Sometimes the foster care problem feels really big (because it is!), and our people feel really small.
There are over 425,000 kids currently in the United States foster care system. No doubt thousands of those are right there in your own state...and perhaps in the very city you sit in while reading this.
It's no surprise people in our churches can sometimes feel small. How do they even begin to respond to a problem that big? They don’t know where to start, what to do or if they can really make a difference at all in the lives of vulnerable children. So they don't. And if we’re honest, sometimes as leaders we don’t know what to do or where to start either.
How do we as church leaders “flip the script” on the message our people are hearing – from an overwhelming message that paralyzes them to a compelling one that catalyzes them? What steps can we take, language can we use and simple structures can we put in place to help our people feel empowered to care for vulnerable kids and families, or support those who do?
If you want to clarify your message, connect with your audience and catalyze movement in your church or ministry, you'll have to continually work to "shrink" the problem for your people. Here's what I mean...
SHRINKING THE PROBLEM
Shrinking the problem means presenting it in a way that people can relate and respond to. It is not minimizing the problem or pretending like the problem isn't a problem; it's simply communicating the problem in such a way that solutions feel more manageable for your people. Let me illustrate...
THE ART OF "SCALING"
Suppose you asked me to help you lose 15 pounds. The problem is, you you’re addicted to the #1 value meal at your favorite fast-food restaurant which includes a burger, fries and a drink. You’re eating it almost daily for lunch. We quickly identify this to be part of your problem.
What if I inform you that your favorite meal deal is a total of 1,100 calories? Sounds like a lot of calories, right? Yes, it is! But probably not enough to cause you to think twice about ordering that meal again. Why? Ask any fast food restaurant company and they’ll say the same thing — people discard data they don't understand about their health for the sake of their own personal satisfaction and comfort - which they do understand. It’s just what we do. It's a basic universal principle for us all. If we don't understand the data, or the problem in front of us, we will find ways to discard engaging with it for the sake of our own comfort. That's a problem that makes fast food restaurants millions (billions??) of dollars a day. It's a problem that effects MANY other areas of life as well.
So, research shows (and the data proves) you'll keep ordering the value meal - it tastes too good not to.
But what if I were to scale it down for you into different terms and tell you that 1,100 calories is equivalent to eating nearly FOUR candy bars for lunch? Would you eat FOUR candy bars for lunch? Probably not. Yet, on a calorie level, that’s essentially what you’re doing with the fast food meal. However, a large number like 1,100 is intangible. We have no human experience tied to it, no frame of reference to measure its proportions by and nothing to compare it to. We simply can't wrap our minds around it. Also, calories are confusing. Has anyone ever really seen a calorie? Held one? Touched one? Not that I know of. One of my daughters recently asked me what a calorie was. Like any good Dad does I immediately kicked into "Dad knows the answers to all questions" mode, only to be stumble over my words and realize I literally have no idea what a calorie is or how to describe one!! All I know is that they're out there, they're invisible and they're evil! I have no personal, tangible, relatable experience with them in a way that allows me to truly understand and explain what they are.
Since we can’t see comprehend the size of 1,100, nor do we really understand what a calorie is, we discard the facts and choose taste (personal satisfaction and comfort) over health. Four candy bars, however, is easy to see. It’s more relatable to our human experience and much simpler to hold on to — literally. You can hold them, touch them, feel them and understand them, and therefore will have a much more difficult time discarding the facts about them. Everyone knows that a candy bar feels like. We all have a personal experience with one, and it's not too difficult to imagine what four would feel like in your hands.
This is “scaling” — contextualizing something of grand proportions into more tangible, relatable terms. In this case, from 1,100 things most people don't understand to 4 things they do. Scaling provides a smaller perspective through which we’re able to better see, understand and grasp the bigger picture. It doesn’t negate the reality or significance of the problem, it simply provides a platform upon which to engage with it more efficiently.
"SCALING" THE VISION OF YOUR MINISTRY
The statistics are daunting: millions of children around the world, hundreds of thousands within the United States, dozens of thousands within your state and city, hundreds and thousands within your community alone — all needing safe, loving permanent families. I am NOT suggesting we don't need to know the data. These numbers are important because each one of them represents a real life child from a real life family.
The fact is, however, most people know these kids are "out there" but have no personal, tangible, relatable experience with a child in foster care (at least that they're aware of). They are also confused by some misguided paradigms regarding what foster care is, how kids end up in it, what these kids are like and if they really have what it takes to get involved. The whole thing is intangible and hard to understand, and sounds like might infringe on their own personal sense of comfort and satisfaction. And we all know what people are wired to do in that situation.
As well, the problem is BIG, but with numbers like that it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around what to do, where to go and how to even begin to be a solution to the problem. It’s too hard to grasp and therefore too easy to dismiss. And most people do — they dismiss the facts for the sake of their own personal satisfaction, comfort and convenience.
So what's the solution? Your people need to know the data that's out there. That's important. But part of engaging the whole of your church includes scaling the enormity of the crisis down for them (and perhaps not using the word "crisis" anymore) — in such a way that they can see it, understand it, grasp on to it and engage it more effectively. The goal is not to minimize the magnitude of the problem, but to provide a platform upon which your people can more easily see the problem and more readily identify their role in helping to solve it.
INCREASE CLARITY, DECREASE ANXIETY
It seems no one gets lost anymore. When was the last time you stopped to ask for directions? With GPS tracking technology and little “Siri” voices in our phones, there’s rarely a lack of clarity about how to get to where we need to go. Because technology has increased our clarity, our anxiety levels decrease — even when traveling to places we’ve never been before. Why? Because Siri will tell us how to get where we’re going.
The vision of your ministry should increase clarity and decrease things like uncertainty, anxiety and worry. It should communicate values, mission and direction in such a way that those involved in your ministry know where you’re going, why you’re going there and how you’re going to get there. That's what scaling does - it increases clarity by showing people something they can actually see.
A "SCALED" STATEMENT
For example: “We want to eradicate the foster crisis in our city” is not a vision. It sounds good and noble, but doesn’t paint a clear picture for people - which is what vision should do (increase clarity). It’s too big and heavy and lacks direction. The average person buckles under the weight of a statement like that and is confused about where to start and what to do. It needs scaling.
Perhaps something like this: “Our county needs 50 more foster families; we want 25 of them to come from our church in the next year. Her's how we're going to do it.” Or, “There are 14 children in our county waiting to be adopted; we want our church to bring this number to zero this year.” These are clear and bold, but more manageable, actionable and achievable. People can wrap their minds around them.
Or, consider this exercise: Identify the number of miles people in your church are traveling to attend weekend services. Perhaps the majority live within a 5, 10, 15 or 20 mile radius? Then overlay that map with the number of foster homes needed within the same mile radius, or the number of kids waiting to be adopted within that same geographic area. Now, with clarity you're able to present an actionable, achievable and realistic vision to your people - "There are _____ number of kids within an ________ mile radius of our church needing homes...and since that's where we all live, we all together are going to fix that." Yes!
I do not enjoy running — at all — but I sometimes force myself to go and knock out a few miles in my neighborhood. While I’m typically dreading the process on the front end, by the time I make it back I’m always glad I did it — and even a bit proud!
In order to make the run more manageable and less dreadful, I’ve learned to set “micro-goals” along the way. Micro-goals are so small that they’re virtually impossible to miss. My micro-goals are the light poles that intermittently line the main road from the front to the back of my neighborhood. I’ve found that if I focus on the larger goal only, let’s say the 3-mile marker, it’s much more difficult for me to mentally stay focused. I’m consumed by the “gap” between where I am and where I ultimately want to be. That “gap” is filled with distance, time and a lot of hard work. But, if I set smaller micro-goals along the way — simply focusing on making it to the next light pole 100 yards ahead I effectively shorten the “gap.” This helps pass the time, establishes momentum andbuilds confidence along the way.
Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. And while we are all visionaries and see where we ultimately want to be, it’s necessary — if not critical — to set micro-goals along the way. Otherwise, we’ll burn out in the big gap, become disillusioned with the process and perhaps, worst of all, lose the joy we once had for the purpose that compelled us in the first place.
CELEBRATING THE "WINS"
Shrinking the problem provides a platform upon which your people can more clearly see the next light pole in front of them, builds hope that reaching that light pole is achievable and creates opportunities to establish a culture of celebration along the journey towards that 3-mile marker. Every time you reach another "light pole" you can stop and celebrate - "Our goal was 25 new foster families...we just had two more step up! We're on our way!" or, "There were 14 kids waiting to be adopted in our community, but now there's 12! How great is that!" These critical moments of celebration increase ministry momentum and broker hope into people's lives - that another "light post" has been reached and we're well on our way to that 3-mile marker together!
Consider this exercise: As a ministry identity what your "3-Mile" vision is. What's your ultimate goal? In the end, what do you want to see come about? Now, map out your "light pole" markers. In light of your scaled vision, what realistic, achievable yet strategically critical goals can you set that will help you move towards the finish line and provide you opportunities to pause and celebrate along the way?
Sometimes the foster care problem feels really big (because it is!), and our people feel really small. It can be paralyzing. They don't know where to start or what to do, so they simply don't. But we can change that, if we're willing to do the work necessary to help them see just a little bit more clearly.
To learn more be sure to check out my new book, Everyone Can Do Something: A Field-Guide for Strategically Rallying Your Church Around the Orphaned and Vulnerable. This blog post is an excerpt from the book which goes into much greater depth and detail on messaging, theology and strategic best practices and launching and leading a ministry in your church.
- Developing a Holistic Ministry In Your Church
- Ten Simple Ways Your Church Can Serve Foster Families
- Ten Unique Ways Your Church Can Get Involved with Foster Care
- Sharing Stories That Help Your Ministry, Not Hurt It
- Wrapping Around Foster and Adoptive Families
- Scaling the Vision of Your Foster Care and Adoption Ministry