Contemporary Christian artist Matthew West sits at the kitchen table, sipping from a dainty cup. He's having a tea party with his 4-year-old daughter, Delaney.
Nothing unusual about that — except that the view out the window is new. Today in the "backyard" of the West family tour bus sits the 8,500-seat Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C. Later this morning, the coliseum floor will become the personal track of the two West daughters as they ride scooters around the empty arena "like NASCAR racers" before it's set up for Dad's concert tonight.
But first things first. Delaney's tea party is under way, and 7-year-old Lulu must finish her home-school lessons with Mom. Then, after the scooter riding will come lunch with the band. Later, the girls might watch part of Dad's concert. And at the end of the day, the West girls will head to their bunk compartments and drift off to sleep, knowing that Daddy will kiss them good night after his show. So will end another day of life on the road. Arena hopping around the country on a bus for nearly half the year may sound like an exciting dream to some. To others, it may sound like a nightmare. For Matthew and Emily West, the decision to home school and travel together is a godsend that allows them to balance the demands of work and family life while allowing Emily and the girls to share in the ministry of Matthew's music career. "We asked, 'What's more important — for our kids to sleep in their own beds every night or to have a dad they're with every day?' "Matthew says. "That's when we decided I need to be part of their lives more than I had been able to, and this seemed to be the way God was leading us to do it."
Living the story
Matthew West is a musical storyteller. Since his debut album in 2003, his spiritual anthems have earned him a Dove Award and multiple nominations for Grammys and Billboard Music Awards. His last two albums, Into the Light and The Story of Your Life, are collections of poignant songs that tell real-life stories submitted by his fans.
When it comes to family life, Matthew's own story is still being written. "It's a story of finding out that you don't have to have the same lifestyle as your next-door neighbor," he says. "A lot of people say, 'You have such a crazy life.' But this is our normal, and we're having a blast. We're trying to soak up every minute in these years that everybody says fly by so fast."
Of course, every good story includes a challenge that drives the protagonist. Music is Matthew's passion and his calling. It's also a career that takes him on the road to perform and connect with fans about 150 days each year. Emily understands this. Still, a musician's schedule is taxing on family life.
"I used to have so much guilt," Matthew says. "I'd be onstage doing a concert, and for that hour I felt like, This is awesome. This is where I'm supposed to be. But it's not just that hour onstage — you're gone for days." The reality of what he was missing out on at home while away from his daughters weighed heavily on him. "At the end of the day, they're my most important ministry," Matthew says. "I don't want to gain a successful career in music and lose my girls."
Hitting the road
He tried bringing the family along as often as possible. But doing so became increasingly difficult when Lulu entered kindergarten. The administration at her neighborhood school was not supportive of frequent absences.
Matthew and Emily prayed about other alternatives. Was it wise to uproot their girls? Should they take Emily out of her support network and routines as wife and mother? Would home schooling work for their family? And could they actually afford to take the entire family on the road? Traveling with family in tow is not the music industry standard, often because it's so expensive. "The bus will hands down be the most expensive part of a tour," Matthew says. But Matthew had toured with Casting Crowns and seen how well that band blends family and the road. Maybe he and Emily could make it work, too. They decided to go for it. Soon after, an anonymous donor provided them with a free bus for eight weeks to get started.
Matthew admits it was a difficult decision, but says the results have gone better than expected. The Wests are still figuring out the details of home schooling, but they have school-day patterns set. Emily takes point as the primary instructor for Lulu while Matthew and Delaney spend time together — but Matthew is not afraid to jump into the academic fray when needed. When it comes to field trips, life on the road provides unique options. "We always look for fun adventures in different cities," Matthew says. Highlights include touring Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and meeting Winter, the tailless dolphin of Dolphin Tale fame, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida.
Motives in motion
Living on the road isn't all fun and games. Parenting is a challenge no matter the setting. Matthew admits it's a struggle to stay fully engaged even though he has more time with his girls. "Sometimes it's too easy to tune out. I can get so focused on the song I'm writing or the meeting I'm having," he says. "But I want to go deeper instead of just being there." Opportunities to perform no longer mean a choice between family and career, and Matthew has found renewed passion and energy for ministry by making it a family affair. His girls love singing along with Dad and the band during impromptu jam sessions and interacting with friends and fans along the way. The Wests hope their girls will one day look back on this itinerant season with gratitude for how it enriched their lives.
"Most important, we want to cultivate an environment where spiritual hunger and love for God are the main goals," Matthew says. "We don't always succeed in that, but it's what we strive for."
Jeremy V. Jones is an award-winning writer and former editor of Breakaway magazine. His latest book is Toward the Goal: The Kaká Story.