Several weeks ago, I published an open letter to missionary parents. The huge response to that article indicated a hunger for information about rearing children in ministry, whether it’s local or overseas. So here’s a little more! This is a companion piece to the “Ten Most Valuable Mindsets for MKs” I published nearly a year ago. The following chart can be downloaded and printed for quick referral.
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In no way do I want to imply that if parents get the following ten practices right, their kids will grow up to be happy, productive and God-believing adults. I wish it were that simple. Though parenting is a crucial element in shaping young lives, there are other influences that also mold the thoughts and behaviors of children. Their impact seems to be getting more powerful with every generation, and we must acknowledge that reality, but…parenting matters. Parents matter. Children who are loved well, MK and non-MK, have a firmer foundation from which to wage their existential battles.
In over twenty years of experience in MK-ministry, I’ve observed several parenting traits and practices that seem to have set MKs up for a healthier outcome. I’ve listed just ten of them below—whittled down from dozens more. Though the selection is incomplete, it’s a good place to start. Please use the comments section at the end of the post to share your thoughts and supplement these ten points with your own.
1. Show who God really is through the way you abide with him.
Your faith can too easily begin to look like a job or an obligation. From this article, published December 15: Missionary parents, your relationship with Jesus informs your children’s faith. Not the work you do or the sacrifices you make. Not your public prayers, your sermons or your courage as you endure the desert-lands. Your children learn who God is from the way you abide with him.“ Allow your children to long for the intimacy they see you display in your relationship with Christ.

2. Prove to your children that they are your priority.
This might begin before you head to the mission field. More challenging yet—it might actually derail your plans to move overseas or shorten the length of time you live there. There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of parents who receive The Call and children who don’t. What I do know is that children who are “forced” into a life of foreign ministry seldom do well. They might eventually make their peace with their circumstances, but their trust in their parents and God will often be jarred by the experience. You might want to suspend your plans while your child processes the options. Another approach is to compromise by offering him/her a well defined trial period overseas, followed by a reevaluation in which all possibilities are considered. Whatever you do, please know that honoring your children by respecting their fears and wishes honors God. He is big enough to soften a little girl’s mind to consider changes she can’t fathom—but in his time, not ours. And he’s God enough to redirect a family’s path to good and meaningful alternative work through the reticence of a little boy whose feet are firmly planted on familiar ground. Your commitment to putting your children first might require that you leave a place you love or that you never get to engage in a ministry that would fulfill you. Hold your work lightly and your children close. There is eternal value in right priorities.
3. Be physically, mentally and emotionally present for your children’s milestones.
Enjoy your children—delight in them as God does in us, despite their shortcomings and flaws. Give them a glimpse of God’s unconditional love through yours. Throw birthday parties, celebrate graduations, embarrass them by screaming on the sidelines of their games—and document it all with photos. Do all you can to meet their physical and emotional needs. One MK I knew was at boarding school just five hours from home, and his parents never made it to any of his soccer games or stage productions. But I’ve known parents whose children lived with them who failed to be there in similar ways. (More here.) Tournaments, performances, social events, awards ceremonies… Parents, these are the moments that reward and reinforce family ties. You may have to factor it into your planning and your budget, but be there. Don’t let the job you do, the lives you’re saving or the image you’re protecting become an orphaning force in the lives of your own children.
(One more thing: when your children head off to college, go with them. At least one parent needs to be physically present to help them to prepare for their new life. Whether they tell you they want you there or not, be nearby, ready to make emergency Target runs, help with processing the newness and advocate where needed. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on this specific topic.)
4. Foster the kind of communication that allows for intimate, even painful conversation within the family.
Many forms of abuse on the mission field, including parental neglect, have festered because this type of purpose and honesty was lacking. Don’t shy away from asking tough personal questions. Intentionally, frequently, lovingly and honestly check in with your children on a variety of topics: friends, school, self-esteem, bullying, faith, family dynamics, loneliness, goals and dreams. This gut-level dialogue stands a better chance of becoming a natural communication tool if you start when they’re young and weave it into your family’s fabric. Be careful to listen to their words and their silences. The latter are often just as significant as what they say.
5. Display and tackle your weaknesses in public and in private.
It’s easy for adults in ministry to be too careful with their image—shirking honesty in an attempt to appear above reproach. Your children need to know that being imperfect is not a deal-breaker…with God or with others. Jesus powerfully and unconditionally loves the imperfect. He died because he loves the imperfect so much. A majority of the MKs I work with instinctively consider an admission of weakness to be unacceptable. Seeking help for that weakness is an even greater affront to the image they feel they must preserve. (It’s a message communicated to them in both subtle and overt ways.) Let friends and mentors into your struggles. Show your children that flaws are not terminal, and that transparent, accountable and committed relationships can lead to healing and growth.
6. Demonstrate self-care: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual.
You’re not a machine. Take a break. Treat yourself to something fun or delicious. Build time for exercise or an evening with friends into your schedule. Plan some family outings even when your to-do list is endless. Buy something frivolous that won’t break the bank. Seek balance and serenity. And don’t instruct your children not to tell anyone when your family invests in making a memory, lest they grow up feeling guilty for good things. (More here.) You might be selective about how much you post on social media or refer to in conversation, but don’t hide good and healthy self-care. If MKs see their parents taking their own well-being seriously, they will be more likely to allow themselves to do the same.
7. Invest time and energy (even funds!) to keep your children connected to their extended family.
Don’t let your Calling alienate your children from the safety net and grounding of blood-relatives. Schedule regular interactions. Send photos, videos and updates. Report to your relatives about what your kids love, what they’ve been up to (good conversation starters!) and what cultural quirks might seem odd to mono-cultural family members back home. Explain those differences to your children too. Seek to bridge the cultural divide from both sides in the interest of strong, long-distance familial bonds.
8. Celebrate their passport culture.
Too many MKs grow up disdainful of their “home” country, for a host of reasons addressed here. Yet that culture, whether they acknowledge it or not, is an integral part of their multi-faceted identity. Parents who have actually lived in that passport country and speak positively of it might be the strongest antidote to the negative attitudes most MKs harbor. Just as you help your children to appreciate the richness of their overseas cultures, warts and all, be determined to do the same for the “home” culture that often feels foreign to them. It will reconcile them to that piece of their personal puzzle and allow for a less traumatic reentry, if and when that happens.
9. Avoid even the appearance of hypocrisy.
Do your language, your attentiveness, your interactions with your spouse—even your moods—change when you’re in a public setting? No matter how ministry-serving or result-guaranteeing it might be, hypocrisy is poison. As much as you can, be the same person at home as you are in your work. Make sure that the faith you display for others is the same you live out behind closed doors. Something as simple as public prayers being more lofty than private prayers can send a dangerous message. Nothing promotes hypocrisy (even unintentional) as powerfully as furlough or Home Ministry Assignment! Make sure that “putting your best foot forward” doesn’t become a subtle form of deceit. Be authentic. One more thing: be careful about treating big financial supporters better than “regular” people in your lives. (More here.)
10. Teach your children about sexuality and the meaning of sexual terminology.
Even if you consider the behaviors obscene and the language profane, your children need to learn about them from you. Does it make you uncomfortable? Try saying the words to someone else first. Have another trusted adult in the room with you to do some of the talking. Whatever it takes, speak to your children about this topic. They need to be introduced to popular (even crude) slang and sexual practices in a controlled environment, one in which they can ask questions and process at their own pace. We’ve failed miserably at this in the broader missionary community! Yet comprehending these realities will allow them to navigate their physical and virtual worlds with clarity and safety.
I’m not pretending that the above is easy. Succeeding will require a daily recommitment to the process out of love for your children. And of course, there are no guaranteed outcomes—but healthy parental practices will foster stability and confidence, strengthen family ties and enhance a visceral understanding of God’s goodness.
Though you might see mistakes you’ve already made, they aren’t the end of the story. Start again now. Start with intentionality. Start with hope. Start with love. Do your part to demonstrate to your children that though God called your family to ministry, he called you to be parents to them.
That message alone, in word and deed, has the power to change their lives.

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    • shary

    • 10 years ago

    As an MK I believe this is a great place to start. Some of the things my parents did. My brother’s health meant the mission would not allow us to return to the field. I was 13 my brother was 4. The mission asked us to put him in a home. Probably now he would have been mildly autistic. My parents asked me to think and pray about it and in a week the three of us would decide if we would leave him in the States and go back to the field. They knew how much I wanted to go back. We all three agreed we could not leave him. They were willing to give up their ministry for their child. This was not considered keeping to their calling. To me it is one of most important things my parents did. About a year later my brother died from acute pneumonia in a few hours. I have heard missionaries say my children will never come before my ministry. I myself have at times put ministry before my children as a pastor’s wife. This list should be read by every Christian parent.
    Thank you

  1. And above all, make “home & family” THE safe place. Every where else, they will take you down!

  2. We are living #2 in a way. One of the hardest parts is using the right words in talking about our choice to come back to US (in part) for our kids’ sake, even if our hearts and ministry got left behind. The last thing we want is for them to feel guilty that I had to give up a life I loved for them – because *they*, in fact, are the life I love. Thankfully we had some other things that God was calling us to, so we had other reasons for our return, but I still find myself having to assure them that it’s not their fault that we had to come back.

  3. The missionary’s first call and ministry are to the family\children. The rest is secondary.

  4. Good article, it is a bit overwhelming as a parent to read it though….wow you have to be pretty perfect to not cause any damage! However with that said very good article…I think it speaks to what the “calling” is. I very much do believe that certain individuals have the “calling” but quite often this term is used to hide simple workaholic tendancies that many individuals suffer from. Basically if the need to derive your personal meaning is coming from the work that God has graciously given you as a gift versus your meaning being derived by simply being a child of God, you are at risk of damaging your kids. Simply said I believe your ministry is a gift from God not that your ministry is “needed” by God. God is perfectly capable of using an arse as he did in one OT example.

  5. When you become a parent you are always a parent. It doesn’t matter if your child is 45. Though we aren’t as involved in an adult child it means a lot to a child that they realize they are still first in their parents lives. I saw so many missionaries feel their children didn’t need them anymore once they were in college.
    This article is not about creating guilt. It is to help all parents look at what they can do to help their children. Some of the things will be more important to one child than another. Key is to know your kids and get to know their feelings and desires.

  6. One of the issues I think that needs to be discussed here, Michele, is whether the MKs are living at home with their parents, or away at a boarding school, or elsewhere. My parents mission board (Gospel Mission of South America) did not allow MKs to live away from home while overseas. We had to live at home; go to local private or public schools, or be homeschooled. This gave the nationals many great examples on how to raise their own children, as well as matured the parents spiritually in raising their own kids. I’m not sure all the Top Ten Practices For Parenting MKs will apply to kids sent away… Something to think about. Great article! Thanks for your work to help missionaries and the MKs!

  7. Thanks Michele, I appreciate the caveat that ‘doing the right things’ does NOT equal the ‘product’ that you are aiming for. Human beings are way too complicated for that and the assumption can lead to lots of unnecessary guilt and shame. But the practices matter, and practice often comes from mindset.One mindset that I think matters is knowing that you yourself and your life in Christ are the ‘first kingdom’ that God gives you. That leads to guarding your heart, solitude with Christ, self care, etc. The next kingdom as a married person is your spouse and your children if you have them. That mindset leads to many healthy practices with time, intentionality and discernment. (Please don’t read that I achieved that fully, or maybe even well, but the mindset, when I learned it, helped me choose the practice!) I believe next kingdom is community, involving the body of Christ, work, service and outreach and the practice follows. — Another example of mindset that matters to practice, for Missionaries, is whether they begin with or develop a true love for the people to whom they are ministering and if they look for places to include their children where appropriate… – Getting too long, so again, thanks for this great conversation!

  8. Wonderful article. There definitely is a balance in fulfilling the call of God and raising your children. I agree with Richard part of the ability to form an attachment and bond with a parent is to be raised by them. When placed in a boarding school 9 months of the year with only 3 months with your parents that bond is hard to achieve. Especially when the child is placed at a young age. If you want your child to have your ideals and outlook and understand your calling they need to see it with you. Even if the boarding school has the highest standards and offers huge incentives look at the cost to the bonding process with your child. Children need their parents to learn valuable coping skills and their ideals. The Bible speaks about how to rear your children in multiple scriptures. That should apply to the mission field as well. Our God is a loving God that can be lost when the sacrifices are too deep. We are to spread the gospel to the far ends of the earth to all people and nations. There has to be a balance not to send your children away to do that. Missionary children are not less important than the people being ministered to. That is why there needs to be a balance that the children are reared by their parents all year long. Not only is it a way for the nationals to see how to raise your kids it is a way for the missionary child to have parenting abilities as adults. There are abundant studies about attachment issues in children. It is very important to have a definite balance.

  9. Attachment issues are super important although I’m not sure if the literature supports that only parents can form that successful attachment… If one happens to be placed in a boarding school where pseudo parents do a good job at the attachment no long-term psychological effects seem to be present.. Not saying that parents are not ideal there are boarding situations that are successful namely the ones I experienced

  10. This article was very timely for me as our family recently made the difficult decision to return home from the field due to the needs of our children. As an ATCK who was raising TCKs, I never imagined I would have to make this choice. But even in deep grief, the Lord is giving gracious glimpses of a child that was once despondent and fearful now thriving.

    • Japs

    • 9 years ago

    Hi, Great article!
    I think this infographic will greatly complement your article.
    This discusses how modern parenting could contribute to teen violence. Enjoy!

    1. Thanks! This is great information.

  11. […] Phoenix wrote a blog in January about Top 10 Practices for Parenting MKs Well, which can be found here.   Particularly valuable are some of the comments readers have […]

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