Child-care agencies challenge all of us, offer opportunities to get ‘up close’
By Harold Shank | The Christian Chronicle
Delightfully furnished, the stylish brick homes could be in any American suburb except for one thing: Each has bedrooms for eight children and two sets of houseparents. Although such fashionable dwellings are becoming increasingly common on the campuses of children’s homes associated with Churches of Christ, not all of them are filled with children. The vacancies are not due to a shortage of unwanted children. One director of a Christian child-care agency, after admiring the new construction on a recent tour, noted, “It’s easier to build the house than it is to find the houseparents.”
According to a 2006 survey of 26 children’s homes associated with Churches of Christ, houseparents are needed in 20 of the 140 group homes. Translated into the lives of youngsters, that means not being able to care for 70 to 100 children. Agencies specializing in foster care (placing children in private homes) indicate an equal shortage of foster parents.
Experts point to several reasons for the ongoing shortage of Christian families willing to care for the nation’s unwanted children. Fewer families with stay-at-home moms reduce the number of Christians who can provide Christian child care. Facing increasing demands on their own families, many Christian parents are reluctant to take on outside children. Some families are unwilling to make the sacrifice in lifestyle to open their homes.
In response, Christian child-care agencies often provide two sets of houseparents in residential care reflected in the floor plans of the house: At one end is the “main” houseparents’ residence while at the other end is a small apartment for the “relief” houseparents who may come one week or one weekend a month. In between, but separate, are the multiple bedrooms and living areas of the children.
Additionally, child-care agencies provide a staff of qualified professionals to attend to discipline issues, learning disabilities and other matters that these children require. Several children’s homes have facilities called “learning centers” equipped with a library and tutoring rooms for all the children on their campus. The financial arrangements for caregivers also have improved.
Yet, many agency directors wonder how long they can continue to find suitable Christian families to serve with them. Many believe that more concentrated attention on the biblical teaching about the church’s responsibility toward unwanted children would encourage more families to consider how they might serve. Churches are needed to encourage and support those families who work with children up close and personal. One child-care agency director noted, “We need the local congregation to take on Christian child care as their ministry.”
More such relationships are needed. A long-time Christian child-care worker noted, “In the 1950s if you asked the elders of most of our congregations, ‘What are your three main ministries?’ one of the answers would have been, ‘We work with the children’s home to care for unwanted children.’ Today, few congregations would consider Christian child care one of their central areas of service.”
An agency director from the Midwest added, “We in Christian child care are the orphans in our brotherhood. There is a disconnect between many congregations and Christian child care.”
The disconnect comes from factors on both sides. One Texas social worker noted, “We have not been strong enough advocates for children.” Another said, “We have been too apologetic about child care due to the tremendous costs involved.”
On the other side, leaders in some congregations are increasingly protective of worship service time, opportunities for financial appeals and use of mailing lists. One director said, “Often, when I ask for an opportunity to speak on ‘visiting the widows and orphans,’ I’m told they are in the middle of a series or they fear that it will hurt their local budget.” Ira North, the late minister of the Madison Church of Christ in Tennessee, was famous for saying that he knew of no Church of Christ that failed to make its budget after taking up a special collection for unwanted children.
Despite the disconnect, many congregations and Christian child-care agencies are finding new ways to partner to the benefit of both church and agency:
• In a major Southern city, a Christian child-care agency partners with a congregation located in a neighborhood that, unfortunately, produces more than its share of foster children in the state system. Together, they seek to make a difference in the lives of the children on the streets around the church building.
• Teenagers from one congregation now do volunteer work at a nearby children’s home. One leader reported, “When the teens realized that they were making a difference in the lives of these children, it changed the way they saw their own faith.”
• Some congregations host baby showers for infants in foster care.
• Many congregations give a copy of their church directory to the local Christian home so their members are informed about caring for local children.
• A preacher from a large congregation in Tennessee spent a day with the local child- care agency. He reports a deeper appreciation for what God is doing. Now, he frequently uses experiences from that day to illustrate his sermons.
• Local Christians tutor math, art and cooking in the “learning center” at several residential homes.
• Other ideas about children can be found at the Web site sponsored by the Christian Child and Family Services Association at www.ccfsa.org.
Such partnerships bring the care of unwanted children before the entire church. A Tennessee child-care agency director put it this way: “We all love children and want to give glory to God.”
Churches partnering with Christian child care can do both.
HAROLD SHANK is national spokesman for the Christian Child and Family Services Association. He preached at the Highland Street church in Memphis, Tenn., from 1986-2006. In August, he joined the Bible faculty of Oklahoma Christian University. See www.ccfsa.org for more information.
Dec. 1, 2006