Guiltitude: the Guilt of Having in a World of Sacrificing

by Michèle Phoenix

My pastor got a car.

His van was totaled in a wreck and, just as he and his wife were considering what it would take to finance a new vehicle, someone they know offered them a Volvo.

This past Sunday, he spoke with awe in his voice about the miraculous provision for his family. Then he emphasized that the car was well above their means and added, “I don’t want anyone to see the car and think, ‘Wow, my pastor can afford a Volvo?!’”

I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, “I hate that he had to say that.” Then I remembered how often I’ve done something similar.

I’ve noticed the syndrome beforeI’ve lived it. And it has reached epidemic proportions in the world of missions. Even among the MKs I serve, I see it embodied every day, inherited from parents who might not have realized the lessons they were teaching.

Guiltitude [noun]

Condition in which guilt overwhelms gratitude—most commonly observed in those who are dependent on charitable giving—aggravated by fear of judgment, often resulting in calculated communication and/or conscience-stricken self-restriction. 

 

CONFESSIONS OF A GUILTITUDER
When I moved back to the States from Europe, I found my elation over God’s provision of my townhouse tempered by strong feelings of guilt.

Though I could document every miracle that had paved the way to my new home, I still struggled with the guilt of “having” when I lived in the ministry-universe of “sacrificing.” 

I wondered if guests would see my flea-market European antiques, bought for $50 but worth hundreds in the US, and question whether they’re appropriate for a missionary’s home. I found myself wanting to explain things by saying, “This was given to me by a friend” and “I bought this for next-to-nothing at a charity store in Alsace” as I gave tours of my two-story miracle.

Even today, nearly ten years later, as I look around this home and see the items contributed by the outrageous generosity of friends, I am assailed again by that uncomfortable combination of paralyzing guilt and galvanizing gratitude.

I live in the land of Guiltitude.

Guiltitude is not a uniquely Phoenix notion either. Though it doesn’t afflict all missionaries, it impacts enough of them to warrant some attention. Its symptoms are wide-ranging:

  • Missionary to Germany relinquishes the old, beat-up Mercedes he was given (for free!) by members of his local church and invests his own funds in buying a less “brand-y” car to avoid looking ostentatious.
  • Missionary to Switzerland, while interacting with his supporting church, avoids speaking of the recent purchase of expensive editing software, though much of his ministry relies on producing music and videos.
  • Missionary family scores $25 plane tickets to fly to Monaco for spring break. They post only a handful of pictures taken in the wealthy Principality, but are sure to thank the discount airline and the person who offered them cheap housing when they do. You know…just in case.

When I lived overseas, I vividly remember talking with a friend who had, for a year, bought virtually no furniture for her home. I asked her if she planned on getting a couch and kitchen table at some point, and she said, “My supporters send me money for ministry, and getting furniture is not ministry!”

Like so many others, she’d bought into something I call Donor Demand. There’s an old-school component to it. We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to the minister’s status and to the giver’s sacrifice. 

You might be amazed at the rigid (and sometimes irrelevant) standards by which the validity of a missionary’s work has been judged. Owning a Mercedes and serving in a beautiful location are just two of the numerous reasons for which devoted financial partners have been known to rethink—and sometimes withdraw—their crucial donations.

Guiltitude can be hard to diagnose, as it often masquerades as responsibility or humility. Its most obvious symptoms are:

  • Fear of having (because true ministers, by some accounts, must live in squalor)
  • Fear of doing (because some activities may be misunderstood as frivolous)
  • Fear of full reporting (because some ministry partners may misread the value and purpose of what is owned and done)

I’ve seen all three reach irrational levels in MKs who grew up in an environment where financial guilt of some sort prevailed. Even their adult relationship to money and ownership can be irreversibly skewed by the toxic influence of Guiltitude.

[Note: it goes without saying that there are instances in which missionaries truly have lived in excessive or dishonorable ways and been rightfully confronted about it.]

In my own life, I’ve found how easy it is for guilt to sneak into a spirit of gratitude. I am so grateful for God’s provision of my every practical, physical and spiritual need since I began in ministry in 1991—and for the donors whose gifts have kept me serving for these twenty-nine years!

That gratitude pushes me every day to be worthy of their sacrifice…but it also contributes to a creeping sense of guilt. How can I invest the funds I receive from supporters, who often give sacrificially, on things that are less than essential? Why should I buy a thrift store buffet or the used car of my dreams when others can make do with cardboard furniture and a 16-year old beater?

 

TREATMENT
I’m afraid I don’t know whether there’s a permanent cure for Guiltitude. Something tells me it’s a chronic disease that lurks in subconscious places. Perhaps a good place to start is for both sides (the servers and the givers) to acknowledge its existence, then treat its symptoms with a healthy dose of truthful assessment. If nothing else, this may at least mitigate Guiltitude’s damage.

May I offer a few additional suggestions? 

Missionaries:

  • Remind yourselves that you are called both to live and to serve. For most humans, living well requires rest, some level of comfort and the occasional escape. It’s okay to enjoy places, things, and activities that are financially responsible. You are not supported just to do a job, and there is growing evidence that self-care leads to greater longevity on the field of service.
  • Report clearly and intentionally, not out of guilt, but out of a desire to accurately inform those who follow your ministry.
  • Surround yourself with a smaller, understanding group of friends with whom you can share parts of your life that you don’t reveal on social media or in letters. This will keep you from feeling like you’re being deceptive. You’re just being selective.
  • Counter irrational disapproval with facts and assert truths that contradict flawed rationales.

Supporters and onlookers:

  • Understand that the occasional treat (activity, trip, unnecessary object) may actually enhance the missionary’s ministry, because it contributes to emotional and physical wellness.
  • Don’t apply to your missionaries restrictions you wouldn’t apply to yourself.
  • A poor, burned out, or suffering missionary is not more godly than a comfortable, healthy, and happy missionary.
  • Remember that the pictures you see only tell part of the story.
  • If you must speak with a missionary about what you think you’re seeing, begin by gently asking questions and truly listening with a compassionate heart.

As I sit today in my modest and comfortable home, surrounded by treasured bits and pieces of my years overseas, I am grateful for three decades of ministry rich in locations, accomplishments, and experiences. I am also aware of the challenges that come with the blessings. My commitment to myself, as I contemplate the opinions of others on what they see of my life, is to thoughtfully consider legitimate causes for concern, to adjust my choices (when appropriate) out of faithfulness to God, and to prayerfully let go of unfounded accusations—even those I inflict on myself. 

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Don’t miss the Pondering Purple podcast, available on all your streaming platforms. In each brief episode, Michèle highlights one of her most popular and helpful articles in a format you can consume on the go.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

9 Ways MKs Can Navigate Their Grief

by Michèle Phoenix

Someone asked me, recently, why there is such an emphasis on grief and loss in my speaking on MK topics. The answer is simple: they are highly influential emotions experienced by a majority of MKs. A young man named Muki, who recently transitioned back to his passport country, articulated it best:

I’ve lost my home, my security, my church, my friends, my job, my relationships… It continues to haunt me that I will never see the places that I roamed in the same light again, nor will I breathe the air as someone who is planted there. I lost myself in the convoluted mission of leaving. There is no way to express how lost I feel, and I don’t think anything can change that. No amount of crying or talking will heal my soul. I feel like grief has become my love language.

I’ve already written about the effect of grief on the lives and outlook of MKs (see here) and on their relationships (see here). But this article is not a recipe for avoiding grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer cure, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of grief that understanding and growth reside.

So this article is not about circumventing the lostness that often walks hand in hand with the treasure of a multi-cultural existence. It’s about managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and rewards of our grief.

 

A note for non-MKs:
Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and “sacred objects.” It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how the view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process.

 

A note for MKs:
We’re too often in a hurry to put the Hard behind us so we can get to those more “acceptable” stages of grief, praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.

Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find strategies to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over our outlook, self-assessment and relationships to increase.

When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—through the process of discerning what they are, how they shape our view of God and self, and how they can lead us both to greater strength and dependence—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the goodbyes inherent to the life of an MK.

 

1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see it as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience.

The truth is that what we’ve left behind is monumental. And our feeling of lostness, as Muki put it, is a haunting thing. Yes, grief can feel debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love for the distant world—the intimate home—we’ve lost. Not only is it okay for it to hurt, but it is necessary for it to hurt.

 

2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.

When I meet with adult MKs who are still struggling to figure out their lives, we never fail to uncover some measure of unresolved grief. They thought they were being expedient, in their youth, when they decided to ignore it or live above it. This allowed them to function and move on more easily, but it also left the darkness of their loss anchored to their life’s perspective.

Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release. If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.

 

3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.

What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” Picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting lightly on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision. It’s still there. I can see it. I can hear its whisper. I’m still aware that I need to pay attention to it. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach when I need to go back to the healing process.

Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.

Note: there may be moments when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved” and needs to be addressed immediately. That can sometimes be part of the grief journey too.

 

4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
This is another reason why learning to manage the processing is important. We need to be careful in choosing people to process along with us. If we don’t learn to shelve the grief, we’ll look to the first person who enters our life to be that voice of compassion and support.

It’s wiser and safer to wait until we’re sure of the person we’re inviting into our sadness. That person needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.

There’s nothing wrong with communicating on this topic with someone from our past, and modern technology certainly makes that easy. But that person can’t be the only sounding board we have. There’s something beneficial about speaking to someone who lives in our here-and-now too.

Consider professional help as well. Counseling can be something of a taboo subject in missionary circles. We’ve got God and we’ve got that vaunted “MK resilience”—we don’t need an outsider’s help, right?

Here’s the thing: grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark, raging water may not be able to extricate him/herself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.

That’s who counselors are. They may not fully understand what we bring to the situation, but they’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need to overcome.

 

5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place. They were true in your old world and they’ll hold true in your new one.

God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of your coping mechanisms. His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances have.

If you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t called my parents…” “If you had provided what we needed to stay overseas…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into your tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.

There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis is passed, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for. He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.

Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Christ.

 

6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost our identity, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before transition, before the desertland of being unknown.

You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in a new context, without the geographical markers, relational buffers and defining anchors of your past.

It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.

 

7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: join an intramural team, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.

Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.

One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.

 

8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. And it can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.

The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.

Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.

 

9. Persist.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the “hard” that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.

Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that healing is possible and real.

As you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.

You’ll discover that though you lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your past.

Grief is not a comfortable phase. It feels like the aching reminder of a “homeness” and wholeness we fear we’ll never know again. And it is more than a dark ravine we just need to get over. There is richness and growth in acknowledging and understanding it—the opportunity to learn who we are and who God is as we explore its source and find healing.

Originally published here.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

The Top 10 Most Valuable Mindsets for MKs and TCKs

by Michèle Phoenix

I’ve written extensively in the past few years about attitudes and choices that can help MKs and TCKs to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent to being multi-cultural. Here are, in my estimation, the top ten most valuable of them.

1. I will believe that I am not weird—I am complex. 

It’s a refrain I’ve heard from young and old in my work with Third Culture Kids and the problem is mostly semantic. Saying “I’m weird” implies a sort of terminal condition. No one will ever understand me. “Complex” hints that with time and awareness, others will begin to figure us out. Has a global upbringing made us a bit more complicated than others? Absolutely. But it’s not an insurmountable thing for those who love us enough to seek to understand us. This video might be a great place to start!

2. I will recognize that I am not special—I am blessed.

Calling ourselves “special” implies superiority, yet those aspects of our lives that have shaped us are usually not something we’ve earned or chosen. We are MKs because our parents made the decision to go overseas as missionaries. That makes us fortunate—blessed—not better than others. “Special” often yields arrogance. “Blessed” is more likely to yield a humbled gratitude. The latter is so much more attractive and inclusive. For more, read here.

3. I will allow myself to fail publicly and privately.

One of the greatest challenges MKs experience is the pressure to live up to the expectations of people for whom “Missionary Kid” implies a deeper faith, better behavior, wiser choices and flawless living. If we let those standards guide us in even a subconscious way, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of disappointing others and ourselves. Accepting the fact that we’ll fail and admitting to it when we do is good and healthy—even if it’s disenchanting to others. For more, read here.

4. I will stay connected in some way to my other cultures.

When juggling so many cultural influences, it sometimes seems easier to simplify our lives by distancing ourselves from some of those places we call home in order to just exist in one location. It is an understandable and natural inclination! The problem is that much of the richness of our multi-culturality comes from being able to draw on the entirety of our life-experiences. It’s precisely because we juggle so many cultures that we have so much to offer—a broader worldview, global understanding, adaptability, etc. It would be tragic to lose the depth and wealth of our complex background has given us for the sake of a more “simple” identity. Staying connected in some small way to past worlds (whether through people or media or traditions or all of those) allows us to retain the treasures they’ve instilled in us. For more, read here.

5. I will apply the same curiosity, exploration and acceptance to my passport culture that I apply to foreign cultures.

As MKs, one of our greatest strengths is being able to insert ourselves into new cultures with inquisitiveness, grace and tolerance. Those skills seem to fly out the window when we reenter our own passport culture! If stranded in a remote tribal village, we’d enter the fray with some of our most prized traits on display: open-mindedness, a sense of adventure and cultural acceptance. But returning “home”? Not a chance. Think of how different our re-entry experience would be if we applied the same attitude to our passport culture as we do to foreign places. For more, read here.

6. I will be versatile in my relationship-building methods. 

As MKs, we build friendships in an uncommon way. We’re often quick and intense as we enter into relationships, aware that time is limited and comfortable sharing rapidly on an intimate level because of that. Mono-culturals tend to approach friendships differently, letting the “deepening” take a slower, more casual route. It may take longer and initially seem shallow, but there’s a good chance we’ll achieve meaningful relationship with our less global peers if we’re patient enough to allow for a slower pace. Dismissing people early because they don’t dive deep fast enough can eliminate the chance of true friendship. Understanding how our relationship model differs from that of mono-culturals is a good place to start. For more, read here.

7. I will use my experiences to enrich and not diminish others.

It’s a nasty little habit we have—nothing entertains MKs more than celebrating the “stupidity” of those less fortunate than us. Our backyards are the stuff of fantasies to most mono-cultural peers. We’ve seen more and experienced more than they can even imagine. Yet rather than being grateful for our blessings, we sometimes use our global savvy to make fun of the less fortunate. We’re in a unique position to bring the worlds we’ve known to those who will never get to witness them for themselves, yet we too often opt for something that looks an awful lot like arrogance instead. Let’s commit to kindly and humbly expanding the horizons of our mono-cultural friends (at an appropriate time in relationship with them) rather than mocking, humiliating or belittling them. For more, read here.

8. I will strive to distinguish between human failure and God’s character.

There’s no denying it. Many of us carry wounds from our years overseas. Some of us have been neglected, abused or afflicted by illness. We’ve seen death and famine. We’ve been harmed by the poor decisions of those who were supposed to care for us. It’s easy to blame God for the scars—as I did for many years. Yet so much of the violence and injustice we’ve suffered is the direct result of human mistakes and cruelty. God grieves over the actions and circumstances that harm us. Blaming Him will only deprive us of the powerful healing only His comfort can afford us. For more, read here.

9. I will choose to exercise gratitude, but won’t ignore the hardships.

The hardships are real. They influence our thinking and our outlook, our serenity and our faith. We must acknowledge and address them in order to heal from them. But as we’re in that process, balancing the pain with an intentional focus on what we have to be grateful for can be a perspective-enhancing practice. For more, read here.

10. I will acknowledge that being an MK alone won’t get me through life—having an intimate, trusting relationship with God will.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our MK identity that we think it’s the only thing that defines us. It becomes the most meaningful and foundational aspect of our lives, and we can make the mistake of assuming it’s all we need…because we think it’s all we are.

But we’re so much more. We are children of God. And though our multi-cultural skills might be tremendous assets to be prized and celebrated, when life becomes treacherous and dark, they’ll be of little help. Only an active, intimate and dependent relationship with God will carry us through the trials that are inevitable and unskirtable as we live life in a broken world. His love and presence are inexpressibly precious. For more, read here.

You’ll notice that each of the ten mindsets above is stated as an intentional verb:  believe, recognize, allow, stay, apply, be, use, strive, choose, acknowledge. A shift in our way of thinking won’t happen organically. It will come as we invest determination and focus in making it happen, subjugating harmful habits to practices that might enhance our own lives and those of others.

To read more of my articles about MKs and parenting MKs, click here.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Taking the Hypocrisy Out of Home Ministry Assignment

by Michèle Phoenix

Hypocrisy is a topic we don’t like to address in the missionary community—perhaps because of the unspoken reality that a little bit of deception has sometimes proven to be good for ministry. (I’m not condoning it, just acknowledging it.) But where does “putting your best foot forward” end and “misrepresenting yourself” begin?

The line is blurred in this world where personal relationships are often financial partnerships too.

If there’s one chapter of ministry that disguises the line even more, it’s HMA.

HMA (Home Ministry Assignment) is a necessary endeavor. It’s a chance for missionaries and their children to reconnect with their passport culture, to visit family and friends they haven’t seen in a while and to check in with churches and individuals who support their work.

Unfortunately, without careful management and execution, HMA can also teach observant children some unintentional lessons about relative honesty and incomplete disclosure.

We MKs learn the tricks of the trade by watching our parents.

We see them responding with a polite smile to people making comments they fiercely disagree with. We see them being more friendly with potential donors than they’d be with the grocer or a relative. We see them saying eloquent prayers in public that they’d never utter at home. We see them laughing with too much vigor or accepting offense with too much willingness—all in what we assume is an attempt to keep everyone happy…and generous.

Note: I don’t think most people set out to misrepresent who they are or what they think. It’s just one of the ways we can go off-track if we let the approval of others or fundraising mandates become the driving force of our HMA efforts.

Many MKs develop a flawed Philosophy of Furlough at an early age:

  • If supporters like us, they’ll support us.
  • If they don’t like us, they’ll stop supporting us.
  • If they stop supporting us, we’ll have to leave the field and Life-As-We-Know-It will come to an end.

Because a common MK trait is taking on the burdens of our world, we assume that the survival of Life-As-We-Know-It depends in great part on us.

So we enter into the HMA experience feeling the pressure to influence the outcome, even if that means being something other than our true selves. We try our hardest to be cute, winsome, talented, polite and well-behaved. We’ll eat the mushrooms we hate so as not to offend our hosts. We’ll recite John 3:16 in four languages any time we’re asked. We’ll do it all because we’re pretty sure we’re the persuasive props brought along for that purpose.

We live out the cynical premise that performance plus schmoozing equals getting to return home at the end of HMA.

Living in that distorted truth can be debilitating.

When I was sixteen, I sat in a service with my parents after a pre-church morning that had bristled with marital tension. I listened to my dad giving a heartfelt sermon while my mom still fumed in the pew beside me. I braced myself to sing the song that, in my mind, was supposed to “seal the deal” and ensure continued support. The responsibility was an anvil in my stomach as I got up to sing “There is a Savior” with sweet, practiced conviction. A couple ladies pulled out their Kleenexes as I finished and I felt a thrill of victory. My parents got up to make a final statement, standing close and smiling. The church applauded. Successful performance. Life-As-I-Knew-It had been preserved.

So wrong. So un-Christlike.

This mode of influence can be easily normalized in any field where image yields profit. In ministry, however, it takes on spiritual overtones…as if God Himself required it of us. When hypocrisy is attributed to God’s expectations for the sake of his work, it becomes even more sinister and destructive.

Marriage trouble? Don’t ever mention it. Missionary discord? Never refer to it. Ministry discouragement and attrition? Not something we discuss. Problems with lust, money-mismanagement, unethical behaviors? Nobody needs to know. Why? Because even we have bought into the myth that ministry requires that we present a certain image in order to fund our work.

The repercussions of this perspective on honesty and truth can be far-reaching.

If MKs have spent their childhood observing relationships in which approval (and its payoff) is obtained through something that looks like insincerity—or at the very least, careful image management—should we not be concerned about the honesty they’ll bring to the rest of their relationships? How will they find the courage and confidence to risk showing their flaws? And who will they lose to their inability to do so?

In my work with Missionaries’ Kids, I’ve encountered far too many who return to their passport culture to live long-term, believing that relationships will only be achieved through the same kind of selective self-revelation they saw in their parents on HMA. It’s a subconscious tendency that can lead to relational failure.

Early exposure to hypocrisy can affect our ability to be real with ourselves too.

We so keenly feel the pressure to live up to the expectations of others that some of us resort to hiding behind strategically crafted masks, berating ourselves when we let them slip.

We become fierce in our fakeness. Fearful too. And the habit can get so ingrained that we’re not even aware we’re living according to a destructive mandate to be something other than ourselves. It can prevent us from seeking help, maturing and finding an identity born of integrity.

At its worst, our hypocrisy—even just perceived hypocrisy—can eventually cause MKs to dismiss God, Christians and faith itself.

When the God of Truth is represented by envoys who rely on untruth to “get the job done,” it can cause a destabilizing disconnect that skews one’s outlook on all spiritual things. I’ve seen it happen. It is heart-wrenchingly tragic when it does.

How can we begin to reverse this trend? I’ll offer a handful of suggestions below, but please contribute yours too in the comments space beneath this post.

Change must begin with parents—they’re the ones who demonstrate authenticity and set the tone for HMA.

In everyday life:

  • Be real and vulnerable with people you can trust…especially in public. (Dare to defy the unspoken “be perfect or pretend” missionary motto.)
  • Demonstrate how honesty and vulnerability are healthy, especially when they lead to help, healing, and wholeness.
  • Set God’s expectations and grace as a standard, not a church’s or supporter’s approval.

During HMA:

  • Make sure your MKs know that you’re the adult, you’re the public persona, you’re the one shouldering the burden, the effort and the outcome.
  • Relieve your children of any responsibility for the results of your fundraising.
  • Tell your children what your financial situation really is, in terms they understand, so they don’t live in fear of immediate bankruptcy.
  • Validate your kids’ talents, but don’t use them as mere strategies and fundraising tools.
  • Give them the option not to participate in your HMA meetings or attend youth classes. They need to know that they have some degree of control over their part of your furlough. (You may need to clearly express this to supporters and church leaders too, if they pressure your children to be more involved than they want to be.)
  • Make sure your MKs know that you don’t expect them to change in order to be liked by potential donors. The same behavioral rules that apply behind closed doors apply on HMA.
  • Demonstrate Who and what really motivates your exchanges with the people you interact with—God and relationship, not dollar signs.

I’d be remiss not to mention the role of The church in addressing this issue.

Missionaries who have dared to be real in public settings have sometimes been met with judgment and disapproval by people who think they should be paragons of strength, resilience, virtue and unblemished character. Expressing concerns about team discord or personal challenges on the field has too often been interpreted as being unsuited for ministry rather than prompting a collaborative pursuit of solutions and healing.

In order for missionaries to be real, churches need to allow them to be fully human. The following is an incomplete list of suggestions. Again—please add yours in the comments at the end of this post.

  • Give missionaries permission to experience struggles. (You’re supporting real people who are just as susceptible to sin and weakness as anyone else.)
  • Out of relationship, ask personal questions with loving intentions.
  • Offer a safe place in which they can voice their failures and find compassionate help.
  • When they visit you with their MKs, demand nothing from the children except that they be children accompanying Mom and Dad. Let the family decide how much they’ll be involved.

I can’t end without saying that I’ve seen countless missionary families who have lived authentically on HMA! I’d go so far as to say that a majority of them do, sometimes at the cost of being misunderstood. It takes courage to be real in the face of unreasonable expectations. Let’s affirm and support each other toward that goal for the sake of the children who are watching and learning.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need

by Michèle Phoenix

As I travel to speak and consult with missionary families around the world, the word “permission” regularly comes up. In a subculture saturated with expectations and obligations, it seems to have a restorative power.

Missionaries’ Kids, too, live under burdensome expectations and would benefit as much as their parents from clearly articulated permissions. I believe the following are crucial to raising a generation of MKs unhobbled by the unreasonable demands of a world that may not fully understand what it is to be young and vulnerable, living cross-culturally in the fishbowl of ministry.

 

1. Permission To Be Kids

It’s no secret that missionaries’ children, much like pastors’ kids, feel held to higher standards than their peers. With friends and strangers watching their every move, there is unrelenting pressure to behave well. Be good. Be polite. Be friendly. Have a positive attitude and never—ever—complain.

The broad expectation that they be better behaved, smarter, and more mature than other children their age—or at least that they convincingly project these traits—can become a debilitating pressure.

And if there’s one thing MKs do well, it’s try to live up to unrealistic expectations.

When I was visiting with a missionary family a few weeks ago, I asked an 11-year old boy why his family had moved to Romania. He told me that he was there to “introduce people to Jesus.” Perhaps the most meaningful words I heard on that three-week trip were his mother’s when she said, “No, honey, mom and dad are here to introduce people to Jesus. Your job is to be a kid.”

What a simply-worded, freedom-giving statement! Her son, a relatively new MK, heard from his mother’s mouth that it’s okay for him to just.be.young. So he can talk back or stomp his foot or hate zucchini or complain or lie and expect consequences—but without the disproportionate shame too often levied on MKs who are just being kids in the world of ministry.

 

2. Permission To Fail

Children will fail. They’ll do stupid things, they’ll forget instructions, and they’ll disobey rules. It goes without saying that MK or non-MK, they need to know that mistakes and bad behavior are not unforgivable flaws.

In the ministry world, though, failure can take on more ominous overtones.

  • “We need to set an example for the unbelievers watching us.”
  • “God wants us to be a light in the darkness.”
  • “You represent God in your middle school.”

The exhortations seem benign, but they add a deeper condemnation to inevitable stumbles.

Demanding unreasonable exceptionality of MKs because their family represents God sets them up for the worst kind of failure: one in which their imperfection hurts their family’s work and tarnishes God’s image.

So it isn’t just a bad grade. It isn’t just getting cut from the soccer team. It isn’t just posting something inappropriate on Facebook. It isn’t just stealing change off the teacher’s desk or telling a lie about a friend.

It brings shame on themselves, on their families, and on God.

If we’re not careful with our words, we heap a spiritual burden on six-year-olds whose lives are already complicated by cross-cultural living, frequent transitions, and successive losses. The liberating balm of “permission to fail” for young people who are often overly self-blaming cannot be overstated.

 

3. Permission To Grieve

The heaviest burden many MKs bear is the number of goodbyes they have to say in their early years. The mission field is a transient place where someone is always leaving. The repeated departures create an expectation of loss that colors both their entry into new relationships and the nature of the friendships they form.

The world’s unspoken expectation of courage and resilience in the face of so much loss puts pressure on grieving MKs to get over it fast, to find comfort in an unflagging faith, and to forge ahead without handicap. Little emphasis is put on the grieving process, and little space is given to allow it to evolve.

Adding to the issue is the unwillingness of many adults in ministry to model healthy grieving for the younger generation. If MKs don’t see the grown-ups around them honestly demonstrating the journey from loss to healing, they won’t know that they’re allowed to walk it too.

Until missionary parents and the missionary community as a whole give permission to missionaries’ children to express and work through their grief—as ugly as it may get—we will continue to see hearts hardened toward God (on whom many blame their losses) and adult MKs still crippled by their losses in later seasons of their lives.

 

4. Permission To Dissent

MKs know they’re a package deal. God called their parents. He funded their ministry. They made it overseas and are doing good work. How dare they question a Calling? How dare they resist another move or resent another change of schools?

Of all the MKs I’ve worked with in more than twenty years, those who have felt no permission to voice a disagreement or question their parents’ choices are the ones whose resentment has been most bitter.

How easy it is for adults with a clear vision and driving passion to carve a path toward the Calling they perceive.

And how destructive it can be when the children in their care don’t feel the same impulse, but measure the Call in toxic increments of change.

Before announcing a new direction or an imminent uprooting, parents of MKs might consider gently introducing the topic—then entering into ongoing conversation and collective seeking. With compassion and attention. With hearts trained on their children while their spirits are tuned to God.

With permission to dissent—to express opinions that are contrary to their parents’—children will feel freedom to voice honest feelings, allowing the family to proceed perhaps more slowly, but with each member engaged in discerning what God is asking of them. The MKs will feel seen and known, and communication and empathy between family members will deepen.

 

5. Permission To Doubt

Not all MKs are saved. Not all MKs believe that God is real. Not all MKs view their parents’ faith in a positive light.

I didn’t encounter Jesus—truly encounter Jesus—until I’d been a missionary for a couple of years. Yet presumptions about the faith of MKs abound both in their sending churches and among their family members.

Of course she’s saved. Of course he’s on fire for God! They’re MKs!

So the young person whose life is steeped in Christianity feels guilty for doubting. Guilty for the shreds of unbelief that daren’t be expressed lest they bring shame (that word again) on the family and their work.

I’ve seen MKs trying to process their lack of faith being tisk’ed into silence. Or voicing their doubts and being preached into submission. Or hinting at uncertainty and being reproached into repentance.

Faith is not an inherited conviction. God is not a transferable commodity. Yet the pressure on MKs to not only believe, but be exemplary in their faith is rampant. What unfair pressure on souls whose perception of God has been complicated by a ministry-saturated worldview.

Permission to doubt is more than mere processing-space. It’s the gift of honest grappling toward eternal outcomes.

Parents need to extend it. Ministry communities need to extend it. Churches need to extend it. Adults and peers need to celebrate it as part of God’s working in the MK’s life.

Permission to doubt is crucial to an authentic faith.

 

6. Permission To Redefine Significance

The message comes from within and without the missionary community: “The best, most significant, and God-pleasing life you can live is one devoted to his service.”

But it’s a lie.

The best, most significant, and God-pleasing life is one in which relationship with him is central. Not work for him or sacrifice to him. Relationship with him.

In the missionary world, we too narrowly define significance as working for God. Well-intentioned believers reemphasize the message: “Your parents are doing the most important work.” Churches further accentuate it by highlighting missionary families and rewarding their effort with attention, prestige, and donations.

So the MK who wants to become a dancer feels like a sell-out. She’s seen the need, after all, and all she wants to do is dance? Shameful. All he wants to be is an electrician? Sad. All she sees herself doing is teaching? So unworthy of the MK-upbringing that shaped her—unless she teaches overseas.

I’ve known guilt-ridden adult MKs who can’t reconcile the career they love with the definition of significance that distorts their perspective—successful businessmen providing for the dozens of families they employ who feel they’ve missed the boat. Artists revealing God’s creativity and beauty to a cynical world who feel disloyal to the Call that galvanized their parents. Stay-at-home dads modeling God’s heart to their children who fear their lives are not significant enough.

Significance is not what we do. It’s who we are because of our relationship with Christ.

It’s the light we shine by our mere presence wherever we toil—not the task we do there. It’s the expression of God’s spirit in us that requires no words. It’s a dancer’s sublimation of the horrors of this world. The craftsman’s honesty and the excellence of his work. The teacher’s heart as she nourishes young souls.

There is deep significance in choosing to exercise the talents God has given us and in radiating him in the process. Too often, permission to find one’s intimate significance, then pursue and excel at it is poorly stated or withheld by well-intentioned missionary parents.

 

The Gift of Permission

Because so many of the expectations delineated above are unspoken, their antidote will have to be clearly articulated and frequently repeated. My encouragement to missionary parents desiring to remove the pressure from their still-developing children is fourfold. From their earliest age onward:

  • Foster open communication with your kids.
  • Use simple, unambiguous words to free them from unreasonable expectations.
  • Embody grace and mercy.
  • Model in your adulthood what you preach into their childhood.

Dare to open conversations that may take years to finish. It’s a healthy place to start for both the missionary and the MK.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.