I was eight or nine, maybe ten. I remember the day, because a playdate outside the neighborhood was a special occasion. I don’t know if playdates weren’t as common then or if I just wasn’t invited. Over the years, I’ve tended to think it was more that I wasn’t invited. It’s not that I’m playing victim or that the other kids didn’t like me—it’s that I just understand better now. You see, I was the preacher’s daughter.
Being the Preacher’s Daughter
I didn’t know then what that meant or how my arrival anywhere was indivisible from my father’s occupation in the tiny town where we lived. But at that playdate on that day, in a lovingly kept ranch set back from the country road, with its flat yard that stretched away from all sides, I came to understand something of power.
After we played in my friend’s bedroom where I admired her canopy bed, we sat down at a glass-top table for a meal not just with my friend, but also with both of her parents. I can’t remember why exactly, but something occurred that required my friend to be disciplined. But as I ate my food, I picked up on the parents’ embarrassment about whatever happened. They were embarrassed in front of me, their guest who wasn’t quite ten. And from somewhere deep within me, I felt a surge of authority.
It shames me to share with you that, in between mouthfuls, I decided to tell them how my parents—how their preacher and preacher’s wife—would discipline me. It went further than honest comparison. I actually made things up because I recognized how intently they were listening. During our meal together, I said something like, “At my house, my parents always spank us right away.” But my parents definitely didn’t spank us often, and I can’t imagine we’d interrupt dinner for that. Apparently, I appreciated a captive audience. My friend’s parents jumped up immediately from the table, whisked my friend off, and administered the threatened consequence right away. I could hear everything, all the while enjoying my heaping plate of satisfaction and smugness.
Apparently I was a terrible friend—perhaps that’s the real reason I didn’t have many playdates. But this was the day that I began to understand the power of my words. What I didn’t understand yet was that what I said held power because of who I was.
Becoming the Daughter of the King
When I left for college I gained the freedom to be something other than the preacher’s daughter. I left that identity behind completely, choosing new labels: school newspaper editor, sorority girl, soccer player’s girlfriend. Four years after my husband and I were married we moved to Boston and began attending a picturesque, white-steepled church in a quintessential New England town. When I met our new pastor, we shook hands and traded names, and I found myself resurrecting the identity that I’d buried for years: “My dad is a preacher.”
I’m sure part of my title’s second-act appearance grew from the discomfort of being unknown in a church. I didn’t know how to be part of a church without being the preacher’s daughter. But I was mostly picking it back up from its discarded place, because the only place my faith found root was by proxy. My perception of a preacher’s daughter and the life I lived didn’t match. I’d resuscitated it because of what I thought it stood for—perhaps a life lived for Jesus first, perhaps a deep knowledge of faith, perhaps even an understanding of what it means to be part of a church. But this preacher’s daughter, who should have known Jesus, considering the many years of required Sunday School and children’s choir and church potlucks and youth group, didn’t. I knew something of the preacher’s power, but not the preacher’s God.
I was thirty-three when I discovered I couldn’t hide behind labels anymore. I didn’t truly find Jesus until the labels wore out, worthless to confront pain and confusion and difficulty. I couldn’t begin to understand who I was until I faced who I wasn’t. Once I was at the end of myself, and focused instead on the great I AM, he named me. He labeled me. I wish I’d known all those years ago how “preacher’s daughter” lies flat, counterfeit, next to “daughter of the king.”
Cover image by Helena Hertz.