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4 ways the Church can support adoptees

“Mom, will people at church always think of me as being less than everyone else?” My eight-year-old daughter’s dark eyes probed mine as I hurried into the Sunday School classroom where I would be greeting a room full of energetic elementary children.

“What would make you think that, sweetheart?” I asked the child whom we had eagerly welcomed into our family seven years earlier, not as a result of the traditional manner of pregnancy, labor and delivery, but rather, through international adoption.

Consistent with her introverted, deliberate personality, she silently pointed to new décor in the children’s wing hallway: multiple posters that read: Pray – Give – Adopt. Love the Least of These. “Oh, wow,” I said, realizing my need to reassure her of the risk she had taken to self-disclose vulnerable feelings, “I didn’t even see those when we walked in today. Any minute, kids will be here, but I am so glad you brought the subject up. Can we talk about it this afternoon with your dad over ice cream?”

The posters had been a locally created, well-intentioned effort by some in our church family to recognize Orphan Sunday, a nationally coordinated event to raise awareness about vulnerable children around the globe. As an employee of a national social services and adoption agency that endorses Orphan Sunday, I understood the heart and purpose behind the posters. But as a parent to two maturing, adopted children, I was growing increasingly aware of the church’s responsibility to minister to more than merely adoptive parents; adoptees also merit consideration of how the Christian community can effectively support, respect and give voice to the complex, lifelong journey of adoption, including how we speak of adopted persons who are vital members of our churches.

For families, adoption usually begins as a parent-centered narrative, with stories focused on the factors that led to the decision to adopt. Often followed by a re-telling of the “paper pregnancy,” laced with its frustrating, dramatic, if not humorous details, the adoption storyline frequently features a finale that includes homecoming and the subsequent post-adoption chronicles, which continue to highlight the family and its ensuing transition and adjustments.

Altering our paradigm to recognize adoptees as integral parts of our churches means we listen to and value their voices, even when the message they convey may be difficult to hear. Also crucial to this shift is acknowledging that the adoptee’s story actually began long before “adoption day,” not even at birth, but during the first nine months of life in the womb of his or her birth mother (Ps. 139: 13-16).

Tara VanderWoude, who is a social worker, adoption educator, adult adoptee and an adoptive parent, explains, “Adoption isn’t a one-time event, but an ongoing process, since a child’s perspective and understanding change throughout the years.” At the Christian Alliance for Orphans’ Summit 2015, Tara observed,

When discussing adoption within the Christian adoption community, there tends to be a norm of speaking about it in a way that is always positive, loving, and spiritual, as to provide comfort, peace, and resolution. Of course, adoption involves a tremendous amount of love and creates countless strong familial relationships. But as adoptees come of age and continue to process the persons, circumstances, and events of their lives, many begin understanding adoption in ways that do not solely include the celebration and positivity so often discussed. It is important to ask yourself, as a parent, as a church ministry or leader, ‘Why am I framing it this way? What messages are being sent to adoptees in my church and could they feel less understood if their adoption-related feelings include loss, anger, or confusion? How else can I phrase it so that the impact of my words match my intentions?’

Over a heaping scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, my daughter shared with her Dad and me that she felt comfortable discussing her adoption story with friends. She had observed the posters, however, on the heels of an advocacy event where emphasis was placed on adopted children as “ex-orphans,” and the two occurrences left her feeling labeled and uniquely distinct from other children within the church. Though true she was once an orphan who now has a family, our daughter went on to vocalize that she wants to attend church and “be a Graves, not a girl who everyone else is looking at and feeling sorry for. I just want to be regular like the other kids.”

This specific conversation with our daughter ushered us into a new phase of the adoption journey: one which requires attunement, empathy and sensitivity as we learn together how to navigate complexities which our biological son never encountered. It also prompted us to reexamine church adoption and orphan care ministry efforts as they pertain particularly to more than just adoptive parents, but to adopted persons themselves.

How The Church Can Support Adoptees

  1. Become educated. Effectively ministering to adopted persons requires a willingness to learn and become literate on subjects not previously taught in seminary. Staff (and even volunteers) should become familiar with the realities inherent in adoption such as trauma, grief, loss and transracial issues. Pastors, youth ministers, children’s directors and church leaders willing to attend conferences, workshops and trainings about adoption and to learn from adoption professionals will be better equipped to support adoptees of varying ages.
  2. Use adoption language accurately. Remember there are many participants within an adoption, any of whom could be attending your church and hearing the messages you send with your words (adoptee, birth family, adoptive family). Take time to learn from adoption professionals about positive adoption language that respects each member of the adoption triad.
  3. Advocate for adoption and orphan care mindfully. As your local church body engages its believers to care for vulnerable children, do so with a holistic mindset, remembering all members of the adoption triad. Be open to involvement and feedback from adult adoptees within the congregation, in addition to adoptive families.
  4. Develop a healthy culture that gives voice and cultivates unity. The ability to speak and be heard is a gift biology prepares parents to give, and children to receive, according to Dr. Karyn Purvis. “Because of their histories,” she says, “these children and youth must be taught they have a powerful gift — a voice — and that they also have caregivers who want to listen and understand their words and their needs.” Similarly, purposeful, deliberate churches will strive to create a sense of belonging for adopted persons by engaging and listening to their voices.

As the church boldly champions the truth of James 1:27, may we also be equally audacious in creating safe spaces for the children we embrace, cherish, love and raise as our own, guiding them toward physical and spiritual maturity. We must remember that the babies grow up — they become our fellow church members, who hear and understand what we say about them, about their histories, their previous circumstances, how we use their stories to advocate for vulnerable children everywhere. Let our words be “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

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