Foster parents Major T.J. Menn and his wife, Jenn, discuss the joys and challenges of caring for 24 different children over a 10-year period, and encourage listeners to consider how they can share God's love with orphans and foster kids. (Part 2 of 2)
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Mrs. Jenn Menn: And so, when we got involved in foster parenting, we kind of expected to help the children, but we didn't realize how much it would affect the people that we worked with and our neighbors and the birth parents. And there's been so much opportunity to really share the gospel. I think that's one of the reason[s] that Scripture says that taking care of orphans is a pure and undefiled religion, because it just shines light very purely when people see people loving children.
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John Fuller: Reflections from Jenn Menn and she and her husband, TJ have been very involved in the foster-care movement and have experienced 24 kids to date coming into their home and spending time with them. They're with us in the studio here today on "Focus on the Family." Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, I want to be really up front. We do have a purpose in the program we aired last time and now this time and that is to kind of spark the idea in your heart, those of you listening, to say, do we have the capacity? Is this something we could consider doing? And that is to get engaged with the foster system.
We have too few good families involved in foster care. We have some excellent families that are doing it, but there's not enough and we need more. And that includes respite care. You could come alongside a foster-care family to help them just, you know, do laundry for them for a weekend and maybe if you can be certified, you can be respite givers, as well. Jean and I are doing that right now and that's just taking the foster kids for a long weekend and it's almost like "grandparenting." It's kinda fun. At the end [on] Sunday night, you hand 'em back and say, "This is great. We'll do this for you again sometime."
But there [are] so many ways that families can get involved and I want to be really up front to say, we are tryin' to encourage you to consider this and pray about it, because these little darlings need people who truly can love them in a way that is supernatural, that comes from God's heart, because they're gonna push you to the test. And we're gonna talk about that today.
John: Yeah and the Menn's, as I said, have been involved in foster care ministry for more than 10 years and TJ is an aviation office in the U.S. Army and teaches economics at West Point. And Jenn, in addition to being a full-time mom for six foster-care kids right now, has a small counseling practice, as well. And together they've written a book called Faith to Foster and that's the basis of our conversation today.
Jim: Welcome to "Focus on the Family" again.
Mr. TJ Menn: Thank you.
Mrs. Jenn Menn: Yeah, thanks for havin' us back.
TJ: So good to be here.
Jim: Okay, Jenn, I'm gonna connect you right now to all the moms listening. You have six kids under 9, right?
Jenn: Yes. (Laughter)
Jim: Okay, everyone just went, "What?! Wow!" How in the world do you manage that on the regular daily routine?
Jenn: Well, three of our girls are within 28 months of each other.
Jim: Oh, my goodness.
Jenn: They're our little three amigos and you know, we treat 'em like one in a lot of ways.
Jim: Do they plot against you? (Laughter) Like you know, everyday biological kids will, you know?
Jenn: We can streamline. All three of them can be in the tub while I can be bathing the baby in his little baby bath, you know, multiple things.
Jim: Well, it comes down to efficiency, doesn't it?
Jenn: There you go.
Jim: But that is one of the things. I mean, a lot of people will be fearful because you can't manage this environment as much as you think you can or would like to. Isn't that one of the bottom themes? You're not gonna control this environment the way you want to.
TJ: That's exactly right and from a military officer's perspective, oftentimes (Laughter), you know, oftentimes I want immediate obedience. And you know, I just want the kids [to obey]; I should say something one time and it should just happen. And it doesn't work out that way.
Jenn: Well, and not just with the kids, but also the circumstances they're in, you know. We want the judges to make decisions. We want the caseworkers to stand by their word. And we want certainty and there's a whole lot of uncertainty in there.
We sometimes use the analogy that waiting for the perfect time to foster parent is like waiting for the ocean to stand still. And that's both true for our lives, but also for the kids' lives and for, you know, we're entering into some weighty waters and sometimes we feel like our house is a rocking boat.
Jim: TJ, let me ask you, watching Jenn, I mean, you're going in and out of the home, teaching at West Point, graduating West Point, active in the military, when you were deploying was that hard for you to walk away from this, knowing the load that Jenn was gonna be under?
TJ: It was. It was extremely difficult and I think there were times just to be very real and honest, there were times when I looked at Jenn and say her sobbing and just uncontrollable, you know, sorrow and things that I was like, "Hey, we're done. We're not doin' this anymore. Like it's too much." And I would call her. Sometimes I would be deployed, you know, where 10-, 12-hours difference. And so, we would work nights and at the end of my missions, I would call and it'd be, you know, right before Jenn was going to bed.
And so, she's had a long day and maybe she's not as hopeful or as cheerful, you know, as maybe she would be in the morning. "But just tell me about all the things that happened through the day." And I mean, there'd be crying on the phone. There'd be difficult circumstances and it would, you know, it was not good for me to hear that because it was difficult. And especially being separated from her and the family was really tough.
One thing that I learned also with deployments is, we had one placement that was with us for 23 months, so just short of two years. And those kids and us really bonded. And I saw, we don't have biological children of our own and I've deployed multiple times, but I saw the hurt, I think, that it did to the kids every time we had to say goodbye. And it got to the point where it was almost just easier, I don't know if it's the best, but what we did is, I'd just leave in the middle of the night. And that way, we didn't have to go through the trauma and it would always be, "Daddy's at work."
TJ: And it might be a while till daddy gets home.
Jim: Yeah and I know that we're talking about the heart-wrenching things. But one of the funny things listening to you as a military guy talk like that, it's almost like the shoe's on the other foot. I would expect you to be saying, "Come on, soldier," speaking to Jenn. "Pick yourself up by your bootstraps. Let's go in there and take the camp," or you know (Laughing), whatever it might be. But you were the one saying, "Okay, we're done." And it sounds like Jenn was saying, "We'll get through it," even through your tears, which I so appreciate that honesty. That is this environment. You are gonna cry. You are gonna feel, but that's okay. It's not a bad thing. I think in the Western culture, particularly here in the U.S., Canada, we try to get comfortable. We want comfort above all.
And that's why I think we struggle to get more families engaged here. This is gonna be messy. This is gonna put you in touch with things that you don't even know are in your heart—abandonment, the loss of a child that you've connected with over a two-year period or whatever period of time it might be. These are real emotions. And I think the Lord's sayin', "Feel 'em. I've given you these emotions. Use them for those around you. Don't guard yourself. Don't you know, put yourself behind some cloistered perfect environment. That's not what I'm calling you to. I'm calling you to messy."
TJ: And how many times does Jesus tell us, "Do not fear. (Laughter) I am with you. Do not fear." And that's what, honestly we think fear is at the root of what stops or prevents a lot of people from participating in these ministries. And as a husband and wife, because we've experienced those emotions together, because we've experienced tremendous joys and tremendous sorrows together, I really feel like it's acted as a cord to bind our marriage together in a way that we wouldn't have otherwise.
Jim: Through those experiences.
Jenn: Well, and sometimes I'm crying because I'm finally seeing someone break through fear, you know? When Jasmine came to us, she was by far, the most traumatized little girl at 4-years-old. She'd fallen out of a two-story window and that was the least of her traumas.And she had scars over her body. She could hardly speak except for her little gibberish language. She would choose to play with tissues. She wouldn't even let you wet her hair, let along take her out somewhere.
And that was hard and we felt like she was missing out on so much that life had for her. And so, when within a year I see her twirling around at the beach in a little ballerina tutu, you better believe I'm crying. She deserves for someone to cry over that experience and to rejoice with her that she has finally exchanged that slavery of fear for a spirit of sonship. You know, she knows who she is.
Jim: I'm hearin' that emotion like a mama's heart.
Jim: That's good. I mean, you're connected. You have a heart for her and who does? It's you and that's a beautiful thing. The tears are in your eyes right now. It is awesome. But it does come with a price, doesn't it?
Jenn: Well, in different times when she did (Laughing) would start to—he's teary, too-- when he'd to threaten, you know, like I don't know if we're gonna do this anymore. I shouldn't say threaten, but just exclaimed, I'd say through my tears, "I'll be fine in the morning." (Laughing) "It's okay."
Jim: What was driving you? Boy, you got tears in your eyes, too, TJ and I have 'em in mine.
TJ: Thanks. (Laughter)
Jim: I mean, because we've experienced this, where you are wrestling with those things that are out of your control. And the easiest thing for us to do is say, "Lord, I got 25,000 reasons why I can't do this right now." And you could buy into that, but you guys have chosen not to. You go to the pain area and I think it's beautiful.
Jenn: Well, and I think, well, you ask what drives it? I mean, honestly it's faith hope and love. Like that's all that remains sometimes in these kids' lives. faith that if we invest in them, that God is gonna work through them. It is love, knowing that, that is what's gonna soften their heart. And then there's hope, hope that yes, there is going to be a future for these kids, even if we don't get to see it.
Jim: Where have you seen that blossom in these children? Give us a story or two where you have seen that transformation.
Jenn: You know, on the first day we mentioned Jack and Ariel, the two teenagers that came to us. And they were with us for about a year. They had already been in foster care for a year where that foster mom just gave up on 'em and kicked them out.
Jenn: And we got to see their family reunite. We saw their parents going from incarcerated and homeless, to both working steady jobs, both sober and move into a home. And you know, we were there at the court with them and saw that family just embrace in tears and hugs. We were there celebrating their report cards that finally weren't failing. We were there for a lot of that and yeah, I'd say that's one of the examples that we would share.
TJ: Well, and we've been privileged; we've baptized one of the children, another baptism that's upcoming soon with one of the children that's in our home. And so, to see and to get to experience the harvest of, you know, sowing these seeds into these children's live has been remarkable.
Jim: And that's the reward. When you talk about the pain and the tears on the phone at night and you wouldn't believe the rough day I had. Okay, so we have scared some people to death. (Laughter) And they've actually said to the radio--we can hear you actually (Laughter)--where they've said, "Okay, that's why I haven't done it."
Beyond that spiritual fruit, you know, being able to see the transformation of these children, what are some of the other positive benefits or positive stories that you could share with us, that you lay down at night and you say, "Hon, this is exactly why we're in this."
Jenn: Keeping siblings together. Sometimes we've said yes to a placement because we knew we were the only one that could keep them together. And when I see the siblings, I mean, right now we have a sibling group of four in our mix and sometimes I just sit there and watch them play with each other and tickle and giggle. And I wonder if we would've had to separate them into groups of two, like who would you split up? Who would you do that to?
Jim: And that happens a lot unfortunately, because there [are] not a lot of foster parents that are willing to take large sibling groups like that. So, they have to split you up. That almost happened to me when I was 9. I mean, three of us were in this foster home and they said, "We can split you guys up or you can kinda hunker down here." And I remember thinking, "No, we can get through it here," even though it was a disaster placement with that foster family, the desire, the anchor in your life at that point is to stay together, 'cause that's the only together you have.
TJ: And when we share at churches or things and we ask people to think of the three most important things in your life. And oftentimes that tends to be, you know, your siblings or your family, maybe some material possession and you know, maybe a pet or something is oftentimes what does happen. And if you think about a removal of a foster child and how quickly it happens, their possessions get thrown into a garbage bag oftentimes.
Oftentimes. They don't get to say goodbye to their mom or dad usually. And then if their siblings are split up, by the end of this process, they're usually left with one, maybe none of those three most important things in their life. In a period of maybe five or six hours their world is just turned upside down. And so, to be able to preserve the sibling groups is great and I'd say another benefit that we've really experienced with foster care, outside of the kids themselves, is the community.
And just being able to, you know, Jesus says, "Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." And when you walk into a grocery store or when you walk into a public place, Jenn walks into a store with four little ones that are obviously a different race, you know, than she is and that is a bright light that shines to people. And when they know that we're doing it because Jesus tells us to or because we're loving the kids because of our faith, I think that brings glory to God. And I really think that, that's a huge thing; the interaction with the community has been phenomenal.
John: TJ Menn and his wife, Jenn are sharing their story on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. We'll encourage you to learn more about foster care and how you can get involved when you stop by www.focusonthefmaily.com/radio. And TJ, let me ask you about that, how the children are touching lives in your community and in your church?
TJ: I think without the churches that we've been a part of and support we've received, sir, you mentioned earlier just about the importance of respite care. Right now the two youngest ones we have are in respite care. And we wouldn't be able to be here without that.And the importance of community and just the church helping has been phenomenal. And I agree, not everyone can foster or is called to foster, but I think a lot of people can support fostering. And this has really allowed, I think given the church a rallying cry to unify behind. Because there's no false agenda here. There [are] no ulterior motives. You're loving the kids and the community sees that.
Jim: Well, let me add this, because I've thought about this, being foster parents ourselves and you know, Jean and I from time to time have to travel. And that became a real constraint for us, because we couldn't find qualified respite foster parents who could just take the kids for a week if we had to go somewhere.
And unfortunately, the kids that we were fostering in one instance, we had to break them into two different respite situations. Respite again is just families that are able to provide short-term care for a foster family. So, we needed two weeks for this particular trip and we had to have one family for one week and another family for the other week, both families we did not know. One family worked out tremendously well and we're actually friends with them now.
The other family, it was disastrous. They were feeding them Cheetos for dinner and we weren't gonna tolerate that. When we found out about it, we spoke very forcefully to the system about this particular family. And you just have to have more people. And that's why I would plead with the churches, with pastors. Get engaged. Have a foster community within your church and let them form a group that they can become active in the church. And they may not all want to foster, but for those who do foster, they can provide respite care like we've talked about. Do laundry for 'em on a weekend. Do shopping. Let them give you a shopping list and go do shopping for them. Then it'll probably be, you know, Costco or Sam's (Chuckling), 'cause it's big shopping.
But those are the things you could do that really help a family out. And I think through the research we've seen that, if five of so families can get around a foster family, they will survive and do really well. But they need that kind of support.
You're in the military. You know the meaning of logistics. (Laughter) That's what we're really talkin' about, right?
TJ: Yes, sir.
Jim: What does it take to put a soldier in the field to fight a battle? It's more than one person.
TJ: Oh, absolutely.
Jim: You have a whole troop of people that help bring food and water and supplies to that group.
TJ: And James 1:22 says, "Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." And that's right before James 1:27 says, "Religion that God our Father accepts is pure and faultless."
Jenn: Well, and I think it's taken us asking for help, too. Like it would be hard for people to help us in specific ways if we were like, "No, no, no, no, no. We got. We got it." And I think in America that's tempting to say, that we have it under control. But again, asking for help is how we've been able to experience that blessing. And people are so willing to help when we give them something specific and ask them.
Jim: TJ and Jenn, you described spiritual warfare in your book and how that plays out in this environment when you have these little kids coming into your home that are coming from a variety of backgrounds—some abusive, some they just feel deserted, 'cause their parents walked out, whatever the reason. Describe for us what that spiritual batter looks like. What did you say in your book about it?
Jenn: I think sometimes it can look like animosity between the different adults that are involved and kind of co-parenting these kids—the caseworker, the advocate for them, as well as us—just there not being unity there.
And sometimes it can look like terror in the kids, as far as just waking up in the middle of the night, having night terrors or acting in ways that are regressing from what they know and where it come[s] from. And I think the ways that we've learned to respond once we identify it is really praying, especially sometimes these are generational issues. We've had plenty of kids whose parents were involved with child protective services. So, this is nothing new to them.
Jenn: And so, you know, even in some babies that will never see the end of their story, just in praying that God would free them from the sins of their parents and let them know redemption and lettin' Him know.
Jim: And I want to emphasize that really it can be a complex world for the children to understand. I mean, I know for Jean and I, when we've done reunification meetings, which is where all the state workers come together. Your guardian ad litem, that's the person designated to represent the child to court, in a court setting, you can have 13, 14, 15 different state workers engaged with these children. And the children don't know who to turn to. They try to minimize that.
But it's a revolving door of adults. Who's actually my mommy and daddy here, is what you hear in so many ways with these little ones, don't you?
TJ: Yeah and you mentioned spiritual warfare earlier. In addition to, I think, the marriages of the foster parents are under attack. And I was deploying so frequently, I think, because I was in a special operations unit, but our marriage started really to feel the strain of the deployments, of the foster kids, of just the work tempo and all kinds of stuff. And I really feel like we were attacked spiritually in our marriage.
Jim: How did you address that? How did you guys get back on the right page?
TJ: We do pray, so on those phone calls we'd pray together before we go to sleep every night. We pray before meals and things and I think prayer is huge between a couple. And I think if you're not a couple that's married and praying together, like you oughta be every day, at least once a day. And so, I think prayer is big. I think, so you have time for devotionals and then honestly, I left the unit I was with, largely because another opportunity presented itself and just because I don't know if we could've maintained the pace that we were at in our marriage. You know, there needed to be some changes.
Jim: So, you're makin' choices that supported the family, as opposed to your career perhaps.
TJ: Yes, sir.
Jim: I mean, that's a big statement to a lot of people, both men and women. That's an underlining.
Jim: That's something we need to add an exclamation point to hear. That is a great choice.
TJ: Yes, sir and I mean, there's phenomenal opportunities. Teaching at West Point is a great opportunity and that was one of the things. And so, God provides and God, you know, knows. But I think there is also another lie that Jenn was kinda touching on before, that God may not give you more than you can handle.
TJ: Well, I think oftentimes God gives us a lot more than we can handle and the only way we can handle it is through and with Him.
Jim: Jenn, you talked about Harmony, who is a newborn, that really tested you in some ways. What happened?
Jenn: There was just somethin'. I think TJ was actually the one who had more of the experience, but there was just somethin' in her eyes sometimes that it would almost glaze over. She was a drug exposed infant that came to us, the first newborn we had. And as she as going through the withdrawals of the drugs in her system, you know, there were just moments where her whole body would tense in a way that just drew us to prayer.
And so, at different times during the night, she often wouldn't sleep well.And one night TJ was out doing some night missions and I remember just having an uneasiness when he left that night, just thinkin' somethin' was gonna go wrong. You know how you get those gut feelings. And then I was up feeding Harmony at the time and I just prayed, "Lord, if somethin's goin' on, you know, just protect TJ." And Harmony was up every hour of the night and as I kept just kinda waking up in my half sleep, I would just begin to pray for TJ who was just so on my heart.
And the next morning when TJ came home from work, he ended up being there for breakfast. I'm like, "What are you doin' home? You're home early." He was, "Oh, it was the worst mission. We couldn't even complete our mission. It's the first one we've ever had to fail, 'cause there just kept being things wrong with the helicopter. We couldn't even get up in the air."
And then later on in the day, they found out that there was a major maintenance issue in one of the helicopters that they weren't able to see. But if they would've gone up in the air, they would've crashed. And you know, there's a Psalm, Psalm 8 where it says, "From the lips of infants and children, God has ordained praise." And I just so thank God for Harmony, that we had her during that time, because all night she just kept me up. She was just praising the Lord—
Jim: Kept crying.
Jenn: --to keep me prayin' and protecting that.
Jim: Isn't that somethin'?
John: And TJ, did you get any chills up your spine as you heard the story of her prayers and the helicopter?
TJ: Oh, certainly, yeah and I mean, we bumped helicopters and there were things that went wrong with the second and third helicopters that we went to. And so, it was quite unusual and just really frustrating on one hand, but you know, you hear the story and like, well, maybe that was good. (Laughing)
Jenn: Better that than dead.
Jim: You know, TJ and Jenn, again, people are listening. I'm thinking of the mom that's hearing your heart, Jenn and even your tears earlier and they're saying, "Man, she's a supermom. That guy's a military dad. He's got training to take on these kind of things." They are feeling like you two are doing it and gettin' through it because you're really exceptional people.
As we end today, I just want to give you a moment to make the case. I've tried, but you're in it. You're livin' it. You've had, you know, over 20 kids go through your home. You make the case.
Jenn: Sure. So, TJ likes to say the Holy Spirit's an equal-opportunity employer. He likes to involve all sorts of people.
And you know, we look through Scripture and see how God uses such ordinary and sinful people and I am definitely one of them. There's nothing super human about us at all. It's just sharing the stories of how God's worked through our lives by just being willing to just open our home.
And most people who have interacted with kids and seen how forgiving they are, have seen how genuine they are, have seen how prone they are to just want affection and attachment. And I'd say that the standards of what a kid wants is usually pretty low. And we think that we need to offer them so much more, but it's really our love that'll speak volumes to that.
Jim: TJ, anything you want to add for the dads that are saying, "You know, honey, I love your heart, but we're just in a spot that we can do this," the more practical guy.
TJ: From the practical aspects, I'd say some people don't let maybe financial issues stop you. One of the things is, the state will help reimburse you for some of the expenses. And I'd also say that you can do this when both parents are still working.
And just like Jenn mentioned earlier, kids just want a home. We've had several kids ask us, "Can we call you 'mom' and 'dad?'" And they just want a mom and dad and when especially school-age kids, they want to have somebody that they can go home and they can tell their friends, "That's my mom" or "That's my dad." And your listeners and Christians make wonderful moms and dads.
Jim: Hm. I mean, first of all, thank you both for the service to our country and what you've done and what you're continuing to do, teaching at West Point. Thank you for that. And then to go beyond that and to serve in such a wonderful capacity to be foster parents in the midst of all that other stuff, the other demands that are on your lives. Few of us have any kind of excuse to say, "Yeah, them, but not me."
So, thank you for being that example and I am hopeful that more people will get involved in foster [care] and do the job the Lord needs us to do, to proclaim His gospel in this area. So, thank you for being with us.
TJ: Thank you so much and we're praying for the same thing.
John: Well, TJ and Jenn Menn have been our guests for this "Focus on the Family" broadcast and we're gonna recommend that you contact us about getting their book, Faith to Foster. And while you're at it, request a download or a CD of our two-day program and the many other resources that we have about how you and your family can help needy children.
As one example, we have a whole website devoted to connecting families with the more than 100,000 legal orphans who are currently living in the foster-care system. We're gonna link over to www.icareaboutorphans.org, where you can learn more about foster care and adoption and how you can help foster families in your community, www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459.
And please, when you get in touch, support our efforts to encourage and educate others about ministry opportunities like this. Your financial support of Focus on the Family today will make a difference in how we, as a church body, fulfill the Scripture in James about helping widows and orphans in their time of need. Make a generous donation today and we'll send a complimentary copy of the book, Faith to Foster. You can donate at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Now coming up next time, we're going to be celebrating the National Day of Prayer with an inspiring message from U.S. Senate Chaplain, Barry Black.
U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black: My friends, God wants us to pray when we need Him, even as a parent wants to be with a child who needs him or her.
End of Excerpt
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T.J. and Jenn MennView Bio
Major T.J. Menn is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he and his wife, Jenn, are both graduates of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Major Menn currently serves as an aviation officer in the Army, and Jenn operates a small counseling practice. The Menns are passionate advocates for disadvantaged children, and have welcomed 24 foster children into their home, ranging from newborns through high school-age teenagers. T.J. and Jenn are co-authors of the book, Faith to Foster. The couple currently parents six children, and their family resides in New York. Learn more about the Menns and their book by visiting www.faithtofoster.com.