Heather Creed grew up in suburban Indiana and attended Taylor University, expecting her life trajectory to be similar to that of many of her friends. “I always thought I would marry and have seven kids and be a stay-at-home, homeschool mom,” Creed said. “That’s clearly not what happened.”

Creed, 45, is now an attorney who settled in Columbus, Ohio, after stints in Waco, Texas, and New York City. Her family isn’t the traditional midwestern one of her childhood. She never married. But that didn’t stop her from adopting two boys and recently becoming licensed, for the second time, to foster children in her home.

Andy Jackson, 33, was single when he started fostering a decade ago while working as a special education teacher in Pell City, Alabama. He adopted his first child when he was 23 and went on to adopt two more children, one with special needs.

Now married, he and his wife have eight children—including a toddler they are in the process of adopting together, three biological children from his wife’s previous marriage, and one she adopted with her deceased husband. Collectively, they estimate, they have fostered more than 50 children through foster and respite care.

Angelle Jones, 64, was one of the first in her community to foster or adopt when she took in a five-year-old girl in Cincinnati in 1978. She was 21 then and hadn’t met another single African American adoptive parent like her—or even a black couple who had adopted from an agency. (Kinship adoption was more common, she said.) More recently, she’s had multiple conversations with single women around her who are considering adoption.

While adoption and orphan care have long been core causes for evangelicals, they have largely had the nuclear family at their center. In his 2010 case for “Why Every Christian Is Called to Support Adoption,” Russell Moore wrote in CT that “the fatherhood of God is better understood in a culture where children know what it means to say ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy.’”

Creed, Jackson, and Jones represent a small but significant number of Christian women and men pursuing foster care and adoption while single. Like other single parents, these single parents by choice often face immense financial and lifestyle challenges. But in evangelical churches, such parents also have to swim against the current of long-held norms around family.

As many Christians remain single longer and later, however, advocates say that singles who foster and adopt are finding increased acceptance and support among their fellow conservative Christians.

Singles—mostly women—accounted for nearly 30 percent of all public adoptions in 2019, taking in more than 19,000 children. The Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t track adoptive parents by religion and doesn’t distinguish between never-married and divorced individuals, but limited data from the National Survey of Family Growth shows that unmarried evangelical and nonevangelical women express similar levels of interest in adopting.

Jedd Medefind, president of the advocacy and support group Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), said he has seen singles involved in foster care and adoption throughout his career, but he’s noticed it a lot more in the past five to seven years, as foster care and adoption in general have surged in the church.

“It’s been a steady increase in both interest and engagement by singles in every facet of working with vulnerable children—foster care, adoption, mentoring,” Medefind said. “There is a desire to live out God’s call in practical ways, for their faith to not just be theoretical but to serve in hands-on ways.”

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Atlanta’s North Point Community Church is one place where that desire is evident. More than 100 families are involved in its Fostering Together ministry, which supports foster and adoptive families across the multisite church’s seven locations. At the Buckhead campus alone, nearly half of the 13 families with foster children are parented by single adults.

Alison Feyereisen, who helps lead the ministry, hasn’t seen any recent surge in singles taking in children, but she has noticed that “the church seems to be more welcoming and supporting it better than [in] years before.” Fostering Together aims to bolster that support—for singles and couples—by providing both adults and children with what Feyereisen calls “wraparound care” that is holistic and practical and by engaging in churchwide activism and prayer.

“Psalm 68 says that God puts the lonely in families. And that’s not primarily just talking about a biological nuclear family; it’s talking about the people of God,” said pastor and The Gospel Coalition editor Sam Allberry in a TGC video in early 2019. “A single person may be thinking, ‘I’m just a mum or just a dad and I can’t do the role of both parents,’ but actually, with the support of a wider church family, that child should be growing up in a very, very healthy family context. I think it’s a great thing for singles to adopt.”

Helping singles who are already caring for vulnerable children seems like a natural role for churches. But how much they should encourage singles to pursue foster care—and especially adoption—is far less clear.

Historically, married couples have been upheld as the ideal family model, including for foster care and adoption. The Child Welfare League of America standardized its commitment in 1958, stating that adoptive families should include both a mother and a father. Efforts to recruit single adults to adopt began in the 1960s, according to the University of Oregon’s Adoption History Project, when the Los Angeles Bureau of Adoptions tapped single African Americans to help place black children.

The church, in particular, has had a “high view of the nuclear family and a hesitancy about intentionally forming families that are something other than a traditional, two-parent home,” according to Jonathan Reid, the founder of Fostering Hope, a New England–based group that supports local churches in foster care and adoption.

Steve Roach, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Springfield, Illinois, told The Heritage Foundation in 2018 that “our preference for non-relative foster placements was with married couples to give children the opportunity for a mother and a father figure in their lives. We would work with single parents as long as they were not cohabitating with another adult.”

“There is no perfect family, but there can be a ‘just right fit.’” – Cheri Williams, Bethany Christian Services

While most states allow for adoption by an unmarried person, in Arizona and Utah, married couples are explicitly preferred over single-parent households. Individual agencies have their own preferences, which often stem from religious objections to cohabiting or same-sex parenting and have been challenged in court. Policies at some faith-based agencies that prohibit placement with LGBT couples, for instance, are at the center of a case currently before the Supreme Court.

Many studies have shown detrimental effects on children who grow up in single-parent households instead of two-parent households. And children who are adopted or fostered are more likely to struggle socially, emotionally, and academically, said sociologist and National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox.

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“Single parents and single mothers may struggle with the challenges of raising a kid in foster care without having a second parent to support them and support the child,” he said.

In some situations, that could be dangerous, he said, putting the parent, the child, or both at risk. Foster children especially are already in a difficult situation, and Wilcox believes that in most cases, agencies should prioritize placements with married, two-parent households for the sake of stability and support for the children.

But for singles like Clarise Cannings, running up against the traditional agency preference for married parents can feel like a personal rejection. The 42-year-old originally applied to a private Christian agency when she was pursuing foster care in Bowie, Maryland.

“They were looking for a certain type of person to be an adoptive parent,” she said. When the agency found out that she was single and worked full-time (even though she worked from home and her company was supportive of foster care), Cannings said they told her they “have moms we use.”

“It hurt a lot,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t think I was motherly enough.”

That agency referred Cannings to a public agency, and she has since fostered eight different children from newborn to 19 years old over the past two years. The only time she declined a placement was when the agency asked if she could take both a one-year-old and a three-year-old. Despite her desire, she felt that wasn’t wise as a single person.

“I had a yearning to be a mother. I recognized that there were children who need a mother. The Lord allowed me to have these rooms, this space, and allowed me to have room in my heart,” she said.

Advocates like Reid think evangelical attitudes toward single parenting by choice are shifting. One reason could be reduced stigma toward single parenting generally, given the prevalence of divorce within the church and the desire among Christians to support mothers who otherwise might choose an abortion, said R. Marie Griffith, a professor of humanities at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied trends among evangelical women.

Marriage rates, too, are declining inside and outside the church, leaving more single women childless. Reid, who said his own views on the issue have evolved, noted that singles have other entry points beyond fostering and adoption: There is respite care (a trained position to aid foster families), or working with emergency placements that are as temporary as a day or a weekend.

“Is it ideal for a kid to be in foster care with two parents? Yes, of course,” Reid said. But there are so many kids and the need is so urgent that there is “absolutely a place” for singles to provide direct care for at-risk children.

For a child coming from an unstable background, living with just one stable parent can be a huge improvement. And in some cases, singleness can be an advantage: Children with a history of sexual or physical abuse, refugee children, or teen boys with a violent history toward men (for instance, protecting their mother from her batterer) might benefit from placement with a single woman, said Cheri Williams, who oversees Bethany Christian Services’ domestic programs.

“There’s the myth of the perfect family or stay-at-home mom,” Williams said. “There is no perfect family, but there can be a ‘just right fit.’ You’re not meeting family’s needs; you’re meeting the kid’s needs.”

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Bethany estimates that about 20 percent of its foster parents are unmarried. The agency saw a 3 percent increase in single foster parents from 2019 to 2020, according to a spokesperson. There are more than 400,000 children in foster care nationwide, with 120,000 of them eligible for adoption right now.

In March, Bethany announced it would allow LGBT couples to foster and adopt nationwide, in a move to be inclusive toward different arrangements of parents (it was already allowing such foster placements in some states).

Williams’s team watches for certain red flags when they consider placements with single people. They try to weed out those who may be motivated by the financial “benefits” of foster care (which is a myth, Williams added) or by overly strong maternal instincts, which she calls the “motherhood motivation.”

Single parenting by choice is a calling. It’s not for people who simply want to “experience having kids,” said Robin Gerardi, head of WeFoster, a ministry of First Baptist Church Woodstock in Georgia. WeFoster provides extra support for single foster moms—who make up 12 of the 60 foster families at the church—including laundry services, handyman volunteers, and meal trains when a family receives a placement.

Image: Illustration by Pete Ryan

“We’ve proven that single moms are some of our best foster moms. They get it, they focus on the kids,” Gerardi said.

Heather Creed agrees. “I don’t have to worry about the health of my marriage and myself and my husband and any biological children,” she said. “I can give so much more focus to the healing and restoration of the child.”

Still, like Gerardi, Creed cautions those in particular who want to adopt simply out of a parental desire to have kids. “There are a whole lot of issues that will emerge from that,” she said.

Cristen Simcox, 31, also believes that singles don’t have to adopt. There’s a waiting list for adoption, she said, but not for foster care and “in the gap” care.

Simcox felt led to foster while a pediatric emergency room nurse in Temple, Texas, after seeing the awful circumstances her young patients faced. She and a friend—also a single Christian and an ER nurse—had wanted to house children in need but felt their unpredictable schedules would make it too difficult.

“Logistically, neither of us could do it alone, but maybe we could together,” she said. So, they moved in together. Though their parenting styles were different, Simcox said, they were able to support each other and lean on the wraparound care of their community.

“I really wanted to show [the kids] the love that God has for them for whatever period I had with them in my home.” Simcox ultimately adopted her first two placements before meeting her future husband, Stephen. They met on a dating app, and she wasn’t able to hide the fact that she was a single mom.

“I had baby clothes in a bag on our first date,” Simcox said. “So, I told him right away. He was surprised but was attracted to my heart for the Lord.”

With widespread evangelical enthusiasm for adoption and foster care, it can be easy to forget those institutions only exist because of widespread brokenness.

In some ways, singles are catching the sharpest pieces when families and communities break.

Health and Human Services data shows that, in public adoptions nationally, singles have been more likely than married couples to adopt children with special needs. It’s difficult to know exactly what this means, since many adoptions happen privately and each situation is unique. But it suggests that often, “single parents offer families of last resort for desperate children who have no other choices,” according to the authors of the Adoption History Project.

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Creed, a white woman, feels she has stepped into the pain of broken families in new ways as she parents 13- and 5-year-old fatherless black boys. It’s part of the reason she moved to New York City from Texas.

“I will never understand what it means to be black, a black man, adopted, and raised by a single mom. But they both do, and they have each other,” she said. “It wasn’t their choice; they didn’t have any say whether they were going to be raised by a single mom.”

While her church is very supportive and several men there are good role models for her boys, Creed realizes they can never fully substitute for a father.

“It’s not how it’s supposed to be,” she said. “I don’t think that makes [adoption as a single person] wrong, and certainly not sinful, but I think it’s a result of brokenness.”

Angelle Jones was raised without the picture-perfect nuclear family, and she didn’t see that as a barrier to her own desire to provide a home for children.

“I grew up with a single mom. She made it look easy. I realize in my community and context there were more single parents than married. It was a norm for me,” said Jones, who never married and who adopted her daughter in 1984 after two years of fostering. Sixteen years later, she also raised her granddaughter. “For years I didn’t meet any single African American women who adopted.”

Now, she is having more conversations with unmarried women in their 40s who are considering adoption, but she doesn’t necessarily recommend it to them. It’s hard, she says, and foster care may be the better route as a single person. But she recognizes the benefit: She learned deep sacrifice and found a “level of love that single women who never marry and never have children have the opportunity to experience.”

While many singles say that fostering and adopting are isolating experiences, others have found a wider network. There are global or national communities on social media, such as the 5,000-member “Single Foster Mommas” Facebook group. “Please remember that we are looking for women who are unmarried and doing this without a spouse,” wrote the administrators in the group’s description.

But Christian community is harder to find. Singles who might already feel overlooked in the church can feel even more like outsiders when they begin foster care, said CAFO’s national director for church initiatives Jason Johnson. The feeling of not belonging can be “compounded with singles,” he said.

In some ways, singles are catching the sharpest pieces when families and communities break.

Many men and women interviewed by CT mentioned that around the same time that they started considering taking children into their homes, they had changed churches to find a more supportive community.

Jillian Hazel, 33, is a preschool teacher and has fostered children of all ages over the past two years from her home in Tulsa. At-risk children have always been a big part of her life through professional and volunteer engagements. But fostering a different child every few months “felt like whiplash,” she said. She has at times struggled to find her place in her church’s social structure as an unmarried working woman, parenting kids in constantly changing stages.

“My church is incredible. They do trauma-informed care, and even still I feel like people don’t know how to think of me,” Hazel said. With her current placement, a 13-year-old girl, she gets together with families that have older children. But she socialized with different families when she housed a two-year-old boy.

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This year, during the pandemic, caring for a child “who is experiencing the effects of trauma, isolation, and puberty has made this the hardest year of my life so far,” she said. No one else is there to help her, to take the child for a minute while she does chores. Although she worked through the desire to be married before fostering, she said, she felt the weight of her singleness again while fostering. But she has learned to lean on the sufficiency of Christ.

“When I come up against the fact of my own weakness as one person to be everything they need in a parent, I remember that I can trust myself and them to his hands,” she said. She recalled rocking her two-year-old to sleep, singing his favorite worship song: “King of My Heart.”

“As I rocked him to sleep, overwhelmed with the children’s needs and my own fears and inadequacy, the words I was singing were, ‘[You’re] never gonna let me down. You are good, good.’”

Despite the unprecedented challenges of parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers of families interested in foster care and adoption have actually increased. Bethany saw a 55 percent jump in families
expressing interest.

Sarah Cruz is one of them. Spending time in quarantine during 2020 crystallized her desire to adopt. Never married at 41, Cruz had chewed on the idea for 10 years but now has begun fundraising and working with an adoption consultant—someone to walk her through the process. It was not an easy decision.

“The scriptural command to care for widows and orphans is very clear, but I believe it’s ideal for a child to have a mom and a dad, so I never considered being a single parent,” said Cruz, who is also the creative director for Saddleback Church in Southern California.

For Cruz, as for many people, quarantine exacerbated feelings that singles like her don’t have much support in the church in general, let alone if they are considering adoption. “Single people struggle to find their place since the church is built a lot around the nuclear family,” she said.

Only after starting her process did she learn of other single people involved in foster care and adoption at her church. “While I feel like I intellectually know there’s support for adoptive parents, I have yet to know how much support there will be for me,” she said.

Cruz wrestles with plenty of questions: Am I just adopting because I want to force God’s hand? Do I just want to move into the next chapter? Is it okay to start a family while you’re single? Is this really God’s will?

“There’s a big gap in conversation in the church that I know, for myself, I’m having to sort through it by myself and I don’t have the answers,” Cruz said. “I trust, as I move forward in this, that God will continue to lead me and guide me.”

Move forward she will. Cruz was recently matched with a birth mom. Her little girl is due in April.

Kara Bettis is associate features editor for Christianity Today.

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