Embracing Foster Care
About the Guest
TJ and Jenn Menn never imagined when they signed on to be foster parents shortly after getting married that they would welcome 22 foster children into their home. The Menns talk of their incredible journey over the years since participating in the foster care system.
TJ and Jenn MennTJ and Jenn Menn have welcomed twenty-two foster children into their home from multiple states across America. Ages have ranged from newborns through high school, as well as groups of siblings. They have written a book called Faith to Foster: An All-American Story of Loving the Least of These. TJ is a 2005 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point where he currently serves as an Aviation officer in the United States Army, and teaches Economics in the Social...more
TJ and Jenn Menn never imagined when they signed on to be foster parents shortly after getting married that they would welcome 22 foster children into their home.
Embracing Foster Care
Bob: When TJ and Jenn Menn decided they would open their hearts and their home to become foster parents, they didn’t fully understand all that they were getting themselves into.
Jenn: We’re not defined by the time that they leave—just as Jesus isn’t defined by His death—but rather His resurrection. What we’re experiencing when we are doing life with these children and with their birth parents and with their social workers is really—we are all witnessing and are a part of the redemption of a family. When that family can be taken from brokenness to whole and have their children back—we celebrate that.
We also mourn it—we also cry just like Jesus’s disciples were weeping when He died—but then they celebrated when they understood what was going on.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, June 29th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. TJ and Jenn Menn join us today to share with us the adventure they’ve been on as they have become foster parents. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are times when I will hear about a couple or hear about their story or about the book that they’ve written, and I just think, “Okay, they’re going to wind up on FamilyLife Today one way or another”—just because I know the subject of what’s being talked about is something that’s right at the heart of what you and Barbara have been passionate about for years.
Dennis: It is. It’s about foster care and going near the heart of the orphan.TJ and Jenn Menn join us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome to the broadcast.
TJ: Thank you very much, gentlemen. We’re very thankful to be here and excited to be here.
Jenn: Definitely. And we’ve appreciated the ministry of FamilyLife over the years. So, it’s fun to come together and partner in this way.
Dennis: Well, you guys attended the Weekend to Remember®—was it before you got married, or was it after?
TJ: It was after we had been married. It was actually a wedding present that was given to us—and I would highly recommend it. If you’re looking for a wedding gift, a Weekend to Remember is definitely a good one to give.
Dennis: Well, this is a unique couple. They live in West Point, New York, where there is a little school; right?
TJ: “Harvard on the Hudson” is what we like to call it.
Dennis: Harvard on the Hudson. I should take you to the Harvard of the Ozarks. Well, that’s where I graduated—the University of Arkansas. [Laughter] This couple met while both of them were students at West Point.
Bob: Both of them were cadets. Let’s get it correct.
Dennis: Excuse me.
Bob: They were cadets.
Dennis: There is a great story here—our listeners need to hear about a bet—but before we get to the bet, I just want to hear how you two met in the first place. Jenn, how did you guys first meet?
Jenn: You know when I arrived at West Point, TJ had already been there a few years. They had a Sunday school program there where you teach faculty’s children. So, I volunteered and started teaching high schoolers every Sunday—and TJ was one of the co-teachers there. So, we’d get together to prepare for what we’d be talking about that Sunday.
Dennis: Did he volunteer to be a co-teacher after he saw you? [Laughter]
Dennis: Tell the truth.
TJ: I’m a little older than Jenn by about three years. So, I was a senior when she showed up as a freshman.
Jenn: Which is significant at West Point because they have this culture where they are teaching you how to act when you’re in the military. So, the freshman—it’s haze year. You’re called plebs. You can’t talk outside of your room. You keep your fists clenched everywhere you walk, and you have to greet all upper classmen.
Dennis: Hold it. Your fists clenched?
Jenn: Right; you’d have to even square your corners when you’re walking. If I want to walk across the hall—I can’t just go at an angle.
TJ: It’s just like you’re marching.
Bob: Tell us the genesis of the bet. How did all of the bet come to be?
TJ: The bet originated with my roommate and I in a long—you’ve been to college. You’ve had those conversations where neither of you can get to sleep at night.
TJ: One of our classmates had recently been kicked out of the academy. We’re talking about three months before graduation.
TJ: Your family has all got plans. Everybody is making hotel reservations, flight reservations—all kinds of things to come—how silly. What a mistake you could make; and basically, we got around to—unless it was for a bet. So my roommate and I made a bet that whoever could kiss a pleb before graduation would receive $20.
Dennis: How many women were plebs at that point?
TJ: I think it was around 10 to 15 percent—so maybe, 100 to150. I mean I was a good cadet. I don’t want to paint this picture—like, I didn’t know any pleb girls outside of—
Bob: Now, wait. You’d been in Sunday school.
TJ: I know but outside of Jenn—she was basically like the only pleb girl. There were some other pleb girls in the Sunday school program—but you’re not supposed to have personal relationships, and I didn’t have personal relationships.
Bob: Okay, so in the back of your mind, you had to be thinking in that moment—“I bet I could kiss Jenn;” weren’t you?
Jenn: I don’t think I was even the number one choice. [Laughter]
TJ: Oh, no—she was an option.
Dennis: Oh my goodness!
Jenn: It sounds horribly unromantic; but from my end of things—not knowing about the bet—because you can’t tell the woman about the bet.
Dennis: Of course.
Jenn: From my end, I’m just seeing all kinds of romance all over the place because he’s only got about six weeks to try and get a kiss, and I’m not an easy girl to get a kiss from.
Dennis: Was there any qualification put on the kiss? Could it just be a peck on the cheek, or did it have to be—
Bob: Forehead—you couldn’t kiss her forehead and—
Bob: —and get away with it?
Dennis: Kiss her hand?
TJ: There was no way—you couldn’t tell the girl and split the money or anything that way. [Laughter] Honestly, about a month before, we thought that we were both out of luck.
Bob: So, here is the question: Did you start turning up the romantic interest in Jenn because you had this $20 on the line?
Dennis: She’s nodding her head.
Jenn: No doubt.
Dennis: Jenn, give us your side of this.
Bob: What started happening?
Jenn: Well, I just think neither of us really had romantic interest in each other all year. It’s not like all year I was itching for him and waiting for him to start pursuing me or anything. It just came out of the blue.
Bob: He started and just said, “Hey, do you want to go to dinner?” What was it?
Jenn: Oh, no, you can’t do openly dating as a pleb. We just started running together in the mornings. My track season had just ended—his boxing season had just ended—so we started running about every morning before sunrise—because you can’t be seen during the day with each other.
Bob: Wow. So this is all stealth.
Jenn: Well, that’s part of what makes it fun; right? You feel like you’re doing something. [Laughter]
Bob: Were you thinking, “Hey, I think he likes me?”
Jenn: Yes, at that point, definitely.
TJ: Well, I’m a pretty intentional guy—despite what the story is making me sound like. So, we had talked about a lot of things. You know at that point, I think romantic feelings came into play—but this was different.
I really think God uses all kinds of circumstances. I firmly believe that God arranged our courtship and our marriage because I knew much more about Jenn’s interpretation of Scripture and how she felt about Biblical passages—we’d spent a year teaching—than I knew about anything else of her—and I wasn’t distracted by physical attractiveness or anything that way.
We learned about each other—whether we had a consistent quiet time, how we prayed, how we interacted with the Lord—because we taught Sunday school together without any of the romantic distractions in place.
Dennis: Was the fact that she was teaching the Song of Solomon make any difference about the kiss? [Laughter]
Bob: It was a $20 bet—
TJ: It was a $20.
Bob: —that forced you to take a second look—and in taking a second look, you started to develop some affection for her; didn’t you?
TJ: Definitely. You know I saw what a beautiful, young lady she was—and still is—and really developed a romantic feeling for her; and we kissed two nights before graduation, thankfully. My roommate got his kiss the night before graduation. He was—
Jenn: So, nobody got 20 bucks.
TJ: Nobody got 20 bucks. He ends up being the best man at our wedding six months later—tells this story, which no one knows except the three of us at this point. I told Jenn before we got engaged. I felt like I owed her—
Dennis: A few hundred thousand of your closest friends know now. [Laughter]
Bob: In fact, I’m calling the student newspaper at West Point because this is front page news.
Dennis: Well, he now teaches at West Point.
Bob: I know!
Dennis: So, hey, huh?
TJ: That’s going to be great. [Laughter] But the other half of the bet—they ended up kind of breaking up for a little bit; but now, Mike and Jenn—she was also named Jenn—they are now married, and they got married at West Point. I was his best man, and Jenn made a paper mache $20 bill for the bride to destroy at the reception.
Bob: That’s great.
Dennis: So, I want to know how did he propose to you, Jenn?
Jenn: Oh, it was back in his hometown. He’s from a tiny town. So, he wanted to do it back home during when they have an annual picnic in the woods with the whole side of the family. Just before that, he took me out. There’s an old bridge looking at the stars and things, read me a poem, and proposed.
Bob: And it was a tough call because it meant you’re either going with him, or you’re staying at West Point which had been a dream of yours since you were nine years old.
Jenn: So, at that point, I had already left the academy knowing that we were getting serious because TJ’s a pretty direct communicator, and we knew where things were heading.
I had gone back for summer training after he graduated—doing all the field training where you’re out there in the woods for about eight weeks or so. About half way through that, I started thinking, “You know? If I’m not going to be here long term, why am I up here doing land nav again?” So, I decided, “Now is the time to go.” And it kicked started things for sure for us as far as moving faster than it would have if I would have stayed.
Bob: Well, you know it’s not your engagement story that is the reason we brought you here. We want to talk about what has been a journey you guys have been on since you got married. I’m just wondering, “Is this issue—the issue of foster parenting—is it something that was on the table for the two of you—before you got married? Did you ever talk about foster parenting?”
Dennis: Yes, in fact, I just want to say and apologize to our audience and our guests—I did not introduce you with your book—but it is kind of fun to do it halfway through—
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: —the broadcast. [Laughter] The book is called Faith to Foster, and it is the story of how a pleb and a cadet got together and began their journey together and are making a difference in orphans’ lives. Go ahead and answer Bob’s question now.
Jenn: I think TJ was really intentional that we could do something together for the Kingdom of God that we couldn’t do apart and wanting to kind of cast that vision of what marriage is. He had great mentor couples there during his time at West Point that really showed him what a godly marriage could be. So, that was really what intrigued me to leave the academy—was I agreed with him. I thought that—“Yes. You know what? We could do that together.” But at that point, we didn’t know exactly what it would look like.
I will say that, then once we married—and all of the sudden now, I’m like—“What do I do with my life? Here I am an Army Wife in lower Alabama.” That really caused us to have those conversations and figure out really quickly what that would be.
TJ: I think once we got married and we moved from flight school to our first duty station, at that point, we’d been married about six months; and we joined a Navigator Bible Study and talking about this idea of discipleship and really—“What are you doing to advance the Kingdom of God?”
In Matthew, Jesus says, “Since the days of John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it.” And we really believed that as a Christian couple, we needed to be doing something to advance the Kingdom of God. And we were attending Bible studies. We even hosted a Bible study—but we felt like we wanted to do something together as a couple that we could that we couldn’t really do apart. Foster care really fit that bill.
Dennis: Had you guys had any discussion about having children, about orphans, about foster care as you dated?
TJ: We did, but I would not say that we specified foster care. We talked like—“Well, do you want to have children?”—and I think we left it at that. We started the training and even welcomed foster children into our home while we were on birth control. We did not want to have kids of our own at that point. We—this was very intentional ministry that we wanted to try and help the children that needed a home.
Bob: I just wonder—because there is almost a romantic side to—“Oh, we’ll be foster parents and we’ll take care of these kids”—and a lot of folks go into this without their eyes wide open to what you are opening yourself up to—foster parenting can be brutal.
Jenn: I do think we were part of that blind, romantic getting involved in it—you learn as you go. I think it’s okay that, in principle, to be excited about and romanticizing the principle because it gives you the courage to walk into what you’re getting into.
Now, TJ’s parents had foster-parented. So, he had been familiar with kids being in the house from about the time he was ten years old on—and in high school, I had been involved with the teen emergency shelter that they invited peers to be involved in. I also knew what it would like to be a teenager out of your home—and I think that exposure made it a little easier for us. It didn’t feel like a big leap when we got involved, looking back.
Bob: Well, you’d also both been to West Point which I think, may be a requirement to be foster parents somehow—some hand-to-hand combat training or something ready. I mean—and I’m not trying to make it out as more than it is—
Bob: —but your book talks about lying and biting and all of the things that come with parenting. It comes with foster parenting in spades sometimes; right?
TJ: Yes, sir. But I would be cautious to your audience—I don’t want to make this seem like this is something for superheroes or people have got their lives—
TJ: —together because if you wait for the perfect time—it’s kind of like waiting for the ocean to stand still—it’s never going to happen.
So, foster parenting is something where we really feel called. The church can make a huge difference and just break the cycle of foster care. The children come into the system. They have a rough time. Maybe, the foster home is doing it for, maybe selfish reasons or reasons that maybe aren’t the best for the child. Then the child gets out and has no support structure when they age-out. Then, they have children of their own, and they’ve never been taught how to raise—or how to love children well.
You’ve all raised children of your own—and they’ve probably bit you, they probably stole from you, they’ve probably lied to you.
TJ: You know the same things end up—
TJ: —and these kids—they need the love of Jesus just like your biological children.
Dennis: The thing I like about you two—and I really mean this—you were married in 2005.
TJ: Yes, sir.
Dennis: You guys ventured off into this journey early on. There are a lot of newlyweds who want to protect their relationship and frankly, their own interest, in terms of building their own relationship—which by the way, is not an impure motive—but you started thinking of others early on in your marriage. Do you remember the dinner or the discussions or the runs you were taking after you were married where you started talking about this and how the first child came to you?
TJ: The first children we had were a sibling group of three, and we’re going from zero to three. Jenn is 20 or 21—never probably changed a diaper before—and we get three that are four, two, and a few months.
That story demonstrates to us the—just the unity of the church and how critical it is to have support. Not everyone may have or be in a situation where they can foster. Maybe, you are older. Maybe, you are single, and you just don’t want to bring a child into your home—and that’s fine—but we received support through meals, through toys, through daycare and childcare, and just all kinds of things. The church coming together and supporting us with that first placement was incredible because we had nothing.
Jenn: And we knew nothing. [Laughter]
TJ: Yes. Kids come to us, and they don’t—they have the clothes on their backs, and you have to be prepared for anywhere from zero to 18. The church—our Sunday school class rallied together—brought clothes, brought meals, brought furniture. It’s a story of why I think Christ stresses unity so much because it was phenomenal to be a part of that.
Bob: TJ, I am thinking of being a young husband, married for a year and a half, in the military. If I’d gotten the call and they said, “We’ve got a group of three,” I’d have said, “We should probably start with one. We should probably just try this with one first and see how we do.” You guys didn’t say that.
TJ: Jenn is a little ambitious. She’s gung ho.
Bob: Were you the impetuous to say, “We can do three?”
Jenn: Probably, and I think there is a difference too, when you think about an idea of something you would say yes to and then, when someone is actually calling you with the real names of the lives.
Dennis: You think? You think? [Laughter]
TJ: Yes, and to your point, sir, they’re on the phone—they’re saying, “Hey, these kids don’t have a place to sleep tonight.”
At that point, the county had about 30 to 40 foster homes at any given time; and they were talking about 300 to 400 kids in care. So, if they don’t come to our home. They’re next destination is probably a shelter, and the shelter is going to be full. Then, they’re going to be farmed out somewhere around the state. You know it’s kind of a shame that more churches, I think, aren’t stepping up to help with foster care.
Dennis: You know there is more to this story that I want our audience to hear, but I want to stop you right there. Did you hear what he just said? There are 30 to 40 homes that care for foster care kids, and they had—how many kids?
TJ: Three to four hundred at any given time.
Dennis: I want you to know, as a listening audience, that’s not an anomaly. All across the country, there are counties with multiple more children than there are homes—and especially to the shame of the church. I mean this, not to be heaping shame in a cheap way on the church, but just to say, “If anybody ought to be caring for these kids, it ought to be us who profess to be followers of Christ.”
That’s what you’re saying and said earlier. This is really what ought to be the church’s finest moment in caring for a generation of foster care children—and they are out there increasingly because of drugs by the tens of thousands in our country.
TJ: Yes, sir. Everything you say—exactly right. It’s an opportunity for the church to demonstrate the love of Christ and to be a light that shines and results in the praise of the Father.
Jenn: I think, then, the next question is “Well, why not? Why aren’t they?” I think the most frequent resistance or question that we receive—when people find out that we’re foster parents, it seems like they have a natural reaction to internalize and then express to us why they are not foster parents—even though we’re not asking them to become foster parents.
But the most frequent thing we hear is “Oh, I could never do that. It’d be too hard. I’d get too attached to the kids and then have to say good bye.” That’s a frustrating thing to hear as a foster mom—often, when I have one of those kids in my arms—thank you for the reminder that they will be going—but it’s this aspect that we’re not defined by the time that they leave; just as Jesus isn’t defined by His death but rather His resurrection.
What we’re experiencing when we are doing life with these children and with their birth parents and with their social workers is—really, we are all witnessing and a part of the redemption of a family. So, when that family can be taken from brokenness to whole and have their children back—we celebrate that—we also mourn it—we also cry just like Jesus’ disciples were weeping when He died—but then they celebrated when they understood what was going on.
Dennis: I don’t think I’ve heard anybody express it so clearly.
Jenn: Thank you.
Dennis: That’s really what—Christ came to do. He came to redeem those who are spiritual orphans and give them a family. It’s why God says in the book of James—“This is pure and undefiled religion that we go near the orphan and the widow in their distress.”
We, of all people, ought to be carrying the DNA of our Heavenly Father, which is caring for the orphan. You guys have done that, and you tell more of the story. I’m going to hint at the rest of the story—which we’ll tell more—later this week. You ended up being foster care parents for—how many?
TJ: I think we’re at 25 or 24 right now—somewhere around there. I can’t remember. The book, I think, says 23.
Dennis: I think it does. You probably have a more updated number. So the story is continuing.
Bob: We’ve had programs about orphans—about adoptions, about foster care before; and you know there have been some listeners who, in hearing us talk about this, have—God’s impressed on their hearts—“I’m talking to you. This is something you need to be doing.”
Dennis: Oh, some great stories.
Bob: A listener who is listening and they just have that sense—“I’m talking to you”—what should they do?
Dennis: I’ll never forget running into one of these listeners at the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit. She said, “I was listening to one of your broadcast on my way to Walmart, and I couldn’t get out of the car—had to settle the issue there.”
I don’t think it’s for everybody. You guys have said that. You made it clear. It’s not for everybody—but it is for some. It’s for more—I’ll say this—it’s for more than are saying, “Yes.” They’re too many Christians in America for more families not to be saying, “Yes,” to providing homes for kids who are coming from horrific backgrounds.
Bob: Yes, and I think a couple who would think, “We could do this. We could open our home. We could open our hearts and be foster parents,” should get a copy of TJ and Jenn’s book, Faith to Foster. It would help fill in some of the gaps that might be there in your thinking—help you understand what it is to become a foster parent. We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to order a copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book is Faith to Foster, and you can order online at FamilyLifeToday.com or order by phone—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
You know this subject—adoption, foster care, orphans—this has been a passion area of ours here at FamilyLife for many years; and part of the reason for that is we recognize how—significant, how central—a family is to who we are and who we become as human beings. Our goal here at FamilyLife is to effectively develop godly marriages and families. That’s the soil in which healthy people grow. It’s also the soil from which we can change the world one home at a time.
We’re grateful for those of you who partner with us in this endeavor who are helping us reach more and more people every week, every month, every year. As you support this ministry, you are really supporting the marriages and families of people all around the world. You are a part of a family reformation as you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
If you are a regular listener and you’ve never made a donation, we’d love to have you be a part of the team and be a part of what God’s doing through the ministry. You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate; or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at Box 7111, Little Rock, Arkansas; our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we want to hear more about your experience as foster parents. TJ and Jenn Menn are with us today. They’ll be back again tomorrow, and we’ll hear about some of the kids you have brought into your home. Hope our listeners can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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