Methodist clergy and the denomination. Her father, the Rev. Ray Flessner, started out his ministry in the Evangelical United Brethren Church and became a United Methodist at the time of merger. Her great-grandfather was a member of the Evangelical Association which predated the EUB Church. When her father was growing up his aunts would line up the three nephews and say, “One of you will follow in your grandfather’s footsteps.” After which, his grandmother would call the boys aside and say, ‘Your aunts are good people, but they aren’t God. Only God can call you.” As it turned out, all three served in the church and two of them became ordained clergy. In 1994 Jodie received her first appointment, exactly 100 years after her great-grandfather’s first appointment in 1894, so a century later she followed in her great-grandfather’s footsteps, something her great-aunts never could have imagined.
The Rev. Alice Fleming Townley, currently serving the Okemos Presbyterian Church, represents that specific moment in United Methodist history. Born in 1972, she calls herself a “merger baby” because her mother was a Methodist missionary and her father was an Evangelical United Brethren pastor. Her great-grandfather once held the conference cane as the oldest pastor in the conference. Years later when Alice went to seminary, her mother decided to take the Local Pastor Course of Study and lived in Alice’s apartment at Duke Divinity School while Alice did a field work assignment. Her father and mother now serve as co-pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina and her sister is in full-time ministry as the Communications Director at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan.
“Your aunts are good people, but they aren’t God. Only God can call you.” ~ Jodie Flessner’s grandmother
Though there are no statistics available for exactly how many clergy grew up as children of the parsonage, it is interesting to see how experiencing the church as a PK shaped the lives and ministries of these persons. Some speak with warmth about the nurture and encouragement of the local church, others remember difficult times when they felt their family and clergy parents were treated poorly. They share in common the experience of seeing the church “from the inside” with all of its strengths and weaknesses. Julie Tuttle, a PK who did not enter ordained ministry but serves in the church as a volunteer writes, “The church has the potential of being the greatest place of healing or the greatest place of hate.” Having seen both sides of church life, PK’s have a realistic view of what it means to live and serve in ordained ministry.
Interestingly, few of those surveyed spoke negatively about the itinerant system. Some felt their parents had been unfairly treated by superintendents or bishops, but for the most part they were not critical of the moves they made in their childhood and youth. Rev. Margery Schleicher, retired clergy in the Detroit Conference, is the daughter of the Rev. Marcius Taber who served in the West Michigan conference. Her husband, Gordon, is also an ordained elder and their son, Andrew, is an ordained deacon. Marge regretted an appointment change during her college years because she wanted to come home and see her old friends, but instead came home to a strange town and strange church. She served in a variety of roles before entering pastoral ministry as a second career because as she says, “In my youth, there were no ordained clergywomen so I never considered it as a possibility.” Today women comprise a major portion of the ranks of clergy in the Michigan area and many of our large and small churches have been served by women who, in turn, encourage young women to consider God’s call.
“Be authentic in your own faith journey, lean into the weirdness of life in the parsonage and push your kids toward Jesus, not the ministry.” ~ Jj Mannschreck
Overall, the PKs who shared their experience felt their parents did their best to create an environment where they would be free to discover their own career path without undo pressure to “follow in your father’s footsteps”. That gave them the freedom to respond to God’s guidance in ways which were appropriate for them. For some it meant the freedom not to enter the ministry without feeling guilty. Some moved toward ministry in spite of their family history and their own resistance to the idea. For others growing up in the parsonage encouraged them in that direction, but all of them say that ultimately it was not about following in their father’s or mother’s footsteps, it was about responding to God’s call for their own lives.
Given the urgent need for younger clergy in the church today, the relationship of PKs and their preacher-parents reflects the larger question of how we nurture children and youth for ministry within our churches. Every ordained minister can point to at least one parental type mentor–a pastor, youth director, campus minister, choir director, Sunday School teacher or camp counselor –who was instrumental in their journey. In every situation, the community plays a crucial role in creating the environment where youth can hear and respond to God’s call. Whether parent, pastor, teacher or friend, this pipeline to ministry is crucial to the future of the church and clergy leadership for the next generation.
In response to the question of what he would say to clergy parents, Jj Mannschreck gives these words of advice: “Be authentic in your own faith journey, lean into the weirdness of life in the parsonage and push your kids toward Jesus, not the ministry.” Then God will have the opening to call and youth will have the freedom to respond.