Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

..but when is acceptable to seek to be understood? (If you’re in the (TL;RL) crowd or are seeking to be understood, this may not be for you. Here’s your off ramp.

If you’re still with me, this is a difficult post to write. I grew up as a “staff kid”. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is a label applied to kids whose parents have chosen to serve in a ministry that helps others. Bio kids in a foster care home, Pastor’s Kids and Missionary Kids fall into a similar position.

As a “staff kid”, I grew up at a child care facility that served “at-risk” youth. I won’t say that it was a terrible way to grow up and I have many fond memories. I grew up with an understanding of people that still serves me to this day and I have chosen to go into the same line of work. I will say, however, that there are some struggles and pitfalls to being a “staff kid” and to growing up in service of others.

I am simply hoping to be able to continue on in this line of work without sacrificing my children to the pitfalls of this ministry that I have chosen. I have sought to understand and am at the point where I now want to be understood. According to the way that I grew up and according to the unwritten rules of how I grew up, this is something not to be discussed. And there are more than a few unwritten rules. This post serves to break a few of those rules and also to transform the unwritten to written…but it is open to be edited.

Rule 1 – the first rule of being a staff kid is that you avoid talking about being a staff kid. In the times that I have broken this rule, the reception from other staff kids has been positive. Their parents…not so much. Hopefully, that will change.

Rule 2 – everyone knows about you and who you are, but those around you seldom wish or make efforts to actually get to know you. You’re an extension of your parents. More on that in a bit…

Rule 3 – you are not the mission. Your parents are in ministry and serve a higher purpose. Those who are hurting or abandoned or abused are the mission. You are not the mission. This rule is typically internalized as “you are not a priority.”

Rule 4 – “…but you have parents! Somebody has it worse than you!” This is the typical response to staff kids who dare to question how they are being raised and how they are living.

Rule 5 – your needs can only be met at the expense of others. Mostly the unsaved, unchurched, broken, beaten and damned. While not actual, there is a belief that ministry to those in need is a “zero sum game” and if you get what you need, it comes at the expense of someone who has never had enough. This becomes internalized as a belief that your needs are unimportant and a burden and inconvenience to others…especially your parents. Sadly, this doesn’t expire at 18 years of age. You learn not to have needs and to avoid being a burden and inconvenience to anyone…even those that love you and are willing to see you as something other than a burden and inconvenience.

Rule 6 – you learn to see the dysfunction in everyone. While it starts as a protective measure, it eventually becomes a barrier to relationships …especially with healthy people.

Rule 7 – conflict is always your fault. If we’re being honest, conflict is where most seek to be understood. As a staff kid, conflict is usually the byproduct of having a need. It is also usually met with a command to be the bigger person and apologize…even when you didn’t start or further the conflict. Typically, conflict arises in ministry when someone dares to be honest and fails to acknowledge the eternal implications and intentions of those serving in ministry. Being the “black sheep” often comes from being the honest sheep who desires to stop being a burden and inconvenience. More succinctly, conflict tends to arise when needs arise in those that are deemed undeserving of having needs in the first place. See rule 5.

Rule 8 – most needs, at least for staff kids, are seen as selfish.

Rule 9 – your role is to serve as “proof of concept” that your parents are good parents. So good, in fact, that they are worthy of parenting, saving, serving and helping the less fortunate.

Rule 10 – don’t become the problem. Growing up in ministry, you learn that your parents are serving God and are “fixing” and healing those who have real problems. You are highly discouraging from becoming the problem as it will only serve to take away from those with real problems…and that isn’t you.

While some may read this and think that I am criticizing ministry, I am not. The world genuinely needs people to serve God in hopes of helping “…the least of these.” My only hope is that ministry can be approached without sacrificing one’s own children in service of other people’s. I am attempting to do just that. I know that I have made some of the same mistakes and hurt my children at times. I am always seeking to understand how to do it better for them and without inflicting pain upon them.

So, what can be done?

My original strategy was to never marry, never have kids and never enter ministry or any similar work. I chose to fail and break those promises to myself. And I’m glad that I did. After walking a similar path, I have some new strategies.

My first strategy is always remember that I chose to have kids at to choose to prioritize them…even when my work doesn’t. The most basic way to do this is to be ok with their emotional responses, especially the negative ones, and help them to process them without judgement or criticism. They are allowed to be angry and to dislike others. In addition, I only ask them to take responsibility for their actions and not always be the bigger person in hopes of soothing others. And they’re not asked to apologize unless they recognize their mistake.

My second strategy is to consider it a pleasure and honor to spend time with and to try and meet the needs of my children. My work will always pull me towards those in need and I have to choose to set boundaries when It comes to my children. This is my responsibility and I try to never pit my children’s needs against the needs of the ministry. I still fail and I am a work in progress. Being aware had to become a priority.

My third strategy is to work to never force my kids to feel that they have to screw up or get into trouble to get my attention. I have to always celebrate the little things and, as simple as it sounds, always answer the phone.

Lastly, I work not to place the expectations on my kids that are on the kids that I work with. While doing their chores and their schoolwork are important, those tasks are not more important than the human beings that I’m raising. They aren’t human doings, they are human beings. I love them when their rooms aren’t clean enough and when they fail a test. And, for the love of God, they do not need to prove to the world that I am a good parent.

If you know a bio kid in a foster home or a staff kid or a pastor’s kid or a missionary kid, you can make a huge difference in their life simply by wanting to know them and by resisting the urge to see them as an extension of their parents or their parent’s ministry.

While I realize that I will offend and annoy some with this, it is worth it to me if one kid knows that they aren’t alone and that they aren’t a burden and inconvenience to me.

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