My family has been fostering for the last eight years now, and we have adopted two children out of foster care. I will be the first to tell you that I’m not an expert, nor do I have some official badge that allows me to speak on behalf of all foster parents. Every family’s situation and experience are vastly different. However, as I have been in foster parent groups or interacted with other parents who foster, I have heard common themes. I’ve heard similar stories. I’ve heard foster parents say things that the church needs to hear.
Three Things Foster Parents Want You to Know
We are not “good people.”
This statement is one of the things that I most often hear when people find out that we are foster parents. While it is a very sincere sentiment, it is not correct. In fact, fostering many times reveals more sin in my own heart — just like marriage and the parenting of biological children does. It is a truly sanctifying experience. We are sinners in need of a Savior just like the children that come into our home. We are not THE Savior and not THEIR Savior. Fostering is entering into brokenness, knowing that we are all broken by the effects of the Fall and our own sin. In fact, fostering is choosing to step into someone’s brokenness. Foster and adoption care is counter cultural in that you are choosing something that will break your heart and choosing not to protect yourself. Fostering is pointing these children to the only hope that any of us have in this life — Jesus Christ. So why do we do it? Because we know that Jesus will show up in power in these broken places, even as we seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus to these children (Matthew 25:40).
We get attached (and that is a healthy thing.)…
Have you ever had a friendship that started out, at first, on the worst possible footing—and yet, somehow—it grew anyway? I have an autistic friend who can testify that is exactly how our relationship lurched forward. When we first met, while I was leading a national disability ministry, my “wheelhouse” was primarily in the area of intellectual disability. At that time, I did not have any close personal connections with adults who have “high functioning autism” (a misnomer in and of itself). Lori was the first woman I had ever encountered who carried this descriptor.
We met in 2013 at our denomination’s annual General Assembly. While working the booth for our ministry, Lori circled by several times and then finally came up and talked to me for a bit. She mentioned that she had a son with autism. I’d had those conversations with lots of folks before. Then she said, “I have autism too.” Now she had my attention.
When “typical” folks meet people with disabilities, we can often fall into one of three categories of unhelpful responses: condescension, complacency, or consumerism. In my experience, the most common response is one of condescension—a revealing of our own biases of superiority towards people with differing abilities whom we presume to be inferior to us. It’s an ugly disclosure when it happens. And it happens frequently. Condescension says much more about us and our distorted views of ourselves than it says about people with disabilities.
The second category is complacency. Complacency is indifferent to the difficulties associated with disability and deeply rooted in our postmodern cultural context. Complacency can mask as acceptance—but it refuses to acknowledge (or feel any responsibility toward) the ways that some degree of suffering always accompanies disability in how the body works differently than we expect it to. For people with autism, the differences in neurological functioning create very challenging sensory, communication, relational, and executive functioning hurdles. When we are complacent or indifferent toward those realities, we communicate to people with autism that we expect them to bear these challenges in silence.
The third trap is a consumer mindset—one that sees the person with autism, in this case, as a commodity. Wow—you inspire me. Wow—you’re not what I expected. Wow—you could be really useful to me. I fell into this latter pitfall in my first encounter with Lori. Acknowledging that I did not know nearly as much about autism as I really needed to, I was thrilled to meet someone who was not only a parent of a child with autism but also autistic herself. What a gold mine! That’s when the unfiltered speech started on my part. “Will you be my (ministry’s) Temple Grandin?” Yes. I actually said that. I know. It’s mortifying for me even now, just to type it, let alone acknowledge that I blurted it out. (In case you don’t know who Temple Grandin is, she is a woman with autism who is a world-renowned speaker on the subject and also a brilliant, accomplished researcher in the topic area of animal husbandry.)
What I Am Still Learning
I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I’ve learned (and am still learning) along the way about becoming friends with someone who is autistic. I’ve asked Lori to interact with me on this post as well, so this post is only Part 1 of 2, as Lori’s voice in this conversation is, of course, crucial.
In my experience, I think those of us who would describe our interactions with the world around us as “neurotypical” will benefit from recognizing that we subconsciously settle into several things in our friendships, without even being aware of them. “Easy” neurotypical friendships are often based on commonality, comfort, competence, and conformity. We find it easiest to relate to those with whom we share things in common, whose presence doesn’t require us to be uncomfortable in any way, where our knowledge of the world and how it works feels competent, and where there is some mutually agreed upon level of conformity.
Christ-like relationships, on the other hand, are not focused on “ease” but on “intentionality.”…
My husband is a senior pastor, and we’ve served in ministry together for almost twenty-five years. Amidst the numerous joys and challenges of church life through the years, we have not felt before the kind of spiritual and emotional fatigue that has resulted from the effects of the COVID pandemic. Everyone has been burdened in some way by the pandemic, some more so than others, but because of my perspective as a pastor’s wife, I have a tenderness toward the stories I’ve heard from various pastor’s wives during this unique time.
Weeds of Discouragement
I’ve talked with some who feel defeated after thinking through new and innovative ways to carry on with ministries they’re involved with only to be met with little support. Other pastor’s wives seem to have relented to the seed of bitterness after hearing polarizing views from discontented members who swarmed their opinion through email, phone calls, and texts. And one dear pastor’s wife watched as the effects of the pandemic so permeated the congregation that the doors of the young church plant were closed permanently.
It’s easy to surrender to discouragement in light of the challenges in church ministry during the last year, but there are good reasons to push away the frustrated emotions. A bleak attitude can too easily lead to weeds planted in our heart, and these weeds produce buds when watered with our judgmental attitudes toward congregants. And they grow quickly when we blame our burdens on a particular decision or unwelcomed path.
Satan loves to see our hearts overgrown with these weeds which cause us to forget that God is working in and through His church…