A Conversation With Timothy Sanford, Author of “I Have to be Perfect”

by Elizabeth Trotter on May 21, 2015

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The last four months we’ve been exploring the ideas in Timothy Sanford’s book I Have to be Perfect” (and other Parsonage Heresies). Here are the first four posts if you need a refresher:

The Little Word that Frees Us

I’m Not Supposed to Have Needs

I Can’t Trust Anyone

God is Disappointed in Me

Today we’ll conclude our series with an interview with Timothy himself. My questions and comments are in bold. Also stay tuned for his book to become more accessible for overseas workers this summer, when it will be published electronically.

 

Timothy, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us here at A Life Overseas. I know this conversation will bless our online community. You grew up as an MK. Can you give us a little background about where you lived as a child?

“Where I grew up” is a hard question for many MKs—and even PKs these days—to answer. My birth certificate and passport indicate I was born in Chicago, Illinois (many think Chicago is a foreign country).  The back of a 1957 Chevy got very comfortable while my parents did deputation.  They were in Costa Rica for language school and finally landed in Ecuador.

Back State side, my parents did their “re-entry transitioning” (which did not even exist back in those days) in Ohio.  We then moved to Texas (which self-claims to be a “whole different world”) where they did missionary work in Mexico and taught at Rio Grande Bible Institute.

We moved back to Ohio so my dad could take a preacher job (which didn’t work out) and finally landed in Arizona where I became a SEK (Secular Employee’s Kid, which some people pronounce “sick”).

 

You’ve been a licensed professional counselor for how many years now?

I’ve been in practice as a Licensed Professional Counselor for 26 years with experience in private practice, a Residential Treatment Center for youth, and an In-patient psychiatric hospital.

 

Is there anything specific that prompted you to enter counseling as a profession?

It was my wife’s idea really. We were leaving Eagle Lake Camp (part of The Navigators organization), so I went back to school (to buy some time to figure out what I was going to do next in life).  At that time the field of psychology was lab rats, long white coats and weird men with ponytails. My goal was to receive the counseling skills and use them in ministry somewhere overseas. I did my required internship in a private practice setting and have been in practice ever since.  Yes, the “God does work in mysterious ways” cliché fits.

 

From your vantage point, what things have changed, and what things have remained constant, in missionary and ministry culture these past 3 or 4 decades? How are the experiences of today’s PKs and MKs different from a few decades ago, and how are they the same?

Today there is more information and attention that on the subject of MK/TCKs.  Out of that came MK Member Caregiver staff people and Re-entry seminars/retreats for transitioning MKs.

The internet, Skype, and better international calling services help MKs keep connected with the MKs they know from the field, as well as being a forum to connect with other like-minded  MK/TCKs. That’s all good.

When my parents were sent off to the field they were told “You’re a missionary and God will take care of your kids.  Ministry first.”  That mantra is no longer outwardly stated; however, the tone in missions these days is “You’re a missionary (parents) and the MK Member Caregiver staff will tend to your kids’ needs.  Ministry is still (unofficially, of course) first.”  Even with all the increased attention and information on cross-cultural issues, many MKs still get pushed into second or third place.

 

I’ve interpreted this book through my own personal experiences: a TCK but not a PK, a missionary but not an MK, an adult who entered ministry young but did not grow up in it, and a parent raising 4 children who are all PKs, MKs, and TCKs. But you wrote this book to PKs, not to their parents. I’m wondering what kind of advice you’d give to parents of MKs and PKs? So much of the time as a parent, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’d love your input on that. What kind of conversations would you recommend having with our children?

Since you’re the missionary parent asking this question that’s a great start.

The way I try to describe the difference between the missionary and the MK is this way:  Let’s say America is the color RED and Ecuador is the color YELLOW.  You are a RED brain (it’s your paradigm, it’s your passport country) adjusting to a YELLOW culture.  You make paradigm adjustments to your RED brain.  But, when you mix RED with YELLOW (the culture the MK/TCK grows up in) you get ORANGE.  That’s not RED adapting to YELLOW, it’s ORANGE.  It’s an entirely different color.  It’s an entirely different paradigm all together.  Poof! You have the TCK world.

Your world as the missionary is not the same as the MK’s world for several reasons:

  1. Your MK didn’t get to choose to do missionary work to foreign peoples.
  2. It isn’t your MK’s “calling” either.
  3. You have adult skills (I hope) with which to manage the stresses, struggles and complications of an inter-cultural environment. Your MK only has child-level coping skills. Many adults (not just missionaries) don’t stop to think about the limited coping skills their children have. This is especially true if you are stationed in a potentially hostile region. You have the adult understandings of the “chances” and “odds” of things happening – or not happening.  The MK mostly hears the “what can go wrong.” It can be especially terrifying for younger children.
  4. Be attuned to the world from the MK’s perspective and realize the “Holy Heresies” are very likely to grow inside their brains even if you’re not the one putting those lies there. MKs—and especially PKs—have 100 dads and 150 moms. Remember: the mission agency, the denomination, the church people and the secular environment you live in impacts your MK a whole lot more than you may think.  Sometimes these external “voices” are as influential as your own voice; frustrating, yet true.

Accept the possibility you may need to choose your MK over your “ministry,” at least for a number of years. I don’t wish this on any family, yet as the missionary parent, it’s a harsh “reality of the job” you need to accept.

 

The “harsh reality of the job” — that’s an intriguing statement. Could you elaborate on it?

What I’m trying to say is there may come a time when the parent is faced with the tough decision between staying on the field to do “ministry” or returning/staying home because it is in the best interest of a child. There have been several families that I recommended for the sake of the child(ren) they not continue on the field.

That is a VERY difficult and painful decision to make, and that position of facing that decision is what I hope no family has to face.  It’s just hard for everyone in the family.  Yes, it is a matter of prioritizing and making sure the MK comes out on top of the “ministry.” Part of what makes this so hard is most missionaries I know are passionate about their calling (and rightfully so), so to CHOOSE to put it aside for a while is very painful for them (again, and rightfully so).

On the flip side, I think some missionary families don’t reach out for family help because they are afraid they will be told they can’t continue their ministry/return to the field. The missionary parents often come in with an all-or-nothing thinking: ministry or suffer State-side.  I have successfully worked with a number of families where other options actually worked out very well.  Again, it’s a case by case situation, but for the missionary, it’s important to realize there may be more options available other than go or stay.

Accepting the reality that your family may NOT thrive, or even belong, overseas is something very few missionaries consider.  Yet it’s true.  My recommendation to potential missionaries is: are they truly willing (not just in theory willing) to NOT go or NOT return to the field if that is what is best for their family.  If NOT … my recommendation is to not send that family to the field in the first place.  That’s what I mean by: “…it’s a harsh “reality of the job” you need to accept.”

Again, if the missionary parents are not aware of this reality, they can become very broken and maybe even bitter if one of their children “kept” them “from doing God’s work” … which is really THEIR own work as well as their identity.  Too many missionary personnel I’ve met have made “ministry” and “missionary” their IDENTITY over what they are doing.  If this type of missionary can’t return to “their work” it can actually create an identity crisis that can bring all sorts of complications such as depression, etc.  It’s a HUGE topic that I have not heard mentioned at all in the few missionary circles I’m clued into.  It may actually be worth another post or series for you to think about doing.

 

High school graduation time is upon us. How would you describe your re-entry into American life as a young adult, and what advice would you give for MKs/TCKs preparing to re-enter their passport country, especially from a counselor’s perspective? What advice would you give their parents for helping guide them in the transition?

I know about transitions. All in all, I attended six different schools before completing the 8th grade and lived in 26 different places before graduating from high school.  You know, the normal stuff for MKs. So here are my suggestions:

  1. Make good use of your R.A.F.T.
  2. Attend a transition weekend. Many mission agencies provide these nowadays as well as organizations such as Interact, etc.  They really can help.
  3. Keep connected with other TCK friends via internet, etc.
  4. If possible, attend a university that has a high population of international students. There is a good chance you will meet other TCKs there.
  5. Remember what these four phrases really mean:

“Let’s get together …” really means “good bye.”

“I’ll call you …” really means “good bye.”

“Give me a call …” really means “good bye.”

“We’ll be in touch …” really means “good bye.”

  1. If your agency had an MK Caregiver staff or person, get to know them and keep in contact. I’ve met a number of MK Caregivers and they all want to help (they’re good at it too).  And if you don’t know what R.A.F.T. stands for, ask your MK Caregiver; he or she will know.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add to what you’ve said in the book? Perhaps something new you’ve learned since you originally wrote it, that’s burning on your heart?

Since writing “I Have to be Perfect,” I have done a lot of research on the subject of attachment child to parent.  In doing so, I realize there can very easily be attachment issues within a missionary family.  In 2003 I presented a workshop at the World Reunion 2003 (for TCKs not just MKs) on the topic of attachment.  They had me do the workshop two additional times because nearly all the attendees wanted to attend that workshop. As I did so, I did an unofficial, unscientific experiment. At the end of all three workshops I asked for written “yes” or “no” response on a small piece of paper stating whether the attachment issues presented fit them.  To my surprise, nearly 80% of the attendees at the World Reunion 2003 indicated they had significant attachment issues in their life.  It was this gathering that got me started on studying the attachment dynamic and how growing up as an MK/TCK can impact attachment.

For about nine years now I’ve been working on a manuscript on this subject and I’m glad to share INSIDE: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels will be released in eBook form early summer 2015 through LifEdvice.com. Had I known then what I know now, I would have added at least some of this to “I Have to be Perfect.”  Oh well, I guess people will just have to order the eBook (which will sell for $4.99 I believe).

Oh and since I’m talking about eBooks being released, “I Have to be Perfect” is also coming out in eBook format through the same publisher (LifEdvice.com) early this summer as well—and it will be cheaper too! Again, I think it will be $4.99.

 

Thank you so much, Tim, for taking the time to answer all these questions and share your hard-won wisdom with us. I know people will really appreciate how practical this advice is.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Life Overseas community, do you have any questions for Tim? He’ll be available to answer your questions in the comment section until Sunday, May 31.

 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tim Sanford holds an M.A. in Psychology, a B.A. in Bible and a B.S. in Outdoor Recreation.  He is licensed by the State of Colorado as a Licensed Professional Counselor and is an ordained minister.  He has received further training in areas of communication, trauma response and debriefing and experiential education.

Tim’s background includes being raised in South America; many years of involvement in his home church (including interim College Pastor); and being the Director of the wilderness camping ministry for The Navigators, an international, interdenominational Christian organization. He currently runs a private counseling practice in Colorado Springs that focuses on adolescents, adults and marriage.  In addition to his practice, Tim is a full-time member of the counseling staff at Focus on the Family.

He has published many articles in the United States, Germany and South Africa.  He is the author of “I Have to be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies), a book intended for preachers’ kids, co-authored Growing Pains: Advice for Parents of Teenagers and Losing Control and Liking It, a book for parenting teenagers published by Focus on the Family/Tyndall Publishing. Tim’s most recent work INSIDE: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels is scheduled to be released early summer, 2015, In total, his works have been translated into seven different languages.

He has been married to Becky since 1981 and they have two married daughters.  They currently call Colorado Springs, Colorado their home. Tim has spoken at numerous conferences over the years, for many kinds of gatherings, workshops and seminars; national and local.

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Thanks, Elizabeth for this series–I think it’s been great!! And thanks to Tim for the book to begin with, and I’m excited to read INSIDE when it’s published. Thank you for being such an advocate for families, and especially for children who have so little voice, especially in comparison to The Great Work Which Must Be Done. We do have better verbage about the value of families these days in the m world, but often our actions continue to speak louder than our words. Saying “We’d go home if our kids needed it” often equates to our kids never needing it. When really, they need it. Only they’re not allowed to need it. And they know that.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Kay! You’ve been really supportive throughout this whole project. And I agree, thanks to Tim for writing the actual book! I’m hoping his research on RAD and “Inside” book can really help some adult TCKs out there. When he first talked about it in the interview, I thought, oh! I have some attachment issues. I thought it was specifically the Army, because it tends to be a place where emotions are squashed, for the sake of defending a country. Makes sense from a soldier’s perspective, right?? Not always good for the kids though. But then I learned it’s the broader TCK population who struggles with attachment stuff too. So I think this is such important information!!

      And that last part — so insightful — and so scary. We tell ourselves we’d go home if we need to, but then we never “need to,” and everyone knows it. Ouch again! I hope that’s slowly changing. We’re starting to have these kinds of conversations, and people are being more open about their decisions to leave (especially this time of year). The identity stuff plays hugely into giving ourselves permission to go, and I think there’s shame involved too. But again, I hope that’s changing.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Kay — Any chance I could sit with you for coffee in Texas in June? I so get if your life and schedule don’t allow — but I will be there for a week and think it might be really great to meet.

  • Elizabeth I’ve loved this series and echo everything Kay says. I remember my first exposure to a situation where a family “needed” to be back in their home country and none of their supervisors would say. I was so confused why it was a no-no. I talked to the supervisor saying it was his place, not mine, to have the conversation. I was much younger in those days. These are hard conversations to have, but they are important.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Interesting to me that early on, your intuition told you that sometimes families need to leave, for the good of their whole family, but that you didn’t feel you could say anything. Those statements really stood out to me as well. When he said that if someone won’t even consider leaving the field, then that tells him that they really need to leave — I’ve repeated that to several people since originally compiling this interview, it stayed that strongly with me.

      I’m glad you are more experienced now and would be able to share your wisdom with someone struggling with that decision.

  • Teresa Williams

    I am particularly intrigued by the last two paragraphs in the section talking about harsh realities…about the loss of identity if the missionary has to give up his/her calling…about being truly willing to NOT go or NOT return, as he put it. That’s pretty serious stuff. I’m glad he is willing to say it. I believe I grew up around people who would have had a very difficult time putting aside their ministry passion for their family. This wasn’t the case in mine, but the overall culture of the ministry world that I was raised within was: God Comes First. Which translated in my mind as You Are Never Going To Be Important Enough to Anyone. If you are always competing with God for attention, you will always lose.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      “God Comes First. Which translated in my mind as You Are Never Going To Be Important Enough to Anyone. If you are always competing with God for attention, you will always lose.” Wow. Just wow. And ouch. Never thought about it that way. And the second statement is not a very big leap from “God comes first.”

      About the identity stuff — that’s important stuff that perhaps we’ll get to another time. Timothy has more to say on the subject, but we ran out of time in this interview. I think our identity is a huge thing and hearing from friends who have left the field, they say wrestling with identity issues off the field was/is tough.

  • Anisha Hopkinson

    I loved the part about more options than just staying or going. It’s so easy to fall into this trap of thinking that if we started to really struggle and I can’t pull my family together, we have to leave. So we get into this whole ‘their fault for struggling, my failure for not fixing it’ thing. After a decade of working and praying and dreaming about actually getting to the field, a leave or stay only scenario is terrifying. I’m so encouraged to hear you (Tim) have worked together with families to help them stay healthily.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I’m so glad that part encouraged you Anisha 🙂

  • We’d been on the field with our kids for two years when a trusted adviser told us to “take them home.” I was angry, at first, feeling like God had abandoned us after we followed him, but it didn’t take long for us to recognize the wisdom in her follow up statement, “If you have to choose between your ministry and your family, you must choose your family. They are your first ministry.”

    It’s been a year since then, and five months since we’ve returned Stateside. Did I want to come back? No. Has it been the best thing for our family? Absolutely. Without a doubt.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Oh Wendy, this must have been such a difficult decision for you to make. I’m so sorry for all the difficulties and the disappointments you’ve endured. I am thankful you have done the best thing for your family in the midst of all the difficulties. And thank you for sharing your testimony with others, that they may be emboldened to take the best steps for their own families, no matter what that might look like. Sending you virtual hugs today!

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Hi Elizabeth and Tim – I truly loved this post. It has always been our mantra, “Our kids befor Haiti” and to this point I feel that we’ve lived honest to that — but I know that should a child totally deteriorate and need to go back the USA that I would really struggle to leave this work I love — I do so hope I would be healthy enough and choose my kids over mission —- I WANT THAT in theory, here is hoping it would play out in practice too. (Should it ever need to) — I also find it helpful to remind myself that MANY people have the same skills as me and I don’t ever want to think that I am more needed in a Maternity Center in Haiti than I am in my own family. Much love to you all tonight, this is a great post!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Tara 🙂 And I echo that sentiment — I choose my kids in theory and hope that when push comes to shove, that I would choose them in practice — because I know I would really struggle to leave, too. I think Kay touched on that struggle in her comment as well. (And I hope you’re able to meet up with her this summer! That would be awesome.) In the meantime, may you be greeted by healthy moms and babies, and by safe, smooth births and postpartums. God bless <3

  • Maggi

    Very, very good! Thanks for doing this interview. Very interesting and helpful. I’d also like to hear more about missionaries and identity. We struggle with that in our family. And what if you need to leave the field because of one of the spouses? That would be pretty hard, as well… But I think the identity thing is HUGE and would like more input on that.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Hi Maggi, I just saw this comment, and it’s a great question. I was just having a conversation with someone about whether we are missionary successes or failures, and this is what I said:

      You ask “who am I, a great missionary or a failure as a woman?” I would venture to say that neither one truly defines you. The truest thing about you is that you are a daughter of God. A beloved child, created in the image of your Father, redeemed by the blood of His one and only Son, and indwelt by his Holy Spirit. That is who you are on the deepest level, and it is not dependent upon your successes or failures, however you are defining those things. It is dependent upon God alone. In the end, when we get to heaven, I don’t think we will be beholding ourselves as great or as failures. We will all be children of the King, saved by Jesus, and worshiping Him. (Here’s something I wrote about that https://trotters41.com/2016/03/22/child-of-god/ )

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