Learning to hide

It’s been a long time since my last post.

Sometimes, I struggle with a post for a few days and when it’s done it’s like I’ve knocked down another wall. And I need to let the dust settle before I work on the next.

This particular wall is tough. It has taken years to understand and almost a month to put it into words.

* * * * *

When I was in the 5th grade, I got a scolding I’ve never forgotten.

My friends and I were supposed to be at recess, but we snuck back into our classroom to get something from one of our bags. I can’t remember now what it was. But for some reason, when we were caught in the classroom, we lied about why we were there.

The lie must have been pretty transparent because we were sent straight to the principal — at a  public school — who threatened with a spanking and a call home.

As the principal shrilly explained the consequences for lying (she never asked for the truth, by the way) she raised a cricket bat-like board with holes above her head & it whistled through the air landing with a loud smack on the arm of her naugahyde chair leaving tiny circle imprints in the upholstery.

Her voice was terrifying. The thought of that board hitting my backside was terrifying.

But that wasn’t the worst part for me.

The worst was being pulled out of class later that day by my Social Studies teacher who also happened to be my Sunday School teacher.

“How could you do such a thing?” she demanded. ” Don’t you know who your father is?”

My dad was getting his doctorate in theology at the seminary next door to my school, I knew that. But I don’t think I had ever realized that there was a reason why I should be treated differently from my peers until that moment.

It was a blow that left tiny circles of shame on my heart — and it ignited a flame that would eventually consume me: a sense of over-responsibility for what other people think.

* * * * *

That year my parents became missionaries. We traveled across the country visiting churches to raise support, staying with relatives, friends and sometimes strangers and made it to Bangladesh in less than 12 months.

We met so many people that year . . . I had no idea there were so many things to have opinions — convictions — about.

In this new life, I learned:

That going to see a movie in a theater was bad but watching them on video wasn’t.

That playing cards with faces were evil but playing the same games with faceless cards wasn’t.

That there were words that are not curse words, but so and so’s family doesn’t like them, so none of us use them.

That there were versions of the Bible you could read that would cause division, even if you were an expert in Biblical languages and said the translation was technically better.

That churches in the States would drop a missionary’s support if your son’s was too long for their taste in your prayer card photo. Even if it was really just a shadow.

That churches, when you pull up in a nice car, may decide your family must not need their support if you can afford to drive that (even though the car was provided for you by another church).

These things — and so many more — stuck with me. Resonated in my conflict-hating, people-pleasing nature.

I tried to conform to every conservative view to fit in.

* * * * *

But this is the thing that too often happens to children of Christian leaders. Even if their parents work hard (as mine did) to allow them growing room, to not bend to arbitrary standards — someone, somewhere will place undue expectation on them.  Like somehow, because of their parents, they are expected to be better than regular Christians. Better than anyone.

The same people usually put unreasonable expectations on the leaders as well . . . like there is an unwritten rule book of things you can’t find in the Bible. Expectations of behavior. Of dress. Of priorities. Of sacrifice. And there are people who feel it is their calling to make sure you “incur a stricter judgement.”

But these rules and standards are often as different as the people who have them. And you can make yourself crazy trying to keep up. Trying to stay ahead of the game and guess what may offend . . .

. . . maybe that’s why some of the most conservative churches have such terrible scandals, things that go on for years and years hidden. When there is so little room for tiny failures — differences of opinion, really — who would share a real struggle?

* * * * *

At camp, Dave was criticized for the strangest things. The expectations of dozens of different people aimed at him:

This is the way we’ve always done it. The way it’s always been done is wrong.

You have to hire her. If you hire her it will be your worst mistake.

You preached too much about grace at the fireside invitation. You didn’t preach enough grace.

Your wife shouldn’t help with that. We have summer staff to do it.

Staff should have a night off each week. You can take your time off when camp’s over.

Let me do that. I did it all, Dave did nothing.

You need to fix this. If you change it, I’ll leave.

Within six months, we felt defeated.

Damned if we did. Damned if we didn’t.

Dave turned back to pain meds.  And when all my efforts to please fell flat, I buried myself in to-do lists. Decorating the house. Homeschooling the kids. Oblivious to the fact that the changes I was beginning to see in Dave were more than just exhaustion from his new career.

* * * * *

I’ve spent a lot of energy in my life trying to live up to please people.

But over-concern for what people think eventually leads to image control. You learn to hide things. Because you know you don’t really measure up. . .

. . . in Bangladesh, there are high walls around houses. And if you’re worried that the walls are not protection enough, you can put a layer of cement on the top of it and imbed it with pieces of broken glass.

The first giant step on our path to recovery was to become a part of a church where no one knew or cared who our parents were. No one cared where we went to college. Few had even heard of it.

We were no one. And that was the beginning.

I was in a place where God could finally chip away at the walls I started building in 5th grade.

But as steadily as God was chipping, I was reinforcing my wall.

Lining the top of it with broken glass.

15 thoughts on “Learning to hide”

  • Wow Deb…. fascinating experiences. I can only imagine how it impacted you being in such focus growing up as a child of a christian leader.

    I have been very close to a number of them and seen how it impacted them.

    In my church experience, I feel we as christians tend to lose sight of one very important and fundamental point. Our leaders, and their families, are first and foremost, sinners saved by the same grace that we all are. Absolutely no different. Yet it feels like our christian culture encourages us to focus more on their giftings and callings than on the fact that they are at the people fundamentally like everyone else. We all have the same weaknesses, feelings, and struggles as everyone else.

    Church culture in my experience exalts its leaders. It creates environments where we do unrealistically expect unidentified forms of perfection. Not saying for a moment that the impact of leaders behaviours isn’t unique, especially if they are in the public eye. The Bible refers to this.

    I have simply found that we as christians, especially in groups, tend to view our leaders through the filter of our own weaknesses. For reasons we are often completely unaware of, we need them, and their families, to be something unrealistic. We need them to align with some standard of perfection that we have not even clearly defined ourselves. We can be petty, needy, envious, demanding, nit-picky, and idolizing.

    I wonder if we kept clear focus that our leaders were first, foremost, and continuously, fellow sinners saved by grace who happen to be trying to fulfill a role that they (and we) believe they are called to, if we wouldn’t be more understanding, gracious, and realistic about who our leaders are and what is going on in their lives. Would we get bent out of shape over the type of car a missionary family drove? I think to a far lesser degree would this matter. If someone were genuinely concerned, they could easily find out. But most people ‘concerned’ I would imagine are concerned as a result of their own weaknesses.

    I don’t think we would set our leaders up for such failure and corruption on one hand, by putting them on such unrealistic pedestals where they feel they have to keep up a certain appearance or hide weaknesses, then on the other, judge and disdain them when they fall. This does not fit what I read in the Bible about people knowing who we are by our love for one another.

    Thanks again for your fascinating blog. I will believe for the best for you and your family.



    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Chaz.
      It’s really interesting, actually, because I completely believe Christian leaders are called to a higher level of accountability. However, the hottest criticism that I’ve seen up close is usually leveled subjectively — measuring by personal, or at best interpreted,standards rather than biblical ones.

      Thank you for believing the best for us. Dave’s almost 4 years clean now. We are very blessed.


  • The hardest part of having your wall down is how vulnerable you feel. I don’t like feeling vulnerable. Who does? I’m trying to learn to let our God be our fortress. And that it’s ok to be vulnerable and exposed to others, but I don’t have to be that to everyone. and like you, I’m a people pleaser… I’m sort of an all-or -none person…it’s a strength sometimes. But, too often, it’s really a weakness. I need balance. I need to learn balance.
    I love you guys and again, thank you for sharing your story.

  • Keep ’em coming. I am sitting by an open window and it makes me think of all these words you have written – fresh air. Not just a breath of it, but deep gasps of it as if one had been underwater for hours (or days or years) and just reached the surface. Beautiful life-giving REAL fresh air. I am amazed to find such stories all through scripture as you have alluded to in past blogs. I need to research who wrote Jonah – for there is one who did it all wrong up to the very end of the story and left his story just like that – for us to wonder. . . did he every get it? I think he did.

    You are moving out to the east coast – I’m gonna put a link to this on my face book, and gonna share it with friends from church that are studying a book on Forgiveness right now.
    And here is the beginning of my story – bits and pieces – not in a succinct order as you are doing yours.

  • Deb, you are something else with your writings. Alot of what you wrote above sounds like what Dave, Barby & I experienced with Daddy being a Pastor, too. After all, preachers kids are supposed to be perfect examples and not make mistakes….talk about pressure, we all know about that, too. Your writings are so easy to understand and bring back tons of memories of growing up in a Pastors home.Some good, some bad… I appreciate you so much.

    • It’s a strange kind of life, isn’t it? There is a deep understanding, I believe, among pastors’ kids, missionaries’ kids, etc. So many blessings and yet so many ways to be hurt. I’m thankful that God has brought Dave and I to a place where we can talk about these things freely and somehow be an encouragement to others. Thank you, Mae.

  • The problem with trying to live in other people’s boxes is that each box is different. Every box is just a little more restrictive that the next.

    It is sad that those who we would expect to be the most loving and accepting are often the least accepting. Fortunately, none of us answer to humanity and God is loving, accepting and freeing.

  • Very well worded, Deb. As your father, perhaps I should have taken more time to help you and your brothers and sister learn how to handle such pressures–how to identify priorities, non-essentials, and preferences. As parents we sometimes fail to realize the impact our ministry environment has on our children–partly because we too often assume that they are too young to realize what is happening or too young to explain to them how to live in glass houses. In October I am speaking to a group of seminarians about them and their families and ministry. I am going to use today’s blog. If you can offer some suggestions that I might give them, I would love to hear them. Thanks for being my daughter–you make your father (and mother) very, very proud.

    • Thank you, Dad. You and Mom did a great job, from my point of view, letting all of us grow up without pressures of trying to please and live up to other people’s standards. I just never wanted to not fit in. And I do remember you and mom trying to help me not be so legalistic.
      The funny thing is, caring so much what people think actually kept me with Dave through some spots where I felt like that’s all I had left: sheer stubborn pride mingled with fear.
      I think being a pastor is so hard — hard on families, hard on them.
      In fact, when we left the camp I told Dave our job was to be the best lay people our pastors have ever had. Never critical of them. Never nitpicking at petty things. Truly, their biggest fan. And certainly, “She’s the pastor’s kid, she should know better” has never been spoken in our home, or anywhere, ever.
      I actually think some of the problems of unreasonable criticism pastors and missionaries face is that there is an idea that this leader works for you. The power to hire and fire comes from the congregation. How hard is that, to think that offending someone — though you know you speak the truth — could cost you your job? I know you know that & have seen it far too often. Some people can handle that & some can’t. I do know, that if we ever go in to full time ministry again, we will have far more questions for those hiring us than they would for us!

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