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If the Church Is a Family, Where Are the Parents?

Every family on mission needs to have the “shape” of Jesus, and what we see in the life of Jesus is that he lived UP (relationship with his Father), IN (relationship with his disciples, his family on mission) and OUT (relationship with those far from God). The UP/IN/OUT that forms the three essential ingredients of a family on mission are illustrated below.

Families on mission need spiritual parents, predictable patterns and missional purpose. These are covered in-depth in our upcoming book Family on Mission, but today I want to share a bit about what spiritual parenting looks like, through my own story.

I was 18 years old. I’d turned up at a Bible college far from home in a final bid to strengthen a faith worn thin during my teens. I loved God, but back then I loved a lot of other things, too. It had left me conflicted and confused. I needed guidance. During my teens, the people who discipled me were married couples; this time the Lord provided a spiritual parent in the form of Carole, a single woman in her 30s who was on the staff of the Bible college.

Carole was an evangelist leading mission teams across the country, equipping churches, investing in leaders and students. It was great to watch all the things she did and hear all the stories what God was up to, but most of all I was drawn to her raucous yet gleeful laugh that lit up her face and sounded like freedom. There was something about Carole; something I didn’t have but knew I desperately needed. I knew I couldn’t get it by merely attending Carole’s classes. I needed to be around her, and I needed her in my life.

I don’t know whether Carole felt led to disciple me or whether my constant presence and incessant questions wore her down! Either way, for the next few years, Carole was a spiritual parent to me. Her investment was marked by love, freedom and discipline, helping me grow and mature in my walk with God


When I look back on that era of my life I remember Carole being present. Being there. I remember her affirmation and acceptance regardless of what I achieved in Bible college or the mission trips I was involved in. I was not useful to her; my gifts, time and talents were not the reason for her investment. I knew I was loved even if I had nothing to give in return.

Carole spoke God’s word to me, she reminded me of God’s promises. She spoke truth over the lies that entangled me. She constantly told me that God the Father loved me, that He was  faithful. I saw a glimpse of God’s character in her kindness. I remember long walks and a listening ear. I remember times she sat in silence and held my hand. I remember unconditional love.


Alongside the love, actually because of the love, there was discipline, too. Discipline was twofold: My life had been pretty chaotic by the time I met Carole. If I was going to stop feeling so conflicted and confused, I needed to reorient my values. I needed a lifestyle that was healthy and worked. In Carole’s life, I saw patterns of connecting with God and with others that I needed to learn, a framework I needed to be trained in.

Discipline also came in the form of  challenging conversations. Sometimes Carole’s words were like raising a mirror to aspects of my character that I  wanted to ignore. There was always compassion. It’s just that if I wanted someone to overlook my sin and indulge me, Carole was the wrong person! On one occasion, stung by embarrassment and sadness after a break up, I wanted to talk to someone about how horrible my ex was, so I turned to Carole. I berated my ex. At length. She listened. Then she said, “It’s OK that you’re hurting, it’s understandable that you’re grieving, but some of those things you’re saying about him, that’s too far. That kind of language needs to stop.”

It was one of many times Carole was ready to say the last thing I wanted to hear. I tried all kinds of ways to make her say what I wanted to hear: passionate protests, rolling my eyes, telling a sob story, even manipulating my tears! She never fell for any of it. In those moments, nothing stopped her from sharing with me the things that needed to be said. I hated it then; I’m grateful now.


Her laugh sounded like freedom, and her life looked like the freedom only Christ could bring. She passed it on. Carole’s investment was a gift freely given; not controlling or insecure. She encouraged me to fly, to explore and discover all that God was calling me to. She urged me to invest in my gifts, take risks, try new things. And she did it all with her signature laugh and smile, quieting my perfectionism and fear of failure. It was a spacious place to dream and to dare. And to grow.

The gift of a spiritual parent reset the course of my relationship with God, and laid firm foundations for the years ahead.

I like to think my laugh sounds a bit like Carole’s these days.