The Day I Avoided Foster Ministry

I really wanted to get excited with Martha. But instead, I felt panicky.

At the playground with our kids, she was telling me about a powerful sermon she heard with her husband. “The preacher pointed out that if every Christian family in the US were to adopt, there would be no children in the foster care system. No kids in group homes.”

I nodded. My daughter was in the baby swing, her face alight as I gently pushed her to and fro.

“I mean, many evangelicals talk about being pro-life, but then do nothing to care for kids in the foster care system, to adopt, or to support foster parents. We’re meeting to pray with a few people about next steps. We’re really excited.”

“I can tell,” I said weakly, my heart thudding. The sun shone; the park was idyllic: lawn manicured, hedges trimmed. But as Martha spoke, her hands gesturing with her passion, I wanted to run and hide in the beige play structure.

If every Christian were to adopt, she said.

 “It’s not for everyone,” I said. “Adoption, I mean.”

Martha paused. “Oh, I know,” she said. “I don’t feel prepared to adopt at this point; which is why we are focusing on supportive ministries.”

The fist in my chest loosened a bit, and I smiled at her. I appreciated Martha and her deep passion about injustice. She and her husband, Shep, were so engaged, so intentional with how they lived out their faith. At the time, it felt like they were on the varsity Christian team.

I, on the other hand, was on the bench in JV, struggling even to pray.

When Needs Perfectly Intersect With Experience

The worst part was that I knew first-hand just how much help first kids needed. I was the lone biological kid in my family; both my siblings, Katie and Steve, had been adopted as infants.

And it wasn’t a shiny, happy story of adoption. No, you could call what had happened in my family “failed adoption”; my parents sending first my brother, then my sister to a children’s home when they were 13 and 11. I could imagine how hard foster care was on children because I’d seen something similar up close.

So shouldn’t I feel called to action by Martha’s words? Our church talked about how experiences shape service. Our wounds and scars should give us compassion for people and aim us like magnetic force towards needs. Except in this case, I was getting the wrong end of the magnet. I felt pushed away, not drawn in.

She’s not asking you to join her, I told myself, because she wasn’t. But a deeper, meaner voice said, But you should want to help. You should feel called if you really cared about your siblings.

Wincing, I changed the subject. Months later, when I got cc’d on an email about the new ministry, I deleted it.

Confession: My Heart Doesn’t Expand For All Needs

It’s ten years later, and Martha and Shep’s idea took root and blossomed—they spearheaded it for years and then handed the reins to others. I still get emails about the ministry.

Can I be honest? I still mostly delete them.

In fact, when I saw that the Mudroom’s March theme was adoption and foster care, I felt stirrings of the same panic, the same inadequacy.

I think I’m not alone in feeling this way. It’s easy to feel shame when our hearts don’t expand to take in the whole world, when our gifts, callings, and limitations intersect in awkward ways.

I’m trying to have more grace for my lack of calling to serve foster kids. Because much as I wish I could enter into ministries that help, I still don’t feel capable. I’m trying to believe it is all right to not feel drawn to ministries that on paper should be a natural fit with my lived experience. And also, I have abandoned the idea that there’s any kind of ‘varsity’ team for Christianity. We’re all beloved children, stumbling towards home.

Honoring Ourselves as We Honor Others

I was struck, years ago, by Nadia Bolz Weber’s assertion that we need to write out of scars, not wounds. And I think the same is true for service. If we serve out of our wounds, if we minister because we feel obligation, to atone, to expiate some sin, if we serve out of guilt instead of calling, we serve poorly.

How can we bear witness and honor others when we do not honor ourselves?

I hate my limitations. I hate that amazing children out there need homes and I do not welcome them in. I am not entirely convinced that Jesus won’t want to chat with me about that when I meet him face-to-face.

But despite my guilt, honoring my frailty is tremendously important. I am not Jesus, and even he did not meet every need or wipe the tear away from every eye.

If I have learned anything about faith, it is that good intentions are simply not enough. Things can go horribly wrong if all you’ve got is the sincere, panicked desire to do the right thing.

Turning away from ministries doesn’t feel holy. It doesn’t win gold stars. But I am done equating harder work with holier outcomes, done equating a sense of obligation with love, done tallying up my acts of service as if they hold any value in and of themselves.

I am ready to cheer on others’ gifts and passions without deciding they are any kind of guidebook for where God would have me go next.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Heather Caliri
Latest posts by Heather Caliri (see all)

6 thoughts on “The Day I Avoided Foster Ministry

  1. Heather, this is such a good other perspective. Having a sister who fosters and hearing the constant “oh, I could never do that” comments she gets – I get it. Some should run towards it but don’t because it is hard. And some should never. No hard work (especially those that decide the fate of children) should be entered into lightly and the same could be said for “why don’t we all work in social justice” or whatever the cause that makes your heart pound with rightness. Thanks!

    • yes–I hear this so often from foster families and people serving in, say foreign countries ;). YES, we can do so much harm if we force ourselves past our limits.

  2. Thank you Heather for your courage in admitting your frailty and inability to meet a need that ‘should’ make your experience. Your words have reassured me that I am not a ‘bad’ Christian for sometimes saying no.

    • Good. We all have to say no–and Jesus TOTALLY models that for us. He was not ever-present or available. He walked by many blind beggars without healing them. Which is CRAZY to realize.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story and perspective. It really resonated with me. With over 30 years in education, I felt I SHOULD be involved in the children’s ministry at my church but just wasn’t feeling that was where I was meant to be. I felt guilt every time there was a need for teachers and I didn’t volunteer. Eventually I found another ministry that I felt called to and gave my energy and heart there instead. It IS important that we have permission to say no. God has His plans for us and sometimes they’re unexpected and are only revealed when we are free to hear His call!

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