a summer in front of the camera

This will go down as the summer of cameras.

It all started a year or so ago. First, my girls wrote an impassioned letter asking for more diversity in Barbie dolls. That led to an invitation to be part of an American Girl (also owned by Mattel) segment on Good Morning America. Then, as we prepared to leave for NYC, our local news did a piece on them. 

As we hung out in the green room, our family was conspicuous. (Okay, let’s be honest. Everywhere we go, our family is conspicuous.) The girls had their moment, we had a wonderful trip to New York City, and then we returned home. 

More than seven months have passed, but when one of the Good Morning America producers needed a family to feature for a Deals & Steals product feature, they remembered us. We were in a vet hospital waiting room when they called. Who is calling from New York?, I wondered.

“Hi, Shannon! This is Julia from Good Morning America.”

Um, wait. What?

She asked if we’d be part of an upcoming piece. I didn’t know it would involve a trunk full of goodies. I said yes. We figured out details the night before with the ABC11 team. That morning, I had one of my heroes Robin Roberts in my ear, welcoming the Dingle family to their segment and later thanking our local affiliate “for bringing the Dingles to us.”


Just a few weeks prior, we had been featured by a different ABC11 team, Troubleshooter Diane Wilson. She shared the story of our struggle to get a lift for Zoe’s motorized wheelchair. Like the first GMA segment, this began as a blog post. Someone sent it to Diane, and she contacted us, and the segment aired while we were at the beach. A precious woman named Angel saw it and called her dad, who owns Medical Supply Superstore in Durham. One thing led to another, and they were giving us a lift for the van at no charge. Diane and her team ran the story tonight at 5:50pm, and the video will be up with the written story here.

(Side note: Sorry to all the other networks, but ABC11 has won my allegiance. They are dear to us now. NBC, you have me right now with your Olympics coverage, but I’m just using you. I’ll be back with my first love, ABC11, for the news as soon as you leave Rio.)

And today we had more filming at our house, as you see in all the pictures throughout this post. This time we spent most of the morning and early afternoon shooting footage for a short piece about a non-profit we love. The story of Hope Reins and their work is going to be told through the lens of our family, in particular one of our children’s stories.

Friday we head out to Hope Reins to do more filming on site there. Our kids are excited, and I expect it’ll be a delightful day. And then? No more cameras in our future, other than me behind my camera taking back to school pictures soon.

(Not. Soon. Enough. I love my people dearly. But I love them better when someone else loves them for part of the day and when we all have our predictable routine back.)

 A few days ago, one of my kids asked when the “popcorn-rotsy” (paparazzi) would start following us. You know, since we’re getting so famous now. “Internet famous,” one corrected. “Um, that’s the biggest kind of famous nowadays,” the other replied.

Bless it all.

All this filming has me thinking about all our stories, both those on main stages and those behind the scenes. We’ve spent more time in front of cameras this summer than ever before. More than one comment has been made about a reality show for us. We were actually contacted once to be on one; we said no thanks. I’m an extrovert, and I’m thankful for all the good that’s come from being in the camera’s eye, but I’m also feeling a little overexposed at this point.

We all have a public version of ourselves and a private one. Authenticity is having those match as closely as possible. I’m not saying we go out in public in our pajamas, but our hearts and integrity are the same in our homes as in our schools, as in our churches, as in our neighborhoods, as in how we treat our best friend, as in how we treat the waiter, as in how we treat the presidential candidate we like the least, and so on. When we’re in front of cameras, I think there’s a temptation to portray the ideal self we want to be instead of the real self we are… and when we do that often enough, that real self gets lost.

This past year has involved a lot of rediscovery of my real self. Not too long after I started leading the special needs ministry at our old church, a well-meaning mentor forged connections for me to speak at national children’s ministry events. In hindsight, I don’t think I was ready. I was 29 with young children, trying hard to live up to what this pastor saw in me. I exhausted myself, only realizing later that I didn’t have to prove anything. He introduced me to those people and pitched me as a speaker because he already believed in me.

The problem? I didn’t believe in me.

I’ve spoken at more than 20 conferences all over the country, from Washington to Pennsylvania and California to Florida and Texas to Illinois and more. And still, I ended up in my therapist’s office for the first time last fall because that external affirmation wasn’t enough. All the invitations and likes and positive feedback were nice, sure. But instead of taking them as evidence that I had proven myself, I saw each as a fluke. “Someday,” I’d think, “they’ll all realize I’m a nobody who doesn’t belong here among real speakers and bloggers and writers.” I almost didn’t launch this new website, even after I had finished the design, because I didn’t think I was worthy of it.

You see, it doesn’t matter how many news stories or cameras are in your life if you’re still hustling like you have something to prove. It doesn’t matter if a blog post goes viral if you are certain you’re a one-hit wonder. It won’t matter if you’re featured by Christianity Today, Slate, and Daily Kos in the same summer if you consider all the positive comments to be off-base but all the negative ones on-target.  

When people ask why I haven’t written a book yet, I don’t give the real answer. I say something a little different each time, and the reasons aren’t lies. But they aren’t the reason, the primary one. I’ve never admitted it publicly: 

I haven’t written a book yet because I’m not sure my voice matters. I’m not sure I really have something meaningful to say. I might have the word tattooed on my wrist, but I’m still not sure I’m really enough.

The cameras have been lovely, truly. The conferences have too. But? I’m looking forward to some time without travel or news crews, some moments once school starts when even my children’s eyes aren’t on me. I’m looking forward to quiet in my home when it’s just me and my dog and my Bible. I’m wanting to get to know the real me again and to let God reshape me into someone so confident in him that I don’t need to prove myself to others.

And? I'm hoping to dust off my book proposal drafts to get serious about one or more of them. It's time.

I’ve enjoyed the summer in front of cameras. I have. But at the same time I’m grateful for the coming days out of the limelight. For everything, there is a season, after all.  

9 reasons I’m being more selective about conference travel

In the past week, I've turned down two speaking invitations for fabulous events. I wanted to say yes - oh, how I wanted to! - but no was the clear answer for this time and stage. I even tried to convince myself I could do one, and I texted someone I trust deeply for advice. Her reply? "I think you already know the answer but you don't want to admit it to yourself."


She was right. I did. So I wrote the organizer to apologize that I couldn't come this year, and then I found myself doing the same thing again a week later. And I grieved, sad to miss these phenomenal events, disappointed that my humanity means I can't do all the things I want to do, and - to be honest - embarrassed to admit my ego was bruised of not getting to be share about traveling to Seattle and Chicago this year. (Another year, I hope, that will all be different!)

speaking at Bifrost Arts' Cry of the Poor conference in Philadelphia in 2013, still one of my all-time favorite conferences ever

speaking at Bifrost Arts' Cry of the Poor conference in Philadelphia in 2013, still one of my all-time favorite conferences ever

Last year, I traveled all over - Seattle. Charlotte. DC. Orlando. Durham. South Texas. DC again. Nashville. - all while holding down the fort back here in between and beginning some intense therapy work to process through past traumas I had hidden away, hoping to ignore forevermore. (It doesn't work that way. The pain demands to be felt eventually.) So why - after making all that work - am I stepping back now?

1. Writing is my first passion.

Friends, colleagues, and strangers keep asking when I’ll write my first book. I have several proposals I’ve started over the years but then set aside. I meant for this past year, with all the kids in school for the first time, to be devoted to writing. That didn’t happen. I love to travel, but it takes a lot out of me. And I generated a lot of new speaking content this year, which took time. I’ve realized to get back to writing, I need to step back from speaking so much.

2. I need to make space for the personal work I’m doing.

I’ve been open about being in therapy. Given some recent vulnerable posts, some of you can guess some of the topics. Others will never be offered for public consumption.

My therapist is a total Godsend, but there’s no way she can make this process easy for me. Trauma work is hard. I’m learning a lot, realizing a lot, healing a lot, and grieving a lot, all at the same time. I need space in my life to give myself the time needed for this important self care.

3. I’m not convinced ministry breakout sessions offer a large enough impact to justify my travel.

Consider a children’s ministry conference. I’m the special needs ministry guru, often the only one. Every goes to the main sessions, which cover the topics deemed most universal (and, to be honest, which feature the speakers whose name recognition lend credibility to the conference as a whole). Inclusive ministry isn’t a main stage session. It should be, given the stats and the need. The people who come to special needs ministry sessions? They’re mostly the people who already see the need to welcome families like mine and would seek out the resources we provide at Key Ministry, whether they ever met me or not. The people who are still explicitly turning away special needs families or implicitly making them feel unwelcome? They need to be challenged from the main stage.

Because I don’t think it’s worth my time to be the lone disability advocate preaching to the choir in a small back room, I’m starting to say no to conferences unless special needs issues will be addressed in the main sessions. I love being the one to do so, but I’m totally fine if it’s someone other than me. I’m just certain that the impact needed for the continued growth of inclusive ministry means that the topic can’t be an afterthought or sideshow.

(For other conferences, smaller settings work wonderfully, so I'm not opposed to presenting workshops ever. But I'm finding that I must evaluate the impact before I can say yes, especially for longer distance travel. And I don't want to be a token voice on disability issues just so the organizers can say they care about families like mine, when nothing in their main session content demonstrates that.)

4-9. Jocelyn, Patience, Philip, Robbie, Patricia, and Zoe.

One has recently started coming to me, little hands balls into fists against skinny legs, and whispering, “Mommy, I need help. I’m having feelings.” Another crawled into bed with me this past weekend to cry in my arms over the ending of the book Bridge to Terabithia. I want to be here in moments like those. My little people are ages 4, 5, 7, 7, 9, and 9. I already have the rule that I don’t travel on their birthdays. But I want to be around on more of the other days too.

(That said, I think it’s healthy for them to witness the work I do. It matters. But I always want them to rest assured that they matter more. In this season, staying home more does that. In another session, I might be able to travel frequently while still affirming their value as greater. It’s a balance, and this is where I land right now.)

I hope none of this sounds like I’m ungrateful for the myriad of opportunities I’ve had. One glance at my speaker page will reveal that I’ve gotten to go some amazing places with some inspiring people. I’m beyond thankful.

I’m also certain I will travel. Just not as much in this season. God designed me to need rest too, and my kids and writing deserve more of me right now.