12/5/13

Orphan-care Ethics - join the discussion.


I recently wrote a post that had been in my heart and banging around in my head for a long time.  I felt compelled to get it out of those places and work it out on "paper".  Little did I know that it would gain some momentum and climb to 7,000 hits in just a few days.  That blew my pea brain a little.

It was written based on our own observations, stories from others, and a hunch that these problems are not the exception but much more common than we would like to believe.

My biggest fear when hitting "publish" was how it would be received by those who work in orphan care, and orphanages.  It's a sketchy thing to stick your neck out and speak about something that is also fiercely defended in many Christian circles.  I understand that deep loyalty, because I feel it too.  Shooting an arrow at the sacred cow of "orphan ministry" generally doesn't go unnoticed so I fully expected and feared a negative reaction.

Surprisingly, the points made, and concern raised resonated with many others who have worked in orphan care, or are passionate about serving "orphans".  To my shock the reaction I've received has been a collective sigh of relief that someone is talking about it.

The very people who I feared the most negative response (former and current orphanage workers) from, are the ones who have written to tell me things like

"I read a blog post that you wrote with a title along the lines of, 'How to screw up orphan care in Jesus name'. As I read it, I literally looked over my shoulder, wondering who had told you what I saw, and what happened to me.
I have been burned, by my experiences as a staff member at what is considered one of the best orphanages in -----. It has just occurred to me that several of the things you wrote that seemed like they could have been lifted off the pages of my own journal, might not have been based on my experience, or any other orphanage workers experience, but that maybe, this kind of behaviour is commonplace. I am a 'whistle blower' who was systematically bullied and shunned by my North American colleagues, discredited and disposed of. The things I opposed were the exploitation of children, the practice of switching group mothers every three months, and some instances of abuse and neglect. It was not about the children or about Jesus. I think it once was, but in the end, it was not. "

Do you remember that red flag I mentioned about dedicated staff/ volunteers regularly disappearing? That red flag has been confirmed time and time again. Major. Red. Flag. Flashing beacon screaming "something is going on here". Of course there will always be people who didn't fit, only planned on staying a short time, or had a difference of vision which produced a natural parting of ways.
Too often that "parting" is dramatic, devastating, and triggered by higher up dysfunction and damage/ PR control. Staff can be banished for mentioning, and raising concern privately, about the children's well being, theft, corruption, unethical practices, habitual lying to donors, child abuse etc. They will leave silently crushed, betrayed, and justifiably cynical. The absence will be covered with lies and an appeal for "loyalty to the organization", "unity among the staff", and demanding people be "team players". It's all pretty text book. I just wish I knew where this text book was so I could burn it. I know a better book we could use....
The root problem of most institutional dysfunction is undealt with sin (like pride), but the fallout of that when amplified within an organization, is vast, complicated, and the destruction left affects many lives....both the vulnerable children, and those who love them.

My goal isn't to sit around licking our wounds. The goal is always to use the story that God has written in our lives, both painful and delightful, to encourage others. Experiences can teach us, grow us up, open our eyes, and motivate us to chase hard after Jesus and HIS mission. This honestly has little to do with the staff/ volunteers who have been burnt by orphanage ministries. We are merely a symptom of an underlying dysfunction. What really matters are the children that are brought into orphanages, the children we are accountable and responsible for as donors, supporters, volunteers, and ministry leaders.

We can do better Church. Rise up and care for the destitute, the vulnerable, and the orphaned...but hold fast to a high standard.
Here's what it comes down to.

Donors are the life blood that keeps places running status quo. It's donors that choose which ministries to support, and money talks. Orphanage ministries realize that and as a result "policy" is too often driven by what will bring in funds (and keep it spent at the top), rather than best practice principles, ethics, and what is best for the children. Idolizing orphanages, and sainting their leaders is a sure fire way to allow corruption to flourish.
Any ministry will rise or fall with the quality and character of leadership. An orphanage is no different. The difference is that breaches of integrity can be so easily covered, and there can be little, to no real accountability.
"Christian" orphanages are a fast moving train, with decades of momentum. If tracks can't be switched, the fuel can be diverted elsewhere.
"Once a movement becomes an institution, the next step is to become a museum unless a course correction is made to get back on mission. Once the mission of an organization becomes the preservation of the institution, the original mission stops, and the Holy Spirit stops showing up in power. What people used to give their lives for has somehow become simply another job. The remnant that is left behind exists solely to tell the story - not to keep writing it. In one generation a movement can transition to being an institution and then a museum." 
Mark Driscoll (A call to Resurgence)
We can always compare certain orphanages to worse conditions, and worse situations out there. There will always be "worse". We can compare "Christian" orphanages to horrific government institutions, or to kids huffing in back alleys, but proving one orphanage is "better" than another one is not our standard.
Jesus is.
It's that simple really.
Simple and yet completely impossible, at least in our own strength and wisdom.
Comparison is a strong human tendency but it shows a huge lack of understanding of the gospel, and God's grace if we constantly justify our own sin by comparing ourselves to those who we see as "worse". That is exactly what can happen with orphanage ministries. We can't call steaming pile of manure what it is..because we're too busy justifying it and covering it up. People don't question it, because they can always find something "worse".

On a personal level we can't repent, embrace God's scandalous grace, and grow if we don't acknowledge our own depravity, bent toward self destruction, and sin. The Christian life is one of repentance and surrender, not self preservation.  The same principle applies to ministry. What if the gospel not only transformed our own hearts, but the way we do orphan care? Ministry success comes with inherent pitfalls, and too many orphanage ministries aren't prepared for, and don't have the leadership structure in place to withstand the temptations as they grow.

Every orphanage is different and will vary in quality, but once you start digging deeper many are so very similar in flawed premise, methods, abuses, and structure. They are still orphanages. When you put an orphan into an orphanage he is still an orphan, when you place him in a family he becomes someone's child.
Some orphanages will try very hard to avoid the "we've always done it that way" trap, use different innovative methods, and do better. Some do a good job at loving kids, putting the kids needs first, and making a difference in their lives. I whole heartedly cheer on those attempts, I really do. In a perfect world every orphanage would shut it's doors, but we don't live in a perfect world, we live in a very broken one. We can't fix that brokenness but we can enter into it with a message of hope, and an overflow of God's love.

We can never, ever have an "end justifies the means" mentality as Christians, especially when it comes to ministry. The means is the end. The process is where we remain faithful, stay on course, and are sanctified through fire. The "means" is where the fruit is cultivated. The "end" is the accumulation of all those small choices, and those decisions made when no one is watching. The "end" is the sum of a lifetime of integrity, character, and faithfulness, in the hands of a Sovereign and merciful God. That "end" is God's business, not ours. We must always focus on the process....regardless of the "end".
Strength in ministry does not come through seeking notoriety, money, influence, and control. Strength comes from knowing where our strength is found. It comes with realizing just how weak we really are.

There has been plenty of discussion happening lately and there seems to be a consensus that donors need to be more aware of how orphan ministry can best be practised, and supported.  In my last post I brought attention to 10 redflags to watch for. I know we could come up with many more, but I'd like to flip this over now and start brainstorming, and gleaning wisdom for what we should look for and strive for in orphan-ministry. So many of you have so much more experience and knowledge than I do on the topic and I would love to hear from you.
If you have ideas you'd like to share please join the conversation by clicking on my Facebook page icon. If you have any experience, in any sort of orphan-care, or as a foster/ adoptive parent who has a keen awareness of what institutionalization does to a child, I would very much value your voice in the discussion.

How can orphan-care best move forward?  
What are some things currently being done that are producing lasting fruit?
What are innovative methods of caring for children who may never be adopted? 
What widely accepted methods need to be questioned, and what methods should replace those?
As Christians how does that change what we do, why we do what we do, and how we do it?


Soli Deo Gloria, 

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