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Escape and Hope

Dave and I met 19 years ago in in the rural town of Smithton. He was the first South Carolina boy I ever laid eyes on. We each come from families that look similar but are actually pretty different. In our own family, we aim to replicate what worked, and grow through honest reflections on what didn’t. This is our answer to the challenge of building family with a clear vision and a whole heart.

One thing we love from Dave’s family is the amount of connectivity. His siblings and cousins are all close, and they have several old family friends around the country, some who are even are like aunts and uncles. This has an important strengthening effect on his family, which overflows to ours.

Contrast

As a child, I was not surrounded with relatives. We visited a set of out-of-state grandparents and some cousins a handful of times. But my two big brothers and I were told that the Church (which we joined when I was 5) was our family. We lived in a tiny community and spent all our time in the company of church members. It worked beautifully when the church, and our family, was young.

There were 3 services a week, then 4, later 5, for a time 6. We never missed, because that was highly frowned upon. “The power of all” (from a story in Joshua 6)— all the time, no matter what else was going on in the family — or we feared exclusion. Gradually, church came first. It seemed to make sense. It seemed, at first, to give our family more than it took. Services or organized church events were the major family times on record… and eventually the only ones.

The Dynamics

My parents did not have much time or energy leftover. Picnics, ball games, hiking, relaxed vacations- these simple times of bonding did not happen for us. What did we enjoy doing together; what were our family traditions- who can say? We did have practice worship nights in the living room where my dad would berate us. Forced work mornings in the yard, berated again. Something hard and sad seemed to drive him in particular, to prevent him from enjoying us and creating joy. There was a steady undercurrent of frustration and tension. As kids, we didn’t do extracurricular activities where we supported each other or tried new things together; a sense of interdependence was never fostered.

Pastor Steve Gray was an outside dynamic always present in the middle of the parenting role, maybe unbeknown to him. When we were disrespectful, my parents would shame us with, “You wouldn’t speak to or treat Pastor Steve like that!” Once when I wanted to miss Friday night church to go on a date, they sent me to get his permission. Any sermon he preached on kids or family would bring sudden, unsettling change to our house for a brief time. One time Steve announced to the youth that our parents were not competent spiritual leaders and he assigned us all different adult mentors for the summer. Though it undermined a sense of familial confidence and trust, no families objected.

House Fires

Periodically, when members of our “church family” grew apart and needed to move on, our connections were severed. These substitute family members, dear friends, were voided from our lives. The church called it “sifting” after a story in Judges 7. The theology of the church was such that an “us versus them” mentality was inadvertently created. It made natural transitions impossible. In a community that has always said, “people are our treasures,” there was an alarming ease and regularity of discarding them. Special memories of times where they were present — bonfires, talent nights, ice cream socials — became tainted for me.

I did not have the emotional intelligence to process each upheaval. But it was definitely destabilizing. Looking back, it’s like I survived a series of traumatic house fires where I lost valuable pieces of my childhood. Losing my precious youth pastors at 15 was devastating. I felt bereft, abandoned. My parents were sympathetic but my visiting this couple post exodus earned my family a reprimanding call from Steve.

The Evolution

If my parents held a vision for their family, it was synonymous with the church vision. Their dream was, I guess, that we would all stay in that state and serve the church obediently together, forever. My brothers and I reached adulthood without having developed commonalities that keep a family connected. Church was the only thing we shared.

Peter and Kyle both moved away at the first opportunity. The independence was necessary for them but the day my last brother packed up was a dark day in our house. I hid in my room to block out the shouting, steeling myself to be an only child. (Years later, when my mother confided her faith that they would return in tandem, I instantly knew it to be a pipe dream.)

The Revolution

As the youngest and most compliant, it took me a lot longer to completely break free. My husband and I were married and stayed in World Revival Church with our two small kids until we became very uncomfortable. My coping mechanism through the years was to repress my hurt and ignore intuition, like racking up emotional debt on credit. At some point, I was maxed out. Most people cannot imagine how much courage it took to even consider leaving behind all I had ever known.

There were several components that helped us prepare to leave. A major part for me was seeing our family life from the perspective of our oldest, Adrienne. WRC set up didn’t fit her nature well at all. She needed more alone time with us and more recognition for her quiet set of strengths. I knew precisely what that felt like. I wanted better for her and so it made me brave enough to examine my own upbringing in this church.

Soul Health

At just the right time, we found the book Addicted to Busy by Brady Boyd. This was the first of many books we would read that came from outside WRC. It was so rational and full of compassion. It painted a picture of a tender, patient God who cared more about the health of our souls than we did.

Another resource was my husband’s parents, who were very encouraging. Through every year, they found ways to stay connected to us without ever being critical. Also, I truly connected to my youngest brother for the first time in so long. Kyle lent me so much strength — a priceless, ongoing relationship which I am lucky to have.

Reconnecting

It’s been 5 years since we pulled away from WRC, 3 since we moved. Each of my family members now live in a different state now. My parents are still in virtually the same place putting the WRC and Steve Gray first. (The church and 2/3 of its families moved 90 minutes down the highway after a feud). They seem to stay busy and content with the approval and affection they find there. It’s hard for them to handle our dissent and our memories. I think that after years of practice at walking away from relationships and being wrapped up in church, connecting to their family on a meaningful level is beyond them. They say they want to be close to us, visit even, but Steve still gets their best instead. They do not appear fully cognizant of what this practice costs them.

Dave and I have built a life full of connectivity! We value all our relationships with emotionally healthy friends. We reclaimed some precious friendships from my growing up years, even my youth pastors — a beautiful day! Through a series of small miracles, we met a dear uncle I saw once as a child. He and I bonded almost immediately. I already mentioned my youngest brother, and his son. We travel to Dave’s family regularly. Visiting my parents in our former city is emotionally complicated, though we manage briefly.

Freedom to Choose

To be clear, Dave and I still believe being part of a healthy faith community strengthens a family. We informally joined one of the loveliest churches imaginable. It adds to our family more than it takes, which is such a fabulous gift! We believe the church can be a tremendous supplement when there is an absence of healthy family, (but otherwise replacing family is inadvisable).

In our priorities, family comes first. God made us its sole stewards and so this makes the most sense for us. We watched more than just my own family be devastated from watering the church while their own family was in a drought. How can we win our kids hearts and build a legacy if we wound them through neglect? No, we demonstrate the love of their Father God by caring for them as intentionally as he does.

Our Vision

It is right that our family has preeminent access to our resources — primary beneficiaries, forever. Our responsibility to invest in them will never end. Our schedule is structured so there is ample room to explore, play, and relax together. We have discovered so many shared joys that are uniquely “us”. Dave and I will always make time and maintain a travel budget to have fun with and connect to our adult kids. This is part of our governing vision for a thriving family.

Enjoying and investing in our family has brought immense healing to me (like I’m able to right a wrong), and so much fulfillment to us as a couple. Dave is a wholehearted father for our son and daughter and a rock for me. Psalm 68:6 has become a life scripture. “God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.” It’s good to be placed, and to be free!

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