the shape of leadership

What Foster Care and Adoption Taught Me about Life and Leadership

Ten lessons for doing good works.

George P Wood on April 12, 2017


This past December, my wife, Tiffany, and I adopted our two foster daughters. Together with our son, we are now a forever family of five, with all the domestic bliss (and chaos) that such a family entails. Our journey has been a life-changing one, alternately exhilarating and frustrating, but steadily moving toward joy.

I’m a bookish man, but when it comes to lessons about life and leadership, I set the books aside and try to learn whatever I can from the situation itself. Doing something is a great teacher in and of itself, after all. As I reflect on our adoption journey, I see 10 lessons that I’ve learned. Whether you foster, adopt or do some other good work, I hope you find these lessons helpful in your own life and leadership.

1. Just say ‘yes.’
The call came on Saturday morning, Dec. 13, 2013, while Tiffany and I were still in bed. Children’s Division wanted to know if we could foster two girls, ages 19 months and 2 months. Like any right-thinking man, I said, “No.”

Two girls? I thought to myself. We had signed up for boys who could play with our son. In diapers? We’d specifically asked for boys done with potty training. The placement wasn’t the right fit for us. At least that’s what I told the lady on the phone.

And then the voice of God — which sounded suspiciously like my wife’s — suggested that I think again. A couple of phone calls later, we were on our way to Walmart in a snowstorm to pick up two babies in a crisis.

Back when I was a kid, First Lady Nancy Reagan coined the phrase, “Just say no!” as a response to our nation’s emerging drug-addiction epidemic. It’s good advice. There are impulses we need to deny.

I’ve also learned that there are impulses we need to indulge, however — like the impulse to do good. As Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” The girls were due for some good in their lives, and we had the power to act. Looking back, I wouldn’t have two beautiful daughters today had I not listened to God speaking through my wife and taken action.

So, when you get the call to do something good, just say yes!

2. Life isn’t fair.
The girls came into our home with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. When we began to interact with the biological parents, we realized that they didn’t have a whole lot more either. And that got me thinking about what’s been called the birth lottery.

Basically, my wife and I won the lottery when it came to our parents, socioeconomically speaking. Both sets are Christian, college educated, professional and middle class. Both sets have steered clear of alcohol and drugs.

By contrast, my girls’ birth parents — who love their daughters, by the way — aren’t college educated, professional or middle class. And they’ve struggled with substance use.

My wife and I started life with certain credits we hadn’t earned. My girls started life with certain debits they didn’t deserve. That’s the birth lottery.

It isn’t fair. Ecclesiastes 9:11 memorably puts the matter this way: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

Time and chance. Not choice.

Life isn’t fair.

3. Choices have consequences.
It doesn’t follow from life’s unfairness that our choices are meaningless. Throughout Scripture, God urges us to make good choices, decisions that align with His will.

Psalm 1 contrasts two ways. The way of those who “walk in step with the wicked” (verse 1) and the way of the one who “meditates on [God’s] law day and night” (verse 2). Those two ways lead to alternate destinations:

[T]he Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction (verse 6).

The point of the psalm is that we can choose which way we walk and, therefore, what consequences we experience.

Admittedly, the fact that our choices have consequences exists in tension with life’s unfairness. Still, while the birth lottery shapes our range of choices, it doesn’t negate the fact of choice. Over the course of two years, our girls’ birth parents made choices that led to the termination of their parental rights. Once the girls became eligible for adoption, we had to choose whether we wanted them in our forever family. Either way, choices had to be made.

And choices always have consequences.

4. People need help.
Now, lest you think that the choice to adopt was an easy one, I should let you know that Tiffany and I became foster parents in order to … foster. We already had a biological son. We didn’t intend to adopt. Our adoption journey began as a foster care journey, in other words.

We had moved to Springfield, Missouri, from Santa Barbara, California, for a job. It was Jan. 1, 2010, and the local country radio station ran a brief news report about the dire foster care situation here in Greene County. My wife began to cry when she learned that Greene County had more foster care cases than anywhere else in the state … despite the fact that we were the shiny tip on the buckle of the Bible Belt. In response, she became a court-appointed special advocate (CASA). Then, feeling we could do more, we entered foster training.

Here’s the deal. As a general rule, the best home for a child is at home with his or her biological mom and dad. Sometimes, however, moms and dads make bad choices, and the government intervenes to protect the kids. When that happens, mom and dad need help to get their lives back on track. And the kids need help to minimize the disruptions to their already disrupted lives.

The problem where we live is that there were more biological parents and their kids needing help than there were people willing to provide help. Did I mention that we live on the shiny tip of the buckle of the Bible Belt? Where there’s a church on every corner?

If it seems to you that foster care — or any other good work — is a good place for Christians to be, then you’re thinking like Jesus. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10? The one where the two highly religious people crossed to the other side of the road rather than help a traveler in dire need?

Don’t be like them when people need help. Be like the Samaritan “who had mercy” (verse 37).

Or, as Jesus put it: “Go and do likewise” (verse 37).

5. Use your privilege.
And so, my wife and I found ourselves providing full-time care to other people’s kids. (Did I mention that they were girls? In diapers?) We found ourselves downtown, in a government building, interacting regularly with people struggling from addiction, joblessness and homelessness. It was a far cry from the comfortable, middle-class, suburban life we had grown up with, and that we had, in turn, created for ourselves.

It was hard. (I’ll get back to that in a moment.) But the key thing I learned in the process is that we’re supposed to use our privilege. In contemporary public discourse, the word privilege is a dirty word, something that’s supposed to be checked rather than used.

I agree that privilege should be checked if it’s used for self-aggrandizing purposes. If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, don’t look down on others because they use plastic utensils when they eat. Know what I mean?

From my perspective, though, if you won the birth lottery — if God has providentially blessed you in many ways — then you’re supposed to spend your win on behalf of others. According to Paul, that’s the example of the Lord Jesus Christ himself:

who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).

No matter how many times I read these verses, I can’t get over the staggering fact that Christ used His privilege for us. He put His equality with God in service of sinful humanity, for whom He died.

We must stop overlooking the needs in our community and start looking at them, quite literally, in the face.

What privilege do we have that we’re willing to use in service of others?

6. Do hard things.
Foster care is hard.

By itself, of course, raising children is hard. The multiple nighttime feedings and diaper changes. Colic. Ear infections. Projectile diarrhea. Visits to urgent care and even the emergency room. A daughter with steep developmental delays.

Add on top of that a wife whose MBA did not include classes in multiple-child management, a growing son wondering why he was being ignored because of two howling strangers, and a dad who just wanted to escape into a good book.

Add on top of that the layers of working with biological parents who disappeared the first six months, then re-engaged, governmental bureaucracies that are necessary but often incompetent, and lawyers … lots of lawyers.

Add on top of that the emotional ups and downs of working with biological parents who obviously love their girls but can’t get their acts together, the understandable emotional meltdowns of those parents during Family Support Team meetings, the pure agony of seeing two lives literally put on trial in a termination hearing, and the bewilderment of figuring out where you are in the adoption process, and all throughout, the waiting.

Parenting is hard. Fostering is hard. Adopting is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

So is the Cross.

Jesus didn’t come into the world to do easy things. He doesn’t want His followers to do easy things, either. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

Do hard things.

7. Not everyone follows.
One of the hard things I learned is that not everyone follows you on your journey of service. Friends we expected more of were no-shows. I get the fact that people are busy; I really do. What’s weird is that the no-shows weren’t too busy to help. Our help usually came from friends who were just as busy as us, if not more so. Rather, the no-shows were uninterested or unwilling.

In 2 Timothy 4:9-10, Paul spoke of Demas, who “deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” For mission? For service? No! “[B]ecause he loved this world.”

The world exercises its pull on us all in many ways. In the American middle class, it typically has to do with the desire to achieve and maintain comfort and to avoid discomfort at all costs. Using privilege to serve others is the exact opposite of that.

Even if you start that journey of serving the needy in your community, not everyone will follow.

8. Compassion changes you.
For us, adoption is not the end of our form of service. Once things settle down a bit, we’re re-engaging the foster-care system in some form. Or, we’re going to help others in some other significant way. We’re not sure yet. Things are a bit crazy at the moment.

But Tiffany and I turned a corner when we made a commitment to foster parent. The commitment was to stop overlooking the needs in our community and to start looking at them, quite literally, in the face. Once you begin to do this, you begin to experience both God and others in a way that, honestly, you don’t want to give up.

Compassion changes you, you see. A verse that has been particularly meaningful to us throughout this whole process is James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Serving others as Christ serves stirs up a holy discontent in your life with the status quo. It causes you to think, feel, speak and act differently. It’s like leaving a nightmare and entering a dream. Who would ever want to go back?

I hasten to add that foster care and adoption are not the only ways to serve in your community. Communities have any number of sore points, and Christians should be the vanguard ministering to all of them. God wanted us to do foster care. The key is not to do what God called us to do, however, but to hear God’s voice and do what He calls you to do.

9. Support others’ dreams.
Speaking of dreams, I should mention that this whole journey started with my wife, not me. She’s the one who paid attention to the story on the radio. She’s the one who became a CASA. She’s the one who pushed for foster parent training, then suggested we accept two diaper-wearing girls, then bore the primary burden of caring for our son and these girls, now our own.

Leaders often think that others should follow us, should support our God-given vision, mission and direction. That’s true, to an extent. But the interesting thing I’ve observed is that some of the best things happening in church and society are initiated by followers, rather than leaders.

My father was senior pastor at a church in Costa Mesa, California. His associates, Wayne and Diane Tesch, came up with an idea for a week-long summer camp for abused and neglected kids. It wasn’t Dad’s idea, nor was he the driving force behind it, but he went with it. Thirty-two years later, Royal Family Kids operates camps and mentoring clubs in over 40 states and in two dozen cities outside the U.S. Over 8,000 kids in the foster care system benefit from this vital ministry.

Leaders can’t be the source of every good idea in church and society. They don’t need to be. Sometimes, all they need to do is lend their support to the dreams and visions God places on the hearts of their followers.

Now, just to be clear, Tiffany isn’t my follower. She’s my equal. In any number of ways, she’s actually my superior. Regardless, I’m proud of her and glad she said “yes” when God touched her heart on Jan. 1, 2010. On our foster care and adoption journey, I followed her lead.

10. There is joy.
Hebrews 12:2 contains a remarkable phrase describing Jesus’ motivation as He approached the Cross: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross. … ” For. The. Joy.

Business guru Stephen Covey says that beginning with the end in mind is one of the seven habits of highly effective people. The insight wasn’t unique to him. It’s a biblical insight. The end determines the means and makes them useful.

Life is unfair. Choices have consequences. And people need help. So, use your privilege, do hard things, support others’ dreams, despite the fact that not everyone follows. Why? Because compassion changes you. Because at the end of the day, there is joy, both now and forevermore.

Whatever the task, whatever the cost, the end makes it all worthwhile.

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