Pulling Up Roots

Dealing with emotional upheaval.

During her years as a pastor’s wife, Teresa Sales was also a career journalist and editor while assisting her husband with community outreach and youth ministry. They live in Pueblo, Colorado near their four adult children. This article originally appeared in Praxis.

Pulling up roots can be a difficult process, whether it’s the long tap root of a weed invading your garden or the dentist extracting an aching tooth. The most distressing kind of root-pulling, however, is experienced emotionally. Saying good-bye to dear friends and family, leaving a home which has taken on the perfect atmosphere for your family, casting final glances at favorite scenic sites, turning the key for the last time in the lock of a favorite church where you have experienced defeats and victories in the Lord’s work­ these are painful emotional experiences.

Most of us knew when we made the decision to serve the Lord full-time that we would never be able to put down deep roots. We realized that our roots would have to be strong but mobile. The excitement and joy of becoming co-workers with the Lord eclipsed the negative aspects of the ministry. It was easy to minimize the trauma of frequent moving—until the first time we had to do it.

As one who has moved 24 times in 34 years of marriage, I don’t even have to close my eyes to visualize the physical upheaval of moving. A number of boxes from our last move, marked “to be filed,” still occupy prominent space in what I refer to as “the Sabbath School room” or “the storage room” in the lower level of our home. (My husband has other uncomplimentary names for that room, but he is glad the room has a door that remains closed most of the time.)

We’ve shed a lot of tears about moving. Even the districts which were particularly challenging were hard to leave. We care deeply for our members and become involved in the communities we serve, so moving means saying good-bye to good friends both within and outside of the church.

Family decision

The pastor and his wife make a deliberate decision to become workers. But what about their children? Children don’t choose the family into which they’re born, and they rarely have anything to say about where they will live. Often PKs who have experienced a tough time growing up will point to one move which was especially difficult for them.

As our children grew older, we included them in family councils to decide whether to accept a call from out-of-state. Many of the moves that the pastoral family makes are within the conference they serve, and the decisions about moves are made by the conference committee after seeking direction from the Lord. It is important that both the minister and his wife believe strongly that the moves determined by the conference committee are from the Lord. If parents are resentful about a move, the children will pick up the same feelings, regardless of their ages.

Infants and pre-schoolers

Even infants are aware of their surroundings and espe­cially of the emotions of the adults who hold them close and care for them. The mother’s stress may be communicated to her infant by the way she com­municates with others as she holds her baby. Some even sug­gest that stress is transmitted through the mother’s milk to a nursing child. Although the move itself naturally disrupts the baby’s world, it is helpful if the parents can spend quiet time with their little one, reas­suring him that everything is all right with the adults he de­pends on.

What about the pre­schooler? His world revolves around his mother, father, and siblings, but he has also become attached to his physical surroundings. He is disturbed when, upon entering his bedroom, he finds a familiar toy or blanket missing.

While his parents become increasingly aware, as they survey the growing mountain of boxes, that everything that goes into a box must come out, the toddler doesn’t understand that fact. He is sure he will never see his treasures again. Be sure to leave out the toddler’s favorite toys, pillow, and blanket when you are packing.

The pre-schooler has made friends with other youngsters in the church, and these friendships have begun to mean a lot to him. Give the toddler time with his friends before you leave. Perhaps his playmates’ mothers will offer to keep him a few afternoons while you are packing, giving you unencumbered time to sort and label, and giving him memories that he will cherish.

Pre-schoolers adjust easily to new situations. Usually they make friends upon contact. As long as their parents give them emotional reassurance, and as long as they can go to sleep with a treasured toy, their world remains secure.

School-age and older

School-age children face different problems. They not only have friends, but they have a familiar school setting. They know what to expect from their teachers; their routine is established. Now, everything they depend on is being disrupted.

Moving is especially hard for juniors, who are beginning to experience a lot of emotional support from their peers, as well as some pre-adolescent turmoil. A move at this time can be seen by the child as just another sign that his parents care nothing at all about his feelings.

Moving may be easier for families that do things together, such as hiking, swimming, rock-collecting, or other activities. We always discuss each move as though it will be the biggest adventure we have ever experienced. When we find out where we’ll be living, we get out maps, atlases, and the encyclopedia and look for nearby parks, scenic attractions, special festivals, or other area events.

One time we moved with four school-age children from northeastern Iowa, where they were extremely happy, to Oklahoma. Our pre-move research uncovered only one paragraph in the encyclopedia about our new surroundings, indicating our new hometown hosted a yearly rattlesnake roundup! Only our junior-aged son was happy about this information. When the truck came to pick us up in February, the banks of snow in front of our Iowa home were shoveled back nearly as high as the moving van. As we drove south, spring became more and more evident. When we reached our new home, the grass was green and robins hopped around on the lawn. The change lifted our spirits immeasurably.

We encouraged our older children to write to their friends to keep in contact. Several times we made trips back to former pastorates so the children could renew acquaintances that had meant a lot to them, and we encouraged our former members to come and visit us. We exchanged pictures, scrapbooks, clippings, tapes, and phone calls with treasured friends.

It is important for children to realize that friendships in the ministry are not cultivated only to gain the confidence and support of members. Friendships with Christians are for eternity, and the opportunity to make many of them is one of the extra bonuses of serving in the ministry.

There is one more type of uprooting that my husband and I will experience whenever our next move occurs: leaving behind one of our own children. As we have grown older, our children have married and established homes of their own, but up until now they have moved away from us. For the first time we will experience the sadness of saying good-bye to a child who has established her own home in the town we will be leaving.

Each move the pastor’s family makes must be made within the perspective of that final move, that week-long trip through space to heaven. In light of the home and companionship which wait for us at the end of that move, the pain of earthly uprootings seems bearable.

During her years as a pastor’s wife, Teresa Sales was also a career journalist and editor while assisting her husband with community outreach and youth ministry. They live in Pueblo, Colorado near their four adult children. This article originally appeared in Praxis.