Executive Director for Focus on the Family Tim Sisarich
The Ultimate Family Man – Meet Tim Sisarich
Written by Dave Franco
When Tim Sisarich kissed his wife and kids goodbye and drove away from his home to embark on a world tour, he was setting out to learn as much as he could about the faces in his rear view mirror. As the Executive Director for Focus on the Family in New Zealand, Sisarich went in search of family; what it means, its historical place in the development of civilization, its current role in society, why it seems to be breaking down, and if current trends hold, what the future of family will look like. Armed with a suitcase, a backpack and a strong, but secret conviction that he already knew all the answers, he began his trek. What happened next was not exactly what he expected. Sisarich shares with Risen just how that trip became a documentary entitled, Irreplaceable, and is now used as a part of The Family Project, a curriculum for teaching God’s design for family.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: How did you come to know Christ? Was family a part of your journey?
Tim Sisarich: My mom and dad became Christians just before I was born, so I was raised in a Christian home. All my life, I felt like I knew God. But as I grew older, I think I was trying more and more to become a better Christian, rather than becoming a better friend to God. When I was in my late 20s and my wife and I lived in Israel, I remember having a crisis of faith and saying to God, “I’m not sure I even believe in you anymore.” I felt Him saying to me, “Son, that’s good. Now we can remove all the things from your life that don’t have anything to do with me. Now we can rebuild our relationship.”
Risen Magazine: What were you doing before you joined Focus on the Family?
Tim Sisarich: I was living in New Zealand and heavily involved in media, in front of the camera and behind as well. When Focus on the Family in New Zealand asked me to join them, I was doing a Christian radio show. The point of joining Focus was for me to engage with media on issues concerning the family. When I look back, I see that God was preparing me for this documentary and it wasn’t just to take an honest look at the culture where family is concerned, but at myself and my own perspectives on family as well.
Risen Magazine: How did the idea for Irreplaceable come about?
Tim Sisarich: Focus on the Family had spent a lot of time trying to help parents become better at raising their kids, and for couples to have better marriages. But as we looked around at our own history, and Christiandom as a whole, it became clear that there had never been a defined process for understanding God’s plan for family. So Focus on the Family began developing a curriculum where people could learn what God was thinking when He designed family. How was it supposed to shape the individual? How should it impact culture? It’s what became The Family Project.
But then we thought if we want to talk to people about such an enormous topic, how can we possibly make it accessible? That’s when we realized we should utilize our capability to put together a fantastic team of researchers and writers and producers to make a documentary that would raise pertinent questions and shine a light on areas of great concern that few people know about.
Now, along with the curriculum, we feel we have the means to really engage the culture so that we can all take a long hard look at one of the most important concepts in the history of man; the meaning, the condition, the challenges, and the promise of family.
Risen Magazine: With all the people who work for Focus on the Family around the globe, how did you get picked for the punishing rigors of a world wide tour?
Tim Sisarich: [Laughs] I’ve asked myself the same question! I think they [at Focus] would say I was the only one crazy enough to do it. Maybe the reality of it was that I had been with Focus on the Family for eight years at that point, and they knew I understood the task at hand, plus I had my own family, and I had a media background. I guess I must have also done well in the screen tests.
Risen Magazine: When you got home, how did you look at your role as father differently and how did you look at your family differently?
Tim Sisarich: I was not prepared for God to throw me on my back and take hold of me and do some major surgery on my heart. To be honest, when I embarked on the journey of trying to find out all the problems facing the family today, the truth is, I thought I already knew the answers. I thought, if people could live like I did, love their wives like I did, and love their children like I did—if people could live as Christians like I did—the world would be a better place.
But really, anybody could look out their window and realize that there is something wrong with human sexuality, our marriages, parenting, kids growing up without dads. There is nothing startling there. What was startling was to learn that we Christians tend to go about family from a place of fear. We tend to protect and defend our families from the world that we believe is trying to harm them or take them away. What ends up happeningis that we no longer engage the culture—we’re too busy keeping out all that we feel threatens our families. But here’s the truth. The world desperately wants what we have. We as moms and dads have the ability, through the way we conduct our families, to bring people without faith, a little bit of Heaven. We have to teach our families how to thrive in the culture, not merely survive in the culture.
So now, as a result of what I learned on my journey, I’m in the process of taking the walls down and working out how my family can engage within the culture in a way that is relevant as Christians.
I learned that people who don’t have families, want them. I realized just how important our role as Christian families is. We can help people understand that God loves them and He has something incredibly special for them, and designed it in the context of family.
God showed me through other cultures that He whispers in the ears of other people, especially the indigenous cultures from around the world. They understand family and the importance of it.
Risen Magazine: In your travels, did you notice any regional differences with respect to perspectives on family? In other words, do they view family in Angola differently than they do in France, and Argentina, and Tasmania?
Tim Sisarich: As we researched, there were places where family appeared to be less important, such as Europe, New Zealand and Canada—where parents were looked at more as parent one and parent two, rather than mom and dad.
But one difference that really stood out was when I was invited to a Sikh wedding in India, which is a five-day event. Watching the way the mother of the bride was, and the father of the bride, the mother of the groom, and all the fussing around; the bride and groom laughing together, and the changing of the outfits and the music and the food, it was behavior that I understood and expected. But when I asked the young couple, who were in their 20s, “Why would you bother getting married?” Their answer revealed a shocking difference. The woman said, “We get married to honor our faith, our culture and our families.”
That was a real punch in the gut to me. There I was amid a culture on the other side of the world and they are more engaged in God’s design for marriage than a lot of us in the church in the West are. I had gone off to these far places with the arrogant attitude that we in the West were the ones who had it right. But God showed me through other cultures that He whispers in the ears of other people, especially the indigenous cultures from around the world. They understand family and the importance of it.
Risen Magazine: What is the number one factor that threatens family today?
Tim Sisarich: One of the major problems facing the family today is that we no longer value children as an asset to the culture, community, or society. Before the Industrial Revolution, couples had children because they were an economic value—they were worth something. They would be able to work the land or work the shop, so you needed to have children. You needed to get married and you needed to have that family unit because it actually helped you to survive.
But post-Industrial Revolution, everything became more mechanized, so kids were needed less on the job. Therefore, the duration of being a child became longer and longer. Now you have things like the Peter Pan syndrome where men in their 20s are still at home playing video games when they should actually be getting married and making a difference in society. If we go at the rate we are right now, in terms of population, we are not going to replace ourselves in the West. Even places like Japan and China, with their severely reduced birthrates, are in line for a crisis. Places like the U.S. and New Zealand are only replacing themselves through immigration and the value of families to the culture is dying away. My hope for Irreplaceable and the curriculum is that people will ask themselves whether family matters. The answer is, yes it does, because the family is the cornerstone to society.
Risen Magazine: Dads seem to be a particular focus of this film. What is the plight of sons when they don’t have dads in their life? And what is the plight of the world when men are unwilling to be dads?
Tim Sisarich: When you start looking at the number of men and women in prison, the number of teenage pregnancies or suicide rates or depression rates—all the devastating issues you can think of—the common factor amongst all of them is fatherlessness. That’s something that we believe is a real crisis in our culture today.
Men are being taught that if you want to check out of a marriage, it’s okay; everybody, including the kids, will be fine. Well everybody might survive, but they will not be fine. We need to be honest where fatherlessness is concerned, because it is ripping the heart out of our culture. Just think about the consequences on the next generation of parents. There are some cities in the U.S. where there are kids who have never met a married couple. They have no idea what it is like to see a functioning family that is a whole unit.
In parts of Detroit, the level of fatherlessness is unthinkable—70 percent of the homes have no dad. Can you imagine the impact on the culture or on a boy’s identity? Where are they getting their identities from if there are no fathers around to give it to them? We are growing up a culture of boys who don’t know who they are. And we are also growing up girls who don’t understand what healthy or appropriate love from a man looks like. They haven’t seen it modeled from their dad to their mom, and they haven’t seen it from their dad to them. It’s a huge issue that we at Focus on the Family believe really needs to be addressed.
In my own life, my dad never physically left the house, but emotionally, spiritually, he was not there. He was disengaged. And I grew up with this huge yearning for a safe community. Hence, that is why, when I had my own kids, I was desperate to try to keep them safe within the confines of the walls that I was building around my family because my own father had not modeled what a Christian home should look like. I was desperate to keep my family safe and an intact unit. The result was that I ended up suffocating my wife and ultimately had to begin the process of becoming less controlling. In addition, I found that I was raising my kids to look a certain way so that the culture would believe that we were perfect and whole.
My grandfather worked 18-hour days, six days a week, to give my dad a good education and he was never really home and available to my dad. But my dad desperately wanted a dad, a father—someone to play ball with and go to sports with. So when my dad became a father to me, he didn’t have the tools. No one had modeled that for him. All he knew was that he desperately wanted the affection of his dad. He wanted to hear him say, “Good job, son. I’m proud of you.”
His life became about seeking affirmation from other people. One way to do that was to work crazy amounts of hours so that he could achieve great heights in his profession. Therefore, the pattern went full circle. He, like his dad, wasn’t around, and didn’t have the tools to nurture us. In fact, I asked him, “Dad, did you want to be a lawyer?” And he said, “No, I just wanted to work with my dad in his restaurant.” So as is revealed in the movie, I had to go to my dad and apologize because I placed expectations on him that he was never able to live up to.
My mission is really to tell people that even though you may have had some bad things happen to you, or you have made some poor decisions in your lifetime and you aren’t the kind of parent you know you should be, God says to you, “I love who you are right now—and I like who you are right now—not the perfect parent, but the imperfect one. So let’s just start from here. And I want you to learn to love people around you in the same way.”
Risen Magazine: Does the devaluing of the family indicate we are losing what it means to be a man and that one day we could have a world where men, previously known as protectors, mentors, leaders, self-sacrificing warriors, could be gone? What is becoming the new definition?
Tim Sisarich: We in the West are seeing more and more elongated childhoods. We have inserted tweens between kids and teens, and commonly, young men don’t take on the responsibility of a wife and family until they are in their 30s. We really have come to expect that. So because we put no urgency on a man to step up and be a man, we make the statement that it’s not that important anymore.
One of the saddest things to come out of the sexual revolution was, that in the process of women searching for their freedom, which I get and fully support—they needed that—was that men’s traditional role of leading and fighting for his family and being the spiritual cover, was relinquished to the woman. That was the story of my family and my father’s family. As I went around the world, I heard it over and over again that men don’t know what it means to be a man. They wonder, How do I fit in?
And yet, God has a grand design. God set forth, before the creation of the world, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a husband and a wife. That’s the meaning of our work at Focus on the Family; to let people know that God has made success abundantly clear and attainable. People will be pleasantly surprised. It’s all there in the scriptures.
Risen Magazine: Modern society has pushed the idea that men and women are really the same. How is that shaping the world?
Tim Sisarich: This topic is actually raised in Irreplaceable and the curriculum. In our desire to help society understand that we are equal, we started saying that we are the same. Even Christians will use that language. We are equal. God designed us to be equal and put us side by side. But really, there should be no argument about whether we’re the same because all one has to do is look at a brain scan to see that we are very different.
As we have become a culture that values children less, we also value motherhood less and so therefore, women can find themselves striving not to be mothers, but to try and achieve more like a man strives to achieve. This goes against what God has imprinted onto her DNA. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that women shouldn’t strive and achieve in the workplace. What I am suggesting is that the very thing designed to free a woman, can become the tool that robs her of who she is created to be; a mom.
We have this amazing opportunity to help people understand that God doesn’t value one gender over the other, and that Jesus stood for equal rights, and our design comes from those two spiritual perspectives. There’s a lot of good news in that. It will be encouraging to everyone.
Risen Magazine: Is there any one statistic that seems to give the direst warning that we are in need of a new perspective on family?
Tim Sisarich: I think that I cannot narrow it down to just one. The number of men who are creating children and then not sticking around to be fathers is staggering because it creates so many other alarming statistics. And it’s not just what it does to our boys, but what it does to our girls, one of which is how it forces them to be sexually active at a very young age. It’s a devastating blow to society.
I would hope that people understand that we are not trying to create the perfect family. There is no perfect family. We want people to know that God has a plan to help you and your family thrive. He loves you. If people can take that message and apply it to their families and communities, I think we can change the world.
Risen Magazine: In Irreplaceable, our prisons seem to give us a look into the future. What strikes you most about your time spent with inmates?
Tim Sisarich: Well, one thing that I heard over and over by inmates was summarized by one female prisoner. She said to me, “My father never fought for me.” I was flabbergasted by that statement. I think about it now and it still breaks my heart. It reveals the pain and damage that exists when fathers do not engage in their children’s lives.
Risen Magazine: Reversing the trajectory of the modern family seems daunting, to say the least. How do you personally stay encouraged?
Tim Sisarich: I’m actually very excited. As we worked on Irreplaceable and The Family Project curriculum, I felt the Lord speak to me and say, “Tim, you are a part of something much bigger than you realize. You need to understand My plan for you as a man, as a husband to a wife and a father to your children, I want to use you to be a light on a hill.” God wants to use Christians to engage with culture in a way that helps them see Jesus. Remember, I thought the world was trying to rip my family away. But now I believe that this is my role; to lead my family and stand by them in such a way that I show the world that what they seek – a relationship with God – they can find it in family.
Risen Magazine: Earlier you said that God likes us. Did you say that intentionally, or am I reading too much into it?
Tim Sisarich: God is bound by His nature to love us. But when I finally understood that God really likes me, it changed my perspective on God. And it changed the way I felt about me. God wants a relationship with us. To know that He likes you, really likes you, is unimaginably hopeful and exciting.
Risen Magazine: Can a movie really change the trajectory of the culture?
Tim Sisarich: No. But we are going to begin to ask the right questions. And when we do, we are going to reach people who never knew anything about God’s design.
Risen Magazine: Before this trip around the world, had you ever been away from your family for so long? How did it feel to come home?
Tim Sisarich: I have a new love for my wife and my children. I had never been away for so long and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the greatest thing, because now, it feels like a new beginning with them.
Risen Magazine: What can you tell us about The Family Project curriculum, and what is the overriding message you want people to take away from seeing Irreplaceable?
Tim Sisarich: The Family Project is a small group, DVD based curriculum that reveals how God designed family as a means to show His love for every man and woman. In addition, it will show how family has the potential to alter the course of history. It’s a hopeful message to a society that feels lost.
As for Irreplaceable, I would hope that people understand that we are not trying to create the perfect family. There is no perfect family. We want people to know that God has a plan to help you and your family thrive. He loves you. If people can take that message and apply it to their families and communities, I think we can change the world.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2014