If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck… it’s a fishbowl?

I’ve wanted to write this particular blog post for quite a long time. In fact, I came up with my creative title nearly a month ago – on the night I hit a deer in Wisconsin. Don’t ask me why; don’t ask me how I remember all of that. But the reality? Even long before I had my title, I had been wanting to write this post and share this piece of my heart. In very recent days, though, I’ve come to realize that there has been a lot of fear involved for me in putting this out there. I’m not entirely sure how some people might respond, and the LAST thing I ever want to do is hurt someone. But when a lesson, a truth, a lightbulb moment… when it’s burned and ingrained into your heart in a very deep and passionate way, there comes a point when you decide that, enough is enough, and you take that step of faith knowing that the Lord will be with you.

So, now you’re probably pretty curious. A random, albeit creative, title… talking about fear behind finally sharing this piece… what on earth could this be about? Well, dear friends, today I’m going to address what is commonly known in the church as the “PK fishbowl effect”. For anyone who isn’t familiar with this term, the first thing to know is that PK refers to “pastor’s kid”. So, yes, my dad is a pastor. And while he became a pastor after I was born, I was so young at the time that I hardly remember any different. The fishbowl effect then is basically referencing how, very often in a church, the pastor’s family is known very well by pretty much the entire congregation. Sometimes TOO well. In some cases it can become an extremely negative thing… bringing with it large doses of legalism and forgetting the true heart of the gospel, the grace of Jesus Christ.

But in my story, thankfully I did not have to endure growing up in such an environment. My home church (St. Mark) has been nothing but wonderful and supportive to me and my parents over the years, even in the years after high school when I slowly began attending the church that I am now at every Sunday. People have been and still are offering so much support by way of prayer and encouragement. So when thinking about St. Mark, legalism is the LAST word that comes to mind.

However, when I graduated high school and began to experience the extreme darkness and intense struggle with mental illness, I also began to feel uncomfortable worshipping and being around St. Mark. I can’t tell you why – as I said, everyone there has been so amazing over the years. But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t do it. Since I’m the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to be in church one way or another, I began attending another church in town (not my other current one) with some family friends from high school. They helped to provide me with a safe space to worship and just be and to ask God about why this was all happening. Eventually, though, I got more and more connected with what is now my regular church – Spring Hills.

Time kept moving, and over the years I went back and forth. Slowly, more and more, Spring Hills has become my “home away from home” church. I’ve been very involved there and I have met some amazing people there. For the longest time I thought the primary reason for my church shift had to do with the music and the worship style. Last November, however, that all changed. And as that all changed, I began to ask myself some questions, and eventually that led to a lightbulb moment that played a critical role in landing my plane… yes, a lightbulb moment about that PK fishbowl effect.

When I was in South Dakota last November, I decided that I would attend a nearby Lutheran Church for my weekend worship. There were a variety of reasons, one of which being the small world and homey feeling that the LCMS has provided over the years. (At this particular church I didn’t manage to find a personal connection, but had I been there long enough, I have no doubt something would have turned up!) The first Saturday night I attended, I was a bit caught off guard by the traditional worship. I’m not sure what I was thinking… after all, this is a Lutheran Church in South Dakota. Traditional worship is probably the norm there. Regardless, though, that first night really struck me. I actually enjoyed the hymns and traditional worship, and maybe even in a way like never before. I even felt like that church could be home if I ended up moving. My time in South Dakota ended up being very abruptly cut short due to my health, so I was only at this church one other time. But even in such a short amount of time, it left its impact on me. It left me wondering and questioning, is the music truly the biggest and main reason for my migration to attend regularly at Spring Hills? Or was there something else?

Fast forward, and we’re gearing up for Easter this year (2019). Having realized in South Dakota that I was actually missing the hymns and traditional worship, as soon as I saw on Facebook that a local ELCA (Lutheran) church was putting on a beautiful cantata with traditional music on Good Friday… I knew I wanted to go. I knew I needed to go. I talked about it with a few people ahead of time – including my high school choir director who would be singing that night – but I didn’t make a definitive decision to go until that night. More specifically, I didn’t tell my parents until that night. The thought of going to another church on Good Friday, a church that is NOT Spring Hills AND a different Lutheran Church??! … as weird as this sounds, part of it just felt wrong. Like I was somehow being dishonest, or that I shouldn’t. Or to go to the extreme that my mind was trying to tell me… that doing so would be a betrayal to my heritage.

But as I said… I knew I NEEDED to go. So I did. And about an hour before service times at both St. Mark and this other church, I finally told my mom what I was planning for the evening. I tried to be honest with the feelings of uneasiness, and she reassured me that it was fine. She also threw out the “fishbowl” word, and fairly nonchalantly at that. But as soon as she did so, it stuck with me. And it got me thinking. Both in dialogue with her for the next minute or two before I left as well as on my drive over to the church. And what it helped me realize that night is something that has freed my heart and spirit perhaps more than anything else next to finally believing that God’s radical love and forgiveness is actually for me.

Basically, I started to think more and more about that PK fishbowl effect. See, as I have slowly transitioned to Spring Hills and have continued to struggle making St. Mark a place of worship for me, I have always assumed that because everyone there has always been so loving and wonderful… well, with the disconnect more and more apparent, the blame has to fall somewhere… right?

The short answer? Yes. But not in the way one might think, especially in a situation like this. That night, Good Friday 2019, I slowly began to realize just how much I was internalizing the disconnect, and I slowly began to realize just how much I believed that the disconnect was a result of something I had done wrong. That it was yet another result of the failure of a person that is Mary Rachel, and that I was letting everyone down because I wasn’t able to respond and make it work in the way that I have wanted to.

As this was all running through my brain, I began to wonder something else. What if – what if sometimes the fishbowl effect still happens, even when the church is healthy and filled with wonderful people. What if just the reality of being a PK really is difficult and that no matter how amazing the home church is, there might always be an element of the fishbowl. This is a fallen world that we live in, and sometimes these frustrating things just happen… not as a result of anything that one person has done wrong, but because we live in a world that is not perfect.

Woah. My life was changed, I kid you not. I remember one distinct thought I had that night, something that I wrote down. Basically, I spoke to the crazy feeling that comes when you’re finally free of a burden that you never even knew you were carrying. It was crazy. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me or expressed concern about growing up as a PK and I have responded by simply dismissing any negative effects because my home church is totally amazing. Well, yes, St. Mark IS totally amazing. And while that is true and will always be true, it can ALSO be true that there have been times where I have just needed space. Where, particularly because of my depression, I have needed to be somewhere separate where I can blend in if needed. The possibility of BOTH things being true and okay simultaneously had never occurred to me. But as soon as it did? Like I said, my life was changed.

As time has moved forward from Easter and from my plane landing a couple of weeks later, I have continued to see God work in the craziest and most beautiful ways. I am learning and growing and healing in ways I never thought possible. This particular lesson that I learned has continued to peel back layer after layer of the chains and shame surrounding the issue that held my heart captive for so long. And between this lesson and so many other things, I have never felt more free than I do now.

So… that PK fishbowl effect. I’ve always had an empathetic and compassionate heart, but with all the events of this year, that has only grown more and more. With what I’ve learned in regards to this, then, is something that speaks straight to the depths of my heart for people. If I had the opportunity to sit down with a fellow PK, particularly with one who is struggling or hurting in some way, I would want to hug them and tell them that it is OKAY to need space from their home church. And it is STILL okay even if the church is healthy and wonderful and lovely. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with them as a person, it just means that sometimes life is messy and complicated and that we have to work a little harder to have grace with ourselves.

But it’s going to be okay. Because Jesus is Jesus, and it doesn’t matter which church we’re in or when we worship Him or even what songs we sing. What matters is that He loves us with a love that we can’t even begin to comprehend. What matters is that we are free to live life messy because we can rest in His grace to carry us through life’s darkest moments. And what matters in such a big deal and joyful way? He has won. He has overcome.

… it is finished.
Now and forevermore.

So, dear fellow PKs, if you need to step outside the fishbowl? It’s okay. I promise. No matter what. Jesus will be at a different church, too, and He will meet you right where you are and will carry you fully and perfectly to where you need to be.