Becoming a Visible Gospel
About the Guest
Paul and Robin Pennington know something about adoption. That's because these amazing parents have adopted five of their six children and have three grandchildren who are also adopted. The Penningtons talk about their work with Hope for Orphans, a ministry they founded and have led since 2002. Together they present a realistic picture of what adoption really is and tell couples what they need to consider before they adopt.
Paul and Robin Pennington know something about adoption.
Becoming a Visible Gospel
Bob: Paul and Robin Pennington have been tireless advocates for the orphan and proponents of adoption. They themselves are adoptive parents. Robin says that along the way she’s had an opportunity to encourage some parents who had found themselves very discouraged.
Robin: Somehow the Lord has had my path cross with families that have struggled with their adoptions, I guess probably because that’s what we have experienced personally. When we went through that experience, there was nowhere to turn, and our local church didn’t know how to help. As we were in that place, we saw that this is a need that the church can meet that is not being met, and families who are struggling have to have somewhere to go when the wheels fall off.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today® for Thursday, September 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today about what churches can do to come alongside families that are struggling after an adoption; how they can offer some real help and hope.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I go way back with our guest today.
Dennis: You do. You do.
Bob: In fact, I go back before you do with these folks.
Dennis: You do.
Bob: Back in, what was it? 19- I think - 87; I was living in San Antonio, Texas, hosting a daily call-in program on KSLR, AM 630.
Dennis: You were enjoying the salsa that Paul Pennington was selling around the country.
Bob: You know, actually I like somebody else’s salsa a little better than what he was selling. But, somebody told me “You ought to have Robin Pennington on Cross Currents, on your radio program, because she’d be a great guest.” I don’t remember who told me. Do you remember who told me?
Robin: I don’t remember. I know Paul was with me, though. He was on too.
Bob: Did you come?
Paul: I got to come.
Bob: I don’t remember you being there.
Paul: I just remember the hair, Bob. That’s all I remember.
Bob: I did have a little Greg Brady look, didn’t I?
Bob: But we talked about at that time a special needs adoption that had just taken place in your family. What was that story?
Robin: We had adopted our third child. It was Seth, and he was black and he was an infant, and at that time that was unusual.
Bob: And that’s why we spent a whole hour taking phone calls talking about mixed-race adoption back in 1987.
Dennis: And we’ve been talking about adoption ever since. Paul and Robin joined FamilyLife back in 2003, headed up a new venture called Hope for Orphans®. You guys have six children of your own, eleven grandchildren. Out of those 17, how many are adopted?
Robin: Oh, give me a minute just to think about it.
Dennis: Do the math.
Bob: Well, how many of your six are adopted?
Robin: Five of our six are adopted, and then our daughter Kit has a child from Kazakhstan and our daughter Elizabeth had a son, Ben, who is in heaven from Korea, and then a little girl from China. So –
Dennis: So that sounds like –
Bob: That sounds like eight to me.
Dennis: Eight, sounds like eight. Here’s what I want our listeners to know. This couple is a remarkable pair. I mean, Bob believes this as well – you guys have been used by God in who knows how many different ways to just behind the scenes help connect families to orphans, help connect foundations and money and organizations and –
You know, some people are sticky? Paul and Robin are like oil. They reduce friction, they enable things to happen. You guys have made it happen in the orphan care, foster care and adoption area of the world. And there’s a great need for that today, isn’t there, Paul?
Paul: There really is, but I have to tell you. If we’re anything, we’re a demonstration that God uses the weak things to demonstrate who He is, for His glory.
Robin: That’s right.
Paul: We haven’t done one thing for the Lord. We have experienced what it means to join God where He is working.
Bob: It is an interesting story, though, because Paul, you showed up at our offices back in, what was it – 2002 that you came up here?
Paul: I did.
Bob: And you came with an agenda.
Paul: I did. You know, I was a sales and marketing guy and we had been used in our church to give people a vision for God’s love for orphans, and at that stage mainly just adoption education. I’ll never forget, one day Robin and I were in the kitchen, and we listened to FamilyLife Today. We were listeners.
And Dennis started talking about adoption with Barbara. He said, “I think that Christians should be available – how God could use them in the life of a child.” We just were so thrilled, and that led to an opportunity to have lunch with Dennis and Barbara.
Bob: An opportunity because you called and said –
Bob: “I’ve got to have lunch with this guy,” right. I mean you just bullied your way in.
Dennis: I was commandeered. It was a hijack the whole way.
Bob: It was a persistent salesman who wanted to come talk to you about adoption, right?
Dennis: He did. He did. And we sat in our office and, well, Paul, tell them what happened.
Paul: Well I’m going to tell you what happened. This is the real truth. I was a guy who had called at some of the largest companies in the United States. I’ve dealt with every kind of buyer you can imagine. And I felt pretty confident when I walked into Dennis’ office.
Bob: You know how to overcome objections, don’t you?
Paul: I really felt like I did. And then I walked into an office one day in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I met someone like no one I had ever met before in any place, anywhere, anytime in America.
Dennis: Bill – Was that Bill Clinton?
Paul: And that was – no it was not Bill Clinton. That was Dennis Rainey. And after I got finished with my little feature and benefit presentation, which was very skinny at that point, this guy on my right looks at me and he says, “Well, I have one question for you.” I thought, “This is interesting.” He goes, “How long are you going to keep selling salsa before you do what God’s called you to do?”
I had never felt like that in my life. I was speechless. We got home and Elizabeth looked at Mom and she said, “When Mr. Rainey asked Daddy that question, you know that look he gets when he’s going to throw up? That’s how he looked.”
Bob: You had been coming to FamilyLife to say, “Here’s what you guys need to be doing. If you really want to help make adoption happen, here’s what you need to do.”
Paul: Yes, maybe we can help you. I didn’t expect to get closed on.
Bob: And then Dennis turns around and says, “Come make it happen.” But the great news is, you dropped your salsa and came and made it happen back in 2003.
Paul: We did. And our vision was so limited at that point, but we shared what we felt like God had put on our heart, and Dennis and Barbara listened, and then the SLT listened, and I’ll always remember at the end of that meeting – I can’t remember who it was – maybe it was you, Dennis – but somebody looked at us and said, “Well, maybe we should adopt you,” and that was day one.
Dennis: Well, what has occurred is really pretty cool. It really is. In fact, it wasn’t long after that that Paul, you and I were talking, and you told me that in the history of Christian adoption and orphanages and foster care, that the providers of those services had never, ever met together under the same roof.
Paul: That’s exactly right. It was amazing. You asked me – you said, “Isn’t there an association for Christian adoption agencies, orphan care ministries, advocates?” And the truth was, there was not. And you looked right at me and you said, “Well then maybe we should do something about that.”
Dennis: And you led the way and convened a meeting here in Little Rock of forty folks.
Paul: Yes. Actually, I think at the end of the day we had about 33 presidents, vice-presidents, and leaders of ministries throughout the United States. One of the things that I’ll never forget that day – one guy stood up and he said, “I’ve known most of those in this room for years, but today was the first day we could ever say the name of Jesus Christ in the meeting.”
Dennis: Because they were going to secular meetings.
Paul: Exactly. They had never met together as believers until that day at FamilyLife.
Dennis: And there was this emerging global crisis of orphans because of AIDS, HIV, civil war, of literally tens of millions of orphans, whose needs had to be addressed.
Paul: That’s exactly right. That first morning, at the end of your talk, one of the last things you said was that if we’re going to really be serious about serving God, with a problem this big, with this many kids, we’ve got to leave our egos and logos at the door. And that was the phrase that everybody remembered, and out of that God gave birth to what eventually became the Christian Alliance for Orphans.
Bob: And that was the first of what has now been seven summits, seven meetings where folks get together to put their heads together and their hearts together and say how can we address this orphan issue? Except the last one had a few more than 33 people in the room, right?
Paul: Last May we met in Louisville, Kentucky at Southeast Christian Church, and we had over 1500 leaders in adoption, orphan care, foster care and advocacy, not just from the United States but from all over the world, sharing best practices and linking arms in the name of Christ.
Bob: And Paul, those 1500 – are those ministries that existed eight years ago but they had just never gotten together, or are those ministries that have sprung up over the last decade?
Paul: That’s a really great question. In the beginning, it was all leaders of basically parachurch ministries and a few local church leaders. Now, when we get together to meet for the Summit, I’d say maybe 200 to 300 of them represent organizations, but everyone else pretty much represents a local church.
Dennis: And that’s what excites me, is that the ministry is being pushed out where it belongs in the hands of lay men and women, couples who have a passion for the orphan, and who want to make a difference by connecting the resources of their local church, perhaps to foster care in their state, perhaps to orphans in a foreign country, maybe getting engaged in adoption and calling church members to adopt.
But there are all kinds of ministries, to Bob’s point, that are now springing up. It’s really cool. This is the Body of Christ in action. This is really, I believe, a genuine movement of God addressing an urgent humanitarian crisis.
Bob: Hope for Orphans exists to try to catalyze these movements in local churches. You stop and you think – ten years ago there wasn’t much happening in local churches, and now hundreds of churches around the country have made a commitment to helping the orphan.
Robin, I know you over the last eight or nine years as this ministry has been going on, you’ve connected with hundreds of people who are involved personally, either in their own adoption or their own foster care or their own orphan care ministry, or they’re helping at their local church to make things happen. I’m sure you’ve got to be looking back and saying, “I didn’t see any of this on the horizon when we first came to FamilyLife and said ‘You guys ought to be doing something to help the orphans.’”
Robin: I think at the very beginning we knew that we needed to have orphan care as part of this ministry, because people call it an adoption ministry, and it’s really not an adoption ministry. It’s really about caring for orphans. We’ve seen through the years it moved from totally an emphasis on adoption to the emphasis on orphan care throughout the world, whatever that looks like.
Robin: I think that somehow the Lord has had my path cross with families that have struggled with their adoptions, I guess probably because that’s what we have experienced personally. When we went through that experience there was nowhere to turn, and our local church didn’t know how to help. As we were in that place, we saw that this is a need that the church can meet, that it’s not being met, and families who are struggling have to have somewhere to go when the wheels fall off. And that’s happening more and more, because families are adopting children who are at risk and older children.
Bob: I remember speaking at Covenant Seminary in Saint Louis not long after Hope for Orphans had gotten going. We were talking about Christians need to care for the orphan and need to look at adoption. You need to be asking the question-- not “Should we adopt?” but “Why shouldn’t we adopt?” We were talking about that, and I’ll never forget a young seminary student coming up to me that morning and pulling me aside.
He said, “Are you going to tell people the truth, the hard truth about adoption, that it’s not always easy, that there’s struggle and there’s pain and there’s challenge?”
I remember kind of being taken aback because you could tell this guy had lived some of that, and he wanted to make sure that if we were going to be out exhorting believers to open up their hearts and homes to the orphan, that we were going to tell them that that assignment was not a fairy tale and they would all live happily ever after. There was going to be some challenge associated with that.
Dennis: Yes, you want to make sure somebody goes into this with their eyes wide open, understanding –
Dennis: -- that this is not a cookie cutter deal. You’re going to just absorb this new child into your family, whether it’s a foster care child or an adopted child, and they’re going to become instantly one of your own and instantly like all the other kids.
Robin: You’re exactly right. And that’s what families are not prepared for. One of the concerning things in the movement that has taken place that we’ve watched in the last eight years has been wonderful but at the same time it’s concerning, because there’s almost become a pep rally for adoption, and if you want to get on the band wagon with serving God, you go adopt a child.
And that is so dangerous, because there are so many families who really, we believe after watching them; they’re not called to this. Many families who will tell you after they’ve brought a child home, especially women will tell me they talked their husband into it, and we hear that probably more than any other one thing is “Well, my husband really didn’t want to do this, but I’ve always wanted to adopt.”
It doesn’t work, if you both are not on the same page coming in to it, and believing that you’re going into this, not for what you’re going to receive from it, but for what this child is going to receive from your family – and being able to love that child unconditionally when they may never be able to function in the way that your biological children are functioning.
There may be past hurt, past abuse, and even abuse in a birth mother who drank, where a child can look totally normal but you’re dealing with an impulsive child who struggles with consequences, and parenting that child is going to be totally different from your other children. If families go into this with anything other than eyes wide open, it can be disastrous.
And our concern is that the enemy is using this, and we see it. We see family after family that are going into it thinking, “Oh, we’re going to love them so much and tell them about Jesus,” and yes, those things you do need, but that’s not all there is to it. I think that it is truly a work of the Holy Spirit for us to bond and to love a child that didn’t come from us. There is a natural set-up that God has in us, that when we birth a child and there is that love that’s just from the beginning. And that is not necessarily true, especially with a child that’s older or a child that has struggles and issues and has been institutionalized for the first few years of their life. It’s going to be a totally different thing.
For families that go into it knowing that it can be wonderful, but for families going into it thinking it’s going to be just like us giving birth, it can be disastrous. And that’s where we feel like the church has a real place to help those families on the front end, before they bring that child home in being prepared for what the reality of it is.
Paul: That’s exactly right. From the very beginning of Hope for Orphans we’ve wanted to present a picture of God’s heart for orphans, whether it be in adoption or orphan care that’s realistic, and not sensationalize or romanticize. Like it says in Hebrews, God calls people to join Christ in his suffering. This is about us being conformed to the image of Christ, not getting something we want, something that will make us feel good.
Despite the fact that entering into adoption and orphan care involves entering into a lot of pain, frankly, this movement has grown beyond anything that we could have imagined eight years ago. There are literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of churches that who have launched orphan’s ministry.
What I like to tell people is I think that what’s really wonderful is that churches engage across denominational lines in partnership, in being available to love kids, whether through adoption or foster care or mentoring, through vacation Bible school – whatever it may be – is that it really is becoming the visible Gospel. It is a reconnecting to the essentials of what we believe when we see the church loving these kids who have nothing to give back.
Dennis: I’m just thinking of my daughter, Ashley and her husband Michael who live in a small town in north central Arkansas, and they decided to become foster parents. They already have five boys 12 and under, but they decided they wanted to care for foster children. So they got a baby right off the start, a little boy 12 months old. And then they got a 12-year-old. Ashley was able to lead this 12-year-old boy to faith in Christ.
Well the other day I hear about Ashley getting a little girl that she’s caring for right now, and in between that I also heard that she was caring for a 2-year-old boy that she had just for a few days. She took the little boy to Walmart, and the little boy spit on her and then slapped Ashley in the face. Now what you have to understand as foster care parents, you can’t spank.
Paul: That’s right.
Dennis: And you really understand why, because some of these kids have come from very difficult backgrounds. And yet, here’s Ashley, the mother of five boys 12 and under, but she cares enough about the plight of the orphan to go near. I want to tell you, I’ve watched you guys do this. You guys have gone near the orphan in your own lives; you have five adopted children yourselves. When you call other people to go near, they’re going near the heart of God, aren’t they?
Paul: Absolutely. One of the things we’ve told people from the very beginning – if you really want to be blessed, then be concerned about the things that concern the heart of God. There’s no doubt in my mind, the reason that there’s a movement that’s happened in the United States and there are thousands and thousands of churches now engaging around the world around loving orphans, is because it is on God’s heart.
Dennis: I couldn’t agree more. I appreciate the balance you guys have brought to this dialogue that’s occurring nationwide. Paul, undoubtedly there is a listener right now who is hearing us talk about the plight of the orphan, foster care, adoption issues. They’re going, “I’d like to kind of find out what it would be like to maybe start one of these ministries and outreaches in our local church.” Where should they start?
Paul: A good place to start, Dennis, would be to read Launching an Orphan Ministry in Your Church. Most churches we’ve worked with there’s a couple or an individual who has had this on their heart, and this is a good resource to begin with. We also provide an event called Your Church and the Orphan, where we also train teams from churches through the eight steps of launching an orphan ministry in your church.
So if you go to HopeforOrphans.org, you’ll see some great resources about launching a ministry in your church.
Dennis: There is actually a video resource that can help them do this too, right?
Paul: That’s right. As a part of the Launching an Orphan Ministry in Your Church, there’s actually a video that you can show to your elders, your pastors, your leadership to give them a vision for what we’re talking about and what this really looks like.
Bob: Paul, tell folks about this event that’s coming up here in a couple of weeks that you put together to address some of the issues Robin’s been talking about here.
Paul: Right. One of the new initiatives from Hope for Orphans is called the Hope for Orphans Institute. As we have seen God grow the number of orphan ministries across the United States, we’ve realized that there’s a need for training – kind of a train-the-trainer opportunity – for those that are leading an orphan ministry. The Institute will address certain subjects from time to time that are critical.
The first Hope for Orphans Institute will be on the subject of the local church serving at risk children and the families that adopt them. We will be bringing together a best in class speaker team so that folks can be involved in understanding how their church can be intentional about receiving parents of special needs kids, at risk children, as well as being that support for them when the wheels come off, like Robin said.
It’s a great thing to have compassion, but compassion needs to be linked with knowledge. And that’s what the church can provide if we begin to provide that training to the leaders.
Dennis: And you can provide the accountability in dealing with the ups and downs of raising an adopted child or an orphan to adulthood, whether it be foster care or otherwise. Those families need the support of other families coming alongside them.
Bob: This event that is coming up here in a couple of weeks – it’s September 16th and 17th in Plano, Texas. There is still opportunity for folks to register for the Hope for Orphans Institute. You’re going to be talking about special needs issues and all kinds of adoption-related topics. Really the folks that you’re hoping will attend the Institute are pastors or lay leaders, those who have a heart for orphans and want their church to be the kind of place that we’ve talked about it being today.
There’s more information available online at FamilyLifeToday.com about the Hope for Orphans Institute September 16th and 17th in Plano, Texas. It’s at the Hope Center there, and you can get more information, again, when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com.
There’s also information there about the resource that we produce called Launching an Orphan’s Ministry in Your Church. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about that resource, or call us toll-free at 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329;
that's 1-800 “F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word “Today,” and ask about the resources that we have available on starting orphans ministry in your church. We have adoption-oriented resources available as well. Get more information when you call or go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Speaking of conferences, we are getting ready to launch our fall season of Weekend to Remember ® marriage getaways for couples. We’ll be starting that here in a couple of weeks, and those events will continue throughout the fall.
And our friends at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation are hosting their national conference in Louisville, Kentucky in October. The conference is focusing on psychiatric disorders this year. They’re going to be talking about complex problems and how we approach those compassionately.
I mention that because last year I had an opportunity to attend the CCEF National Conference and actually spoke at that conference. One of the subjects I spoke on was what it is that makes marriage distinctively Christian. When two followers of Christ are married, how should that marriage look different than two other people getting married? What should be different about your marriage? The message was well-received; it was very encouraging some of the feedback that I got to the message.
We’re making a CD of that message available this month when you make a donation to help support FamilyLife Today. All you have to do is go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and make an online donation. When you do, type the word “MARRIAGE” in the key code box and we’ll send you a copy of this CD. Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make a donation over the phone, and ask for the CD on What Makes a Marriage Distinctively Christian. Again, we’re happy to send that out to you.
Let me just say how much we appreciate your support of the ministry. We’re listener-supported, so those donations are what make it possible for us to continue this daily program. Again, thanks for your support and we appreciate hearing from you.
Now tomorrow Paul and Robin Pennington are going to be back with us, and we’re going to continue our conversation about orphan care and adoption, and what churches can do to help those families who are reaching out to care for the needs of orphans. I hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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