Ignorance and Malice Are Not the Same Thing

One of the things that we truly believe is that people thrive in community. You simply cannot thrive in isolation, and a key ingredient in what adoptive and foster families need to thrive is to be connected to a healthy church ministry that understands them and will support them as they travel their adoption and foster care journey. Feeling connected is the first step towards being engaged. Families feel connected when they feel like their kids are understood and loved.

Families feel connected when they feel like their kids are understood and loved. Click To Tweet

Children’s ministry is so different now from what I remember as a child. I can still recall the little church I grew up attending. On Sunday mornings all of the children would gather and sing a few songs at the front of the Worship Center. We would sing songs from “This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine” to “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.” After that we would be dismissed to our classes where we were taught the Sunday School lesson.

But the world my children are growing up in is vastly different to the one that I grew up in. There are more things vying for our attention than ever before which has created an attention deficit society. We are bombarded and we are overload. Everything is bigger, better, faster, more and children’s ministry in many ways resembles now that. We try to pack more into 75 minutes than we ever have before.

According to study conducted by the Barna group they found that 45% of adults picked a church based on the strength of the children’s programming offered. Now, that is both good and terrifying news for our churches. It is good news because a healthy, strong children’s ministry is a great way for families to get connected to the church. But if the program is not thriving then it will be a reason that many families move away. According to the research, our churches have both a great opportunity and a great responsibility.

But I think we need to talk about a key assumption before we go any further because I hear this from families all of the time; “children’s ministry doesn’t care about our kids.” While that statement can feel very real to parents, I counter that assumption with this idea; most people are not malicious, they’re just not informed, they don’t know any better.

I once had a boss who shared the following with me, and it has helped my frustration level every time I have encountered a situation where I felt like people were not understanding what I was trying to communicate. He told me to “never assume malice when ignorance will be sufficient.” We tend to assign sinister motives to people when the most likely cause of their actions is that they simply don’t know any better.

Here is the definition of MALICE

Malice [mal-is] noun – the desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness.

That doesn’t sound like anyone I know who works in children’s ministry. I don’t know any people who volunteer their time on Sundays who have the desire to inflict injury or harm on the kids at our church. Children’s ministry volunteers are rarely, if ever, described as mean.

Here is the definition of IGNORANT.

Ignorant [ig-ner-uh-nt] adjective – lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned, lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact, uninformed; unaware.

When it comes to understanding trauma and its impacts on our kids, I have to agree with the advice my old boss gave me all of those years ago; “Never assume malice when ignorance will be sufficient.”

Now, some people might bristle at the thought of being considered ignorant, but the word simply means unaware or uninformed; lacking in knowledge or training.

Children’s ministry is designed to be both instructional and entertaining because we have to create an environment where kids are taught the truth of scripture while making sure it was fun enough that they want to come back next week.

The biggest problem with that idea is that it offers no understanding of what a hard place is and how our kids are affected by them.

The 6 risk factors that make a hard place are:

  1. Prenatal stress and harm
  2. Difficult labor and delivery
  3. Early medical trauma
  4. Abuse
  5. Neglect
  6. Trauma

Before we go any further I think we can all agree that those 6 risk factors are not unique to adopted or foster children. But here’s the thing, if our children’s ministry staff and volunteers do not know the 6 risk factors that make a hard place, and how they impact the brain, biology, body, beliefs, and behavior of our kids, we cannot make them responsible for using connected strategies with the children. We have to own the fact that it is our responsibility as advocates for these children, our children, to educate and equip the key people in the children’s ministry at our churches.

We bear a great responsibility in the matter. Because asking the church to have a trauma informed ministry is a big ask. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to do differently what they have done the same way for years. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to change their assumptions about some of the children in their care. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to interact with the children differently. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to think about what trauma is and how it impacts each child.

And if we ask them, we have to be prepared to equip them. You see it’s not enough to ask people to implement a trauma informed ministry if we have not given them the tools and the resources they will need.

It's not enough to ask people to implement a trauma informed ministry, we must equip them. Click To Tweet

Before we ask children’s ministries to change, we need to ensure that we have the knowledge and the experience to equip them. We need to have read The Connected Child multiple times we need to have read The Whole-Brain Child multiple times. We should all know how to explain the “Handy Model of the Brain” and how we “flip our lids” and how we can re-connect our upstairs brain to our downstairs brain again. We cannot ask others to do something if we are not willing to do it ourselves. We cannot ask others to do something if we have not equipped them.

What we are doing is asking a big ship to change direction.

There are two things that are true about big ships turning. One of them is that big ships turn slowly and the second is that big ships encounter the roughest waters in the middle of the turn because they are being broadsided by the waves. You should expect the same two things from the big ship that you’re trying to turn at your church.

Ships encounter the roughest waters in the middle of the turn. Click To Tweet

But don’t be discouraged because God asks us to do big things and then he equips us to do big things. The bible says that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he prepared in advance for us to do. Helping your children’s ministry become a trauma informed ministry is just a part of you walking in your calling.

Our church asked my wife to be a roaming behavior interventionist at VBS last summer. As she was walking down the hallway one day she heard two distinctive sounds,  One was a crying child and the other was an aggressive tone coming  from one of the teenage volunteers. As my wife got closer she heard the teenage girl say this to the crying 4 year old, “I’m going to leave you out here by yourself if you don’t stop crying and you’re not going to get a snack when you get back to class.”

Let’s unpack that for a minute.

A crying child is a child that is in distress. Instead of responding to him like he was struggling, she responded to him like he was behaving badly. But before we judge the teenage girl too harshly let’s consider this…she didn’t know any better. Nobody had equipped her for that moment and it is most likely that her experience as a child amounted to this, “Do as you’re told or suffer the consequences”, just like she told the little boy. I don’t believe that the first time she heard the words “stop crying or I’m going to leave you out here by yourself” was when she uttered them that morning to the 4 year old little boy.

That incident at that VBS was a turning point for our church. That was when they realized that they had to start doing things differently and asked us to come and train them on trauma and how it affects the children in their care.

Now, back to the teenage girl because she really illustrates the issue at hand. She was doing the best she could with what she knew. Maya Angelou once said “Do the best you can until you know better and when you know better, do better.”

We all know better, now we bear the responsibility to help our churches know better so that they can do better. So that they can become life-giving communities where adoptive and foster families feel like they belong.

Here is an audio version of the text if you’d like to listen to Ryan presenting at CAFO Summit 2016 in Orlando.

Ryan North
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Ryan North

Ryan North is the Executive Director of Tapestry, the Adoption & Foster Care Ministry of Irving Bible Church in Dallas, Texas. As Executive Director of Tapestry, Ryan also leads Empowered to Connect. He frequently writes and speaks on connected parenting and ministry leadership.
Ryan North
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