With the mild resurgence that is taking place right now in the adoptive and foster care movement within evangelicalism, church leaders and members alike are beginning to recognize that something of orphan care runs in the blood of every believer—since God “predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5).
At the same time, with this increased zeal for adoption ministry has also come some considerable ignorance about the best ways in which churches can support families who bring needy children into their home.
Meaning to help, sometimes our brothers and sisters in the Lord can hurt. Consider four common ways this can happen—and how they can be avoided.
1. Putting Foster and Adoptive Families on a Pedestal
This usually comes in the form of a phrase like, “Wow, good for you—I could never do that.” What is meant as a genuine expression of praise for a good deed can have two unforeseen negative consequences.
First, the most immediate effect is that the family caring for the child(ren) are placed in an exalted position. They are unique, called, gifted. Certainly in some cases this is true—God has given a family a unique capacity. But ask most foster or adoptive families if they felt uniquely qualified to care for non-biological children before embarking on such a task, and the answer is often no. Many feel that they are simply making their tiny contribution to the great imperative of James 1:27—“to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Sometimes it feels rather uncomfortable to have others applaud simple acts of obedience when “we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10).
But a second more subtle consequence of pedestal language is that, I believe, it is a means by which the individual giving the complement is subconsciously dissociating him or herself from his own perceived moral duty. It is possible that by creating an artificial category for certain people within the body of Christ—a “special calling”—those of us shirking our biblical calling to care for orphans can absolve ourselves of responsibility. In the same way in which we task pastors alone with the job of discipling our children and missionaries alone with the obligation to evangelism, our sinful nature makes us prone to dismiss ourselves from our own callings as long as someone else out there is stepping up.
That said, it is true that not everyone should foster or adopt. But every follower of Christ is called to respond in some way, in light of their ability and opportunities and in relationship with the local church, to the physical, emotional, or spiritual needs of children at risk, taking up “the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17).
2. Dote Excessively on Children
Sometimes foster or adoptive families stand out—especially when ethnicities differ. Well-meaning people are magnetically attracted to these and, with the best of intentions, act on the gut impulse to shower the children with affection—physical touch, gifts, food, and enthusiastic greetings in high-pitched voices.
Few understand that this behavior can be counter-intuitive for the parents. Sweeping amounts of children in care suffer from attachment issues, ranging from relatively minor relational strains all the way to diagnosable reactive attachment disorder (R.A.D.). Children in care struggle to form healthy, secure attachments with caregivers, and, depending on their family history, develop particular issues with certain categories of people.
For example, I recently heard of an adoptive family with a child from Haiti who had become so conditioned to receiving endless attention from young, white women—mostly on short-term relief trips from the States—that the parents had to advise their young, white female friends to simply turn and ignore the child when he would seek to be held or cuddled.
Withholding affection, or particular forms of affection, may seem odd to the family friend, but it’s critical to the health of the family dynamics. Unless the child learns that a certain type of caregiver (young, white females, for instance) is not a fount of endless attention, he or she can develop extremely harmful patterns of behavior throughout life, using others to fill an emotional void all while keeping the truly committed caregivers at arms’ length.
The type of affection one shows matters as well. One would think that it goes unsaid in our hyper-vigilant culture that physical touch is dangerous, but that simply isn’t true. It must be said regardless: physical touch is dangerous. It’s almost never appropriate outside of immediate family relationships, and should always be limited to handshakes, high-fives, and fist-bumps that are either child-initiated or approved. Nothing is more confusing and potentially harmful for a child in care than hugs from strangers or—to call a spade a spade—overly-friendly, elderly, white church ladies running their hands through an African American boy’s hair to see what it’s like. (It happens.)
Similar issues arise with excessive food or gift-giving, which a trauma-affected child can easily employ as emotional Band-Aids.
You may spot a foster or adoptive family in your church and get excited. That family might just radiate some sort of beauty, superficial or otherwise—especially when decked out in matching Sunday morning apparel. Contain yourself. Even an overly-enthused greeting like, “Well, who’s this little fella?” can off-put a child who already feels like an outsider and undo the parents’ hard work in forming bonds.
3. Ascribe Motivations
Another case of church member zeal without knowledge is when one assumes certain motivations on the part of the family—motivations like infertility.
You may have a niece who adopted from Uganda because she and her husband couldn’t conceive, or you may know a lady in your neighborhood who cares for her granddaughter because the girl’s mother is out on the street, but it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps the family you’re talking to didn’t have fertility issues but felt strongly convicted that they were called to foster. Perhaps the little black boy isn’t adopted from Africa, just because his parents are white—he might just be from your own city.
The point is that no two situations are entirely alike. In a well-intentioned effort to relate to a family in your church, you may try too hard to draw parallels between their situation and so-and-so’s situation you heard about, and in the process betray that you know very little about it all.
Instead, ask questions sensitively. (Most families welcome such questions and invite the conversation, when handled appropriately and not around little listening ears.) Listen. Seek to understand. Fight the temptation to inject your own anecdotes into the conversations unless they’re particularly relevant or you do have some special insight or experience. The result will be that the family you’re meeting will feel cared for, loved, and heard.
4. Reason From Your Own Experiences
Related to the previous two gaffes, one must also guard against the temptation to reason from one’s own experiences in giving advice, oftentimes unsolicited, to foster and adoptive families.
The human services fields are just beginning to wrap their collective minds around how trauma shapes mental, emotional, and even physical development. As noted above, the impact of trauma on a child’s life and ability to form attachments can often mean that your first instinct is exactly the opposite of what you should do.
Case in point: a young family has a bright-eyed foster daughter who loves to bring grown-ups into her imaginary games. You’re visiting the home, and the parents seem tired—and understandably so. You come to the rescue by letting the girl lead you by the hand into her playroom, and soon you’re donning a tutu and sipping invisible tea at her plastic table.
On the one hand, you know this young girl has had a difficult life, and it’s a joy to give her some simple, friendly attention—attention she needs.
But conversely, you might not know that the girl has bounced from placement to placement throughout her early years and uses play as a way of leeching affection from adults. She may become anxious when asked to play by herself, and such anxiety unaddressed in the course of a lifetime can lead to serious bad habits and less healthy ways of attention-seeking. For months the parents have been coaching the girl on choosing her own activities and playing alone, and they’re making some progress. That is, until you visit the home and undo all their work, and she spends the next month asking her caretakers when you’ll next be stopping by.
Talk to the parents. Learn how they run their home. Help as needed, step back when not. Don’t assume that what worked for your biological children will work for them.
Of course, there are countless healthy ways in which the spiritual family within the local church can minister to foster and adoptive families. At the risk of addressing problems without giving solutions, consider three effective ways of helping:
1. Pray Fervently.
My wife and I have often literally felt the impact of our church family’s prayers for us as various tense points along our journey. Legal situations are slow and always changing. Intercessory prayer is indispensable. “I’ll pray for you” isn’t a cop-out—it’s essential.
2. Meet Basic Needs
Oftentimes, the foster or adoptive parents you know have very basic needs. They want a date night, some adult conversation, or maybe just a pizza delivered to their house. You might not be able to fix the family’s issues or bring healing, but you can always bring a meal, babysit, or write an encouraging card. Consider organizing families within your church to offer respite care, or consider how your current children’s ministry or Sunday school can adapt its normal structure to address resource families’ unique issues. Rather than aiming all your ministry at the children themselves, aim to give parents the chance to recuperate and recharge so that they can be better equipped for their ministry with their children.
Not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).
3. Preach the Gospel Consistently
Situations change. Foster placements come and go. Adoptive children sometimes integrate well, and in other situations grow up wrestling with lifelong struggles that inflict pain on the parents who lovingly chose them. The goal of foster and adoptive ministry is not to have an adorable mixed family; it’s to love children and raise up godly adults.
So as children and families filter in and out of various ministries in your church, the absolute best thing you can do is preach the gospel plainly at all age levels. Let those children who wouldn’t have been at your church otherwise encounter the good news while they’re in your midst. Remind tired parents that it isn’t all about them and their struggles and that there’s a glorious, risen Lord Christ who is sovereign over their messy family. When physical needs are at their greatest, don’t be afraid to shed light on our universal need for salvation from eternal judgment available through the God who himself fostered-to-adopt us.
Churches: thank you for all that you do to support the special families in your midst. Don’t stop.
For more ways churches can connect members to foster and adoptive ministries, see my interview with Dan Dumas on The Missions Podcast.