Tara Johnson is an author, speaker, singer and songwriter from Alexander, AR. A passionate lover of stories, Tara shares her own journey with depression and people-pleasing through fiction, nonfiction, song and laughter.
In 2004, she signed with Incubator Creative Group, a ministry-based record label out of Eugene, OR. Tara loves to travel to churches, ladies retreats and prisons to share her testimony of how God led her into freedom after spending years living shackled to the expectations of others as a preacher’s kid.
This past year has kept Tara busy writing both fiction and nonfiction and her latest book Hollow Victory: How to Identify and Disarm 5 Landmines that Make Victorious Christian Living Feel Like a Lie was released in 2014. She has won the Bronze Medal in the Frazier awards hosted by My Book Therapy and has articles published in Plain Truth Magazine and Live It Loud Magazine and has been a featured guest on Voice of Truth radio and Enduring Word radio. Tara is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and is represented by Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency. She and her husband Todd have been married for eighteen years and the Lord has blessed them with five children: Bethany, Callie, Nate, as well as Taylor Lynn and Morgan Lane who are with Jesus.
Want to know more? Here’s the long version in Tara’s own words…
From the time I was little, I loved music. One of my earliest memories is cleaning the house with my Mom, trying to sing along to Sandi Patty’s How Great Thou Art as it crackled on our record player. As I grew, I fell in love with musicals, classics like Guys and Dolls, The Wizard of Oz and my favorite, Annie. I remember lying in bed one night when I was six years old, dreaming about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I kept imagining myself on stage in a dark theater, singing and standing in a pool of light. As soon as the dream flashed through my mind, I tried to reason it away. I began to think “It would be so cool to be a singer but there’s no way. I’m not good enough!” I somehow got it in my head though that if I could learn to imitate my favorite singers, that I could fake my way to the top. I began to imitate Julie Andrews, Sandi Patty and Judy Garland. And so the strive for perfection and pretending began.
My Dad surrendered to the ministry when I was just a tiny tot, and in striving to complete degrees in Bible languages, our family moved from Corvallis, Oregon to Little Rock, Arkansas so he could attend the Missionary Baptist Seminary. I was four and my brother was three. I don’t remember much about the move, other than how much fun it was to ride up front with Daddy in the big, yellow Ryder truck as we traveled across the country, and how my Mom saved a little toy that we could open each day of the trip.
The Big Move to Cave City
We lived in the seminary apartments (inexpensive housing for those in ministry). It was upstairs, in the little bedroom that my brother and I shared, where I gave my life to Christ one night. I remember kneeling by the bed, gazing at my Strawberry Shortcake bed sheets, telling Jesus that I knew I was a sinner and that I wanted Him to be King of my life. I was six years old and trust me…I had already gotten in plenty of sinning by that time!
When you are preacher’s kid, or wife for that matter, everyone assumes that you can play piano. So following expected tradition, I began taking piano lessons in first grade. I quit more times during the first three years than Tammy Faye Baker applied her mascara. Despite my Chihuahua-like attention span, I did manage to work my way through a couple of beginner books, and could bang out a pretty decent rendition of “Scarborough Fair”.
My Dad graduated with his master degree in 1987. God quickly moved us to a new pastorate in Cave City, Arkansas. Cave City is as country as country can get. My brother and I loved it there. We learned the fine art of cow-tipping, fishing, enjoying whipped potatoes and hominy and finding our way home from any gravel road in the back woods. Our church had no baptistery, so when someone needed to be baptized, we loaded into our pickup trucks and drove miles down dirt roads until we reached Shaw Creek.
Dad would wade out with the “baptizee” into the middle of the creek while he instructed the little kids to line up at the edge of the water with rocks in hand. We discovered this was a necessary procedure. The kids hurling their rocks kept many curious water moccasins away from the baptism proceedings.
It was during this time that my perfectionist tendencies began to emerge. I helped out many of the church women as they prepared for Vacation Bible School every summer. They were always careful to lavish on the praise, and I happily soaked it up. I loved to baby sit the church rugrats. When their parents praised my abilities with kids, my heart got an addictive rush of pride.
I remember one particular morning in 5th grade. We had the usual math homework that we had to turn in right after the pledges. As I frantically searched through my backpack for my homework, I realized with panic that I had left it at home. I burst into tears and was inconsolable for hours. My teacher pulled my aside and told me not to worry about it; I had always turned my homework in and need not worry. She said that everybody forgets sometimes, but I couldn’t seem to let it go. I was afraid that she would think less of me, that I would be labeled one of those ‘problem’ kids because I didn’t turn in my assignment. So I worked even harder that day to please her.
I was diagnosed with a seizure disorder when I was eight, and was very embarrassed with my condition. I accepted it with calmness but was mortified whenever I would have a seizure at school. I was terrified that kids would make fun of me, mainly because with the petitmal seizures I had, I would sometimes wet my pants (which is a common occurrence for many adults approaching the golden years, but not so cool when you’re in middle school). I tended to be very shy and did my best to hide my insecurities and weaknesses.
I suppose I’m kind of weird, but I always thought that being a PK (aka preacher’s kid) was fun. The church family would give us food poundings so we wouldn’t starve, we had lots of friends all over the state, and I was proud of my Daddy’s faithfulness to preach the truth. What really made it fun though was my family’s crazy sense of humor. I come from a long line of sarcastics. Yes, I’m claiming that as a word. And for those of you who aren’t in a preacher’s family, believe me, without a sense of humor, people in ministry would drop like flies.
One Sunday afternoon, a young seminary student was visiting at our home, waiting to preach for our Sunday evening service and get some ‘experience behind the pulpit’. As we were getting cleaned up, my seven year old brother walked out of his room wearing an incredible hulk tee shirt, ‘holy’ khaki dockers and lace up basketball shoes. I guess in my brother’s mind, this was an appropriate get-up for worship. My mother disagreed. Her jaw dropped open, she hopped up and pointed to my brother’s door. “Get back in there and change that hideous outfit this minute! Do you want them to take up a love offering for us again?” The seminary student was sipping his tea and began sputtering and choking.
Ah, there’s nothing like getting broken into the ministry.
As I grew, so did my sense of humor. I learned that a lot of pain can be deflected with a well-placed sarcastic comment. I started to study Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke and my very favorite comedienne, Carol Burnett. But as I observed my favorite performers, I also began to observe behavior within the church.
I’m not sure that there is any particular moment in time that I can say that I had a revelation as to the double standard that is within some churches. I noticed a comment here, a whisper there that began to show me that some people hold preacher’s families to higher standards than they do their own. It’s hard constantly being on display. Being scrutinized inside a fish bowl is a difficult way to live. I am not going to lie though. Some of that accountability is good. I personally believe that it’s a positive thing to realize at an early age that our actions do matter, that we should walk the walk if we talk the talk. My brother and I learned this early, but I kept waiting for the rest of the church to figure it out too.
When you are in a preacher’s family you are criticized non stop. It comes with the territory. The problem is that many church members have the crazy idea that their pastor will never let them down. They expect the pastor’s kids will be perfect. They put their pastor’s family on a spiritual pedestal that no person can live up to. There is very little difference between your pastor and you. You both sin, you are both learning and growing in the Lord (or should be) daily, you both say things you regret, you both disappoint people that you love.
From what I have observed, preacher’s kids tend to response to the constant criticism in two different ways: they either rebel and do whatever they can to shake down everyone’s expectations or they struggle quietly and wage a wrestling match with the Lord behind the scenes. I unconsciously chose the latter.
I learned that smiling, no matter how I was feeling, made people at ease. I learned that being quick to jump in and help wherever help was needed endeared me to the church family, for being ‘such a good, hard worker’. These may sound like good things, but hold on. I’m just getting started.
In Cave City, I found a piano teacher that I immediately bonded with, Miss Marcia. She worked diligently with me each week on my piano. She was a very patient and kind teacher; she loved me even when I lied and told her that I had practiced when I hadn’t even touched the keys all week. I delighted in trying to please her, so when she asked me to participate in a local talent show, I agreed. The only problem was that I had no interest in it. I just said yes so I wouldn’t disappoint her. I performed for the show though, and did pretty well considering that I spent a solid hour before throwing up from nerves.
I was heart-broken when the Lord moved us from Cave City but knew that if God was directing us, He would have even something better waiting down the road. When I was thirteen we moved to Judsonia, Arkansas where my Dad had taken another pastorate. We settled in to our new church family and I quickly made friends with several girls that attended Judsonia Junior High. The school quickly dubbed our table at lunch the ‘giggle table’. In high school my buddies and I would get together to watch movies, dance around our living rooms and cruise around Searcy, Arkansas trying to feel cool. To this day, our friendships remain strong and we can clear out a restaurant when we get to laughing.
The sweet little church that my Dad pastored quickly suffered a split not long after we arrived. Old grievances has been pushed under the rug and, like things tend to do when they fester, eventually exploded. It made a big impression on my impressionable mind to see Christians turning on each other, backbiting and bad-mouthing my Dad, for nothing other than being in a leadership position when the chaos hit. I determined in my mind to never make one moment of trouble for anybody in church. No matter what was asked of me, I would smile and do my part with a good attitude. I hate conflict: always have, probably always will.
Things settled down and fellowship was restored again. I began playing basketball in junior high and high school, and lived to please my coach. To this day, I wake up some nights in a cold sweat, dreaming that I missed the winning shot and that my coach was devastated. I know…I have issues.
Our church participated in monthly youth rallies, which is a time for youth of each local church to meet, sing, perform skits and eat. Usually, they gave the preacher’s kids from the local churches the responsible roles. I was the youth rally secretary, and two other preacher’s sons that I knew were President and Vice President. I loved youth rallies, mostly because I had a big, fat crush on a boy who was a regular there.
So when it was time for our church to host, my very spiritually minded self thought, “Hmm, what can I do to get this guy’s attention? Oh, I know…I could sing a special!”
Don’t ask me why I thought this would impress him, especially since I had done very little public singing prior to this moment. But sing I did, although I did not get the desired results. The boy I was gushy for still didn’t know that I existed but by the end of the night, several people came up to me and said that they were amazed. They’d never heard me sing before and loved it!
I began to practice more and more specials for church, and slowly my priorities began to change. I began to love singing as an act of worship. To this day I can’t fully explain it, but when I sing during my time with God, I just feel whole, complete and clean. Like I’m doing what I was made to do. So although I got into it for the wrong reasons, God quickly began directing me into a life of music. I sang every time I had the opportunity.
I didn’t know it at the time, but God was beginning to groom me for His purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a major nerd. I was still desperate for Mr. Youth Rally to ask me out on a date and I still practiced my singer’s impressions (although by this point I had graduated from Julie Andrews and was now emulating Mariah Carey).
I loved junior and senior year of high school: basketball and church stuff kept me busy and I had a small group of friends that I adored. But like so many teenage girls, I began to obsess about my weight.
I wanted to be skinny; I don’t just mean slim. I mean size 2 thin, which is fairly dangerous considering that I am 5 foot, ten inches.
I’ve always heard that for some people who undergo radical dieting, they do so because it’s the one thing they can control. From my own experience, it’s true. I couldn’t control the pressures of high school, the demands of trying to be the perfect PK, but I could control my weight. For me, losing weight is addictive. I love the way it makes me feel, I love the way I look when I’m thinner. The problem was that five pounds was never enough. I kept pushing my body to lose more and more.
During my senior year, I got down to a size 5. I still remember thinking that I was horribly fat at that size. One particular day, I remember doing a rare thing, at least for me: I cheated on my diet. My Mom had made an extra yummy chocolate ice cream dessert (Buster Bars if anyone is interested in knowing this little detail—they are sinfully delicious!). I had a tiny spoonful and ran to the bathroom. I felt ashamed and out of control. I sat in front of the toilet and began crying. For the first time I contemplated throwing up my food. But even as I toyed with the idea, I sensed God’s Spirit beginning to convict me. How could I abuse His temple? And why couldn’t I love myself unconditionally as He did?
I sat in there for a long time and eventually asked the Lord to forgive me for my pride. I wish I could say that it is easier now years later, but it’s not. I worry about every single calorie that I put into my body. There are very few meals that I enjoy eating, because as soon as I’m through the guilt starts piling in. The other day I felt guilty for eating shredded wheat!
Well, believe it or not, I did graduate from high school. I began to attend Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. My first week there, I met a cute guy named Todd. Our first date was September 20th. We were engaged by December 25th and got married the following May. He was my first boyfriend and my first kiss. I promise you, girls out there, it pays to wait for the right guy!
Todd got a job in Little Rock, Arkansas, so we moved there and I transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I declared my major in early childhood education. Music had a tremendous pull on me but I reasoned the desire away. I thought, “Musicians don’t make any money. And besides, God wouldn’t want me to get a major in something that doesn’t come with any financial stability.” Just a note here: if you want to make God laugh, go ahead and tell him what you will or won’t do.
Fast forward a year into the education problem and I was miserable. I couldn’t see myself being happy in the long term teaching full time. I felt unsettled and uncertain. Whenever those feeling began to overwhelm me, I would run to the music building and sneak into the practice rooms where they kept old pianos for the students to practice on. I would sit and play hymns until I felt calm again.
One afternoon, I felt God pressing on me so strongly to quit the education program. We had a battle of the wills in that little practice room on the second story of the Fine Arts Building, and guess what? God won. He always does.
I finally gave in and told that Lord that I would surrender to wherever He was leading, even if that meant the way was uncertain, even if it meant that I would be poor. I cannot even begin to describe the peace that flooded my heart as I gave my life completely to Him. Many people give their hearts to the Lord, but just a few who truly make Him Lord over every aspect of their lives. And I can testify there is a huge difference between the two.
I enrolled as a music major in 1998 and I loved every single moment of my studies from that point on. Just further proof that God always knows best. My main emphasis was voice and I spent a lot of time learning songwriting, choral music, jazz and pop theory, musical creativity and music history, dance and performing. My little artsy, right-brain was in heaven!
We found an amazing church in Little Rock, Arkansas named Pilgrim Rest Baptist. Todd and I fell in love with that loving, laughing country church, and threw ourselves whole-heartedly into serving there.
Life kept moving and I found very little time to stop and breathe. I had full time classes and worked part time at the UALR music department. I taught piano lessons part time, taught the tiny tot class at church, as well as participating in the youth committee, Vacation Bible School and being the sole pianist for the church. I took the teens to church camp every summer. As you can tell, I was completely unable to say the word ‘no’. Not only did I want everyone to love me, but I was terrified they would discover I’m not perfect. I did everything with a smile on my face and happy façade, but inside the resentment began to boil.
No one knew how much bitterness I carried around inside. No one knew how bad my attitude really was. I discovered that I’m a wonderful actress, a circus clown that could put on quite a show. And I also learned that being a people-pleaser is a vicious cycle. The more you work, the harder it is please everyone. At this point, I was incapable of disagreeing with anyone about anything. I was “YES” girl. All I needed was a cape and a pair of Marvel-style tights. I couldn’t let anyone see the real me. I was sure that if they knew who I really was (an insecure, hypocritical liar), they could never love me. The easiest way to protect my heart was to keep pretending, stuff the resentment down and accept the fact that ‘serving the Lord’ was an exhausting part of the Christian life. Pretty soon I began having trouble focusing in my classes. I couldn’t seem to get enough sleep. I started gaining weight and things that I normally loved held no interest for me anymore.
All of this came to a breaking point one night in 2002. It was a Thursday, and I was preparing for two intense tests on Monday, several performances, a youth lock-in held at our home, no groceries, a filthy house, the list goes on and on. That night we got a phone call that a family member was unexpectedly coming in for a surprise visit. Something inside of me snapped. I crawled on the bathroom floor and cried uncontrollably for hours. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe, like I was drowning. When I got up from the bathroom floor at three a.m., I looked at myself in the mirror. As I stared at my reflection, I felt hopeless, confused and couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I remember pulling at my hair with salty tears dripping from my lips and muttering at God, “This is not the victorious life You promised.”
I made an appointment to see my doctor the next day. He is a wonderful Christian man, and let me pour my heart out to him. He smiled kindly and said “Tara, you’re depressed.” I was shocked! I couldn’t be depressed. I was a good Christian girl and good Christian girls don’t get depressed. I was also a little terrified because I knew that I had several family members who had suffered from depression. That horrible word “depression” was spoken in hushed whispers. In my mind, depression equaled shame.
Looking back, I can see how ridiculous it was for me to say that Christians never get depressed. Just think of the Psalms…David was depressed half of his life, bless his little heart. Some depressions arise from sin issues, some come from emotional trauma, some come from illnesses or long periods of stress. Sometimes depression is just the result of a simple chemical imbalance, a physical malady no different than needing insulin to control diabetes or eyeglasses for poor sight.
As I sat in that doctor’s office, I named off all the busyness that controlled my life. My doctor told me that I had to learn how to cut back. I argued that those things consuming me were good activities, just part of the normal Christian routine. He replied “They might be good activities, but I have to ask you, why are you doing them?” Revelation crashed into my heart as I realized I couldn’t give him a good answer. At that moment, everything I knew about my walk with the Lord capsized.
My doctor told me that the heart of my problem was being unable to say ‘no’. So he prescribed three things. First he had me read a fabulous book called Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. He also prescribed antidepressants to get the serotonin built back up in my brain. Third, he told me to start studying the life of Christ, not His teachings necessarily, since I had been taught that all my life, but instead how Jesus interacted with people. Did He ever say ‘no’, was He always kind, did He take vacation time away? In doing so, I soon began to realize that Jesus was not a people-pleaser. He’s a God pleaser.
One morning I sat in my room, reading my Bible and trying to understand who Jesus really is. As I read Matthew 23:25-27, my heart began to pound with conviction. “Woe you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.”
I flipped through the gospels and found the words of Jesus “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I wondered why I had never noticed that verse before. That’s exactly how I had been living—worrying about the sacrifice part left me feeling empty and exhausted. I had completely lost focus on Christ and His mercy. When I read I Corinthians 3:13-15, I began to tremble in fear. “His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has build survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss.” If I spent my entire life claiming that I served the Lord, but with the wrong motives, what good would it do me? I knew the eyes of the Lord saw through my charade and I was found wanting.
The Lord showed me that I had been serving for all the wrong reasons. My motives were for self. I was serving to keep everybody around me happy, not because I loved Him but because I was looking to people to fill my need. I craved approval, thinking it was just another form of love. But I was wrong. Approval and love are not the same thing.
I was shocked to realize that my actions were telling Jesus that what everyone else thought was more important to me than was He thought. I was living for the praise of men, just like those old Pharisees. I was a hypocrite, acting one way and thinking another. Doing my Christian duty with a dirty, resentful heart.
I asked God to forgive me and asked Him to show me how to truly live for Him. I’ve learned so much in the past few years and He is revealing more to me each day. He has restored my joy. I’m learning how to say ‘no’, even though it’s hard for me and probably will always be a struggle. Approval addiction doesn’t just disappear, but He is helping me shrink it a step at a time. I’ve learned to confess my feelings to God openly. He knows what I’m thinking anyway! I’ve learned that sharing every feeling, every victory, every defeat with Him is the most liberating thing of all. Being with Him is the only place where I am truly safe and loved unconditionally. I am finally at a point where I am chasing grace.
In 2004, a friend connected me to Incubator Creative Group, a fabulous management company and record label. We began talking and learning more about each other and in the fall of 2004, I was signed onto their artist roster. Incubator has spent the past several years training me in business, management, building a ministry based on honesty and integrity, as well as helping me develop my songwriting, performance and booking. Working with them has given me the tools I needed to share my personal struggles and get my ministry flying.
Over the past few years, God has blessed tremendously and gave us our sweet family (five children, two are in heaven and the other three are stuck with me), healing, the opportunity to work with an amazing management company, my first book published (Hollow Victory) and a ministry that is blossoming. To top off my overflowing cup, in 2015 I signed with Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency. I can’t wait to see what God has planned!
It is my fervent desire that when I go sing and share my story from church to church, retreat to retreat and prison to prison that the listeners might come to question their own motives, find awareness about why they serve and understand that God truly does love them unconditionally. He is a God of hope for the hopeless, joy for the depressed and He gives freedom for those once in chains.