In the three years I’ve worked as a missions director in the church, I have heard hundreds of people describe the experiences they’ve had visiting orphanages on various mission trips. And in spite of differences in location and culture, their stories are all similar. These stories usually go something like this: someone on a mission trip visits an orphanage for a day or two to ‘minister to the kids’ and do some work projects. While there, this person bonds closely with one particular child who wants to be held the whole time, and now he or she can’t forget the experience and want to visit again.
As someone whose work focuses on encouraging people in the church to engage with those in need, I’ve been of two minds when it comes to these experiences, often listening to these stories with the following thoughts running through my head:
Here we go, another orphanage story. How much time do I have to listen? Not a lot. Maybe I can end this quickly. I’ll just say, “Wow, what an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing.” That’s easy enough, and then I’m off to the next task. Wait. That’s not right. Maybe I should ask questions like, “What in that child’s life has left them clinging to a complete stranger? How do you think the child might have felt when you left to return home? How is another visit going to help any of this? What do these children really need from you?”
This is probably not the type of response one would hope for from a pastor. And while I am not proud of my cynicism, it is real. It also raises other questions for those of us who see some of the adverse effects of orphanages: When it comes to speaking with those who support these institutions, are we called to be pastoral and when are we called to be prophetic? What’s the balance between the two?
Three years ago, I was working in a non-profit organization, working to improve the organization’s programs so that they could have the best possible impact on the people they were meant to serve — specifically, children without parental care. At the time, I was jaded about the philanthropy of the church. To me, churches were little more than donors, often ill-informed regarding the real needs of people in need and using their donations to push their own agendas on non-profit organizations.
But then God called me to work within the church, and the tables were turned. I could no longer function with a suspicion of how I perceived the church to be, as I was challenged to take seriously the church’s call to care for the most vulnerable in our world. As my perspective broadened, I had to begin questioning my role as a pastor. Many well-intentioned churches so often try to address the issue of orphans with solutions that ultimately exacerbate the problem (e.g. American workers visiting an orphanage full of abandoned children, then ‘abandoning’ the children when they leave), while other churches (like Willow Creek and Overlake Christian) were innovative and effective in finding healthy, holistic ways to minister to orphans and vulnerable children. I began to see ways the church could engage effectively in orphan care, in spite of the misinformation many have regarding missions and orphanages.
So, knowing what I know now, when I hear a short-term missions tale of bonding with children in orphanages, how should I respond — pastorally or prophetically?
The answer is both. I believe pastors need to commit to speaking plainly about the issues of orphan care, but should do so with a pastoral heart, gently guiding people to be educated and empowered as they engage those in need. This means I have to engage people where they are. It means that I can’t spout obscure statistics or gruesome details about the negative effects of institutional care to everyone who mentions the word “orphan”. I have to listen and hear their hearts for these children and families before seeking to help clarify how they pursue their call. My questions shouldn’t be skeptical, but seeking: What next step is God asking them to take? Which resources or experiences might help them increase their understanding while continuing to impassion them for the cause?
Most importantly, I must be hopeful. Over the last three years in my current position, I’ve started to hear a new story, one of people investing in foster families to care for children whose parents are unable to do so. A story of local churches coming alongside parents who are struggling to provide for their children. A story of orphanages closing as children are placed with permanent families.
After all, this is the call of a missions pastor, and these are the stories I long to hear.