Here’s how the conversation tends to go. After a series of questions and answers about foster parenting or adoption or starting an orphan care ministry…
Me: It sounds like you have a great passion for this… how else can we help?
Them: My pastor doesn’t get it. To him (or her), it’s just a trend or an extra kind of optional ministry he believes will cost money we don’t have or take away our congregation’s focus on evangelism or discipleship or the capital campaign… I’ve been persistent, but I’m getting nowhere. What did you do?…
Well, sadly, I was that pastor just like I was that husband that didn’t get it. My wife approached me to become foster parents, and I just thought, “Sure, I guess we have an extra room, and I’ve read something in the Bible about caring for orphans.” And likewise, even though I had been foster parenting for more than 6 years at the time, a mom of a couple of our students in the student ministry who had no background in child welfare or social work approached us asking, “Would you help me start an orphan care ministry here at the church?” My response, “Yes!… but what’s an orphan care ministry?”
Since then, I’ve come across a number of pastors varying on the continuum of resistance to orphan care ministry. Worries of cost, theology, parenting philosophy, bandwidth, etc. seem to form in a cloud behind their eyes as the plea floats across their desk, and a determined but politically correct, “No.” forms in their lips.
It’s discouraging to say the least. We read it over and over again throughout Scripture… Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Psalm 68:5-6, Isaiah 1:17, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:4-7, Ephesians 1:5, and James 1:27, but no passage has been more poignant in my understanding of our mandate to care for orphans, widows, and foreigners than Jeremiah 22:15-16,
“Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well with him. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.
To defend the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God? In part, it’s not that your pastor doesn’t know these passages, it’s that your pastor is human with limited vision to all the Holy Spirit is working in. Just as pastors and seminary professors prior to decades as late as the 90’s (and still many today sadly) failed to see that their is no segregation or discrimination in the kingdom of God, they’re missing this as well. But, the cloud of concerns that formed behind their eyes as you pled with them is legitimate. Who is going to give to this? Is that giving going to impact other areas of giving the church has prioritized? Is it going to be championed by someone or a group who understands orphan care in respect to the entire kingdom and message of the Gospel? Will it become it’s own little clique? Am I going to be expected to spearhead the effort or hand over the pulpit to the cause? And even if all those questions are answered, he may feel you are the wrong person to lead this only he can’t say that out loud. So, these are just a few in a litany of questions that must be addressed and solved over time. Pastors get hit up with “pet projects” of church members who may have previously not followed through all the time. Or, it may be some outside parachurch organization that really just wants money, and like many of us in response to telemarketers, the answer is a premeditated, “We’ll see.”, “Let’s talk later.” or my personal favorite, “I’ll pray about it.”
Of course, there are still those pastors whose response is less thoughtful, and anything to do with social justice is met immediately with a closed door. Why? George Marsden coined the term “The Great Reversal” in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture. In the early twentieth century, evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Liberals led the social gospel movement equating any humanitarian work with reinstating the reign of Christ. As the movement spread, evangelicals distanced themselves and bunkered down in theology to the detriment of the poor. This is at least one factor in your pastor’s response.
Another is the ignorance of the masses. In speaking with a pastor friend recently and sharing about what our family and ministry does, he said, “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of foster care or adoption is a child coming into my house and ruining my life. I’m glad to share insight about the strategic approach of your ministry, but if you’re trying to get me to become a foster parent or adopt, the conversation is over.” This wasn’t the only thing he said, his insight was helpful, and he genuinely resonated with the needs of children as we talked so I don’t want to vilify him… but this is how the masses, including some pastors, perceive foster care and adoption. I would suggest the same is true for the homeless, the poor, widows and immigrants.
So if your pastor doesn’t get it (and we should note that some pastors do get it, and do a great job of encouraging their lay leaders to engage in the care of orphans), he is most likely indirectly or directly influenced from the Great Reversal and/or the common misconceptions and negative media attention given to foster parents and neglected and abused children. Also, your pastor’s seminary almost certainly did not address caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow or the foreigner in his missiology studies. They focused on church planting, unreached people groups, the Gospel in different cultural contexts, an evangelism practicum, and so on. Little or no time was spent discussing poverty alleviation, economic development among the poor, child development or the fact that the Church’s historic foundation was built through ministry done by and to “the least of these”. Your pastor didn’t obtain a social work degree in seminary.
I suppose that’s all the bad news. We may have missed some details or circumstances in there somewhere, but in general, that is why a pastor doesn’t get it.
Here’s the good news… your pastor doesn’t hold the keys to the kingdom of God. I don’t say this to be controversial or encourage dissent, I say it because churches have far too long seen themselves as consumers of religion and their staff as producers of it. In reality, your pastor, as one of the elders, should be equipping, encouraging and multiplying disciples as ministers of the Gospel. But even if they’re not, you don’t need your pastor’s permission to obey the Holy Spirit. In fact, your pastor may appreciate the fact that you are not seeking his continual involvement or blessing over every aspect of the ministry God has called you to.
In the event your pastor has actively discouraged you from this, as an ordained pastor myself, I would encourage you to find another local church where you are fed, equipped and sent out. This should not be done in a spirit of disrespect or division. Make your peace, and move on. This is at least one reason why denominations and more than one local church can and should exist in a community. We are not all [insert name of denomination here] and that’s okay. I grant this is not an issue of non-essential doctrine, but alienating yourself in an embattled stance on the need for orphan care ministry to the detriment of all involved parties can’t be a preferred course of action.
It should be noted here that if we had to select one mission of the Church outside of worship (if we can in fact separate worship out from anything we do) it would not be orphan care… it would be evangelism, and the two are not synonymous. They certainly overlap in ways. In paraphrasing Dr. Russell Moore, “For us to say we care for the orphan, and to not share Christ’s message of salvation is to say we don’t really care for the orphan. Every human being is comprised of a body, soul and spirit, and to merely care for the temporal needs is not in fact loving as Christ loved us.” Salvation is tantamount, but the Scriptures don’t seem to neglect having a family or basic needs as if to say, “You can be saved or eat… choose one.” Their is a tension held between the two throughout Scripture (see Isaiah 1, James 2, 1John 3:18).
If you are already embattled or there is nowhere else to go, I would encourage you in the same way I have encouraged wives and husbands who are at odds over foster parenting or adoption or an unbelieving spouse. Pray unceasingly for the movement of the Spirit in your marriage, church and community. Pray for your pastor. (Shouldn’t this be something we are doing anyhow!?) Advocate for vulnerable children with other members of your church. Again, this is not an encouragement to stir up conflict, but at the very least the volunteers or nursery workers who are caring for your foster or adopted child need to be educated. (For a resource to get you started read Dear Sunday School Volunteer.)
As you are praying, begin working as the Spirit guides you. Encourage and support other foster and adoptive families. Gather other advocates in other churches who are experiencing or not experiencing similar resistance and work together. God is not interested in which person’s or church’s name is attached to this ministry… this heart-wrenching, self-sacrificing, continually plodding forward ministry that reflects and is the heart and redemption of God.
In our frustration, perseverance and faithfulness, to Him be the praise, glory, honor and power forever and ever. Amen.