How a Disillusioned Pastor’s Daughter Found Her Way Back to Church

I was raised in the church, but I had to leave it if I was ever going to make it home.

Church isn’t always a good thing. It can be downright dangerous for a preacher’s kid.

When I was young I knew all about the Ten Commandments and nothing about the Great Commandment, loving others as you love yourself. I would stand counting my ribs in the fogged-up mirror after bath time, a skinny little nine-year-old with permed bangs. Sometimes I would squint into the mirror trying to make laugh lines around my eyes because then it would look like I was happy.

My three siblings and I had to go to church, we had to finish our peas and carrots, we had to listen to our elders and say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” and “you’d better not fart” and “don’t say fart it’s a bad word” and “no missing church unless you’re near-dying.”

For me, church was dying. I hadn’t always felt that way, not in Africa where my parents were missionaries when I was little and the people raised their hands high and their dark faces split wide like heaven. No, church started dying when I stopped feeling heard by my Mum and Dad when we moved back to Canada and Dad went to school to become a preacher and we moved ten times before I turned seven.

All we do when we keep our children in bubbles is raise very nice little heathens.

Church was sitting in the hard pew in my leotard stockings listening to my dad’s sermons, counting the fake smiles like tiles, wondering when everyone would figure out that no one was really listening, that everyone was counting the minutes, just waiting to get home to their big screens and microwave dinners.

The only thing special about Sunday was the day-old donuts. But even those weren’t enough to fill the hole left by a longing to be held by more than religion. Longing to be seen and heard and allowed to doubt and laugh and breathe without someone frowning. My heart felt like the insides of those donuts. I couldn’t be good enough for heaven, and I wasn’t allowed to break, so I didn’t know how to need a Savior. I only knew I hated church.

All of the rules just stacked up and pushed me over into anorexia. Because sometimes starving yourself feels better than not being able to earn God’s love through good behavior  — the famous love that Dad preached at the pulpit.

I couldn’t find Him. I couldn’t find the God they were talking about. All of the rules got in the way.

We had the right Serenity Prayer wall hangings. We weren’t allowed to play with Barbie dolls or look at fashion magazines for fear we’d develop eating disorders. We were given purity rings. We never had time to think a sinful thought for all of the worship music on the radio and Christian books on our shelves. James Dobson was a household favorite.

There wasn’t a lot of room for error.

All we do when we keep our children in bubbles is raise very nice little heathens. We have to let our children fall apart in order for them to need fixing. We can’t fix what ain’t broken, the old adage says, and I’d go one step further and say if you try and fix what ain’t broken, you’ll end up breaking it.

[God] sends us headfirst into a world full of sin, into the arms of sinful parents, and trusts himself enough to show up at the right time and save us.

My parents were so worried about us being good that they forgot about us being saved. I was never given a chance to realize my sinfulness. Rather, I was told I needed Jesus, I needed to be baptized, and God was love, but there was not a lot of showing.

Dad was always good about kissing me on the cheek in the morning and asking me how I was doing, and Mum would make us nutritious meals and homeschool us but then Dad would be gone the rest of the day visiting others or writing sermons and Mum would often seem sad and would hide away from us. Once a month Mum would ask Dad to watch us for the afternoon while she went shopping, and she’d have to remind him, “They’re your kids too, you know.” There was no play, not a lot of laughter, and always the pressure of being the pastor’s kids. Of living in a house that wasn’t our own.

Eventually I stopped caring. I stopped letting my parents hug me for two years.

Maybe if I had been asked if I wanted a purity ring. Maybe if we were allowed to express our frustrations instead of being told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Maybe if we were allowed to skip a few Sundays at church or express a doubt or two about God or wear jeans instead of a skirt — if we were allowed to have a choice, maybe then I wouldn’t have needed to find my voice in an eating disorder.

That’s what God gives us — a choice. God doesn’t string us up from the sky like puppets. He sends us headfirst into a world full of sin, into the arms of sinful parents, and trusts himself enough to show up at the right time and save us.

Grace isn’t everything. But it’s definitely the beginning.

I’ve nearly died twice in my life. Once when I was 13 years old and weighed 60 pounds, all starved and gutted on a hospital bed, and the nurses said I was a miracle, that someone must love me. That was my first encounter with a holy God. But it was still too soon to trust him completely, so I kept God at arm’s length.

Then I nearly died a second time, shortly after I got married. My husband and I were driving home together, and I tried to turn the car into oncoming traffic because I was too hungry. I was starving myself again, and my husband and I were fighting because I couldn’t accept human love.

I was scared of being hurt. If I messed up, God would be angry with me. If I didn’t mess up, he would like me. That’s how I was raised.

And then my husband and I left our jobs and moved to Korea. I started to eat again, to laugh again, to love again, and that’s when my Mum got brain cancer long and hard and I moved home, to take care of her.

I cared for her for three years, and we all broke together — Mum, Dad and I. Dad cried with me, I cried with Mum, we all danced together to worship music and church was a humble gathering in a school gym, Dad upfront preaching and Mum in her wheelchair, and I could finally listen to my father. I could hear his faith spoken through his humble voice because I saw him living it at home. I saw him caring for my Mum, night and day, changing her and feeding her and cleaning her.

I found Brian McLaren. I found Rob Bell and Anne Lamott and Madeleine L’Engle and Nadia Boltz-Weber — people who showed me that I didn’t have to be good. I didn’t have to be nice. I just had to love Jesus.

For a while, this theology saved me. It’s the best kind of thing — a relationship with Jesus, no strings attached.

But then I began to get greedy. I began to expect God to bless me and when he didn’t, when he still asked me to suffer, I turned away.

Because I wasn’t serving him. I was expecting him to serve me.

That’s when she prayed with me. A counselor-friend of mine prayed for three hours with me, a 32-year-old woman with a seven-year-old heart, and that little girl found Jesus. I was able to start over.

I was able to see my life through the life of Jesus instead of seeing Jesus through my life. That got rid of all the rules. It got rid of all the pressure put on me as a pastor’s kid to perform, because Jesus had done the performing for me. He’d sacrificed his life for me, and all I saw was grace.

Grace isn’t everything. But it’s definitely the beginning. Grace is the key that opens the door to love and that love — it leads the way to holiness. To the throne room of the Father. And all you can do once you get there is bow so low your forehead brushes the floor.

Because you’ve come home.

Image by eflon.

Emily T. Wierenga
Written by

  • Van

    This is an all to common story about PKs, preachers kids, or Deacon’s kids, or any church leaders kids, not allowed to grow as other kids are, and nobody explaines why.

  • westcj

    This is a very touching and honest account of a very difficult upbringing. But there is something I don’t understand, why does the author continue to embrace religion, when it was the major cause of her hurt and illness?

    • Larryinchicago

      Westcj…I can’t speak for the author of course but I can speak for myself in answer to your question above. For many who hold the Christian faith, it is so much more than a mere religion with dogma to be to learned and actions to be performed., it is actually a living, breathing relationship with the God of the universe. And sometimes one discovers upon leaving faith that all along, faith held you…that God in Christ was holding on to you and to be without THAT is quite literally like being a fish out of water dying for lack of air…like being knee-deep in river dying of thirst ( as someone else once said). Coming back to that is most certainly a coming Home.

      • westcj

        Hi Larry, thanks for the reply, I have to be honest, I have read your reply about a dozen times and I am still not sure what you are saying. Are you making the analogy that that God is like air or water? Therefore if you leave God, you soon discover that , like air and water, you need God to survive. This is something I certainly don’t agree with, but it is not a big deal. I hope you will enjoy life with your God, I know that I will continue to embrace life without a God.

        • Larryinchicago

          Hi again. Yes the analogy that I was making is that life without God is like life without air “for many of those who hold the Christian faith”. I was merely attempting to answer your question concerning why someone who was hurt in a religion might turn back to God. I also said that I was speaking for myself so I am not quite sure what there is to disagree with. As for you, if you are a happy atheist, I was not addressing that, but more power to you, so is my very best friend of 30 years.

          • westcj

            Hi Larry, I can understand where you are going from, I am sure you have had many interesting discussions with your atheist friend. I would describe myself more as an agnostic, while I do not believe there is a God, I cannot physically prove that he/she does not exist.

            I have always thought the question ; Is there a God? quite boring and futile . There will never be a definitive answer and I am sure if this planet survives, people will still be asking this question in 1,000 years time with the same arguments from each side!

            A far more interesting question is: why do some people believe in God (you) and others do not (myself)? What shapes a person’s attitudes towards life to make that decision? This is something I have always found fascinating. Cheers westcj

          • Larryinchicago

            I completely agree that trying to prove God or not is futile and an impossibility. The answer to your other 2 questions, as I’m sure you’ll agree, are long and varied. However, quite candidly, I find it easier to understand why people don’t believe considering the troublesome world situation, the problem of evil, and individual histories of personal catastrophes. Atheism and agnosticism are not foreign to my own personal journey. Like the author, I went from being a Christian to an agnostic and basically back home again. I can identify much more with an authentic atheist than an inauthentic Christian or religious person.

  • Larryinchicago

    Thank you for a bold story of redemption beautifully written. The cross teaches us that everything must die, even our idea of God, if there is ever to be salvation. The story of life and faith is much too long can try to judge mere fragments of it and sometimes when we think we’re leaving we just took the first step to return.Brendon Manning is a popular author who helped bathe me in the love of God. I hope you find some writers who can also do the same for you… I know you will.

  • rachelchan

    your story is so encouraging. I pray you continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
    Ive been a pastors child most of my life as well, and im finding it taking its toll. I am wanting to establish a community of sisters outside of church, because of the conflict of interest, as well as my own inability/struggle to truly be me–not license to sin, but– (ie,, would you have felt comfortable sharing about your eating disorder to women at your fathers church?!).

    looking for another fellowship. Its a big relief even worshipping at a friends’ church.

    Did you ever take a break? Do you still worship at your dads church?