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.
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?
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