It has been nine years since I first left home.
Looking back on my childhood and my young adult life since then, I often feel that it could be pictured as a clock pendulum swinging.
Back and forth…back and forth…
From one extreme to another.
Perhaps it is just this particular study of leadership that reminds me of it all, but unlike many other homeschool alumni I hear stories from or know personally — my life was not consumed with just one main harmful source of leadership or even a select few.
Instead it runs as a common thread throughout the tapestry of my childhood and young adult life.
A thread continually changing colors, but the same thread weaving its way in and out of my life.
There are many terms for the style of leadership I experienced in the conservative, Christian world I grew up in — authoritarian, patriarchal, conservative, fundamental, evangelical, charismatic…
These different descriptions each stand as various parts to a style of leadership I have seen used on numerous occasions depending on the time, church, ministry, organization, person, or place.
Many used it in a responsible, kind, and custodial manner with the best of intentions.
Others in the same circles displayed leadership with a similar face, but would leave behind a wake of scars, hurt, burn out, and shattered faith.
Leadership that was controlling, manipulative, legalistic, demanding, self-serving, and far more interested in protecting reputation and status than it was in defending victims or the truth.
In reality my exposure to leadership as a child and young adult was more like a form of balloon art — a haphazard, smattering of everything from good to bad and in between.
Part of this came from the nature of my parent’s journey to always find a church and community where they not only felt at home, but also one that allowed for them to seek, to ask questions, and to grow.
I guess I come by my own penchant for being a faith seeker and questioner quite naturally.
The other part of this came from the fact that my exposure to leadership for many years was really only within the confines of the home or Protestant, Christian churches and organizations.
For years I had no other examples of leadership to compare to.
Growing up we never just attended one church and stayed there indefinitely, like many of our other friends did. The longest stints we spent attending one church was the small town Methodist church my father’s family had been a part of for over 100 years. We would attend there off and on throughout my young childhood save the three years we spent in California for my dad to go to Seminary.
Then after returning from California we called that our permanent church home from the time I was seven till the summer after I turned 14. Except in the midst of that until the age of 10 my father’s job required us to travel a lot, so we spent many Sundays visiting numerous other kinds of churches all over Texas and other surrounding states.
In addition to that, I can not even count the number of sermon series my family listened to during those traveling years. My parents would buy sermon series on cassette (yes this was the nineties) by the dozens. Sometimes I listened with sincere interest, other times because dad and mom asked us too, other times it was just the background noise to whatever book I had my nose buried in along with the other five plus siblings making noise in the car.
I never once stopped to consider how confusing the potpourri mixture of christian teachings, doctrines, and leader examples I learned was for me as a child.
For my parents, they were continually learning and trying new sources based on interest and their own ability to listen and decide what was worth holding on to and what was not.
For me, I just absorbed it all like a sponge, placing every pastor and every Christian adult male on a close par with God and my parents. Put the title pastor or ministry leader next to an adults name, and well they must all be right. Who was I to question them? I was just a kid, and even more importantly I was a girl.
Just thinking of the sheer number I was exposed to is a rather mind boggling. Gary Ezzo, John MacArthur, Jack Hayford, James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, T. D. Jakes, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Robert Morris, and the list keeps going. Each one having their own following, teachings, differing doctrinal stances, and various ministry focuses.
There was also a select few women: Beth Moore, Nancy Leigh De Moss, Kay Arthur, and Elizabeth Elliot, and Joyce Meyer. These women were acceptable mostly because they primarily focused on teaching audiences of women or wrote books, and if they did teach men it was under the expressed approval and authority of their husbands and male church leadership.
Perhaps it was my own book-lover curiosity that drove my interest in Christian leaders and theology, or perhaps it was the nature of being a pastor’s daughter — but the fact that I knew of so many Christian leaders as a young girl, who they were, and what they generally stood for doctrinally and taught is probably strange.
Yet I was the child who would ask my dad to explain church doctrine to me. I would ask him to teach me why other parents and other churches held differing beliefs, and who was right. When he didn’t have time to answer my questions, I would just turn to his shelves of seminary text books and ask if I could read about it. I think I read almost every book my father owned as a child. Anything Christian was fair game, unless it was adult christian fiction, so instead I learned to absorb theology and doctrine and christian biographies like they were going out of style.
I can not even begin to count or list their number or diversity.
If you walked down a Mardels bookstore aisle, I would probably win on who has read more, but what weirdo would ever do that. 😉
Entering the homeschooling world, meant absorbing a whole new circle of Christian leaders and their teachings.
There was Doug Philipps, leader of Vision Forum. We listened to his teachings mainly on cassette and used his catalog as a resource for books and children’s toys.
There was the Dutch Missionary Otto Koning and his infamous Pineapple Story series on cassette. Anyone who was ever a member of ATI probably heard these at one point.
There was David Barton, the Christian historian, whom Abeka and many homeschooling leaders revered.
There was Ken Ham the creationist whose teachings on Creation we did as a church bible study once when I was a child, and who we also listened to on tape.
Then of course there was Bill Gothard.
In terms of sheer time, I probably absorbed Gothard’s teachings more than any others as a teenager. This was not only due to the times my family attended his events like the Basic Seminar, Anger Resolution Seminar, or one of the Family conferences in Big Sandy, TX, but even more so because of my strong desire to fit in and be like all my friends.
Thus what my parents probably considered a slight skirting of the edges to see what they thought of ATI and Bill Gothard’s teachings, to me was just enough to keep me coming back for more.
I was a teenager by this point desperate to excel in the role and messages of young womanhood I had absorbed so far, and emulating this popular ministry I saw all my friends in seemed to be the only right thing to do. I remember meeting Bill Gothard in person once, when we attended the Anger Resolution seminar. I remember him shaking our hands and me and several other young kids excitedly gawking afterwards that we had just “shook his hand.”
I remember being angry my parents never joined and begging them to let us. Even though they never did, I still found ways to absorb more and more. I borrowed all the teaching books and conference materials on the Advanced Seminar from friends so I could read through them on my own. My sister and I eagerly awaited a homeschool teenage girls magazine commonly circulated among ATI families called the Kings Daughter Magazine. I read all the Joshua Harris books on courtship and my friend’s family’s wisdom booklets when I could. My sister and I would spend hours googling Christian courtship stories. I watched all the Character First videos and my sister and I learned to play and sing many of the songs on the piano.
Then the day came as a senior in high school, where my parents agreed to allow me to go to the Oklahoma City Training center for Character First (CF) training. After attending the training in the fall, I was invited to return in January to work there as a member of the CF team. I was elated to learn that my parents would allow me to go for two whole months.
Now looking back it seems like this fuzzy blur of memories. I remember the countless discussions we had about being missionaries to those poor kids in public school, and how we were going “under cover” into the schools to teach them about Godly principles without ever mentioning God or the Bible.
I also remember the never ending list of rules that came with living at the training center. Whether it was mandatory housekeeping and kitchen duty, or always having to wear dresses and skirts with continual wardrobe checks to ensure nothing was too “eye-catching,” or never being allowed to talk to a male alone, never being able to leave the building unescorted, or having mandatory wisdom searches (devotions) early in the morning, or the mandatory fasting on Sundays.
When I think about it now, rules and being told what to do, what to think, where to be, and how to act were so normal at the time that I honestly do not remember ever questioning any of them. Fitting in and following orders was easy.
I was used to relying on men in particular to hold all of life’s answers big and small.
God was male. Pastors were male. Fathers and Husbands–male. Leaders? Male.
Patriarchal, authoritarian leadership was my only understanding for leadership of any kind.
To think otherwise was not even a thought in my mind until years later when I was encouraged to or forced to consider there might be alternatives for one reason or another.
This trend of leadership had not yet finished its course. It really just changed circles as I left high school to different leaders and different churches.
Post High School
As my family’s world began to tilt into chaos over my sister’s divorce, we had to leave that homeschool world behind as we began to see the harsher aspects of the leadership and teachings we had surrounded ourselves with for the first time.
It would take me years to completely unravel myself from it. In many ways I still am working on it.
At first it was far more easy to just let the pendulum swing again and find myself among yet another circle of churches and leaders asking for my service and loyalty. This time was both freeing and confusing. I found so much love and support and new found freedom to find myself, and yet I unknowingly and easily carried all my baggage and doctrine and unquestioning reliance to new male leaders.
It would be years later after being married and moving out of the country, before my own husband would be the one to help me realize just how dependent I was on harmful, manipulative leadership and relationships in my life.
I have had to spend the past five years of my marriage learning how to be loved by a man who does not want or believe it is his job to be my leader. Instead he sees me as his equal and expects that I bring just as much independent thought, decisiveness, heart, and faith to the table as he does.
Where society or my past or others may expect me to take a secondary support role to him or to accede to him as the final authority, it has taken me a long time to realize that he truly does not see me that way or expect it of me.
Instead we are doing our best to build a marriage on mutual respect, participation, and service. In this we recognize that there will be all kinds of seasons in life where yes one of us may have to take on more of a supporting role than the other — but that does not mean that it will be demanded for all time, nor will it be used as a tool of limitation or definition.
We don’t do ultimatums or let someone hold the final say. We do our best to make decisions together, but also know that we trust each other to be able to make a decision alone if needed given our military lifestyle where geographic separation is a continual reality.
I am only now beginning to see how all the pieces of my childhood — all the various leaders in my life and exposure to numerous more — came together to create an amalgam of messages on what my value was as a woman, where my place in life was, what my roles should be, how capable I was of making decisions, what leadership looked like, and ultimately who was worthy of being a leader.
This framework of messages left me in a narrow vacuum consuming a style of leadership that did indeed prove to be harmful to both me and my family on a number of occasions.
Was it always harmful? No.
Was every male leader I have ever sat under or served under harmful? No.
I have had a number of Pastors and Leaders throughout my life who have cared for me and loved me like my own Father does. I will never forget that and have no desire to diminish that. They offered spiritual advice, practical wisdom, and comfort on numerous occasions throughout my childhood and young adult life.
My high school pastor conducted marital counseling for me and my husband that gave us invaluable wisdom and communication skills we are so thankful for to this day. His participation as our wedding officiant only made that day that much more special for me.
I had the fortune to be placed with a sponsor family during my internship the first year after high school, who became and still are a second family to me. My sponsor parents especially, loved me and taught me more than most on how to accept that being myself was actually the best version of me to be.
So as much as people might think, I do not look back and say it was all bad. Far from it.
I am just not afraid any more of being honest about it all — the good and the bad.
In many ways, I see now how I even went looking for the more harmful and manipulative versions of leadership. Primarily because of how I so often relinquished responsibility and my decision making capabilities to others and secondarily because I had such a small perspective of what leadership was and who truly exemplified it.
In doing this, I deemed my own voice and thoughts as unworthy and my choices and actions as indefensible without the approval of others, thus relying on everyone else to lead me or tell me what to do.
This kind of person, someone who is looking for someone to tell them all the answers and how to live their life on a daily basis without any questioning or independent thought or leadership of their own life — what some would call blind loyalty and obedience — are exactly the kind of people harmful leadership attracts.
I know because I was one and I had to realize I was in a sinking ship before I ever got out of it.
As always I would love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. Feel free to discuss below.