The safest place on earth - Part two

Becoming a church that welcomes adoptive families

By Michael Munroe

I believe that adoptive and foster families are making it clear – they are saying that far too often our local churches are not “safe” places for them – or at least not as “safe” as they can and should be. The unavoidable reality is that many families have responded in faith by pursuing adoption or foster care, sometimes against all odds and in the face of significant and daunting challenges. Simply put, these families have refused to “play it safe.” They’ve said “Yes!” to the lifelong journey of adoption or foster care . . . and I believe that our churches must in turn discover how to honour these responses of faith, obedience and courage by becoming communities that openly welcome, truly understand and fully embrace adoptive and foster families.

Becoming a “safe place” for those who don’t play it safe

I believe there are five essential things local churches must commit to become in order to be the “safest place on earth” for adoptive and foster families. Make no mistake, each local church ministry will express a unique sense of community and way of doing ministry that is all its own. I am not suggesting a prescription for one size that fits all, or even a specific ministry model to be applied uniformly. Instead, I am emphasizing what our churches need to “become,” rather than merely “do.” It is fundamental that our communities of faith fully realize and embrace the lifelong journey that these families are walking – and commit to being a church that will walk beside them each and every step of the way.

Churches that desire to become a “safe place” must:

1. Become missional

The term “missional” is much in vogue in church circles these days, and undoubtedly it has a variety of meanings ultimately focused on the role of the Church in proclaiming the Good News. But the term also clearly emphasizes a need to become intentional and focused in communicating and living out a message of hope and love. Churches that are missional as it relates to adoption and foster care reach out to adoptive and foster families. These missional churches are willing and able to translate that message of hope and love being lived out in the lives of these families to a broader church culture that, in many ways, does not have an accurate, realistic and healthy understanding of adoption and foster care. 

In order to become missional in this respect, churches must go out of their way to tell the stories of adoptive and foster families. They must also better consider the needs and unique characteristics of these families as they develop and design their programs and activities. In short, churches must embrace every aspect of the unique journey that God has called these families to. This process of becoming missional is, much like the overall process of becoming a “safe” place for adoptive and foster families, just that – a process. The transformation will not occur all at once, but neither will our churches become the “safest place on earth” by accident. They must determine to become intentional and focused about living out the heart of God for the orphan and loving and serving families who faithfully respond by adopting or fostering.

2. Become open and willing to learn

Effectively ministering to adoptive and foster families (as well as those who are exploring) will require that our churches become far more educated on the subjects of adoption and foster care. I believe that staff and lay leaders alike must become familiar with the facts and realities that confront these families and their children. This will require that they begin to listen, read and research as they seek to truly understand realities about which too many in our churches are completely unaware. It will require an effort to understand the perspectives and struggles of adoptive and foster families, not so much to offer “solutions” but to learn how to better love and serve them. Our churches need to learn the right questions to ask, the right ways to offer encouragement and practical support and how to pray for the specific needs of adoptive and foster families. Although this task may seem difficult and challenging, there are in fact several churches that are becoming intentional about loving and serving adoptive and foster families. These churches represent a tremendous source of insight and information to help other churches as they undertake this important process. In addition, by being open and willing to learn the local church can become a much needed source of accurate and reliable information about adoption and foster care.

3. Become honest and prepared to get messy

Adoption and foster care are full of joy, blessings and hope. I believe these realities are what most clearly and fully characterize these life-changing journeys. But they also have their share of loss, grief, disappointment, fear, doubt and so many different characteristics that result from our fallen human condition. As such, it often seems that far too many churches are simply “too perfect” for adoptive and foster families. That’s not because adoptive and foster families are any less perfect than “normal” families, but rather because, in my estimation, healthy adoptive and foster families are often more open with their imperfection. 

In other words, adoptive and foster families are often messy. These families are daily reminded of a condition that afflicts us all – our brokenness. And although God has done and is continuing a miraculous work in these families, the abuse, abandonment, rejection, neglect, loss and grief that, in varying ways and to varying degrees, is inevitably a part of the history of any adoption or foster care journey calls for a lifelong commitment from adoptive and foster parents to help their children heal. Quite simply, these families are NOT perfect, but they are experiencing day by day the redemptive and transformational power of the love of God. What adoptive and foster families desperately need is for our churches to fully embrace them and become an integral part of this redemptive and transformational work. As they grow into just such a community for adoptive and foster families our churches will be blessed as they rediscover just how beautiful messy can be.

4. Become willing to change

What good is it if our churches seek to learn, become open and honest and even come to grips with the messiness that often accompanies adoption and foster care, but are not themselves truly willing to change? Our churches must become willing to respond to these new and growing realities and live out their desire to welcome and embrace adoptive and foster families. 

As our churches examine their willingness to change, we must ask specific questions that speak to the tangible and practical characteristics of church life that impact adoptive and foster families. 

Will we examine our children’s ministry? Our jr. high and youth ministry? 

Will we seek to understand and respond to the real and unique needs of adoptive and foster parents? Will we commit time and resources to develop an effective relief and respite care ministry for foster parents? 

Will we ensure that the church nursery and childcare are compliant with the minimum standards that apply to the care of children in foster care? Will we evaluate whether our teaching on parenting and child rearing is truly best for children who spent years in under-resourced orphanages deprived of opportunities to develop healthy attachments and bonds? Will we critically question whether certain parenting techniques and specific traditional ways of discipline are appropriate for kids that have suffered a childhood full of abuse and neglect? 

Will we re-think our “one size fits all” mentality and our view that all adopted and foster children really need is “love,” and begin to truly love these families by changing the way we “do church” so that our desire to embrace and serve adoptive and foster families is obvious, sincere and informed? “Safe” churches must answer a resounding “Yes!” to these and similar questions and then commit to follow through.

5. Become committed for the long haul

Here’s a secret about adoptive families – you ready? The adoption journey does not end when the adoption is finalized. The adoption journey ends when you DIE! Adoptive and foster families need churches that are committed for the long haul . . . committed during the highs and the lows . . . committed during the times of joy and the seasons of pain . . . committed to celebrating the blessing and grappling with the loss and grief. The hard truth is that too many churches aren’t real good at sticking with things over a long period of time, particularly as things get sticky and messy. As churches increasingly focus more attention on the needs of orphans and challenge followers of Christ to consider how God might be calling or leading them to respond, these churches must also commit to fully embrace the families that respond by adopting and fostering. This commitment must not end when the child arrives home or last only as long as everyone lives happily ever after. This commitment must remain strong for as long as it takes and no matter what comes.

If our churches are willing to walk this journey of faith alongside the families that God has formed and transformed through the miracle of adoption and foster care . . . I believe that not only will they become the “safest place on earth” for these daring families, but I believe they will experience the privilege of being part of something truly remarkable. They will serve as an integral part of the visible Gospel being lived out in the lives of countless adoptive and foster families, all for the glory of God.

Return to part one of The safest place on earth

Michael Munroe and his wife, Amy, are the proud parents of four children, each of whom were adopted. Together they lead Tapestry, the adoption and foster care ministry at Irving Bible Church.