The Spotlight Syndrome


How do you raise a family while leading a church?
by Kyle Idleman

Those raised in a ministry home and who are now in ministry themselves have a unique perspective on the relationship of church life and family life. Kyle Idleman is a teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife, DesiRae, have three daughters, Mackenzie, Morgan, and Macy, and a son, Kael. Kyle’s father, Ken Idleman, has been a both a college president and a minister. Ken now ministers at Crossroads Christian Church in Newburgh, Indiana. We thought you’d benefit from Kyle’s perspective …

I‘ve often thought I should be in some sort of support group for those who grew up in a ministry home. I’m Kyle and I’m a PK. Of course, there wouldn’t be any real need for introductions because everyone would not only know who I am, they would also know from the sermon illustration that I used to wear Yoda "underoos."

People have long forgotten the compelling point my dad was making, but they forever retain the image of me in my Yoda pajamas. (I’m still looking for a way to work into one of my messages that my dad sleeps in his whitey tighties and black dress socks.)

In this support group, we also would bemoan the discrimination we faced. Always being held to a higher standard. Called on to pray at every youth meeting. Pressured to wear Christian t-shirts (This blood’s for you! Yes, I wore that one). Oh, the expectations. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been asked, "Are you hoping to be a preacher when you grow up?" Actually, I’m still asked that from time to time.

But the real challenge for ministry kids is feeling that your entire life is being played out on stage for all to see. Sometimes referred to as "life in the fishbowl," there is a sense that people are always watching.

The danger is that you grow up associating your faith with impressing other people. Growing up I often did all the right things not primarily out of love for Jesus but because I knew people were watching, and I cared what they thought. Inevitably this leads in one of two directions: to hypocrisy (you embrace the stage and become a professional actor), or to rebellion (if people want a show, you’ll give them a show). For many ministry kids it leads to both, rebellion that no one knows about.

My wife and I are now raising four ministry kids of our own. God is patiently teaching us as parents, and we constantly pray for his grace and mercy to cover our shortcomings. Early on I vowed not to use my children as sermon illustrations, which sounds great until it’s Saturday afternoon and they’ve provided you with the perfect story. I’ve tried to keep them out of the spotlight, but they’ve already learned that people are watching them.

The danger for ministry kids is feeling that your entire life is being played out on stage … associating your faith with impressing other people.

As they get older, my hunch is that two of my kids will love the attention, and two of them will despise it. I’m equally concerned by both responses. So as I’ve reflected on my upbringing, several things stand out to help me in raising my own ministry kids.

Less "spotlight syndrome"
It helped me to see my parents consistently live the faith when I knew no one else was watching. Things were not one way behind the closed doors of our home and another way when we stepped through the doors of the church. This is especially important in the little things. My mom never ordered water and then got Sprite at the drink station. My dad never lied about our age for a cheaper admission into the theme park. If my parents would forbid us from watching a certain movie, I knew they wouldn’t see it either. My wife and I don’t want to be legalistic about it, but we try to live to the same standards that we are teaching our children.

When I came down the steps for school, mom was sitting there with a coffee cup in one hand and a Bible in her lap. Every night my dad would kneel beside my bed and pray. In his prayers he would often confess some of his sins and ask God to help him be a more loving husband and a patient father.

Sometimes integrity is thought of as not having secret sin, but my dad showed me that it’s more than that. It’s being honest when you do sin. It’s not pretending to be more spiritual in public than you are in private.

It’s important to own your failures. Your kids will eventually figure out the truth, so you’re better off not pretending to be more impressive than you really are. A few weeks ago I got into an argument with my wife before church. I raised my voice in front of the kids and displayed my impressive gifts of sarcasm.

Less than an hour later I was teaching from Philippians 3 on the peace of God. In my message I confessed, "Just a short while ago, I was stressed out and talked disrespectfully to my wife. I was wrong." I included that in my message so that one person would hear it – my oldest daughter who was sitting with her mother. I want my kids to understand that the spotlight doesn’t mean pretending you’re perfect.

Life in the spotlight tends to become all about the performance. Ministry kids have high expectations and a lot of pressure put on them by others and there isn’t much you can do about that. But the general parenting principle of encourage their character more than their accomplishments is especially important for ministry kids. My wife and I are careful to compliment our children on things like good grades, athletic success, or clean rooms. But we try to make a much bigger deal out of a selfless act, a kind word, or their consistent quiet time with God. We want the focus on who they are, and not just what they do.

The longer I’m in ministry, the more I appreciate how my parents would be consistently positive about the church. I never heard my dad be critical of others or my mom complain about a late night prayer meeting.

When I talk about work with my family, I try to share stories of how the church helped a single mom with this month’s bills or the letter I got from the man in prison who listens to our messages online. At dinner we’ll pray for the student ministry team that’s in the Dominican Republic, or the lady who visited my wife’s Bible study. We try to find ways to celebrate what God is doing through the ministry.

Even more than that, I’m trying to include the family in the adventure of ministry. When I was a teenager, my dad would take me with him to serve food to the homeless at the local food kitchen. When he would speak out of town, my sisters and I would take turns going with him.

I try not to make my kids feel that my job as pastor is a package deal, where they’re all put to work. But I am always looking for ways to include them in the adventure. When I visit small groups, I often take one of my older daughters with me, and if she wants to, I’ll have her pray with us. Together we make cards and then visit a nursing home to hand them out. As a family we make care packages for needy families over the holidays.

A few months ago, I got to speak out of town. My wife packed my oldest daughter’s bag, and on my way to the airport I stopped by her school, took her out of class, and told her we were going on a preaching trip. All the way to the airport, she tried to guess where we were going. Eventually she read on the boarding pass that we were going to Las Vegas.

Each time before I spoke, I asked her to pray for me. I wanted her to think of ministry as an incredible adventure of seeing God at work. And you don’t have to go to Las Vegas. The farthest my dad ever took me was to Parsons, Kansas. But it was on one of those trips that I told my dad, "I want to become a Christian."

Finally, I’m learning just h
ow hard it is to find the right balance between ministry and family. If I do the wedding on Saturday afternoon for the child of long time church members, I’ll miss my daughter’s soccer game. If I speak at the fundraising banquet for the crisis pregnancy center, it will mean missing dinner with my family at home. Whatever decision I make, someone isn’t going to be happy. It’s tough.

My greatest concern as a ministry parent is not that my children will grow up and decide that they don’t want to work in the church or marry someone who does.

What I really fear is that they will associate Jesus with an overbearing ministry and end up walking away from both. My prayer is that they will associate Jesus with the adventure of ministry and end up loving him all the more.

On this day...

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