It’s Holy Week!
As I am spending more time than usual contemplating the Big Events that defines my religion (namely this and this), and as our family will be going to church more than usual this week, I thought this would be a great time to address a question I’ve gotten in some form or another several times: “Can I take my foster child to church?”
The short answer is, “yes, you can take your foster child to church.” I actually addressed this in a video several years ago, in fact. That said, I have more experience now than I did then, so I wanted to offer a few things to keep in mind if you are a church-going family.
- Consider the child’s parent’s wishes. Anytime I have an opportunity to do so, I let our foster child’s parent know that we are a church-going family and that they can let us know if they would prefer we not bring their child to church. I have never had a parent ask us not to bring their child to church. In fact, every parent we have engaged with has appreciated that we are people of faith and have allowed their children to come with us to church. That said, there may be a case where their family practices another religion or has another reason they don’t want their child going to your church. In that case, you need to respect their wishes.
- Consider the child’s age. If your foster child is younger than eleven or twelve, I expect that they will want to go to church with you. In my experience, every child we have had who was pre-adolescent loved going to church. (The only child we have cared for who opted out was sixteen.) One eleven-year-old who was with us for a while had previously attended a summer youth camp at a church and he loved it. When he heard that we were a church-going family, he was so excited. That said, if the child is more mature, have a straight-up conversation with them. I say it like this: “Our family goes to church every Sunday, and we’d love for you to join us, but if that’s not something you’re comfortable with, I’m totally willing to make other arrangements for you while we go.” If the child is old enough and mature enough to stay home alone, let them. If not, you will need to figure something out.
- Consider the church you attend. In my experience (and I know this is not the case for everyone), our kids have really thrived in small churches. The church we attended when we first became foster parents was quite small (under fifty people), and that meant that everyone there knew our family’s story and were very supportive of our fluid family circumstances. People knew not to ask inappropriate questions of us or our kids and, instead, they just loved and accepted every child we showed up with. The church we attend now is also small and we love feeling known and loved and seen and supported by this intimate community. Our kids love it, too. Also, consider what ministry for children is available. Our little ones run into the nursery week after week without looking back because they love it so much. Our older son is finding his way with his community of peers in Sunday school. Make sure the church you attend is prepared to meet your kids where they’re at.
- Have a back-up plan. As I said in point number one, you may have a child who does not want to attend church or whose parents don’t want them to attend. (I don’t mean “I was watching my favorite cartoon and now you say it’s time to leave and I don’t want to go to church because I don’t want to stop watching TV.” I mean a child who specifically does not want to attend church.) You have no idea what kind of baggage church carries for the child who has come into your home. Perhaps they attended church prior to coming to you and had negative experiences. Perhaps they are part of the LGBTQ community and do not feel accepted by “church people.” Perhaps they have fear of being in large groups of people. Perhaps they don’t feel like being paraded through a church where everyone will know they are a foster kid. If they truly don’t want to go, please do not force the issue. Nothing turns a young person off of church like being forced to go against their will! Make other arrangements. If they have a friend they are close enough to have a sleepover with, and you feel comfortable allowing it, let them have their sleepover on Saturday night. Alternately, seek out a non-church-going friend you trust to come and hang with your foster youth on Sunday mornings, or trade off with your partner so one of you can take your kids to church while the other one has some quality one-on-one time with your foster child. Barring that, if respite is a possibility, let them spend Saturday night with a (non-church-going) respite family and pick them up after church. Whatever the case, make arrangements to accommodate their preferences about church and do not make a big deal out of it. Believe me when I tell you, especially with a teenager, your grace-filled respect of their wishes will do more to communicate your love for them than dragging them to church against their will.
- Live your faith authentically every day and pray for your foster child (and all of your children!) Our family prays before each meal, and sometimes I will say, “No one is compelled to pray with us, but if you would like to, please join us as we pray,” or something like that. I totally respect my teenager’s decision not to attend church with our family, but that does not stop me from being very open about my faith. Because it is such a big part of who I am, it comes out in every day conversation. I have inspirational scripture passages written on the blackboard in our kitchen, and we read a passage from the Bible at every weekly Family Meeting (which also starts and ends with prayer). But living my faith is more than that. It means when I lose my temper and yell at the kids, or when I swear (yep, I do that sometimes), I come back to them later, acknowledge what I did wrong, and ask for forgiveness. It means that when my foster daughter tells me about something she’s really anxious about, I share, from my heart, a passage of scripture that has been an encouragement to me or, at the very least, tell her I’m going to be praying for her. It means I do my best to treat my husband with love and respect—the kids are watching, and I want them to learn healthy marriage habits and communication by watching how my husband and I interact (again, even if that means we blow it and have to mend things in earshot of the kids). When it comes to parenting, more is caught than taught. If our desire is to share some aspect of our faith with others because of the hope it bring us (and that we want to offer them too), that will happen most effectively in the day-to-day comings and goings— not because we convince our foster child to come to church.
I love church. It is an important part of my life, and I believe that the religion I practice is good for the kids in my care. Aside from the aspects of love and hope and grace that we adhere to, kids thrive on routine! The rhythm of life in our home includes the Sunday practice of going to church.
However, bringing the kids to church is not the be-all or end-all. By considering these five points, we can do a good job of thoughtfully and respectfully caring for our kids and helping them (and, perhaps, their parents) feel heard, seen, safe and secure while they are in our care.