Seventh-day Adventist clergy promoting relationality in their family and an open environment to discuss anything, especially inter-church conflict, is the most significant factor in helping to prevent attrition of their adult children, according to my research on attrition of children of Adventist ministers in the Midwestern United States.
My findings are based on 21,000 data cells of raw research from Adventist pastoral couples with adult children. From the data, 40 attrition factors emerged -- 11 of them were extreme.
I was drawn to this project because of the gravity and irony of losing one's own children while dedicating one's whole life to saving other people's children -- and perhaps losing them not incidentally but because of that ministry.
Despite previous studies on attrition of Adventist youth, there has been no significant study of clergy parents who have lost adult children in regards to church fellowship.
To identify the causative factors, I mailed a 111-point questionnaire to each of the 222 active and retired clergy in the Mid-America Union of Seventh-day Adventists who have adult children. Data requested was based on the research question: What influences from Seventh-day Adventist clergy parents in Mid-America may affect whether their children experience attrition from that denomination upon becoming adults?
Data collected from the 113 returned questionnaires yielded the following summary of conclusions:
1. Family relationality is needed for the freedom and trust expressed in discussing controversial issues. There is no greater cause of attrition than to attempt to shield children from knowledge of, or to resist discussion about, church or denominational conflict.
2. Lack of relationality in the pastoral family is one of the most serious causes of PK (pastors' kids) attrition. Pastors with the highest retention rate of adult children are those who managed to provide the most positive and "fun" family experience in the parsonage and were close enough to talk about anything in an atmosphere of freedom that allowed children and teens latitude in developing their own faith experience.
3. Parental conservatism regarding lifestyle standards is not statistically significant in attrition.
4. Legalism regarding gospel doctrine (soteriology) is a moderately significant cause of attrition.
5. Legalism regarding practicing the principles of the gospel is a major cause of attrition.
6. Clergy parents holding their own children to a higher behavioral standard than other children and teens in the church is a high cause of attrition.
7. A strong predictor of future faithfulness as an adult is whether the PK during growing-up years takes initiative to approach a clergy parent to discuss spiritual matters.
8. Congregational criticism of pastoral family members portends future attrition of adult children.
9. There is definite significance between the experience of entering the pastorate during one's 30s and the future attrition of one's children.
10. Having a clergy grandparent is a stabilizing factor in the spiritual life of a PK.
To summarize: The most significant factors in avoiding attrition are being able to discuss church problems in the parsonage, while also giving teens freedom to develop their own faith experience without the expectation of being super saints because they live in a parsonage.
Seventh-day Adventists can pursue this in practical terms by interpreting fundamental denominational beliefs in the context of the gospel and living them out in a missional community of shalom.
Perhaps this research could even spur similar studies in other cultures and world regions and offer valuable insight to colleagues as they minister to the most special flock -- their own.
--Martin Weber, D.Min, serves as the Communication Director for the Mid-America Union, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States. Click here to read a PDF document of his full report on the topic.