So Your Pastor Doesn’t Get It

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 10:18-19Psalm 68:5-6Isaiah 1:17Romans 8:15Galatians 4:4-7Ephesians 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 1James 21John 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.

The Spiritual Act of Unclogging a Toilet

We were staying at an RV Park five minutes from our house as we transitioned from life in suburbia to life on the road. We had setup in the rain while the children were relegated to wait in the van, and all of them were in dire need of the one shared bathroom available. We finally released them from captivity only to realize we would need to make one more run back to the house to grab some vital things for the next day.

So I hopped back in the van with two of our daughters, and while we were scurrying across the house to collect everything, my phone rang.  On the other end of the line was my wife saying the toilet wasn’t flushing in the camper.  As my mind quickly ran through troubleshooting options to give my wife over the phone, I knew nothing could really be done until I got there.  After all, one of the top five responsibilities of every husband and father, which cannot be delegated to a child or wife, is the fixing of emergency toilet problems.

We loaded up and drove back to the RV Park to be greeted by a line of children still in need of that sacred sanctuary of relief.  I walked into the phone-booth-sized bathroom to open the lid, and at the bottom of the toilet was nothing more than some toilet paper.  I flushed the toilet and everything seemed to work normally.  The special camper toilet ran water and opened the slide which dropped the toilet paper down into the tank of the camper.  I thought maybe they had forgotten how to use the foot lever to flush.

I stepped out and the next customer in line stepped in.  She flushed and exited, then the next child stepped forward.  Then came the pause, “Dad! It’s not flushing again.” Feeling an air of confidence, I walked back in, and sure enough, it wasn’t working.  I could floor the foot lever to flush the toilet, and all I could see was the toilet paper sitting on top of darkness.  The water began to build up.  So I did what any frustrated, overly ambitious, amateur plumber would do… I thrust my arm into the hole and to my unsuspecting surprise pulled out a pile of $&!#.

As this surreal experience was playing itself out, I immediately began looking for the perpetrator who should be conscripted as my plumbing assistant.  I turned into Sherlock Holmes as I deduced who was waiting in line to go to the bathroom, who had traveled back to the house with me and could not be a suspect, and who was left in the crosshairs of my investigation while toilet refuse moistened my arm from elbow to finger tips.

The subdued rage must have been just as palpable as the smell because no confession was forthcoming.  And thinking back on it… I don’t blame them.  Would you confess to stopping up the only toilet nine of your family members were restricted to on the first night of a yearlong adventure with your father’s arm dripping excrement while veins visibly pulsated in his neck?  Not if you even had a chance of avoiding it, you wouldn’t.

It is in moments such as this that I am reminded of two parenting truths.  First, if you want your children to be honest with you, don’t turn into the Gestapo whenever they have done something wrong.  Secondly, and more importantly, a fundamental component of being a parent is getting exfoliated by your children’s $&!#.  It’s almost spiritual to the degree of being intimate and humbling in the most grotesque of ways.

Needless to say, I never caught the culprit.  After a fierce hand-to-hand battle, the clogged toilet gave up the ghost, and we have permanently installed a “No #2” policy for the camper.  This has not prevented additional skirmishes of the same sort from arising because the human digestive tract knows no authority during times of crisis.  However, I am now seasoned in the art of decongesting toilets and judiciously training apprentices.

All We Taught Him

We had 8 kids. Three were added to the family the old-fashioned way where a man loves a woman, a bee loves a bird or something to that effect. And, five were added the other old-fashioned way where a child wants a family, a family wants a child, a judge slings a gavel and an adoption or in our case five adoptions are finalized.

But we like kids. So, we asked, “You think we need one more? You think we need one more. Let’s have one more.” And once again, we went the old fashioned route. And, we added what we currently consider our final biological child to the family… Chapel Henry Kendrick.

It’s been great. He’s real chunky. He still has his baby blue eyes. He eats some solids, drools a lot, and army crawls all over the place. He says, “Dada” and “Mama”, and we taught him some sign language so he could tell us when he wants more rather than screaming at us. The “more” sign has just become him clapping, and he uses it for everything which probably means we failed in actually teaching him sign language. Nonetheless, it’s super cute and works for us.

He’s about ten months old now. Whereas our other children all started sleeping through the night no later than four months after joining the family, Chapel, well… he still doesn’t sleep through the night. It’s been a fairly consistent schmorgesborg of co-sleeping, night nursing, frantic pacing while patting him back to sleep, and the ever-popular crib-to-bed-to-crib rotation. We have never devolved into circling the neighborhood with him in the backseat of one of our cars, but if it would give my wife a full night’s sleep… I’d circle all night long.

We decided last night to stand our ground. We’ve nurtured dozens of children and never had this problem for this long of a time before. I don’t recall having to “stand my ground” in the past. Usually, they just started sleeping through the night to our pleasant surprise. Regardless, we chose to let him cry it out no matter how long he wales from less than 10 ft. from the end of our bed in his crib.

And so it began. Some time in the early hours of the night he fussed for a second and then launched into a blitzkrieg assault on our eardrums. At first, we tried to ignore him. Then I gave a stern, “Chapel, lay down and go to sleep.” Then my wife got up, walked to his crib, told him, “No.”, and laid him back down. After what felt like an hour of auditory abuse, I walked over to the crib, gently but firmly laid him back down, proceeded to pat and massage him back to sleep, and reminded him he was not getting out of bed. My wife and I laid back down, and in her steadfast support, she said, “Any other ideas?” My reply, “Got any earplugs?” She did. We put them in, and the cacophony subsided to a dull roar, but we were still aware of his presence.

After a few minutes using our earplug tactic, all of our defenses were torn down by Chapel’s most lethal maneuver yet. In the midst of his desperation for someone to come sooth his anxiety, he resorted to the only form of communication we had taught him. He started clapping. We could not muffle the sound of his marshmallowy, little hands coming together, and it broke us. I pulled my earplugs out, walked over to his crib, and lifted him into my arms. I held him for a minute as his cries turned into a rhythmic whimper, and he caught his breath. We sat down in the rocking chair used so many nights in the past, and I massaged his back, patted his bottom and told him he was okay. He slowly turned his whimper into a sniffle, his sniffle into heavy breathing and his heavy breathing into a sleepy rest.

Children communicate the way we teach them. In our care of abused and neglected children in foster care this has been just as true as in our care of biological children. Abused and neglected children often come with a litany of communication skills both verbal and non-verbal. Some cuss. Some hit. Some don’t cuss or hit, but they scream. We had another little girl who was 4 but functioned on an 18 month old level. She knew two words, “teevees” and “mommy”. Anytime she took a bath and we had to get her hair wet, she lost it, and IT. WAS. PIERCING. She was with us for 14 months, and by the time she was reunified with her mom, she was a healthy, little girl who could take a bath, talk to her peers and express herself to adults.

We had a nine month old placed with us for a time who had grown up in a Spanish-speaking only home. So he cried anytime he wasn’t asleep for about two weeks, and then one night my wife said, “Que paso, papi?” He perked up immediately. From then on, we knew we had to change the way we communicated with him so he could communicate with us. Still some don’t make any sounds at all. When a child has sat in a crib or been locked in a room and learned no one is coming, they lose their voice. They just freeze and wait until they’re not being addressed or until whatever is going to happen happens.

If a child has only been taught to hit, cuss, scream, be silent, clap or speak a completely different language, they will use those means to talk to us. If we, as parents, want them to use their voice to express their fears, anger or needs, we must be patient and observant enough to learn about where they lost their voice so we can help them find it and give it back to them. Sometimes the patience and observation required for a child to calm down so you can help or the gentleness needed to comfort them through things is the equivalent of ten months of sleep deprivation.

After Chapel snuggled his chubby cheeks into my neck, I spent five more minutes rubbing his back and listening to him breath. I placed him back in his crib and covered him with his blanket. I walked back to bed and laid down. Less than 30 seconds later… he was rooting around in his crib again just before the onslaught resumed. I could hear my wife subduing her laughter next to me.

I don’t doubt there will be more embattled, sleepless nights in my future. In the same way my children from foster care didn’t stop cussing, hitting, screaming or freezing just because I was patient with them one time, Chapel will continually need comfort and reassurance that he is not alone and not forgotten. Like every child, he needs help finding his voice and will require direction throughout life.

Hear your kids and know they often only communicate in the ways they have been taught. If we don’t teach them any other way, we can only expect what has been modeled. Be patient. Observe.