Shannon Dingle is one of the voices at the forefront of the evangelical adoption movement. An advocate for adoption, foster care, and children with special needs, Dingle and her husband Lee have six children, four of whom were adopted and five of whom have medical, physical, psychological, or neurological diagnoses. Her writing and speaking has been featured on the Today Show, NPR, and in the Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry, and she maintains a blog called Dinglefest, where she writes about her family and ministry. This week, she answers a few of our questions about how churches can better embody Christ’s call to care for “the least of these.”
Many churches have embraced adoption and foster care, but smaller churches might be intimidated by the scale of the need and their lack of resources. What encouragement would you give leaders of such churches?
In the programmatic culture of so many churches, the idea of inclusive ministry seems scary. Many leaders are intimidated because they simply don't have the resources for yet another program. That concern is valid.
But including foster and adoptive families isn't about a program; it's about a mindset. Your mission and vision for serving any family still applies to families like mine. An extra layer of knowledge or support about childhood trauma or specific disabilities might be needed, but we're a family first and foremost, and our kids are kids first and foremost. Instead of getting overwhelmed by what you don't know (yet), rest in what you already know about loving family well and pointing them to Christ.
The messiness of foster care and adoption can cause tensions in churches. How do you encourage leaders to work through these challenges?
We like Easter. We like the end of Daniel 3. We like testimonies of God's deliverance. But God calls us to enter into the mess with others in love, instead of just asking them to wait to come to us until they're clean. Any ministry done well is going to be messy because we are all messy, sinful people in a messy, broken world.
Foster care and adoption put a magnifying glass over specific kinds of mess for us. For starters, those realities show us all the ways in which a child ends up needing a short- or long-term home outside of his or her family of origin: abuse, neglect, poverty, disease, mental illness, substance abuse, death, or other life circumstances that lead a first parent to—by their own choice or by others' intervention—not raise their biological child. In even the best cases, adoption and foster care always involve loss. We are called to reflect Christ's love into that mess with our presence and proximity while valuing their dignity as image bearers of God, no matter what the adoption or foster care narrative might be.
Special needs families often feel alone. How can churches embrace their need and provide some respite and relief?
I love that in John 9:1, Jesus sees the man who is blind before the disciples even comment on his condition. More than anything, all of us want to be seen and known. For special needs families, being seen and known means we aren't pitied or treated as projects, but rather that you're willing to listen and enter into our realities to know our needs.
More than anything, special needs families like ours need to know that your “yes” means “yes” and isn't contingent upon how easy we are to embrace. We're willing to help you and work with you to figure out the finer points as long as you're willing to love us well.
What should pastors and leaders communicate in order to build a culture of life in their churches?
The Bible isn't silent on disability, hardship, or trauma, so pastors shouldn't be either. While some leaders are well-versed in theological theodicy, we need you to be comfortable with practical theodicy that doesn't try to gloss over our difficulties or wrap up our present difficulties into a tidy package with a Romans 8:28 bow.
While we see the three men emerge from the furnace in Daniel 3, many of us are living in the furnace. Do your sermons and teaching meet us there and teach the rest of the body how to dwell in discomfort with us? When we are actively acknowledging that both God and we are willing to enter into the hard places, that shows our value for all life in all stages.