She stood at the doorway of what was being called “her new Sunday School class.” It seemed strange to eleven-year-old Sally (not her real name) to be going to a class on Sunday. But frankly, everything seemed strange to her. Sally’s eyes darted from child to child. She wanted to run and hide. Surely everyone knew what had happened to her, and she desperately wanted to retreat. Thankfully, loving foster parents, a wise pastor, and a dedicated Sunday School teacher were prepared for Sally’s arrival. A success story was in the making.
The past several years for Sally had been filled with domestic violence, neglect, and betrayal. No child should ever experience what Sally knew firsthand. It was not uncommon for two or three police cars to arrive in her driveway as Daddy was hurting Mommy again. Often neither parent was home when Sally returned from school. At a young age, Sally learned to make her own little supper from the meager supplies in the kitchen. Drugs and alcohol used up much of the monthly check coming into Sally’s home. Very few funds remained for food. Loneliness, hunger, rejection, fear, abandonment, and confusion were typical feelings with which Sally routinely struggled.
Then it happened. Daddy was drunk again. This time his rage turned toward Sally. The caring teacher and nurse at Sally’s school spotted the telltale signs. Within a day, strangers were reassuring Sally that they would protect her. Her familiar world would be turned upside down. She would be leaving her school, her teacher, and her only friend, Maggie. People she never met would become her new mommy and daddy for now. She would have a new room, live in a new house, have a new family, go to a new school and, now, go to church, which was a brand-new ordeal.
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Sally’s experience is not unique. Currently in the United States more than 500,000 children are in foster care. Local churches possess a great opportunity for outreach and ministry to both foster children and foster parents. Wise pastors, though extremely busy, take time to understand the situations of their congregations, including those that involve fostering. Both foster children and foster parents present unique needs as well as unique opportunities for ministry and outreach.
Issues Related to Change
The key word for the foster child and foster parent is “upheaval.” Everything familiar and routine is about to take on a different face. While no two cases are identical, several adjustments that revolve around change are typical.
Surroundings. Often the foster child has come from intolerable living conditions. Now the child views the new surroundings, though significantly improved, with suspicion. “How soon will this be taken away from me?” and “Why didn’t my real parents provide this for me?” are the foster child’s haunting questions.
Relocation. It is not uncommon for some foster children to reside in several homes during their stay in foster care. For those children, attachment, planting roots, and developing personal traditions are nearly impossible.
Function. It sounds pretty dramatic; however, for many foster children, their basic daily function is to simply survive. After they’ve been suddenly removed from dire circumstances, their adjustment from surviving to family thriving is profound. Beginning at age nine, Sally was thrust into the responsibility of trying to care for her two younger brothers. How does this girl go from feeding these two younger boys, getting them up and ready for school, and keeping them out of harm’s way when Daddy came home once in a while to just becoming a child again in a new home? It is a huge adjustment in function.
Issues Related to Challenges
Challenges for the foster parents. Unlike adoptive parents, who experience the key words “permanent placement,” foster parents live in a world characterized by the words “temporary placement.” Successful foster parenting calls for dependence upon the Lord for wisdom (James 1:5) and guidance (Proverbs 3:6) in providing security and stability in a relationship that has “temporary” written all over it. The Lord works in special ways to strengthen foster parents in their unique challenges (Psalm 27:1).
• Legal. Foster parents go through a rigorous application, home study, and training to prepare for foster care. Foster parents must be acutely aware of state laws concerning discipline and child care.
• Behavior. It is amazing and sometimes frightening to watch foster children acting out the sins of their parents (Exodus 20:5). Wise foster parents seek as much information as possible from the caseworker regarding the family background of an incoming foster child.
• Friendships. When the foster child arrives, often a strange phenomenon takes place. Instead of becoming a strong network of support, friends disappear! Foster parents are apt to face the challenge of changing friendships.
• Daily routine. With the arrival of any foster child, daily routine immediately changes. Depending on the needs of the child, flexibility is key.
Challenges for the foster child. Every foster child and every case is unique. Within the scope of unique children and situations, six challenges are typical.
• Feelings of rejection and abandonment. Psalm 27:10 and Isaiah 49:15 indicate that some biological parents do abandon their children. The wounds of rejection are great. Abandoned children often blame themselves for their situations.
• Wonder about the biological family. Moses, though raised in royal foster care, never lost the pull or desire for his biological family (Hebrews 11:24, 25). Foster parents soon learn that Moses wasn’t the only one! Even when they come from dire, unsafe, and unhealthy situations, many foster children are constantly pulled toward “home.”
• Two extremes. Many foster children enter their foster homes in one of two extremes. The first extreme is, “I am totally unworthy and unlovable. No matter how hard you try, no one could love me, and I will prove it to you by my actions.” The second extreme is, “You owe me. Everyone owes me. And I know how to work the system to get ahead. Just watch me run over you and get my way.” Neither extreme is easy to deal with for the foster parent.
• Heavy-duty anxiety. Deep-seated insecurity over a significant period of time produces fear that affects every area of life for the foster child. We may find it hard to imagine, but many foster children fear letting themselves be loved, cared for, and accepted.
• Resentment misdirected. It is not uncommon for the foster child to harbor deep resentment. Amazingly these feelings are often vented toward those who now are reaching out and trying to help.
• Biological children. The foster child’s adjustment into a home where the foster parents have natural children presents unique challenges. Friction and flexibility are keys in adjusting as the child, a total stranger, comes to live. A dozen adjustments await!
Issues Related to Ministry
What a great opportunity exists for local churches to intentionally invite foster and adoptive parents to become part of the fellowship and ministry! What great doors could open if our local churches launched a special ministry outreach to those who are parenting children not born to them. This is Biblical. Think of the opportunities.
Burden bearing. Galatians 6:2 commands us to help carry a burden far too heavy to be carried alone. Imagine what it’s like to open your heart and home to a total stranger whose behavior and actions are opposite of your personal convictions.
Love of Christ. Would the Lord Jesus reach out to a child who was abandoned and abused? Of course He would. How significantly the local church demonstrates this incredible love of Christ when reaching out to foster families (John 13:34, 35).
Gracious acceptance. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 10, Paul listed ten sinful actions of the unrighteous. Then he wrote, “And such were some of you” (v. 11). The Corinthians could not relive their past; but in total grace, the Lord Jesus changed them. They were washed, sanctified, and justified. Keeping in mind what the Lord can do in any life (Philippians 1:6), local churches can unconditionally accept the foster child while not unconditionally approving sinful behavior.
Be creative. Many foster children have never heard the Word of God, lack structure, and bring into local churches unique needs. Classrooms may need extra creativity and special “helpers” assigned to the foster child. Psalm 34:11 brings special blessings to any child. For the foster child, constructive, consistent, and compassionate help in learning “the fear of the Lord” is essential.
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Coming back to Sally, indeed a success story was about to begin. It would have several setbacks along the way, but success was going to come.
Everyone was as ready as possible for Sally that first Sunday. Earlier in the week the pastor visited the foster parents and met Sally. Then that Sunday he waited at the church door so the foster family would see a familiar face as they arrived. In the classroom, an outgoing little “Barnabas” with pigtails was prepared and waiting to help Sally assimilate (Acts 9:26, 27). Without going overboard, Jenny hugged her and said, “Come on and sit with me. I saved you a chair. I like your dress. Come on.” With that, a tenderhearted teacher wiped a little tear from her eye and whispered a prayer of thanks and a plea of help as she smiled and said, “Boys and girls, I want you to welcome Sally to our class today.” Voices of “Hi, Sally” embarrassed her a little; but quickly the teacher brought the class to the focus of God’s Word as she began the lesson.
For Sally, the journey would not be easy. But the joy in coming to know the Lord Jesus as Savior would be incredible. For the foster parents, the help, encouragement, and support from their church would at times prove to be a lifesaver. The blessings were great as the local church functioned in salt-and-light ministries of sharing with people the life-changing gospel. How tender and stretching it is to reach families where children may not be born under the heart but in it!
Michael Peck and his wife, Karen, have served the Lord together for thirty-two years in churches in New York. Through the marvels of birth, adoption, and foster parenting, the Lord has allowed them to experience parenting twenty-five children. Michael is now the vice president of Baptist Church Planters, Elyria, Ohio, serving each missionary in the agency in their marriage, family, parenting, and church relationships. He also speaks in churches for conferences and workshops on family topics.