(Part 13) Cultivating the Trunk and Branches- Determining Your Initial Focus
Determining Your Focus
It was in the fall of 2022, and I had been conversing with a local multi-campus church for a year. They took their time researching every aspect and local partners before they decided that they would engage with our local child welfare system with a focus on foster families, and our initial activity would be building care communities to support them.
Building the foundation for this massive undertaking was challenging as we continued meeting with members and local partners with distinctive visions for how the church should respond.
The difference between Focus And Activities
It's important to note the difference between focus and activities. Focus refers to the main vulnerable or at-risk population you are serving. Activities are the actions you are taking to support this population. In our case, the focus was foster care, and our activities included building care communities and implementing a wrap-around system. Understanding your focus clearly is essential, as it will guide all of your actions and decisions moving forward.
Still, we were constantly bombarded with ideas and new directions to expand the ministry. Our very own Church Vision and Engagement Pastor, Jonathan Christian, came up with what we affectionately refer to as the "Chicken Sandwich Speal."
He would explain, "Chick-fil-A has an amazing chicken sandwich. It took a lot of time to get that sandwich just right, and the restaurant only exists today because they spent time perfecting it. Later, they added waffle fries and the spicy chicken sandwich. Regarding our church, we have to focus on one thing and get really good at it. So for our first year, we will work on recruiting or supporting our foster families. We would happily reconnect when that year ends and readdress."
Upon further research, I found this story to be a straightforward and effective communication strategy and historically accurate. The original Chick-fil-A menu had five items. So what will the Chick-fil-A sandwich be of your church's ministry? How do you plan to start, and what will you get really good at?
Determining your "Chicken Sandwich"
You may have no clue where to start or have a distinctive focus God has already put on your heart. Your church leadership may have a sense of direction, or you may be partnering with a local non-profit expert. Regardless of where you are in the process, it is important to take some time to determine your initial focus. This will help guide your decision-making and ensure your efforts are directed towards a clear goal.
First, to determine where to start, ask, "Do we have several families already caring for vulnerable children within our church, and have we asked how they are doing?
If the answer is yes, you may have your chicken sandwich.
If you have families in your church who have answered the call to orphan or foster care, your first step is to identify their spiritual and physical needs and start there.
They might say they don't need help, but they're not asking for it because servant-hearted people can be tough to serve. Their main focus is always on others, never themselves. While their house may be metaphorically on fire, they're out there mowing someone else's lawn or cooking a meal for a family dealing with an illness.
I got a call from our local foster care agency. One of their families had recently accepted a little girl from foster care who was on the autism spectrum. We had a child on the spectrum and had cared for several other children with Autism in foster care, so they asked if I could encourage her and give her some ideas to support her and advocate for the child.
I showed up later that day with freezer meals as I walked up her front path. When she opened the door, she quickly passed the meals to her husband and joined me on the front porch to speak privately. She was exhausted, both spiritually and physically.
She asked where I had gained my knowledge, so I shared that we had a biological child with autism, which prompted us to use that life experience to serve the foster care system. At that time, we had two placements on the spectrum and seven children in total.
She heard this and responded, "I can't do this. I am not you."
It wasn't a hateful or mean statement, but it still broke my heart. She was a leader in her church, and nobody ever knew that she was in the trench of foster care, barely able to get out of bed in the morning.
Since the early 2000s, the church has experienced a rise in adoption and foster care involvement among families. As a result, there has been a significant increase in activities taking place behind the scenes.
A Newsweek article written in 2022 titled "Evangelical Christian Adoption Movement Hit by "Tsunami" of Mentally Ill Children" reported,
"Few statistics exist on the number of adoptions gone wrong, other than a 10-year-old study by the US Department of Health and Human Services reporting "adoption disruptions" ranging from 10-25 percent. This little-known statistic points to a meltdown in the industry and a sign that adoption and foster care have become a landmine for many families who believed God had called them to help these children. No one told them there could be an aftermath."
If your church has preached about adoption and the importance of caring for children in your community, the work cannot stop there. When you start identifying your initial activity, don’t miss the forest for the trees. It is easy to jump on a new idea and get everyone excited about how to support a non-profit in the community. Meanwhile, our own people persist in this work, unseen and unsupported, sometimes even feeling abandoned by the church that initially encouraged them.
If you don’t have families within your church who are caring for vulnerable children or at risk themselves, perhaps consider a starting point that is more outward-facing. Or, if you desire to see additional foster or adoptive families within your own congregation, consider hosting an event to recruit more and then offering wrap-around services to those who boldly respond.
Here are a few ideas of areas of focus:
Women facing unplanned pregnancies
Children in need of adoption
Children or young adults rescued from child trafficking
Children and families affected by the foster care system
Special needs children
and many more options
When you start building your core team and learning about other churches' work in your area, prepare to receive a lot of input. At times, it can be helpful, while in other moments, it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of agreement, as a leader, this is always an opportunity for discipleship.
Your First Activity
You may set out to do this work in two ways:
Option 1- Your Family Advocacy Ministry points church member volunteers to the work being done within your church. This can include but is not limited to:
Meet the physical needs of families in crisis.
Host service projects to bless vulnerable children and families.
Recruit new foster families within your church.
Implement a wrap-around program for foster, adoptive, or special needs families.
Host a support group for foster, adoptive, or special needs families.
Offer support and assistance for caseworkers.
Option 2- Your Family Advocacy ministry partners with and points church member volunteers to work with a local or national non-profit with expertise in caring for and serving your focus.
Your church's Family Advocacy Ministry can be a transformative way to mobilize your church members and volunteers toward addressing child vulnerability in your community. Whether your core leaders utilize your resources and support within the church or your ministry partners with external non-profit organizations, you will undoubtedly make an eternal impact.
Remember, this is a journey of learning, growth, and discipleship, and its success will rely on collective commitment, compassion, and action. Every effort counts, and each step taken brings us closer to creating a church environment where every child and family feels cherished, safe, and nurtured and a culture of responding to those in crisis and in need of support and love.