There’s a young mum crying in the church car park. She was told that her child is not welcome in Sunday school. The Sunday school teacher tried to be kind about it, but the child just wouldn’t sit still for the Bible story. He was naughty and disruptive. “I’m sorry. Perhaps you should consider going to another church that can better fulfill his needs.”
I wish I could tell you this is an isolated story, but sadly I have met quite a few foster parents who have been de-churched since they started to care for vulnerable children. I wish I could tell you that I find this easy to understand, that my sympathy is with over-worked and under-valued volunteer Sunday school teachers, of whom I know many. But I find it unacceptable that Christians who have stepped forward to demonstrate the mercy, compassion, and hospitality of God in one of the most transformative, costly, and missiologically compelling ways are often made to feel unwelcome in their own church families. It’s one of the reasons I am on a mission to change the way the church sees both the vulnerable children in our society and those who care for them.
Fortunately a growing number of churches are recognising that caring for vulnerable children is an essential part of the church’s responsibility. As I travel around churches in the UK and in the US, I have seen some stunning examples of churches supporting those who care in their congregations.
Based on those examples, I want to recommend five things church leaders can do to better support foster and adoptive families.
1. Teach about fostering and adoption.
Church leaders can help a congregation catch a vision for caring for vulnerable children by taking time to expound relevant parts of the Bible, of which there are many. According to a recent survey by LifeWay, 45 percent of US churchgoers say their church has had no conversation about foster care or adoption. Yet preaching on this topic can reframe fostering and adoption for a congregation. Many people inside and outside the church see fostering as something poor people do to earn money and adoption as the last resort for the infertile. Neither of these attitudes capture the biblical understanding of these issues. God adopted us driven by his altruistic compassion towards us, not because of any need he had for us. His love overflowed and extended to include sinful, distant people in his family. At its best, adoption is a lived parable of God’s adopting grace towards us.
We also need to help Christians grasp the fact that international adoption is not the only way to help vulnerable children overseas. In the US foster care system, there are currently 100,000 children waiting to be adopted through a process that is absolutely free. The money people spend on international adoption fees could instead be sent to assist family reunification projects and local adoption in other countries.
2. Train leaders and volunteers about vulnerable children.
The needs of foster children and those who have been adopted from the care system are often very different from the needs of other children in your church’s youth and children’s ministries. There are excellent resources to help train yourself and congregants about attachment theory—such as Karyn Purvis and David Cross’s The Connected Child—and the trauma situations children may have come from. Many standard parenting and behavior management techniques need to be radically rethought when applied to “looked after” children.
The best way to help is to be in close conversation with the child’s parents or caregivers and to ask them how best to work with their child. Even experienced youth and children’s workers need to let parents be the experts about their children, so make sure those teams show humility and respect to the caregivers.
Unfortunately children in care are more likely than others to have additional needs. A recent survey found that US churches often exclude children with Autism and ADD/ADHD. This is particularly depressing—if there is anywhere in the universe where people should know they are welcomed, loved, and supported it should be the church. In church community we are called to live out the truth that all human beings are made in the image of God and therefore are of intrinsic and infinite worth. Churches that are not prepared to welcome children with additional needs will struggle to support foster and adoptive families. Alternately those that take seriously the value of all human life by welcoming children with additional needs can become a lifeline to families who have been de-churched.
3. As a church leader, consider adopting or fostering.
One way a church can create a more supporting environment for vulnerable children and their families is for leaders to foster or adopt. Not every church leader has the unique set of circumstances, gifts, dispositions, and passions to adopt or foster, and there is no scriptural command that says every Christian should do this. But the Bible includes strong directives that the normal Christian life involves radical hospitality towards the needy.
There is also a clear biblical mandate for demonstrating godliness by emulating God’s character. God is personally interested in vulnerable children. In Psalm 68:5, God is described as a “father to the fatherless.” Psalm 146:9 say God “sustains the fatherless and the widow.” If this is how God wants to be known, then we should be known for this too. That means some church leaders need to model to the church what that looks like in our family lives. I am encouraged by the viral impact a leader who fosters or adopts can have on the life and witness of their church.
4. Pray as a community.
Not everyone is called to be a foster carer or adoptive parent, just as not everyone in the church is called to be a cross-cultural missionary. But in the same way we all have a responsibility to support and pray for cross-cultural mission work, the needs of vulnerable children should form a significant part of our prayer lives. Consider reaching out to your local child welfare office and asking how your church might pray for the workers there. I’ve seen offers of prayer like that lead churches to become involved in other practical ways. At the very least, it signals to the department that the church cares about the work they do. During your corporate time of prayer, you could profile some children who are waiting for adoptive families. Who knows if God might speak to someone in your congregation about stepping forward?
5. Support foster and adoptive families—and don’t stop.
In his book Everyone Can Do Something, foster dad Jason Johnson presents a model of support and care for foster families. In the UK, we call this model “wraparound support.” Not everyone is called to foster or adopt children, but everyone can play a part in caring for them. Johnson offers a helpful diagram to inspire members of the wider church family to encourage and support caregivers in a multitude of ways (with their permission). These include house cleaning, buying groceries, donating supplies, lawn care, transportation, attending court appointments with them, and more.
When people in your church step forward to adopt or foster vulnerable children in your community, they will need all the help they can get. Early childhood trauma like physical abuse, neglect, and sexual violence will likely have a lifelong impact on vulnerable children. This means foster and adoptive families need immediate and long-term support. Many foster carers and adopters tell me churches that help often do so only at the beginning. Then support wanes as time goes by.
Children in foster care are made in God’s image and need your church’s help, as do the adults who care for them. With God’s help we can embrace these families and make a difference in the lives of those who need our help.
Krish Kandiah is the founder of the fostering and adoption charity Home for Good and lectures on justice, hospitality, and mission at Regents Park College, Oxford University, and Regent College Vancouver. He is the author of Home for Good: Making a Difference for Vulnerable Children (2014).