Equipping the Church for Lasting Impact in Child Welfare
Eight of ten children were off to school, covering four campuses, three cities, and five grades. She stared with disbelief at the city official. It was mid-morning. The house was almost quiet except for the pair of three-year-olds in desperate need of a snack. And here he was, the city code inspector, in his municipal uniform declaring, “A neighbor has reported a code infraction.”
With these words, his presence was suddenly not a surprise—just his timing was off. Three months prior, a sibling set of five children had arrived beginning an adoption process. The family had grown from 5 to 10 children almost overnight. The new siblings-to-be were tired and still mourning the loss of their mother two months prior. She had fought cancer just long enough to see the youngest son of her five kids experience his second birthday.
This son had arrived at his new home a couple of weeks prior to his siblings. He came from a loving family who had planned to adopt him yet could not adopt the whole sibling set. The adoptive family was heartbroken because the pain of the adoption falling through was too much and needed him to move into his new home abruptly. My wife–the woman at the door– was this son’s third mom in two months.
At that phase of our family’s rapid growth, so much was unfolding. Each day, I would arrive home to cars lining the street. Friends, neighbors, contractors, laborers, and representatives from at least four churches, had swarmed our home, to prepare it, and us, for our new reality, —10 kids. The volunteers were relentless. Some tore down walls in the basement to outfit it with bedrooms. Others painted old dressers from secondhand stores to match the design of my newest daughters’ room. Another couple were the leaders. One managed the chaos of transitioning the home and another planned for the future, ensuring the care offered would continue. Foster care is not a short crisis. This future-focused team leader plotted a community of babysitters, transporters, meal-makers, and prayer warriors.
The church was at work. Blurry-eyed, we watched and focused our attention on our children asking God to usher unity for a newly formed family and deep healing from accumulated trauma.
The city code inspector at the door had no idea of the miracle that had unfolded. He did not know that the church had made God’s plan to “set the lonely in families” a reality (Psalm 68:6 NIV).
What he did know was that a neighbor had registered a complaint. Thus, my wife—the woman at the door—asked, “What exactly is the concern?” And she held her breath. The possibilities were boundless. In our hurry to expand our family, I am sure we did not dot every “i” when it came to code.
The inspector replied, “There have been reports that you are running an unregistered daycare facility out of your home.” My wife was dumbfounded, mildly offended, and overall, elated. It took a few seconds to envision a neighbor driving by each day consumed by the injustice of what appeared to be a chaotic, unregistered daycare facility! She laughed, which I think caught the inspector off-guard. Then, she said, “Nope. Those are all my kids. All of them.”
What does it take for people like my wife to say “those are my kids”? The number of children in the US foster care is approximately 400,000. Over 100,000 on any day need adoptive families. Most of these children are either sets of siblings or have significant special needs or are both. This group permanently, and the rest temporally, need someone to say, “You are mine. And I am yours.”
But the risks are high for caregivers and kids alike. Roughly half of the foster families quit in the first year. And children placed with ill-equipped families experience rejection. The time for healing trauma becomes a time of new trauma. Something breaks in them, and God’s primary mechanism for repair—family— is unavailable to come to their aid. Further, potential foster families watch and quietly think, “It’s not worth it.” The church turns away in effect, whispering, “Those are not my kids” because the problem is simply too overwhelming.
The problem, a shortage of well-equipped families, is not primarily a recruitment issue but a retention issue that causes recruitment problems. Said differently, we can’t get foster families because the experience of those we have is often so poor. The promise of more foster families starts with a passion for those we have. When the church steps up, once kids are placed, everyone wins. How do we get the church to step up and proclaim, emphatically and systematically, to children in foster care—”you are mine”?
To equip the church for lasting impact in child welfare, we must convince her that the advocacy and support of vulnerable children and families are among her top internal priorities. Churches must own the work as their work, not a ministry to outsource to agencies. A mindset shift must occur. It is a subtle and powerful distinction, and a story may help to clarify the change required.
As a teen, I was blessed with a used car. My parents bought it. I loved that car, felt cool enough driving it, and even washed it on occasion. But, when I bought my first car a few years later, everything changed. I knew exactly how the car stacked up against other models; I knew all of the vehicle history, and I learned to look under the hood. It was my responsibility. I still needed a mechanic—a nearby expert, but I never thought of my mechanic as the owner of my car!
The church has frequently failed when it comes to child welfare because it has outsourced programs and responsibility to nearby non-profits. Most churches have engaged through this external mindset with the same fear that parishioners carry. Instead of whispering as an institution, “you are mine,” Churches argue “they are yours” to their non-profit partners. It’s as simple as the distinction between pushing and pulling. In the external model, the church is an ideal asset where non-profits can pull volunteers and deploy them to serve through the non-profit partner.
Whereas, the internal model sees a local non-profit as an equipper pushing resources into a local church so that the local church can deploy the volunteers in the community. Both models need God’s people to step up, both are impactful, but only one is scalable. Local churches will begin to meet the needs of children and families when they internalize and truly own the ministry to these vulnerable individuals.
This shift is possible and will require three specific actions. We have seen them before. Remember when churches practiced missions (and sometimes evangelism) exclusively by sending money to missionaries living in other nations? Then bit by bit, churches began to embrace short-term missions. These trips led to a local focus, with mission pastors, community outreach directors, and others deeply engaged. Essentially, three changes happened and will need to happen again. Church leaders 1- adopted a strategic plan, 2- appointed people, and 3- allocated budget to see the work sustained. Churches modified insurance policies, hired staff, and expected all the more of their non-profits to equip them, not supplant them. The church owned the work, and this is exactly what is required with child welfare.
My belief is that even 10% of active engagement would be the tipping point to provide kids more than enough of each resource they need. In fact, a growing community of organizations believe this, and you can learn more here. Presently, let’s explore these three necessary changes.
When our team at Promise686 goes to churches, we always invite leaders to start small yet dream big. We invite them to embrace an established approach to developing what we call a Family Advocacy Ministry (FAM). It’s by no means the only plan available, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is a framework for ministry, and multiple programs can fill the framework, bringing life to the ministry and impact for kids. Somedays, I believe the most important aspect of a FAM is the language itself. When churches name their program, they define it, and definitions come with expectations.
We say that a typical FAM should recruit one new foster or adoptive family each year, wrap around two or more families in need of support, directly impact ten vulnerable children and make roughly a $10,000 economic impact in the community when you assess gifts-in-kind, volunteer hours and cost avoidance. Sometimes expectations are aspirational, and sometimes they are way too small.
The goal-setting process gets a good bit more detailed as each year, these FAMs are guided through a Ministry Action Plan. As we call it, the MAP is just that—a way for churches to determine where they are headed before they set out. Our team provides guidance and expertise, but the family ministry is not ours. The church owns its FAM by adopting a plan that suits them and tailored to local needs. The strongest churches reference FAMs in conversations when they talk about children’s ministry, discipleship, and evangelism. Their work in child welfare becomes part of the day-to-day business of the church.
When my family doubled from five to ten kids, you might recall that we had a volunteer leader dedicated to immediate needs and another leader planning to establish lasting support. So many churches start a ministry around the immediate needs of children. They have no plan at all, just a passionate response. They rush to help, but weeks later, service ceases, and the startup ministry all but disappears. In the chaos, they have rarely identified the people needed to stay the course ahead.
When it comes to serving families in a lasting way, churches will need both committed lay leaders and staff leaders. The latter supports the former. Churches with dynamic lay leaders must keep a staff liaison in place if they want the family ministry to last. This staff member should have monthly contact with the lay leaders. In identifying and appointing leaders, churches must attach people to people, not people to needs. If the ministry leaders are guided to address a need, the ministry will disappear when the need is met or becomes less intense or romanticized. To create a ministry that lasts, churches need to commit to staying with individuals regardless of the need. Remember, the goal is that local churches will proclaim, “You are mine,” not “It is ours”—focusing on relationships over gaps to fill.
We have a rule in our home where teenagers must pay us monthly for a handful of items – mobile phones, gas for cars, Netflix, and auto insurance. The $50 or $100 a month does relatively little to help with the bills, but it does much toward understanding responsibility and what will be required in adulthood. In fact, my kids have to budget for this each month. A budget is a powerful tool! We know a FAM will likely make it when it earns its way into the church budget.
The actual expenses can vary in amount and purpose, from church to church. Some allocate funds for awareness luncheons. Others set aside dollars to pay for expenses foster families incur that are not reimbursed by the state. Others still give to organizations like ours, local agencies, and even international orphanages. Regardless of where the money flows, the fact that it flows makes for a heightened sense of responsibility and ownership. When the money is not spent, someone asks why. The accountability brings impact and keeps the staff bought into the work.
Further, stewardship requires reporting to the broader church population so they will be aware of what the ministry is doing, which draws in more money, more people, and more scrutiny of the plan moving ahead. My high school senior recently came home from her Economics class to share how she had learned (or I might say “internalized”) that “nothing is free.” Whether the investment is $100 annually or $5000 monthly, churches that allocate funds to this work will see the most significant results.
Commitment to this internal model is the first step, allocating the resources of people and dollars resources must follow. When these three combine, local churches become hubs for community transformation. In Florida, the child welfare system depends on CBC’s—lead organizations conducting Community-Based-Care. A friend of mine likes to say that “CBC is not new.” It started with Church-Based-Care, and at some point, our churches lost sight of the plan to lead in the critical area of child welfare.
As local churches lead increasingly, they will discover a beautiful and cumbersome path ahead. There are many “code inspectors” when it comes to child welfare. It’s worth noting that the inspector who arrived at my home years ago was unthwarted by the knowledge that all of the children present were, in fact, mine! He quickly manufactured another reason to be present and went to measure the exact distance of our shed from the property line! Trouble does and will come to churches who develop Family Advocacy Ministries. In truth, it gets messier over time.
Once churches surround families with children placed in their homes, they start to ask a daring question—how did these kids arrive here, and what would happen if we supported families before children went into foster care? What if we “adopted” families first, and children only as a last resort? I can think of no more compelling vision than churches so steadfast in their support of foster families and adoptive families that they begin to surround local families in crisis. Supporting the families before children go into a foster home or once those the children are reunified.
The path ahead involves preserving, sustaining, and building up families, but it starts with a strong plan, dedicated people, and resources. The messier things get, the louder churches will be able to proclaim, “They are mine” giving isolated children and families a lasting sense of belonging straight from the Father’s heart.
“The More Than Enough Church Foster Care Assessment is an easy and powerful way to explore your church’s engagement in foster care in six different areas.”
“Whether you are launching a new foster care, adoption or orphan care ministry or leading an existing one, Everyone Can Do Something is designed to rally your church around the care of the orphaned and vulnerable in strategic, effective and sustainable ways.”
“It takes faith, time, money, and emotion to prioritize at-risk kids and their families. We’re grateful when a church partner decides to make this investment to care for vulnerable children, and we want to do all we can to help push forward their mission. To alleviate the stress and confusion that can come with creating any new ministry, we’ve created a step-by–step model called Family Advocacy Ministries (FAMs). “