I didn’t want to go to India. The morning we were supposed to leave, I snuggled deep under soft covers in Colorado Springs, breathing in the scent of fabric softener and listening to my mom make chocolate chip pancakes. I didn’t like anything I’d heard about India; everyone said it was humid and I’d have to buy different clothes. I wanted to go to normal school with normal friends and cute boys. I wanted to be popular and have the kind of life I watched kids having on TV shows. When I finally crawled out of that comfortable bed, I cried a little.
For the next few days, we took the long trip to India. Each plane ride, I took the barf bag out of the seat in front of me and wrote a letter to the next person who would sit there. Most of the letters went like this:
Dear next person who sits in seat 23A,
My name is Kristin. My family is moving to India. I don’t even like Indian food.
We stopped in Korea and Thailand, and then finally arrived in Maharashtra, where we drove down unpaved jungle roads until we got to the church where we’d live for the next two months. Everywhere I turned, there were orange idols on mud slabs, children living in tents, cows stalling traffic, and pigs eating sewage. The smells of roasted peanuts and garlic mutton overwhelmed my senses, burning my eyes. When we stepped out of our jeep, we found out that no foreigners had ever visited that city before, and everyone was so shocked to see us that two drivers got into a car accident.
For the next two months, I slept on a straw mat on the cement floor next to my three siblings, where we swatted away an untold number of black jungle ants and thick furry spiders. Every night, we came up with creative ways of keeping rats out of our rooms, but nothing worked. Yet one thing was sure – I didn’t mind the rats as much as I minded the centipedes.
Furthermore, we had no air conditioner, refrigerator, TV, or furniture, and our bathroom was a squatty potty in the backyard. For the first couple of weeks, I laid in the dark next to my older brother, where he dreamed aloud of eating juicy burgers, toasted bagels, and milk chocolate. Eventually, I’d beg him to stop because I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I was ten years old, and my family had already done missionary work in four different countries. In between each of our travels, my parents ran a Christian youth program in Texas, and so I experienced life in ministry from both the American and foreign perspective. By the time I’d turn 18, we would do missionary work through 14 countries and all over the United States!
Even though I started out pretty upset about the whole thing, that trip to India ended up changing my life. I wept when it was time to leave, and my family has returned several times since. It was in India, on dusty roads to thatched-roof villages, that I began to understand the saving power of Jesus in changing a nation. Later, at thirteen years old, I would learn the unrelenting hope of Christ while feeding child prostitutes in Ecuador. At seventeen, I would develop strategic thinking while single-handedly planning a mini-Olympics for all the orphanages in Beijing. Yet through my whole childhood, there was one lesson more confusing and harder to digest than anything else: living under the scrutiny of the church in America.
For most families, a parent’s profession bears little weight on how society views the child. A dentist’s patients don’t call each other about what the dentist’s daughter wore to the clinic. A banker’s clients don’t meet weekly and see if the banker’s son is setting a good financial example for their child. A hairstylist’s customers don’t care if her kid cusses in school.
But in a ministry family, these are realities every week. In a ministry family, the child attends the parents’ work on a weekly basis with all of the parents’ clients. She is seen as the immediate and ongoing representation of their effectiveness, and is often put on display as the consistent subject of stories and illustrations from the pulpit. In a ministry family, the parents’ profession has a daily and lifelong impact on the public opinion of the child’s behavior.
A study by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary shows that there are 4.19 million Christian workers around the world. For the most part, these Christian workers have families, and are therefore raising children in ministry. As a short-term missionary’s kid, my specific brand looked like living for weeks or months out of my suitcase. But there are also pastors’ kids, worship leaders’ kids, Christian authors’ kids, and campus ministers’ kids. There are children with church secretary moms and youth pastor dads. In general, people look to these ministers to set the example for having a close relationship with God, raising a good family, and living life with peace and joy. And oftentimes, the kids are seen as evidence for whether or not a person should trust and follow the minister. Children in ministry grow up with expectations laid on them before they can talk, simply because of an expectation laid on the parent to raise a model child.
In my case, my parents led a ministry for children around the world, and they also became like second parents to hundreds of teenagers in our city. Since they were known for helping other parents raise their kids, I assumed I needed to be the example of how a child should act. It seemed like people wanted me to be perfect because they wanted my mom and dad to be perfect parents. I was a normal girl trying to figure out life like all other kids, but I felt like I was stuck in a fishbowl. Whether I did something good or something bad, the Christian world was looking in. These were some of the phrases I started hearing:
“That’s really not how a minister’s daughter should act.”
“I bet you’re gonna be great when you’re older.”
“You don’t know me, but I’ve been watching you your whole life.”
“You’re gonna have a huge ministry someday. You’re gonna be famous.”
“Is that really something a pastor’s daughter should say?”
“Pray for my kids to be like you.”
When people were critical of me, pressure built and I felt tremendous shame – I wasn’t only hurting my own reputation; I was hurting the reputation of my entire family. When people gushed about my inevitably famous future, pressure built and I felt tremendous anxiety – I waffled between spending significant hours reading about how to change the world, but then feeling entirely overwhelmed, nearly paralyzed, and sleeping all day on the couch.
In day-to-day life, it seemed like the Christian world had a microscope, and I was the science project they were studying. How would I react when I was angry? Would I use my piano skills to be on the worship team? Would my devotional for the Summer youth camp be extra powerful? I immersed myself in activities and always made sure they were public – in leading worship, teaching workshops, and praying for people during every altar call. I started to celebrate the fishbowl because it made me feel successful, but then I became addicted to it.
Whereas the typical pattern of a pastor’s kid was to rebel against Christianity, my response was for my entire identity to be engulfed in ministry, and I craved being impressive. Internally, however, a fear was building every year, spilling into my relationships and self-image. I felt so terrified of disappointing others that anxiety began to root itself deep in my heart: was I disappointing God?
Children in ministry often face two stereotypes: they either attach themselves wholeheartedly to the rules, becoming world class performers, or they refuse the building pressure and rebel against their faith. Both are equally destructive, as dependence on the law is just as great a stumbling block as rebellion from the law. Neither is representative of receiving the precious and overflowing grace freely offered through Jesus.
On my 20th birthday, I was a sophomore at Arizona State University, and I began to have a panic attack. I realized that I was officially out of my teenage years, and all the expectations I felt from the American church were upon me: that I would have a great ministry, that I would be able to respond strategically to the hard things I had seen worldwide, that I would marry a worship rock star and my fishbowl would expand to Christian celebrity status. But the truth was that I had no trick up my sleeve, no brilliant plan I was waiting to unleash until the time was right. I was just a kid, I had seen hard things, and I was terrified of disappointing God. In the middle of my birthday afternoon, I grabbed my journal, hurriedly listed every impressive thing I’d ever done in an effort to soothe my increasingly panicked heart, and then I called my mom.
One of God’s greatest gifts to me are my parents, who were always present, full of wisdom, and who continually made clear that their children were a greater priority and ministry than any calling to the rest of the world. Through the next several years, my mom (and several other incredible, grace-giving people in my corner), walked closely with me as Jesus transformed me by the renewing of my mind. In countless, tearful conversations, I began to understand the groundbreaking truth that my life’s value was not based on my great work for Jesus, but on Jesus’ great work for me. No matter how impressive my fishbowl, no amount of Christian heroism would increase my ability to be accepted by Him. I allowed God to uproot the paralyzing lie that His opinion of me was swayed by the church’s applause or criticism, and in its place, the Holy Spirit planted life-giving truth inside me: because I put my faith in Jesus’ complete goodness on the cross, I am fully approved by God.
Growing up in ministry was a treasure. From trekking through the jungle monsoons of Panama to delivering babies in a free clinic of the Philippines, my life has been laced with tremendous adventure. As I’ve waded through my experiences, everything both beautiful and haunting, I’ve found that the grace of Jesus was not just offered in third world countries, to orphans and widows. It was not just for rebellious pastors’ kids who brought heartache to their family. It was for me. It was grace to live freely while underneath the microscope of the church. It was grace to bring my performance, my perfectionism, and my need to save the world before the only One who could ever be Savior. And through this grace, I was transformed from totally identifying with ministry to totally identifying with Jesus, his death and resurrection.
Now, at 28 years old, I’ve decided to pursue ministry as my career. I’ve been married for three years, and someday my husband and I will raise our own kids in ministry. And so, this is my plea to the American church: provide grace for ministry kids. Refuse to expect from them what you expect from their parents, and more than anything, point them back to Jesus. Explain that He bore the full weight of religious pressure on His shoulders, reminding us that we are not approved by our own works of righteousness, but according to His mercy, vast and sure.