Moving Away From Pain Isn’t Selfish

Marcus Mumford doesn’t call himself a Christian anymore. His parents started a church, which makes him a minister’s kid and then some. As I’ve said, I know very few ministers’ kids who transition easily from childhood church attendance into butt-in-pew Christianity in adulthood. Even if they eventually end up butt-in-pew Christians, it’s not been an easy transition. There’s had to be some moment of reckoning from the grief of their childhoods, some way of reconciling themselves to what happened.

A lot of us can’t do that.

Reverend Lillian Daniel takes him to task for that failure. And I’m going to say that her piece literally makes me want to vomit.

When people tell me they can’t stand Christianity, they are usually describing a Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve. They describe judgmental hypocrites who hate people of other faiths and are only after your money. They attribute all the world’s problems to the Church, from sexism to sexual abuse to warfare.

In very few arenas would we tolerate a similar discussion about another group of people. And yet open-minded people listen to such meandering musings with a sympathetic ear, as if they are hearing something wise, brave or original. When in reality, they are hearing something shallow, uninformed and insulting.

A minister’s kid might be a lot of things, but uninformed is just not one of them.

Anyway, I wrote her a letter.


Dear Reverend Daniel,

This morning someone shared your piece on Marcus Mumford on Twitter. I read it and, frankly, it made me want to throw up. Normally, I would not write to tell someone that I had such a negative reaction to her writing, but you are a minister who a lot of other ministers look up to and you have a staff full of ministers.

So, I’m writing on behalf of their children. I, myself, am a minister’s kid–Methodist. I haven’t lived in a parsonage in roughly twenty years and I haven’t been in a church except to keep the peace with my father in about that long.

I know a lot of ministers’ kids. Some I’ve known my whole life and some I’ve met as adults. It’s amazing to find people–even ministers’ kids of different denominations–who get it, what you’ve been through. And it seems that there are only three paths ministers’ kids go down. We either stop considering ourselves Christian or we become ministers, in very rare cases, we eventually find some way to get back to church.

I know my sample size is small–maybe just thirty people. But most of us no longer consider ourselves Christian.

It was unfair of you to say that Marcus Mumford was coming from a place of “shallow, uninformed and insulting” knowledge of Christianity. Ministers’ kids are not uninformed. It’s not a matter, either, of just bumping into humanity. My father’s parishioners regularly made me aware of how much they thought he sucked. They also called and complained to my dad about who my friends were and the way I dressed and what kind of music I listened to. They told me they thought my dad should beat my brother. They felt free to criticize my mom’s clothing and the fact that she worked as a teacher.

And, when I tried to find a church home here, one of the places I went, my very first time visiting, someone pulled me aside to tell me that they knew their minister sucked, but they were looking to get rid of him. As if I would naturally take the side of the church against a man with the same job as my father.

I could tell you worse stories from my friends. But I know–I know–you know similar stories. I know there’s a group of people in your church right now who, if they could, would make your life miserable. Or the lives of some of your support staff. And those people are not decent enough to shield children from those things.

Marcus Mumford isn’t just some dude who decided to stop calling himself Christian. He’s a minister’s kid who decided to stop calling himself Christian. And we decide for very different reasons–reasons that are bound up in our feelings for our parents–than the people you seem to be addressing in your piece.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe we’re required to stand in a painful place just to suit others, to continue to open ourselves up to abuse, just because that’s “humanity” for you.

I also imagine he spend his whole life being an object lesson to his parents’ congregation. And here he is, yet again, being used as an object lesson to further your theological ends. That part sucks, too.

I hope, in the future, when you see a minister’s kid who can’t call himself a Christian any more, you, at least, consider that his decision is not uninformed. Perhaps you could consider what, exactly, his decision is informed by.


Betsy Phillips

8 thoughts on “Moving Away From Pain Isn’t Selfish

  1. I know a number of ministers who have become Unitarian after they retired. The very word “Christian” conjures up so much baggage that I refuse to call myself that even though I identify with a particular denomination. I don’t go to church anymore, though, and I’m not a PK.

  2. She may have a point about not tolerating that sort of conversation about other groups, but I think it totally undermines her ‘uninformed’ comment. I think most critics of Christianity (at least in this country) are/were Christian. That’s precisely why everyone feels comfortable being so critical. Christianity is such a part of culture and day to day life (I’ve lived in the south all my life (and rural for the first 20 years) so my POV may be regionally skewed here) that it’s really difficult to legitimately call any American adult uninformed.

  3. She may have a point about not tolerating that sort of conversation about other groups

    I don’t think so. People who have left other religions also generally attribute all the sins of the world to them. (Those who join other religions frequently get extra points for engaging in such bad-mouthing; those who don’t move to other faiths may not get points for it, but they don’t get blamed for it either.) And there was a whole generation when, in this country, a person could make a living giving talks about being an ex-Communist or ex-Nazi, and the horrors of their former home institution/belief system. Now, it may be true that Rev. Daniel has never paid any attention to any of these folks. But we not only tolerate such talk; depending on how you define “we” we often reward it.

  4. I sent you an email when I couldn’t get my iphone to behave properly, and I still think what I said there stands. I think you were right to call her on what she said.

    But I also think that after reading a bit more about the events in question I understand where she’s coming from. I still don’t think she handled her reaction appropriately but I understand it.

    Lately there’s been a trend of prominent Celebrity PKs–Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s son Jay, Francis Schaeffer’s son Franky and others–who have come out with these vocal memoirs and speaking tours designed to “dish the dirt” on their prominent parents and what they, the sons, think of Christianity as a result of their parents’ actions. Both men that I mentioned have made no small amount of bank on this tactic. As a Christian it gets frustrating after awhile to have these people whose parents were con men (or earnest but misguided) write off a religion that it seems they know primarily through their folks’ shenanigans.

    As the wife of a PK I get kind of mad when Jay Bakker calls himself a PK. Because to me a PK is you and Tim and my friend Joan and the other people who grew up in the churches of America in the 70s and 80s and learned how to be a person from the convoluted messages that that culture puts forth. “Your dad’s boss is God. But your dad is answerable to every asshole with a gripe and you will spend your life being his 896th priority. But you can’t be mad about it because…your dad’s boss is God.” I have a harder time thinking of people like Jay Bakker as PKs in the same way. Private Jets and being on your parents’ TV show is a different ball of wax. But yeah, they’re PKs, obviously, and I’m hella prejudiced.

    Anyway, I am not saying that Mumford is coming from the same place or that his arguments are necessarily the same. I’m not nearly as familiar with his stories as I am with others’. But I do think that I can see how other Christians get to the point of “enough already with the world tours about how much we suck.”

    Of course, I DO think that we do suck in many ways and that’s something that needs to be fixed. But my first priority is fixing it/helping the people who are hurt by it. Nowhere on my list of priorities is “get rich and build a personal brand off it all.”

  5. Figure too, in Mumford’s particular case, that he’s in the same place U2 was when they first came on the scene. They’re not making a big deal in public about their faith or lack thereof. They’re making music. However, they’re making music that has at least spiritual if not entirely Christian imagery and themes. Of course journalists are going to ask about that sooner or later, and there’s no good answer to that for an artist who is “writing what he knows,” which is not the same thing as choosing the soapbox. If he refuses to answer questions about his faith, that’s just as damning as answering as he did, succinctly explaining his position and views. There’s no way, once religion is specifically placed on the table, that it can’t be a wedge issue – it’s the loaded gun in Act I. Which really sucks for somebody like Mumford, who was just trying to make music.

  6. Kris, I think this is a part that irritates me, too. They make really Jesus-loving music. They’re trying to express musically some truth, some sense of understanding of spirituality (if not their own, at least one they are obviously very familiar with). And I have to imagine that this is the most overtly spiritual music their fans who aren’t CCM fans hear outside of church.

    And even that’s not good enough? They’ve got to be thoughtful songwriters who speak a kind of honesty about their spirituality through their songs AND they have to not be honest about their spirituality?


  7. I’ve tried very hard to give up talking about religion and spirituality because it seems I always end up in the same place. I’ve heard it described as the “No True Scotsman” syndrome. You can never pin down anything because that particular instance is always an aberration. When I do have to explain myself, to family members or the odd person who won’t leave it alone, I just say “Church” isn’t for me and I prefer to keep my personal beliefs private. Sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to share a set of beliefs with a community but I still don’t really think I have the sort of faith in other people to make that possible.

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