Reflections on Children in Care and Vows Made

One of the promises we make at baptism in The United Methodist Church, either our own or that of our children, is to “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. Our imaginations flock to common themes–sin, the devil, and temptations that lead down the broad road to hell (paved with good intentions, to boot!). Racism, sexism, and xenophobia come to the mind of many, as well. I imagine another place many’s minds might lead them are the seven deadly sins.

Having spent 18 months in the ministry of connecting our Conference’s Child Welfare ministry with the ministry of local churches, baptism–the vows we’ve made–has become the key lens through which I see this ministry, especially this vow. Caring for children in the midst of trauma represents a form of resisting evil, injustice and oppression.

In my current place of ministry, I get to spend every day asking congregations how we can best come alongside and join what they are already doing–being in ministry with children and families. In some ways, this not unique. Many churches make this kind of request of each other. Churches join together in VBS during the summer, they might try to share children’s ministry staff, or they might collaborate to support the local schools. There are unique qualities to this invitation, though, when the invitation comes from a child welfare agency, namely:

  • We have no idea how long the relationship between church members and each child might last. Maybe it lasts for a day. Maybe it lasts forever. Realistically, it is somewhere in between–usually about a year.
  • The rules we have when in ministry with a child welfare agency take what we already do to safe guard children and place those rules on steriods. Not just any background check will do and not just any time-passing conversation is appropriate. Probably most awkward for me is this: when a family or individual applies to be a foster parent, the veil of confidentiality falls into place. There are easy trainings to be done and common-held best practices. Definitely nothing to scare anyone off, though.

As we think about it, the above is true for almost any child a church gets the privilege of ministering with children. We don’t know when a parent’s job might cause them to move. We don’t know what’s going on at home. These are only more apparent when the child is in care of the State.

Because of this….

I think about the vows I made at my own baptism. Every. Single. Day. Before being appointed to UMCH, I never had a “grown up” job that wasn’t in the church. Even though my job does involve engaging churches each and every day, it is not ministry in a parish. There’s no sanctuary down the hall, no bulletin to get finished, no trustee to call about whatever kind of maintenance is needed. Most churches have a theology around a sense of place. This is not always true in an office. I never realized how much the implicit symbols of ministry in the church shaped my faith until now. A certain degree of intentionality compensates for this. For example, I lead our Wednesday morning staff prayer time. When I’m next appointed as pastor, I’ll be a little more empathetic about the folks and their workplace.

I think about the vows made at my child’s baptism. Every. Single. Day. Her granddaddy and a dear friend baptized her while Susan and I got to be parents on that day. Also present were friends, family, and loved ones. There were also two congregations that took on the vows that they knew they were not going to see through to her confirmation. They took on the vows for others who are guiding and teaching Joy today. Whether or not a child has been water-washed and Spirit-born, the church has a responsibility to care for other children and provide safe space. It is true for my child as well as any other.

I also think about the vows made at my ordination. Every. Single. Day. Though Sunday mornings usually find me doing something in a church somewhere, no, I don’t get to preach every Sunday. This season of ministry does not have me standing behind the table or at the font on a regular basis. I am not the person charged with bringing order to the life and ministry of a congregation. That said, I do get to live out the Word in action and in deed–and I get to equip pastors to do this meaningful work as they order the life of their church. I’m also understanding at a deeper level what it means to live a sacramental life. Yes, in response to baptism and invigorated by the Eucharist but also a life that is one of thanksgiving and seeking to embody the life and teachings of Jesus.

I don’t know the names of the kids our ministry serves and I most certainly do not know their backgrounds. I do not know if their family ascribes to a faith and, if so, which one. But I hope that in every situation we act and respond with the love, compassion, and grace implicit in the vows made on our own behalf, those we took on, and those we have made on behalf of our own children.