I’ve started this post five times, trying to be tactful and not ruffle any feathers. But I’m finding delicate words insufficient and weak, when what I really want to say is “Missionary parents, stop doing God’s work if you can’t put your children first.” Actually, the same goes for any parents who profess to be believers.
I know the words are strong—intentionally so. I also know the statement isn’t entirely accurate. Because, you see, putting children first is doing God’s work. And failing to be involved in their lives, to follow their evolvement, to address their concerns, to acknowledge their emotions, to include them in decisions and to provide for their needs, is not doing God’s work. Regardless of how many souls we’re saving and how many pot-lucks we’re hosting.
Please address all angry replies to:
There’s nothing new about neglectful parenting. From Shakespeare’s Polonius to Hugo’s Thénardiers, it’s a common theme in art and history. What’s different today is our understanding of the consequences of “misparenting”—which should, if we were wise, be causing us to change. We know without a doubt that the harm inflicted on children, whether by misguided parents or indifferent parents, hobbles their ability to love, be loved and tackle Life with clear-minded perspective and deep-grounded confidence. (See my “In Broken Places“ for more evidence of this.)
But what about the poor parenting that happens in ministry? Distracted parenting or stress-strangled parenting? Though there are countless outstanding and exemplary families serving God here and abroad, what about those who struggle with nurturing and protecting? At the risk of being incendiary, I’d like to suggest that harming children “in the line of ministry” has even deeper consequences than a more mainstream neglect.
It doesn’t just hobble a child’s chance for thriving, empowered wholeness. I am convinced that professing faith while hurting one’s own children, whether by neglect, verbal tirades, physical pain or irrational demands, kills God for those children.
There are all kinds of rationales for the neglect we like to pass off as dedication to The Cause. I know the verses we use to excuse our apathy, the emotional remoteness and the decisions we make that endanger or destabilize children.
I’ve also met the adults those children become. In too many cases, it isn’t pretty.
Of all the MKs I’ve known, those who have thrived personally, spiritually and relationally have had one thing in common: they have never for a moment doubted their importance to their parents nor their parents’ commitment to them. They have felt seen, heard, sought out, cherished, protected and celebrated.
That isn’t to say that all children who have been parented well grow up to live wildly successful lives. We’ve all known families for whom that wasn’t true. But among those who do reach this level of fulfillment and wellness, a vast majority have loving and committed parents in common. They were cared for intentionally and intensely, regardless of ministry obligations, by the people who raised them. They were loved as God loves them. Not exactly a revolutionary notion, and yet…
The reverse is true too. Those MKs I’ve known who have grown into angry, despondent or bitter adults have nearly without exception pointed to lack of parental attention, irrational expectations or outright abuse as the root of their lostness.
On a purely human level, seeing parent-child bonds severed by poor decisions or personal failures is disheartening and tragic. But it goes much deeper than that when God can be directly blamed. It renders the children incapable of trusting the Tyrannical Being whose demands on their parents make them inaccessible, irritable or boldly hypocritical. They end up feeling robbed of both their parents and their faith. And they’re left with very little to hold on to as they limp through a life, stained and crippled by parent-inflicted attrition.
The kind of parenting that leaves scars isn’t just marked by relational indifference. It often misplaces the blame on the very One whose heart is most deeply grieved by our impact on children. We hide behind God (his call, his demands, his inspiration) to excuse parental failures.
I bristle when I hear God being used as an excuse for long separations. Uncontrollable tension. Unreported molestation. Work obsession. Insufficient provision. Chronic inattention. Words, actions, tones of voice and glares that wound and belittle and break.
- Not seeing/hearing the need needs of one’s children
- Not allowing the children to be “imperfect” for fear of soiling the family’s image
- Not intervening in the children’s conflicts with friends, teachers, neighbors
- Not confronting mission policies that don’t have the children’s best interests in mind
- Not acknowledging (and exploring) the signs that something isn’t right
- Not asking meaningful questions
- Not requesting their input in decisions that will affect them
- Not checking in with teachers and other adults who know them
- Not modeling for them the personal reality of faith rather than the outrageous demands and restrictions of the Great Commission
- Not verbalizing without hesitation that you’d be willing to leave the field if that’s what was best for them…then proving it if that kind of move becomes necessary
That’s a lot of “nots”…
Neglect and abuse on the mission field are often sins of omission rather commission—things we don’t do rather than things we do.
This neglect can have devastating spiritual ramifications. Even in cases where some form of abuse has taken place outside the family, I’ve seen grown MKs still blame their parents, because they tried to ignore, minimize or cover up the crime in order to preserve God’s work and reputation. Consider this text written by Christa Brown, when someone suggested, years after her torment, that she should seek to know God better:
[…] From my perspective, it is as though your email brandished in front of me the very weapon that was used against me. It is as though you are telling me that I should pick up that very same sword that was once used to eviscerate me and should fall on it all over again. A can’t do that. My love of God, my faith, my own extraordinary desire to live the will of God…those are the very parts of me that were transformed into weapons that savaged and destroyed me. That part of me that was once able to turn to God, to surrender to God, to pour my heart out to God, to put things in God’s hands, to believe that God would take care of me…all of that part of my brain is inaccessible. It is electrically charged and it is the land of the predator… The talk of God’s love that is in your email is the sort of talk that transports me to the torture chamber that is in my own head…” (This Little Light)
Using God as an excuse for bad choices and neglect—or invoking His will as a reason for a child’s suffering—doesn’t just compromise the role and purpose of a parent…it indicts God too.
But it’s not too late. It’s NOT too late.
It isn’t easy to consider one’s flaws. It’s even harder, I think, to measure their impact on those under our care. And yet…through self-exploration comes the kind of clarity that can transform relationships and redefine faith.
- When was the last time you checked in with your children?
- What is the state of health of your family?
- How do they feel about your work?
- How do they feel about life where you live?
- How do they feel about the future?
- Are their needs (practical, relational and spiritual) being met? Who are the most significant people in their lives?
- How can you love them better?
- How do they envision God?
In all the sessions I lead about Missionaries’ Kids and the pitfalls of ministry, the recurring theme for healing seems to be communication and action. If you are convinced that God has entrusted your children to you for you to care for them, be there for them, nurture them and raise them to love Him, live in that conviction.
If you love them, tell them and show them. If their welfare is your priority, tell them and show them. If you want to know what they’re thinking and feeling, tell them and show them (and don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability too). If they’re more important to you than ministry projects and deadlines, tell them and show them. If you realize you’ve harmed them in even small ways, intentionally or out of ignorance, tell them and show them. If you want to do better, if you want to protect them, if you want to engage with them in a way that fastens you to each other and to God, tell them and show them.
There are no guarantees that communication and action will yield the happy-ever-after most families dream of. But if it preserves relationships and connects children to a God they neither fear nor resent, the words and the effort will not be wasted?
“I’ve discovered that parenting isn’t easier in ministry—it’s harder. We’re so aware of the devil’s attacks on what we DO that we brace and protect ourselves in that area. So I think he’s adapted his strategy. He’s hitting us in the place where we’re not being vigilant, where we’re not fully engaged and ready for battle. He’s attacking our families and using the wedge of our bad decisions and lack of attention to rip our kids from God’s grasp and ours. That’s a kind of spiritual warfare they don’t cover in pre-field orientation.”
This is a conversation we need to continue…
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As the missionary parent of three children who are now adults, I wish I had a better grasp of this back in the day. I tended to hide behind the skirts of mission leadership: I HAD to do whatever they asked, so it wasn’t my fault if my decisions didn’t include my children. Yeah, right. May God continue to give you the courage to speak out on this subject!
Wonderful article, Michele. This issue has been on my heart for a long time. As a 12-year-old, I accused my dad of putting more effort into being “Tio Francisco” (“Uncle Frank”) to all the kids around us on the mission field than he put into being a father to me. This probably wasn’t entirely accurate, but it sure felt accurate to me. In the years following that, as the chasm between us widened, my bitterness grew to the point that one night I told him I wanted to see him dead, and punched him in the stomach. I won’t go into all of the reasons/factors, real or perceived, but the issue is that — somehow — a man who was heading up an immense “Work of God” and ministering to hundreds of families somehow allowed his own family relationships to crumble.
In the years since, I’ve seen MKs dragged around by parents who give glowing reports of the work on the field and found myself praying that those “men of God” will neglect their “work” and attend to their children.
This is good. Really good. I hope many missionaries who are parents read this. I know many mk’s too who have and are suffering because of the things you talk about here. Thanks for sharing this! Blessings to you!
This article is so right on… my desire is to be a parent who builds his children in Christ.. I want to do ministry too, but my identity is in christ, not my ministry…
Michele, this post is right on target. I am so grateful for parents who straight up told our sending agency that their first priority was raising well rounded, Godly children and if they succeeded at that, they would consider their time on the field a success. They told us this often and proved it by being present in our lives and always including us in decision making. I know this is not always (often) how families in ministry operate and I consider myself blessed. Thanks, Mom and Dad
Thank you for this article, Michele Phoenix. I remember hearing, as a child, of different missionaries having to go” home” because of their children, and I feared having to make my parents have go home because of me. If they were on the field because of God’s call, I would be ruining their call from God. How could I made them disobey his command?
Yet another truth, you hit it out of the park. Thank you for having the courage to standup and speak it. I was blessed to have parents who tried very hard to keep kur family the priority, but there were still things they missed.
Thank you so much for putting this out there. It took me many adult years and some very good Counseling from a wonderful Godly couple to love God and forgive my parents. I can honestly say for a long time I actually hated God for calling my parents in to ministry and making me second in their lives. I am thankful the last years I had with my dad and they were wonderful. we both gained a better understanding of each other and our individual love for God. Just until the last 10 years have I actually told people what my parents did for a living. Prior to then I would just say they worked for a non profit company. Keep up the wonderful work you are doing.
I feel strongly about this topic. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s as if you looked inside the jumble of thoughts and feelings in me and put all of it into a thoughtfully worded piece that is accurate and so necessary for the Church, Christians and others to hear.
unfortunately for me, I live in Australia, so, am far away from the MK dialogue. Slowly I am processing my background and trying to make sense of my history. I was an SIM MK in Ethiopia in the 60’s and 70’s. My parents were and still are well meaning. But. I think it is too late for them to understand at their age the damage that was done to our family through forced separation and an environment which was abusive. Therefore I am making my way through all this by sifting through the feelings, and lies which were laid down when I was so young.
As always, Michele, so pertinent and well-articulated! I hear you from both sides of the coin . . .
I was a child of ministry parents (pastor, not missionary) and often felt that ministry came first. I have a brother who is today not walking with the Lord — I don’t blame that all on parenting (he made his own share of bad choices along the way), but I think it played a part in his walking away from the faith. I was often challenged to be a “model” for my peers, and there were definitely things I couldn’t do/be because of “how it would be seen” by others. As a compliant first-born, I walked that road without too much trouble, but actually experienced an “adult rebellion” that was much more “dangerous” (with more far-reaching implications) than the teen-age rebellion that I was “not allowed”. I felt called to the mission field at age 13, but often vowed during my HS years, when I was feeling like a second wheel, that I would certainly BE THERE for my kids regardless of ministry obligations. That vow stuck with me through my parenting years and even tho we DID have to miss many significant moments during their time at boarding school, we also made special efforts to NOT MISS special moments whenever possible. That vow is affecting some of my parenting decisions even now, even when my kids are young adults!
On the other side of the coin, as an MK parent, I know for sure our family (and esp our parenting) was not perfect, but I hope our kids grew up knowing that they were loved and valued, no matter how many mistakes we made along the way. I think they did. Hugs and verbal “I love you”s were and are a regular part of our family life (another reaction against my own upbringing!). Today our three young adults seem happy, healthy and moving forward at their own paces in their walk with the Lord. I’m so proud of each one of them and just LOVE watching them learn to fly on their own. Also, as a parent, I’m so grateful for YOU and many others like you who had such a great impact on their lives at BFA! I know our kids are who they are today not only because of us and the specific dynamics of our family, but because of such a large “family” — a village, if you will — that partnered with us to help grow them into the people God intended them to be.
The key, both for “functional” and for broken families is God’s grace . . . . whether it was experienced by all on a daily basis, or whether it comes later in life to bring healing to brokenness . . . what are any of us without it?? I pray that those who have been badly broken will somehow be wooed into healing. God’s blessings to you . . . keep speaking!
Excellent, you are doing parents a service as well as their children. I had the most wonderful childhood, that with a mom who was struggling with depression. I only know as an adult that that was so, because even in the midst of the imperfect, she extended her love to us. There were hard times and stress and my parents fought some (yeah, that was stressful when it happened), but my mom was truly an at home mom for us on the mission field. When doing other things might have brought her more esteem in the eyes of others, she was there with arms to hug, ears to listen, food on the table, correction and wisdom to dispense. Haha, we weren’t always easy to deal with, we were kids. We always knew we were their kids.
Thank you for writing this article. I’m a 37year-old adult MK still struggling to process my past. I’m from Japan, and as Christian population is less than 1 percent there, of course missionaries sent out from there are very few. And as an MK I’ve been always struggling to find out reasons for my struggles. Thank you for giving words to my struggles…and helping others like me and parents as well.