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5 things adoptive families wish their churches knew

Often, when I think of a courtroom, I think of judgement, brokenness and sadness. As a social worker, I sat in court to support a rape victim as she gave her testimony against her rapist. As a counselor, I sat in court to speak on behalf of juvenile offenders. I’ve even sat in court as part of a jury selection for a heinous crime.

But there was one time I sat in a courtroom for a joyous reason. That day was the culmination of years of prayer. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. I listened intently as the judge declared that three children standing before him were taking on the name of one of my dearest friends. They had been adopted.   

The Beauty of Adoption

Most of us know someone who was adopted or who has adopted a child. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 7,000 children were adopted from other countries in 2013. Over 50,000 children were adopted in the U.S. in the same year. And there are millions of orphans around the world still without a place to call home.

There are international adoptions, domestic adoptions through private agencies and domestic adoptions through the foster care system. People adopt infants, children and teenagers. Some are perfectly healthy, and others require constant medical attention.  But all adoptions are a beautiful picture of the grace of God for us in Christ. “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:5).

The church should rejoice in adoption. We should celebrate when members of our churches take a child into their home and make them part of their family. We should encourage and support them in whatever way we can. After all, the church is commanded to look after the needs of orphans (James 1:27). But sadly, adoptive parents often find the church to be the least supportive organization.

There are many things about adoption — the process, the motivations and the means — that we don’t understand. It’s unfamiliar to us. Sometimes, because we don’t understand something, we may unwittingly ignore the challenges and hurdles adoptive families face. We may neglect to reach out and offer help and support. As a result, adoptive families are left feeling isolated in their churches. In the place where they ought to receive the most encouragement, they often feel the most alone.

In an effort to help churches understand adoption and the needs of adoptive families, I want to share a few things I’ve learned over the years from many different friends and families I know who have adopted. As I’ve walked beside these friends in their journey, I’ve seen firsthand the challenges, joys, sorrows, healing, pain and beauty of the adoption process.

1. Our Words Matter: You know all the strange and inappropriate things people say and do when they think a woman is pregnant? We can say and do equally strange and inappropriate things to adoptive parents. The truth is, the words we use matter. They can unite us to another person or cause division. A few examples of such words or statements that are offensive and hurtful to adoptive families are:  

  • Referring to a biological child as a “real child”: An adoptive child is a real child too. Though they are not biologically related, they are just as real to the family as a biological child. Perhaps it helps to think of what it means to you to be adopted into the family of Christ. How much of a “real” child of God are you?
  • Talking about the cost of adoption: Yes, adoption has a financial cost but adoptive parents don’t want their adoptive children to think of themselves as an item that can be purchased.
  • Using the phrase “give up” to refer to the birth mother's decision for adoption: The birthmother allowed another mother the privilege of loving and caring for her biological child. It is a huge sacrifice and should be treated with respect, especially in front of an adoptive child.
  • Comparing domestic vs. international adoptions: Sometimes we can treat one avenue of adoption as better than another and even ask adoptive parents why they did not choose a different avenue. Just as God calls some people to missions within their own country and others to a country far away, the same is true of adoptive families.
  • Racial comments, judgments and disdain: Every child, no matter what they look like, are made in the image of God and are precious in his sight. Adoptive parents know when you are looking down on their child because they are of a different race or ethnicity than you. It hurts them and their child.

2. Space Matters: When a family first brings home an adopted child, it is crucial that they have time together to bond with the child. It is important that they keep the child’s world small so they can learn to trust their new parents to meet their needs. In adoption terminology, this is called “cocooning” and is an important part of the attachment process. This may mean that you won’t see them for a few weeks. It may mean that they don’t want you to reach out and hug the child. We need to respect the boundaries adoptive parents put in place and know that it is what is best for the child.

3. Celebrating Matters: Often churches love to throw baby showers when a woman is expecting a baby. We should celebrate with our adoptive families too. When a friend of mine adopted a little girl from Ethiopia, I hosted a welcome shower where we cooked Ethiopian food, decorated with the colors, flags, and other finds from Ethiopia and taught everyone gathered important facts about the country. We then gave our friend things she needed, specific to the age of her child. Toward the end of the shower, a family member brought in the little girl, and we respectfully introduced ourselves, being careful to maintain boundaries and space.

4. An Understanding of Their Needs Matters: Adopted children come with a variety of stories. Some may have been abused or neglected. Some may have witnessed and experienced horrific and traumatic things. Some may have developmental delays or a physical disability. Whatever their stories are, they are not our business unless the parents choose to tell us. But we have to be respectful of whatever unique needs they have.

If you care for an adopted child in nursery or teach them in Sunday school, their parent will let you know of their unique needs. Listen to what they tell you, follow their advice and ask clarifying questions when needed. They might parent their adopted child differently than you and for good reason. Often these children have seen and experienced untold horrors and need parenting unique to their experience. In addition, the countries that a family adopts from might also have specific rules and guidelines for how they expect a family to raise the child.

5. Prayer Matters: One of the greatest things we can do as a church for our adoptive families is to pray for them. Pray for their adoption process. It is often a long and frustrating experience. Pray for all the details of the process, including paperwork, fees, travel plans, legalities and medical concerns. Pray for the child’s adjustment to life in a new place, their grief process as they leave all that they know behind, and their bonding with a new family. Even better, ask the family how you can pray for them specifically.

As believers, we should all love and rejoice in adoption. After all, we are all adopted children of our Father in heaven. So let us rejoice, celebrate, help and pray for our church members who adopt.

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