Adoption has long been valued in the church; we know we are called to care for the orphan. Fortunately, there has been growing understanding of the complexity and challenges of adoption, and church support for adoptive families has increased. However, many churches are unwittingly silent and passive when it comes to foster care families. Why is this?
As a counselor, I have met with many foster families who report that people react to them with a mixture of admiration, trepidation, and ignorance. People are impressed with their commitment, yet still look at them as though they are a bit reckless. Why would someone invite such “challenges” into their lives and families? For others, it is fear of the unknown. Few people have experienced the foster care system and so they shy away from what is foreign to them. News headlines about a handful of failed foster placements don’t help either. Others are just unaware. They are not tuned into issues surrounding foster care so they do not know what is needed or helpful. But regardless of the reasons people have for not seeing the needs more clearly, foster families are engaged in important ministry and merit assistance from their churches. As the blog’s title suggests, I think these families should be seen as local missionaries in need of support.
Like missionaries, significant preparation is needed to enter the field of foster care. Just to start, those who take on this role, must go through hours of training, complete a home study evaluation where their homes, families, finances, and lifestyle are evaluated, complete criminal, abuse and FBI clearances, and regularly submit to on-going training and re-evaluation. Once approved as a foster care placement, they are subject to many rules and regulations, social work visits, and parenting guidelines.
Like missionaries, foster parents have a willingness to go where the light of Christ is needed and live it out. They are choosing to enter into a world foreign to them—one that is largely secular—and learn how to model Christ for the children, birth families, and systems involved.
Like missionaries, the work of fostering is challenging and impacts their families. They are opening their family to children with struggles, trauma, and behavioral issues. They are often asked to engage with and mentor birth families who may or may not be hostile towards them. In many respects, they are taking on all the responsibilities and challenges of parenting a child while given very little authority or freedom to make parental decisions for them.
If churches considered foster parents to be local missionaries in the foster care system, it would inform ways to support and serve an important calling and need in our communities. Here are some practical ways churches can do this:
- Validation and encouragement. Foster families need to hear that what they are doing is Christ-like and worthy. Knowing there is a supportive community who see it as a valuable calling helps in the difficult times.
- Intentional, focused prayer. Foster families often deal with significant behavioral issues in foster children that can add stress or chaos to their home. It is also hard to figure out how to navigate building a relationship with birth families. Having people earnestly pray for foster families equips and strengthens them for the task.
- Foster parents need reprieve. They need people who are willing to obtain the proper clearances so they can serve as respite care providers and babysitters. This enables couples to have time together, to rest, to run errands, or simply make a meal.
- It is a gift to have people with a willingness to tutor kids who need additional help to catch up academically.
- Many times, mentors are helpful to support the biological children in the family who are adjusting to having a new child in their home
- Practical resources. Kids in foster care often come with few belongings. They may need clothing, backpacks, school supplies, or even baby care supplies. Having the church step in and provide such resources would be a blessing to the foster family and the child.
- Other forms of financial assistance. Sometimes resources that are truly needed are not provided by the foster care system. It might be counseling from someone who understands the issues foster parents face, or tuition for special summer camps or other programs a foster child may benefit from.
- Pastoral care and wisdom. Foster families need to be reminded that what they are doing matters, especially in heartbreaking moments. They need a sounding board for the challenges, and guidance for the hard decisions a family must face, such as when to say yes to certain situations and children in need, and when it is wise to say no.
We, the church, can help these resident missionaries; we all can (even if in a small way) be a part of the mission of foster care. Knowing others stand by to reinforce and sustain them in a challenging, and often thankless mission, is priceless to foster families.