How Your Congregation Can Support Foster and Adoptive Families
Today is Orphan Sunday, a day many churches take to create awareness, preach about, or learn how to better follow the call of God to help the fatherless in the world. As a mother of two adopted children, and one who works to relieve the plight of the fatherless in other parts of the world, this day holds a special place in my heart. Some of you may have never heard of Orphan Sunday and some may know it very well, whichever it may be, please take a moment on this day to sit with me and open your heart as I share mine about a few ways that together, as the body of Christ, can answer God’s call to relieve the distress of the orphan in our world.
“We’ve been thinking about doing foster care,” a dear sister in Christ said to me. I have known her most of my life, love her dearly, and knew her heart was in the right place. Their congregation had just made a decision not to go in a particular direction regarding caring for vulnerable children and her sense of justice was frustrated by it. She wanted to do something to make a difference. I, of all people, could appreciate that. I know her family well, they are somewhat private people, her husband is in full time ministry and they are often stretched thin. I expressed to her that taking on the complex needs of a foster child (or 3 or 4) might not be in the best interest of their family, and that it is okay! Adopting or fostering is not something everyone should do. As a matter of fact, if you were to have an honest sit down with one of us who are in the trenches fighting this particular battle with sin, death, and darkness (Eph. 6:12), we might just discourage you from grabbing your M-1 rifle and hand grenades and jumping in. Not because we think you are incapable, but because we love you and want you to go in with eyes wide open regarding the unique wounds and the lasting scars you could acquire before jumping into this particular trench. There is sometimes a misunderstanding regarding caring for the fatherless. Sometimes many who want to make a difference but are not able or willing to foster or adopt simply walk away feeling helpless. My dear sister with an obedient heart to serve wanted to help in this battle, but didn’t understand that there are many other ways to make a difference besides fostering and adopting.
About 9% of the US population actually served in combat during World War II, however, history tells of the army back on the “home front” supporting them, making victory possible. From the little boy willing to recycle his metal toys to the rich businessman purchasing war bonds, it seems everyone was engaged in WW II on some level. A study done by Barna Group in 2013 showed that 8% of those claiming to be practicing Christians have fostered or adopted. This is about the same percentage of the population serving in combat in WW II. Foster and adoptive families as well as those working in orphan care across the globe need the church to be their “home front” in this battle. We need a body of people behind the scenes who are willing to sacrifice, to understand and passionately care about the battle we are fighting. Everyone can do something. You may not be able or willing to foster or adopt, and there is no guilt in that, but without a doubt, throughout scripture God has given all of His people the charge to care for the fatherless.
The battle looks different for every family, some will need more support than others. Everyone will have different needs. Here are a few practical ideas for you, as an individual or as a congregation, to truly help an adoptive or foster family who are raising children who have been affected by early childhood trauma. Trust parents to know what is best.
This point is first, and if I could only bring up one, it would be this. I cannot stress it enough! As I talk with adoptive families across the nation, the most important way they feel supported is when they are trusted by those around them regarding the care of their children. You may not realize this, but many adoptive and foster parents are constantly questioned regarding the unconventional way they parent their children. Traditional parenting techniques often do not work. We know because we have tried. The effects of early childhood trauma have rewired our children’s brains and left many of our kids with an unseen disability that is difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t live with it every day. To you, our child seems not only normal, but friendly, charming, and compliant. Please know the child you see is not always the child we live with.
I read an article once written by a Naval helicopter pilot. He said that in the military, there are the 3 C’s of trust; competence, caring, and communication. These families need you trust that they are competent, that they care, and they need to feel safe to communicate with you. Trust that they are competent in how they deal with their kids. They know what is best for their child and there is a great deal that those who don’t live with their child don’t understand. It’s okay that you don’t understand, but please trust that they, as the parent, do. Sometimes parents who are raising children from hard places may be perceived as being irrational, too harsh or too soft on their kids. They need you to trust that they care deeply about their child. Similar to the unseen brokenness in their children, these parents have lovingly sacrificed for their child and have wounds and battle scars that you will never see or know about. Trust that a mom cares when she asks you not to hug her child, or give them special treats, or when she says her child can’t come over to spend the night, or when she takes her child out for ice cream instead of disciplining them for poor behavior, or when she seems to be nagging her child about behavior that may seem completely normal to you. The list goes on. Please trust that these parents are coming from a place of love and are acting in the best interest of their child and their family. This is where communication becomes key. When you don’t understand, instead of assuming that the parent is being too lenient, harsh, or just plain controlling, please ask why. When they answer you, please believe what they say and listen with a compassionate heart to understand. Be willing to sit for a minute because the explanation may not be brief or simple.
Provide respite for parents.
Many churches set up respite programs for adoptive and foster families. If done well, the value of this cannot be underestimated. A respite system of understanding, trauma informed, and consistent caregivers can go a long way in relieving stress for these families. Much like in the military, where they provide R&R for soldiers, many of these families are fighting a daily battle that leaves them spiritually, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Marriages suffer, long time friendships become disconnected, building new friendships is difficult at best, and relationships inside the church that were once strong seem to diminish. It doesn’t take long for parents to feel isolated. Being intentional about taking time to reconnect as a married couple or with friends can rejuvenate and strengthen their bonds so their cup is filled with the energy to jump back in that trench.
Respite for a family can be as complex as organizing a support group, holding a “mom’s day out” as a church, or it can be as simple as an individual intentionally being in the lives of a family and becoming a trusted caregiver for their children in a moment of crisis. Provide physical needs.
Some parents like offers to bring meals or clean the house. A close friend once wisely said to me, "The best way to help people is to simply do what they ask." I am one who feels that feeding my family and cleaning my house is a regular part of living my life (even with the added challenge of my kids with greater emotional needs). Other families very much appreciate not having to think about dinner once in a while amidst a crazy day of meltdowns, arguing, and emotional stress. Encourage these families to be honest about what they need, then simply do what they ask.
Another thought is to help financially. All over the world, there are many organizations who are doing great work in fighting the orphan crisis that need your financial help to do the work they do. Domestically, many families have financial needs that stem from their adoption that you might not think about; ongoing therapy, destruction to their home, legal costs, adoption expenses and more. Having a group of mindful people around who are willing to meet practical needs can take a huge burden off of a struggling family. Pray for them and let them know you are praying for them.
It strengthens my heart to know that others are entering the throne room of God asking Him to give our entire family what we need in this battle. Listen!
If an adoptive or foster mom wants to explain a part of this struggle to you, please take a moment to truly listen and learn. Let her be a mess for a minute. She doesn't have a lot of spare time on her hands and is most likely telling you because she trusts you with intimate information about her family and she wants you to know. Don't expect to understand fully what she is going through and know that it's okay that you don't understand. Like so many things in life, you really can't understand unless you have lived it so she really doesn't expect you to. Recognize that her situation is unique in many ways and be ready to accept her and her child where they are.
Whatever you do...DON'T SHUT THEM OUT! Sometimes these families are difficult to maintain a relationship with. Please try, no matter how difficult it may be. Personally, our family would look very different if it weren’t for those who have cared enough to take time to support us, love us and go the extra mile to understand and accept us as we work through our daily struggles.
Research, train, and learn.
The more you learn, the more you will understand what these families need. Work to create a culture in your congregation that has a heart to understand the special needs of these families and how to become a safe place to those who are fighting this battle. I know of countless families who have grown weary of attending bible class, worship, small groups, etc. because brethren were not tolerant of their children’s behavior. With a little bit of knowledge, compassion, and intentional planning you can be a huge support that will enable these families not only attend, but feel as if they are in a place where they belong.
A few practical suggestions and resources:
Your congregation can host a simulcast conference called Empowered to Connect. It is held annually, has a biblical worldview, and is specifically designed to help encourage and better understand adoptive and foster families. This also serves as a great outreach opportunity. Visit showhope.org for more information.
One of many books I would recommend is: The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Karyn Purvis
Train your bible class teachers and those who deal with children to identify trauma behaviors and triggers and how to deal with them. Even just a quick visit to this website and watching a few short videos would be very helpful.
Study the bible through the eyes of adoption. Learn what God says about His adoption of us, study people like Esther and Moses who were adopted, and study what God says about caring for orphans. Preach about it from the pulpit. Make adoption and caring for the fatherless a regular part of what you do and talk about as a congregation.
Every orphan’s journey begins with tragedy and/or death and if we don’t step in, many of these children will be vulnerable, hopeless, and forgotten. But we, the church, are who God has chosen to provide hope and healing in the brokenness of their lives. We are who He has chosen to show them they are loveable, precious, valuable, and worthy. You don’t have to foster or adopt a child to do that. You just have to be willing to open your heart and your mind to have compassion and understand. If you or your congregation are interested in helping on the home front of this battle, there will be a conference in the fall of 2019 to help churches learn and grow in this area. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Those of us in the trenches of foster care and adoption beg you on behalf of the vulnerable children we love to be our “home front” in this battle. We truly are in this together.