“I Can’t Trust Anyone” | Lies We Believe

by Elizabeth Trotter on March 30, 2015

The last two months we’ve been exploring the ideas in Timothy Sanford’s book “I Have to be Perfect” (and other Parsonage Heresies). I hope this series is as healing for you as it has been for me.

So far, we’ve given ourselves permission to say “and” in The Little Word That Frees Us. Then we began to exchange our “shoulds” for “coulds” in “I’m Not Supposed to Have Needs” | Lies We Believe. If you’re new to the conversation, you might want to go back and read those first two sections.

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I’m different

Before we dive into this lie, I need to clarify something. Sanford, himself an MK, says this belief has nothing to do with the legitimate “differentness” of being an MK and having a blended-culture worldview. That’s the TCK part of being an MK, and is a different discussion.

Rather, the belief that “I’m different” comes from being treated differently. It comes from living under different expectations and being required to abide by different rules. Sanford says this is not imaginary: though church members try to deny it, they often do judge PKs and MKs differently. People apply standards to them that they don’t apply to “regular” people. Likewise, we ministers and missionaries often apply standards to ourselves that we wouldn’t think of applying to non-ministry people.

We need to pause here and acknowledge the truth inside the lie: adults and children in ministry contexts do have different experiences, and those experiences can be quite exotic. More travel, more exposure to other cultures, more opportunities to attend events and meet well-known Christian leaders.

Other times our experiences are darker. We (along with our children) see the underbelly of church and missionary culture. We know all about problem people and problem finances. We know who is “against us,” and at times we even know who is responsible for eliminating our positions and reducing our influence, all in the name of Christ. These are the secrets we must keep and the burdens we must bear — and that too, makes us feel different.

If we think we’re different, however, we may keep ourselves from pursuing deep relationships. We may push people away and close our hearts to them. We may become lonely and even depressed. Alternatively, we may slide from believing we’re “different” into believing we’re “better.” We may like our positions of influence and authority: they boost our ego and pad our sense of pride. Although it’s uncomfortable to admit sometimes, we are a tribe who likes to set ourselves not merely apart, but also above.

Neither of these reactions is right or healthy. We may lead very different-looking lives, but we bear the same image of God. We may shoulder different responsibilities, but we share the same human need for unconditional love and acceptance. I don’t believe God’s desire for those in ministry is any different than for anyone else. I believe He wants all of us to experience authentic, life-giving community. But if we believe we’re different, we may cut ourselves off from the fellowship we so desperately need. If we believe we’re different, we may deprive ourselves of the deep relationships our souls crave.

We need to delete the “missionaries are better” mindset from our vocabularies. We need to stop isolating and elevating people in ministry and start embracing each other as equals, no matter which labels we personally claim. We need to take responsibility for the pedestals we’ve placed certain people on – even if we placed ourselves on those pedestals.

We need to level our hierarchies. Missionaries sin, ministers sin, and our children sin — just the same as everyone else. We all need a Savior. Honesty, openness, and acceptance are for all members of the Body. They’re for the ones preaching from the pulpits, and for the ones sitting on the back row. They’re for the ones sending monthly newsletters across the ocean, and for the ones sending monthly checks in the mail. They’re for everyone.

 

I can’t trust anyone

“I can’t trust anyone” closely follows “I’m different.” Many of the same experiences that lead us to believe we’re different also lead us to believe we can’t trust anyone, and it can be hard to tease out the differences.

At first glance, “I can’t trust anyone” might not seem like a lie. If church people have let us down, if they’ve mercilessly judged our struggles, if they’ve betrayed our confidences and broadcast our private stories to the world, this statement might seem true. And we might have decided we’re better off on our own. We might have decided we don’t need anyone after all.

Truth be told, I had trouble writing this section. Unlike some of the other lies in this series, I don’t have significant personal experience with this one. I’ve certainly considered myself “different,” and at times “better,” but I haven’t personally struggled with trusting people. I’ve always had a small circle of people I could trust, and I have a feeling this is because I didn’t grow up in a ministry home.

My story is not everyone’s story, however, and I’ve spoken with enough pastor’s kids and pastor’s kids’ spouses to know this trust issue is a big deal. It plays out in loneliness, arrogance, and a lack of close relationships.

While I’ve generally had safe people in my life, I know this much is true: some people cannot be trusted. Some people are not safe. There is truth inside this lie. Sometimes unsafe people in the Church hurt us deeply. Sometimes religious people wound us so severely that it almost seems irreparable, and we decide never to trust church people again.

While it is most definitely true that some people can’t be trusted, it is also true that some people can be trusted. Trustworthy people may be hard to find, but they do exist. And without that elusive trust, we can’t have meaningful relationships. When we choose not to trust people, we cut ourselves off from the relationships that can buoy us in times of trouble. When we tuck our weaknesses away where no one can find them or use them against us, we may think we are safe, but in reality we are alone.

If there truly is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then perhaps there should be no pastor or member either, no missionary or sender. Not that there aren’t differing roles and responsibilities in the Church – because there are — but that we are all one in Christ, and all equal in His Church. So let’s accept each other’s weaknesses and respect each other’s stories. Let’s push back against the prevailing church culture that ranks us over and under each other, and love each other as equals.

I’m not saying we can’t be friends with people who’ve had similar life experiences. Those people instinctively understand us, and they can be a refuge for us. What I am saying is that we can be friends with people outside our circles, too. Others in the body of Christ can love us well, too. There are people “outside the tribe” who can accept our entire story, with all its complications and paradoxes. And we can love them in all their glorious complexity, too. Reaching out to people who aren’t exactly like us is what the Church was designed for.

 

I can ruin my parents’ ministry

Of all the lies listed in the Parsonage Heresies book, this one strikes me as the most tragic. It tells children they make their parents credible – or not. It tells children they prove their parents’ worth – or not. It tells children their behavior makes an adult’s ministry successful — or destroys it.

This lie places the burden of an adult’s employment squarely on the shoulders of a child. This is unfair in any profession, and completely out of place among God’s people. Children — loved by God, sought by God, cared for by God — should never feel the pressure to ensure their parents’ wage-earning ability.

Although this statement upset me more than any other lie in this book, I don’t have actual experience with it — probably because I didn’t grow up in a ministry home. But I can imagine it doesn’t feel like a lie. I can imagine having social, emotional, or educational difficulties and being afraid to express them, because taking care of those issues might take my family off the field.

While I’ve never met any parents who held their children responsible for their ministry career, adult PKs and MKs probably have painful stories to back up this belief, and for those stories, I am truly sorry. Whether this pressure came from within your family or externally from church members, or some deadly combination of the two, I am so, so sorry. That’s a heavy burden to carry.

I’d also like to consider the corollary of “I can ruin my parents’ ministry”: “I can ruin my husband’s ministry.” I am much more familiar with this fear. I didn’t originally want to move overseas, but I thought if I refused to go, I’d ruin my husband’s missionary dreams. I am not the only wife who’s ever felt this. Kay Bruner writes in As Soon as I Fell, “All through our training, I had heard how important it was for the wife to ‘be involved in the project.’ People said that if the wife wasn’t involved in the project, the whole thing would go down in flames. I didn’t want to be the reason our project failed.”

That’s a lot of pressure, and I’ve spoken with other wives who feel the same way. We’re afraid we can ruin everything for our husbands. Sometimes that idea is even planted by well-meaning organizations and leaders. Sometimes it comes from inside us. And honestly, I don’t know what to do about this issue.

I don’t even think this pressure is relegated to children and spouses. I think as adults in missions, we fear that our own sin or poor choices might cause us to fail, so we silence our own struggles. Other times we have medical issues that need tending, and we’re faced with the choice to hide or deny them, or to seek help off the field if needed.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to separate the truth from the untruth in these beliefs. I’m not sure how we as the Body of Christ can deconstruct these harmful lies. I hope and pray this pressure to perform for the sake of your parents or spouse is becoming a relic of the past, but I have a feeling this is something we need to talk about more. I don’t have many answers here. I would love it if you shared your hard-won wisdom and experiences in the comments.

 

Have you ever felt different, alone, or unable to trust anyone?

Where have you found safe community? What does safe community look like for you?

What can we do to facilitate safer environments in the Church, and specifically for people in missions and ministry?

Have you ever felt you could destroy your parents’ or spouse’s or even your own ministry career? How can we address this pressure in a healthy, God-honoring way?

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Part 1: The Little Word That Frees Us

Part 2: “I’m Not Supposed to Have Needs

Part 4: “God is Disappointed With Me

Part 5: A Conversation with Timothy Sanford

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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.
  • Out of the park, girlfriend. Out of the park. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5wRKXWMGSQ (Add in 40,000 screaming fans and that’s what’s going through my head right now.)

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Kay! Your encouragement means so much!!

  • Anna Wegner

    I can understand the feeling of being “different” and having trouble trusting. As a missionary, you do feel always on display, at home and abroad. I tend to have a certain amount of openness, but for the really deep stuff, it’s good to know the safe people. By that, I mean the ones who will listen to you, sometimes know that you are being unreasonable or immature, but still not change their view of you as a person or their treatment of you. They may sometimes need to tell you that you’re wrong, but that is different than judging and condemning.

    I didn’t grow up in a ministry family, and I hope my kids don’t ever feel this way. Since we started preparing to go to language school (2007), I can only think of one instance where something like that has been implied. There was one church where my husband was speaking on a Wednesday night, and my kids, the youngest was 2 at the time, were not that well behaved. An older couple talked to me about it, because they were concerned that we would have trouble overseas if we couldn’t control our kids. I really wasn’t even that upset about it. I knew that while they meant well, they didn’t really know my kids. They weren’t bad kids, just imperfect kids, and they were at the end of a long day. Since then, we’ve done lots of other traveling, and we’ve never encountered anything less than kind acceptance of them with all their good and bad. 🙂

    I have put pressure on myself as a spouse. I didn’t really even realize that I was doing it at the time, but I thought I couldn’t say anything was too hard in ministry. Part of that was when my husband was working 12-16 hours, up at night working (mission hospital- people dying and all that.) We were both approaching burn-out. I didn’t think that I could say it was too hard, because he was saving lives, doing important work, who was I to stop that. It was right before we were taking a scheduled year in the US, and I was able to talk about it with a very wise older woman in some of my transition time. Now I know that is wrong, and that God gives all of us- husband and wife- limitations. We are responsible to be faithful to God, but not for saving everyone and everything. And I don’t believe that God is honored when families fall apart but “work for God” is done.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Anna, I think I am like you — fairly open, but some things definitely need SAFE people! And I’m with you, hoping my kids don’t feel this pressure.

      “He was saving lives, doing important work, who was I to stop that.” I think that is an important thought process to notice — I think other have probably thought that, too. I love how you come to the place of “We are responsible to be faithful to God, but not for saving everyone and everything.” I think that gives such peace. I’m glad you shared this story in particular because I think a lot of people will relate to it.

      I wonder — does this pressure come because we’ve read missionary stories that only tell the heroic and good? Does it come because all we ever see at church on Sundays is everyone in their best clothes and on their best behavior, and we just assume our pastors are like that all week long, even when we’re not? Is it just by observing the way things are, that we get these ideas?

    • ErinMP

      I agree with the family point…

      And I like how you describe safe people; “By that, I mean the ones who will listen to you, sometimes know that you are being unreasonable or immature, but still not change their view of you as a person or their treatment of you. They may sometimes need to tell you that you’re wrong, but that is different than judging and condemning.” I have that back home but not yet here…praying for it.

  • Amy

    wow. just wow. The “I can’t trust.” Oh how I struggle with that. To learn to trust people when almost all of my spiritual leaders… home pastor and directors on the field betrayed that trust during the most difficult time of my life still sometimes seems impossible to me. I am “home” right now (i.e. not in my mission country) and am in the process of trying to find some people that I can actually trust with my deepest hardships while serving before going back to the field. I am most definitely going to buy Timothy Sanford’s book. Thank you also, for your wise words of encouragement. I appreciate them.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Oh Amy, I am so, so sorry you are in the midst of this. I am so deeply sorry for the betrayal. It hurts so badly. I pray along with you that you can find safe, trustworthy, loving people to help you heal from these wounds. Again, I am just so, so sorry.

      I hope the book blesses you with healing and hope. And just FYI, someone told me the price of Timothy Sanford’s book on Amazon now starts at $33. Yikes! Just wanted to let you know you can also purchase it from MTI (Mission Training International). Click on the link below, and it will take a minute to load the online store. Then search the Online Store (not the search at the top of the page) for Parsonage Heresies, and it should show up. It’s $13, which is much more reasonable. Hope that helps get the book into your hands more easily. https://www.mti.org/purchase/

      May the God of all comfort be with you as you heal from these hurts, and may you feel His abiding presence as you move forward in life and ministry.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      The book has been restocked on Amazon and is at a reasonable price again. 🙂 I hope you’re able to have a restful weekend, Amy.

  • Richelle Wright

    I’ve definitely struggled with the ruining hubby’s ministry bit and I think it is a hard because I do see a lot of truth in that one. Tim and I have always thought of ourselves as a team, working together and supporting each other in those areas where we couldn’t work together directly. What helps me to deal with thos pressure is our conscious choice to see that we are in it together: we sink or swim together and the responsibility could and never should lie on his or my shoulders alone.

    I think it is also imperative to recognize that there are consequences for our choices and actions… good and bad. Sometimes bad consequences follow right choices and vice versa. Sometimes good results follow good choices and vice versa. Nothing drives me crazy more quickly than the pass the buck, blame someone else game. If something is always being done to me… than I have very little hope of changing without outside help. On the other hand, when I own what is my responsibility, then by God’s grace, I can change.

    And that probably isn’t adequately said, but I’ve gotta stop trying to proofread and change on my phone or I might be tempted to throw the crazy thing across the room!!

    Grwat and important questions to ask. Thanks for diving into these harder topics.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Actually, Richelle, I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head with your first paragraph. 🙂 Ministry and marriage are a team deal, and we sink or swim together. Andy Bruner talked about that in a blog before, too. That approach, though, is far removed from the fear of a wife thinking she and she alone can ruin everything, that it all depends on her to make sure her husband’s missionary career succeeds. That is too much pressure, an impossible standard.

      I remember backing out of a survey trip to Cambodia when I was 10 weeks pregnant with my 4th, based on my midwife’s advice. I felt terrible about it. We lost some money, and I felt like it was all my fault. I remember my best friend telling me it was going to be ok. She said this happens in marriage. She said in a marriage, sometimes you lose money because of one person’s choices, and other times, you lose money because of the other person’s choices, and we’re not keeping track. Anyway, it was a huge relief to hear that because I was definitely thinking I was ruining everything!

  • ErinMP

    I’m definitely going through this now, so it was timely, though it’s still hard for me to believe. I am working at a school in Bangkok that claims to be Christian, but it was those people “in the church” who have hurt me the most–sexual harassment, slander, insults, verbal abuse, etc. all for 6 months straight…since all of these people were from a different culture than mine, too, I run the risk of generalizing big-time (the three Westerners here have done the least damage, although one turned out to be a pathological liar who doesn’t have faith but lies to keep his job, another is mostly okay, and another also is without faith and lies to keep the job…)…not to mention having a crazy unbelievable year that has seriously taken away all idealism and ideas of trust. How do you trust on the field? Do most missionaries have a different experience? I don’t think I could stay at this school another year, barely a few months. I’m not sure this is healthy or normal or not, but I feel terribly isolated and disillusioned. It’s good to know there may be people out on the field to trust…

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Oh Erin, I am so sorry for these rough 6 months. It sounds SUPER stressful. And awful. And terrible. Of course your idealism has dissipated by now.

      I’ve never worked in a school or sent my kids to school, so I don’t have a good grasp of what is “normal” or average in that regard, but I do know I tend to view trust as an individual thing. Meaning, I don’t carte blanche trust everyone I meet. I sort of wait for that special connection that tells me I might be able to trust this person, and then after spending time together, I know even better whom I can trust. So yes, I think it’s possible to find people you can trust on the field, but many missionaries have stories of disappointments on the field as well. I almost think it starts to become background noise — you know there is always going to be drama around, so you find community wherever you can.

      Are you able to leave your position at the school at the end of this term? I hate to think of life in Bangkok ending on such a sour note, but I also hate to think of you being in such an unhealthy environment any longer than necessary. In our family we call that a “necessary ending.”

      If you are able to leave, I pray you will have some decompression time before doing anything else. Time to heal from these emotional cuts and bruises, perhaps even get formal debriefing or counseling, especially regarding the sexual harassment and verbal abuse. I know Mission Training International in Colorado and Link Care in California provide debriefing. Not trying to tell you what to do, just trying to make sure you have the resources you need to heal from this incredibly painful season. 🙁

      Again, I am so sorry your first exposure to missions has been so disappointing and hurtful.

      Prayers for you today.

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