(ETC Team: This article was originally published on the Tapestry website in 2007. While many churches have made real strides in the area of adoption and foster care ministry, collectively we still have a great deal of important work to do. It is our prayer that many more churches will commit to become truly “safe places” for adoptive and foster families.)

This may not be easy to read; it wasn’t easy to write. But I think this is something we all need to face . . . and then go about praying for and seeking change. I’m speaking of our churches and how they relate to and support (or fail to relate to and support) adoptive and foster families.

If Numbers Could Talk

A 2002 nationwide survey commissioned by The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption revealed many interesting things regarding Americans’ views and attitudes about adoption. One finding was particularly relevant to local churches. When asked “where would you turn for information or advice about how to adopt,” 52% of married couples indicated they would turn to their local church or place of worship. Thus, it is clear that many people at the front-end of the adoption process think of their local church as being a good place to go for information and advice about adoption. Sounds promising, right? Hold that thought.

Now fast-forward to the post-adoption period – that period of time after the adoption has been finalized and many families begin to encounter some of the unique challenges that come with being an adoptive family. FamilyLife’s Hope for Orphans and Focus on the Family conducted an internet-based research study in early 2007. This study, entitled The Jordan Project, included detailed responses from over 400 adoptive families in an effort to find out more about their post-adoption experiences. Given that these families were all constituents of FamilyLife and/or Focus on the Family, it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of them regularly attend church, and probably an evangelical church at that.

The results of the study were tabulated and presented at a conference in Colorado Springs in May 2007, and the findings provided some very interesting insights. For example, the study found that people were nearly twice as likely to turn to their local bookstore (20.5%) as they were to their pastor or local church (11%) for support or help in dealing with post-adoption issues. In fact, even though well over half of the respondents reported encountering various post-adoption issues and challenges, only 9% of respondents indicated that they first turned to their church for support in dealing with post-adoption issues. And overall, more than half of the families who responded indicated that their pre-adoption counseling did not adequately prepare them for their post-adoption experience.

Equally interesting was the discussion that followed the presentation of these results at the conference, when parent after parent said in plain, unambiguous terms “my local church is not a ‘safe place’ for adoptive and foster families – particularly for those who are struggling.” These parents told stories of how they and their children were ignored, misunderstood, shunned and left to deal with their struggles, isolated and all alone. Some even told stories of being judged because their children, many of whom were adopted after spending years in institutions or being shuffled among foster homes, did not ‘fit’ the perceived mold of the model child in the church.

My heart literally broke as I heard these parents detail their realities. How ironic it is that a majority of people starting out on the adoption journey think of turning to their local church; but when families respond to God’s call to adopt and begin to encounter some of its difficult challenges, they suddenly realize that the church is actually one of the least relevant and most unhelpful places they can turn. They come face-to-face with the reality that their church is not a safe place for families like theirs.

Is the Local Church the Safest Place on Earth?

Several years ago Larry Crabb wrote a book entitled The Safest Place on Earth. The book focuses in large part on the transformational power of authentic biblical community. Borrowing from Crabb’s title, I believe that our local churches should be – in fact they must become – the safest place on earth for all who seek to belong and connect even in the midst of their brokenness, heartache and hardship. It seems to me that this reality should be no less true for adoptive and foster families. Yet, as evidenced by the results of The Jordan Project and by the stories of many more Christian families, the undeniable reality is that far too many adoptive and foster families simply do not believe, and have not experienced, that to be the case.

And yet, there is a growing movement of sorts in local churches as more and more Christians across the United States are raising their voices on behalf of the “fatherless” around the world and in our own communities. Increasingly local churches are launching adoption, foster care and orphan care ministries of various kinds, and beginning once again to clearly communicate God’s heart for the “fatherless” as revealed in Scripture. These churches are leading the way for people to become more involved and invested in the lives of children in response to the biblical mandate to care for the orphan and the “least” among us.

However, we must be honest and acknowledge that as our churches raise the banner and sound forth the call, an increasing number of families will respond by exploring adoption or foster care – and I believe that many will move forward in faith to adopt and foster. As a result, or churches will find themselves at a critical juncture that requires them to decide whether they will fully embrace families that God has called to foster and adopt and whether they will be willing to make the necessary changes to do so. Fundamentally, our churches must decide whether they will simply proclaim God’s love and their concern for the fatherless “outside their walls,” or whether they will also fully welcome them back “inside the walls” as cherished members of the church community. In short, our churches must decide if they will become the “safest place on earth” for adoptive and foster families.

Becoming a “Safe Place” for Those Who Don’t Play It Safe

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 our churches must in turn discover how to honor these responses of faith, obedience and courage by becoming communities that openly welcome, truly understand and fully embrace adoptive and foster families.

There are five essential things local churches must commit to become in order to be the “safest place on earth” for adoptive and 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 Church’s role in proclaiming the Good News. But the term also clearly emphasizes a need to become intentional and focused in communicating and living out the hope and love of that Good News. 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 the message of hope and love being lived out in the lives of these families to the 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, and to tell them honestly. They must also more fully 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 much effort to understand the perspectives and struggles of adoptive and foster families, and 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 time-consuming, there are in fact several churches that are learning what it means to become intentional about loving and serving adoptive and foster families in this way. These churches represent a tremendous source of insight and information for 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 for the community at large.

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 realities that result from our fallen world and our sinful human condition. Unfortunately, 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. Sometimes very 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 journey. 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 are required for 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 trust and build secure, healthy attachments? Will we critically evaluate whether certain parenting techniques and specific traditional ways of discipline are appropriate for kids that have suffered a childhood full of abuse, trauma 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 (on this earth) 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, messy and complicated. 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… 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, and all for the glory of God.