[The audio version of this article is also available. Listen to it on the Pondering Purple podcast by clicking HERE.]
I marked a huge milestone a few months ago: thirty years in MK ministry. That’s three decades of conferences, articles, keynotes, videos, consultations, retreats and debriefs. It’s aha moments and hard conversations. It’s sleepless nights of preparation and pre-presentation jitters and prayers for God-guided vision and execution.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s thirty years’ worth of lessons I’ve haven’t so much taught as learned from the families I’ve met. I can’t think of a better way to mark these three decades than to share seven of those lessons here.
I’ll admit that each of the points below deserves an entire article of its own. But my hope is that this condensed format might be a helpful and accessible place to start a longer conversation between family and team members, wherever you serve. Whether you’re parenting MKs or an adult MK looking back on your upbringing, I trust you will find nuggets here that are helpful in some way.
Loving well means demonstrating that family will always trump work.
I’m hearing this more frequently from today’s young parents than I did years ago. Granted, there are still MKs who feel that they have been sacrificed on the altar of missions. They see decisions being made with little evidence that the impact on them is being considered. They hear those entrusted with their care insisting that if it’s God’s will, it’s what they’re going to do—period—regardless of impact on young minds and hearts.
But—so many are doing things differently. Emily wrote: “We love it here. Our ministry is finally thriving after three years of grunt-work. But one of our boys is really struggling with the culture and the isolation from peers. Part of us hates to even think about leaving, WE’VE TRIED EVERYTHING and staying feels like telling him that we’re okay with how much he’s hurting.”
I cannot imagine how difficult the choice to leave must be, especially when a majority of the family is, in Emily’s words, thriving. Yet this is the type of decision some families are making for all the right reasons. I’m sobered by the number of parents I’ve met who tell me that being thoughtful, engaged and empathetic moms and dads to their kids is their primary ministry.
So they’re leaving or staying longer or delaying decisions—all for the sake of the kiddos who need those hard calls.
Not only does this “prioritized parenting” build love, trust and honesty between family members, but it also demonstrates the heart of God for his MKs.
I’ll add this: for kids to clearly hear that they are the priority, their parents might need to speak their devotion strongly and repeatedly—and back it up with action—in order to cut through the subtle and pervasive external messaging that may state the opposite.
Loving well means adults grieving openly so children can hurt freely.
Hiding our struggles comes from a benevolent place. We fear that children will see our sadness or stress and be negatively impacted by it. On the contrary, seeing the grief of adults in their lives might actually normalize an appropriate emotional response to hard things.
Jack and Vicky are both MKs, so when they moved to Europe with their three children (ages 6, 9 and 12), they vowed right up front that if things got hard, they were going to show it. It seemed to work well at first, when the entire family was contending with normal transitional pangs—feeling unmoored, having no community, struggling with the language, trying to figure out life in a new place. They would commiserate together over bread and cheese and go for family jogs in a nearby park to burn off some of the tension.
But when Jack’s colleague and friend at his work office became critically ill, he didn’t share his dread and sadness with the kids. He figured they wouldn’t really understand and he didn’t want their relationship with that colleague’s children to be affected.
About a year after they’d arrived in France, when his colleague’s illness had progressed to end stages, Jack reached a breaking point. Something fairly innocuous happened over dinner…and he lost his cool. His grief came out as anger. The children were shaken and emotional, and when Jack sat them down later to explain what was happening and how deeply affected he felt, he also told them that he’d been trying not to show them how sad he was. It was the youngest who interrupted Jack mid-apology and asked in her newfound French, “Tu crois qu’on est bête?” Do you think we’re dumb?
Jack had thought he was sparing his family by trying to manage his emotions in their presence, but the fault-lines were evident to little minds attuned to the unspoken grief they were sensing.
Because it was finally out in the open, the family was able to process together, the children’s friendship with the colleague’s kids didn’t suffer because, well, they’re children—and when he eventually passed away, they were mostly prepared for it. The loss was huge, but as they watched both their parents walking in deep sadness, they felt permitted to grieve too.
In a world where struggling is often (even inadvertently) framed as weakness, offering children an example of honest and vulnerable processing—within their ability to grasp—is essential. They’ll learn that sadness is okay, that experiencing it in community with others is healthy and that reaching for Jesus in those moments is good.
Along those same lines…
Loving well means seeking help without hiding or minimizing the reasons for it.
There is something relentless about the pressure to be self-sufficient in ministry circles. MKs often have type-A parents who are go-getters, problem-solvers and overcomers. The missionary world is full of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of messaging—some demonstrated, some spoken—that young minds internalize as “be strong, fix yourself, need no one.”
Jennifer told me that her kids blurted out “mom and dad are at marriage counseling” when a family friend asked why someone else was picking them up after school. As parents, they’d been honest with the kids about it, but she was still embarrassed at first and considered instructing the kids not to be so open with others. Then she caught herself and realized that their casual reference to therapy was actually a good thing.
Seeing adults they love and respect admitting to struggles and openly enlisting help, be it practical or psychological, demonstrates to MKs that insufficiency is not weakness.
When life becomes overwhelming, they need to see their parents unabashedly asking for assistance. This is particularly true in the area of mental health, which for far too long has been such a taboo subject that MKs often demonstrate a reticence to speak of it. Showing them that there is no shame in reaching out for help is actually setting them up for healthier futures.
Loving well means releasing some decision-making to kids who need to feel empowered by choice.
This is a hard one, but it’s so important. With the way ministry works—the financial considerations, the logistics and practical limitations, the administrative responsibilities…the Calling from God himself—it can feel like MKs’ lives are being decided in realms they don’t necessarily connect with or understand. Kids observe adults making decisions that will have a huge impact on them and can feel unimportant or overlooked when their own needs and wishes are not openly discussed.
Though it’s absolutely true that children may lack the maturity or context to be consulted on every aspect of a life in ministry, parents who give them some ownership—in areas where it’s safe for them to have it—are empowering them as important members of the family.
I was just with a family whose kids couldn’t fully grasp why they had to quickly leave the country they loved, but the parents gave each of them one backpack to fill with the “sacred objects” they wanted or needed to take with them into the huge transition they were facing. It didn’t matter whether what they packed had value. One packed a pair of sneakers held together by duct tape. Another packed a piece of asphalt broken off of their home’s driveway.
By allowing them to choose, those parents gave their children ownership over one aspect of their evacuation. It can be expanded to other phases of missionary life. Giving children a handful of options for them to consider on HMA visits (go to youth group, sit in the service or hang back with someone who isn’t going). Or letting them weigh in on the order of your travels, pick the location of your vacations or even choose their favorite from the two great housing opportunities you’ve narrowed it down to.
Whatever can be done to let children know that they do have some say in some areas of their lives will foster not only a sense of team-work within the family, but of agency. And agency is an essential motor of development. Without it, there is a risk of MKs growing up to feel like baggage dragged from place to place without ever being asked for opinions or granted choice.
Loving well means admitting that the world is a painful place and that God’s role in our suffering can be beyond our understanding.
I speak quite a bit on the importance of developing a family’s “theology of grief.” It’s so hard for children and teens to trust a God who seems either cruel, callous, or impetuous. There is so much messaging that—to young ears and immature faith—makes it sound like God is the cold-blooded inflictor of our pain.
A teacher at an MK school (and mom of two MKs) told me that one of the most powerful responses she’s found to students who reveal abuse to her is to look them in the eyes and say, “God hates that this happened to you.” That statement is most frequently answered with a doubtful, “He does?” So many MKs buy into the lie that God wants them to suffer. That he inflicts pain on us to make himself look good through our response to it.
Children need to clearly be told that God does not rejoice in their suffering or randomly doll it out to aggrandize himself.
At the same time, there’s a mystery to God’s role in our grief that cannot be entirely clarified from a human perspective. I’m hearing parents willing to respond “I don’t know” to impossible questions, even when the not-knowing can cause real frustration. As they embody a faith that is a relationship with a real person, they’re also wise enough to point out that some of God’s purposes and methods won’t be fully clear on this side of Eternity. If MKs grow to be in relationships with the Jesus revealed in the accounts of his life on earth—to trust his heart for the broken and devotion to children—they may be able to release the unknowns that can otherwise make him seem like a tyrant.
Loving well means asking hard questions that may yield painful answers.
When I speak with adult MKs about the traumas or hardships their lives included (along with all the joys and blessings, of course!), they often tell me that their parents didn’t know what they were going through. The most common answer when I ask them why is, “They didn’t ask.”
It requires such courage and intentionality for parents of MKs to pose the kind of questions that may yield painful answers. Yet without them, the ability to mitigate fallout, bind wounds and even prevent attrition becomes limited, at best.
One family from Czech Republic has added a category to the customary “yay and yuck” debriefs they regularly do around the dinner table. Each member still takes a turn articulating the fun stuff that has happened (yays) and the harder stuff (yucks). But the family has added an “unspeakable muck” category to the exercise—the stuff they’d rather not talk about, but want to express anyway because it’s what the family does. (The children have the option of talking about the muck in private, if they prefer.)
By framing the ritual in a way that lightens the third item—my yay, my yuck and my unspeakable muck—and by making it a weekly practice, they open the door for hard admissions to be made at any time. And because they all take turns doing it, it is normal and accepted. (The parents’ muck, of course, would need to be appropriate for children to hear!)
A family in which hard conversations about delicate or personal issues are natural is usually a family that has started sharing vulnerably from its earliest days.
But even when the practice isn’t hardwired into the home culture, I think it can be developed over time by investing in trusting relationships, verbalizing permissions, and asking timely questions that get to the origin of questionable behaviors and the impact of hard experiences… Because, let’s be honest, we all carry around some yays, some yucks and some unspeakable muck.
Loving well means admitting to failures and asking forgiveness, even years after the harm was done.
The power of this form of love cannot be overstated. I recently interacted with a friend and therapist whose children are now adults. She wrote to ask me if I’d noticed this phenomenon: even when there is nothing parents could have done to prevent the harm their kids experienced, an apology decades later is still a healing thing. Whether the apology is about something the parents didn’t know about, something they ignored or even something the parents did, raising the topic with their adult children and expressing true sorrow over what happened can have an almost miraculous impact on their relational dynamics.
It can be as simple as sincerely saying to a child who was harmed outside the home, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop that happening to you.” Though there may have been nothing that parent could logically have done, hearing that they wish there had been—or that they’re sorry they failed to see what their kids were going through—is in itself a statement of love and an acknowledgement of the child’s pain.
There are so many circumstances in which an apology, even years later, can be the catalyst for healing and restoration.
- “I’m so sorry you were so hurt by your friend’s racial slur and that I didn’t know enough to do something about it.”
- “I’m so sorry that I never noticed the anxiety or depression you were struggling with.”
- “I’m so sorry that we sent you to boarding school when you were so young.”
- “I’m so sorry that our decision to move so often was hard for you—we should have asked you more questions and given you more choices.”
- “I’m so sorry that you had to go through school with undiagnosed learning disabilities.”
- “I’m so sorry for what happened to you when you were away at summer camp.”
So many apologies that may feel like they don’t solve anything, but nevertheless have the power to be redemptive and transformative. I have witnessed astounding restoration happen when parents are willing to apologize for things they didn’t know or failed to do or simply missed. Even if they were decades ago. Even if they didn’t feel significant at the time. There is no time-table for saying we’re sorry and there is no time-limit on healing.
The parents of MKs I’ve had the honor of interacting with over these three decades in ministry have done more than teach me the seven lessons listed here. If you’re one of them, I want to thank you for opening your hearts and putting your lessons into words as we’ve sat in living rooms, dining halls and cafés around the world. Your ability to identify the challenges related to your family’s calling and then to develop ways to meet and address them for the health of your children has been inspirational to me.
Thank you for loving well—and for teaching others by your example, courage and sacrifice.
It has been my greatest honor for thirty years to journey with you in a community motivated by the calling of the Shepherd-Lord and shaped into healed creatures by the empathy, love and power of Yahweh Rapha.
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