‘We Church’ to ‘Me Church’

I grew up in the Church. It was integral to who I was. It was my family. It defined my identify. It was a powerful influence, my moral development, social opportunities, entertainment, and an invitation to regular fellowship.

Church had been my routine and security. A part of my family history and traditions. Somewhere I belonged. A place where others depended on me. A way to love others. A solidifying of my status in the Christian community. A place to connect with others and restore my spiritual focus.

Until my marriage ended. Then I didn’t really fit in, and church became complicated.

Throughout the betrayals within my congregation and my subsequent divorce, singleness and isolation, I clung to my church attendance quite literally like a piece of floating driftwood from a sinking ship. The organisation that had kept me nurtured and safe my entire life, became an unknowing participant in my prolonged suffering.

Regardless of how much my body shook from the traumas I’d encountered, I still marched through the church doors, week to week.

Regardless of how hard it was to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks during worship, I returned dutifully to ‘my’ seat in the pews and sang while gulping down the lump in my throat.

Regardless of the pain of mingling with people who were probably talking about my scandalous life events, I still socialised with them to fend off some of the loneliness.

Regardless of the isolation I felt after sharing my prayer needs with leaders who found my circumstances awkward, I still made myself vulnerable and left feeling embarrassed.

Regardless of the exhaustion of working full time, caring for children and pursuing divorce proceedings, I continued to serve so that I did not have to admit my limitations.

Regardless of the ignorant one-liners that reopened my wounds, such as ‘God hates divorce’, ‘you’ll find someone else’, ‘God will prosper you’, ‘things could be worse’…I allowed my ears continued exposure.

Regardless of the devastation of not feeling heard or important, when I addressed the messages that had threatened my wellbeing, I kept advocating, and became further estranged.

It was pure stubbornness that kept me hostage to my church habit, despite how at times, extremely detrimental it was.

Then I underwent a season of rest, reflection, and re-construction.

I first gave myself permission to acknowledge that church had been hard. That many times I did not like it. That it was okay not to go if I was not up to it.

Then I discovered something…new.

I took a break from ‘We Church’ and found ‘Me Church’.

‘Me Church’ was just me and Jesus.

At ‘Me Church’, I could come as I was. Slippers, dressing gown, messy hair and all. It had amazing worship. Personal playlists, set on repeat. There were cups of tea and flexible start and end times. ‘Me Church’ had various campuses, in a range of indoor and outdoor venues. I could sing my heart out in joy, or sit silently in tears.

‘Me Church’ did not require interaction with other flawed, sinful humans, which at that point in my life, was just too risky. There was silence, reflection, time for thinking, and staring out at God’s amazing creation. There could be bible reading, YouTube sermons or podcast discussions…or no teaching at all. There was space for a private conversation with God, including how let down I felt by life in general, or how beautiful the sunshine was.

After ‘Me Church’ there was opportunity to bless others, whether that was checking in and calling a friend, doing a nice deed for the family, or preparing for the working week ahead so I was better able to bless others in the community with my gifts. ‘Me Church’ was not concerned with the denomination I followed, whether I had spiritual gifts, the evangelical celebrities I ascribed to, or my stance on moral and political agendas. There was no power hierarchy, shame, guilt trips or abuse.

At ‘Me Church’, you could share your personal testimony, even if it didn’t have a happy ending…or any kind of resolution at all.

There were no expectations and no awkwardness. It was safe and it was healing. It was genuine and it was real. Despite my imperfect, single, state, at ‘Me Church’, I fit in, and I belonged.

I could be a member for as long as I wanted to. I could leave when I was ready. I would be welcomed when I returned.

If ‘We Church’ has been a complicated place for you too, let go of it for a while, and try ‘Me Church’ out for a season as well.

Even if no one else is there, Jesus certainly will be.

Photo by Audrey Badin from Pexels

Foster Caring: A Consumer Report

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

In a perfect world, every child would have a safe and nurturing home where all their needs are met. Unfortunately, our world is far from perfect. Parents are not immune from suffering brokenness, illness, mental health, social issues, and addictions. Foster care placements are crucial services our community needs to ensure that all children are cared for appropriately.

Let me begin this discussion by reinforcing, how much I and the general community, value those who take on children who are not biologically theirs. Whether that be adoption, kinship care, foster care, respite care or assisting in residential care, it takes a village to raise a child, and in this scenario that is no more abundantly clear. Foster caring is a noble act of service.

Over the years I have come across people who are foster carers or are considering becoming one. Often these are couples or families who want to add a new dynamic to their lives. As a guardianship system participant, who has learnt some valuable lessons over the years, I offer the following experience and advice for people to evaluate.

I became a foster carer because of a family need. Prior to this, my only exposure to the foster system, were the ads on TV, romanticising the ‘make a difference’ message, showing images of happy families and appreciative, (previously misplaced) now suitably attached, functional children, who appeared settled within the displayed family unit. There were smiles, typical family scenes around the dinner table, and joy. As a result of this propaganda, I firmly believed that although I was about to embark on a season of challenge and sacrifice, one day it would all pay off and be ‘worth it’.

Fifteen years on, the journey has been different to what I expected. There has been fun, tears, laughter, and despair. Much more to the extremes than I could ever have imagined. The adventure and personal growth that my child has brought to my life IS rewarding and has caused me to develop into a much stronger person. I love my foster child dearly, and always will.

Alongside this, I have learnt a lot about how the guardianship system operates, the community expectations and the impacts it can have on the carer. The best metaphor I can come up with, is the retail industry. So let’s go window shopping!

  1. The CEO/boss/owner, is the government

Children on a guardianship order, who are under the foster care system, do not officially ‘belong’ to the foster parents by any means. They are solely the charge of the government. They are responsible for the upbringing of the child and are accountable for their wellbeing. They decide the morals, education, and discipline. Such authorities sign school excursion indemnity forms, give permission for interstate travel, and police check any friends or family the child stays with on holidays. They approve case plan goals and must show evidence that needs are being met, even if it is just superficially. Child aside, they are predominantly concerned with avoiding future litigation and will do whatever required to prove they have been responsible caregivers.

2. The ‘floor/department manager’ is the social worker

Social workers are the middle management. They have a tough gig. Many of these individuals have also been lured into the industry by their heart strings, however, get lumped extreme caseloads, high responsibility and limited influence. They see the trauma of the child’s upbringing, the challenges of parenting, but must please the ‘boss’. They need to strike the delicate balance of appearing supportive to the foster parents to maintain the placement, while only really being ‘team foster kid’. They have to be friendly and relatable, however at the end of the day, if they want to keep their job and prove their success, they can attribute blame down the guardianship food chain if there is a major disfunction.

3. The ‘customer’ is the foster child

The displaced child ends up being the consumer or ‘customer who is always right’. Happy child = happy social worker = happy boss…and less likely future legal issues. This is not a problem when a child is easy to please, settled and appreciative of the support made available to them. When my child was younger and I took on the bulk of the care requirements, I would receive praise from my social worker. It was a relief for them to not have to worry about aspects of one case, and as a result of my contribution, their workload was decreased. When handover between workers occurred, the comment would be made “I’ve told them how wonderful you are and how you have everything under control”.

When trauma, insecurities, attachment and dare I mention it, teen years come in to play, things can get tricky! If that is not enough, why not throw in some further family brokenness into this picture, alongside the usual biological family contact complexities, carer burn out and other life challenges. Amid such situations, foster children work out that there are a panel of people who are employed just to meet their needs and demands, outside of the foster parents. The usual one or two parent family, now becomes three or more, and you have ‘committee’ of individuals who all have their own theories as to what is best for the child.

4. The ‘sales assistant’ is the foster parent

The ones whose boots are on the ground dealing with the daily chores, school lunches, homework, sicknesses, appointments, ‘I can’t sleep”, behavioural challenges, maintaining employment so there is a home for the child to live in at all…as well as filling the gaps related to why the child can’t live with their biological parents in the first place. Sales assistants are expected to ensure the ‘customer’ is looked after and happy with the service and address any complaints, without the support of a union representative. If there is consumer dissatisfaction, they may have to justify their actions to the store managers and owners. Everything will be documented from whose responsibility it is to take the child to the dentist, how medical and educational needs are going to be met and the parenting style will be scrutinised and reported on. This all leads to annual meetings, where the child, parents, workers, managers, and a heap of random department experts sit around table for an hour to evaluate the care provided to the customer. If only ALL parents had to do this! It can be as enjoyable as trying to source toilet paper from the supermarket in the middle of a pandemic.

When things start going pear shaped, the manager will ultimately look for a suitable child centred response. The go-to (and rightly so in the initial stages of crisis management) is to consider the impact of attachment disorders and put pressure on the carers to address issues with therapeutic methods. The emotions and toll this takes on the carers is beside the point. The managers arrange consultants and mental health supports, however if the consumer’s behaviour escalates to the point of damaging property or affecting other members of the household in a negative way, the manager will not see this as their responsibility to address this.

If the placement does not improve, then the manager will need to report to the owner, with an explanation of what they have done to try to make the customer happy. The manager wants to retain their job, so the only other suitable candidate to direct attention to is….you guessed it…the sales assistant. It is in this situation that foster carers need to be wary and wise with how to proceed to avoid any potential threat to their own reputation, mental health and family relationships.

So, what can be done to make sure the foster caring experience is the ‘product satisfaction’ fairy tale instead of ‘I need a refund from this experience’ nightmare?

Here is my recommended list of do’s and don’ts to safeguard yourself and your foster child:

  • Be at peace with the fact…you are not their biological parent.

…and don’t try to be.

  • Have a supportive network around you.

Dependable partner/family/friends, are a must. Single parenting as a foster carer is difficult, as there is no back up and no one to provide evidence to the contrary if needed. Ideally, other children in the family should be older, and highly settled. A network of family and friends that can assist with respite and emotional encouragement is a valuable idea.

  • Say ‘yes’ to all the help that is available

Do not be a hero and do it all yourself. No one will give you an award for that. Social workers are employed to support you, so make the most of their services to assist with the daily and weekly care requirements of your child. Do not feel guilty about palming off some of the parental responsibilities to them, it is not your role as a carer to pretend there is no guardianship order. Arrange regular respite care, even if you feel bad sending the child away. There will come a time where it is needed, and you will be grateful.

  • Document all communication

Keep the majority of your communication with social workers in written form where possible. Read case plan reports and have any details amended before they are released, that could possibly frame you in a negative light.

  • You can’t fix everything

It is not your fault that the child is not with their biological family, nor is it your responsibility to fix the situation and pretend the child is your own. Love them in a manner that accommodates their additional needs, acknowledges their unique story and background, but not to the detriment of yourself and other family members.

  • Have firm boundaries

Be fair to yourself and your family and keep firm boundaries with expected morals and behaviours for your home. Do not adjust them due to pressure from authorities. Feel free to say ‘no’ to extreme interventions suggested by the department, especially invasive evaluations and meetings (particularly when divorce is involved, as child protection workers are not trained in mediation). You have just as much a right to a safe and happy home and life, as the foster child. Happy foster carers = happy foster child.

  • Accept that you will have to love and let go

This is the most important one, and one I have struggled the most with myself. Well-intentioned foster carers often go into this with the attitude of ‘no matter what, I’ll be there for you’. That attitude is unwise. There are many reasons that the child may not be with you long term. The biological family may be awarded custody. The child may not like living with you. You and your family members may find it too much. The department may choose to put them in a different placement. The child may elect to live independently as a teenager.

The moment that you can open your heart to a foster child and be ready to let go at any time…is the moment you are possibly ready for membership to the guardianship superstore. Your till will have the correct change and resources to ensure you make your customer happy, and exchanges/returns are not required.

To all those thinking about becoming a foster carer, the highest of respect to you for considering this, and the best of luck with your experience.

Rocky Forgiveness

Photo by Ir Solyanaya

Six years ago, my life changed forever. Infidelity caused me, married-mother-of-two, to become single-mother-of-two. I was suddenly alone to navigate the world of working, providing, finances and child-custody negotiations. I lost friendships, became disconnected with my community and experienced a deep, piercing grief.

I spun through emotions like a merry-go-round. Over and over I experienced combinations of anger, sadness, depression, stress, fear, and the occasional whiff of hope. There was no logical pattern for this cycle.

Within days of my life turning upside down, I was told to forgive, for ‘my own’ sake. As the months passed this pressure continued from multiple sources. I received well-meaning advice, such as “you need to forgive“, “don’t become bitter”, “it will be okay”, “do it for the kids’ sake” , “you’ll find someone else”, and “you need to move on”.

Unfortunately, the people sending these messages had no idea of the suffering I was enduring, which included regular flashbacks of events where I had been deceived and manipulated. I was still in the process of adjusting my perception of the past and the people I trusted.

The pressure to forgive was enhanced with the expectation that it’s what good Christians do. But I was not allowed to grieve as a widow would. I was not allowed to display my pain about the death of my marriage by wearing black. There was no memorial service for the loss of my friendships. I was not brought meals or flowers. I was expected to carry on as normal and to hide the shame of the situation that had been forced on me.

People gossiped about me. People avoided me. People abandoned me. Some people attacked me. I was told to keep quiet about what had happened. I was then again reminded that I needed to forgive.

The inability for me to do this in the expected time frame, made me feel more of a failure. Why couldn’t I just be at peace with my new lot in life?

How do you forgive when you are constantly living with the daily repercussions of other people’s choices that have negatively impacted your own life?

After years of processing, counselling and healing, I now have my answer. It’s like I have a jar of rocks. Rocks of all different sizes and shapes, each representing a wrong that had been done to me and something that had been stolen from me. Something to forgive.

Just like the rocks in that jar, I needed to start by disposing of the little pebbles that filled the gaps around, under and over the larger rocks. I then needed to grieve them. Put actions in place to prevent them happening again. Then take some more little pebbles. They could represent lost friendships and family, or increased responsibility. I could crush them, skim them into a lake, feel them, grind them, decorate them or make use of them in the garden. Grieve them. Put protections in place. Let them go. Walk away.

The pressure of ‘just forgiving’ was the equivalent of arranging a truck to scoop up the enormous load of rocks and drop them all into the ocean in one, simple movement. Be done with them. Quickly. Forever. Forget they existed. The danger of that process was they could land on me, trip me and control me. I could even be tempted to pick them up and hurl them to cause harm or damage, as an act of retribution.

A sudden deposition might make others around me feel better about the situation, but it would leave me empty and with limited potential at overcoming the pain.

I was unable to do this because I didn’t know what that pile consisted of. What layers, shapes, pieces and materials formed it to make the load so large and heavy? The boulders of betrayal and abandonment would be there a while, maybe forever. It might be simply enough to just look at them, or acknowledge they existed at all. Maybe chisel off a few edges. Sand back a few surfaces. Feel the texture and the weight. Reduce them to smaller pebbles with a hammer. Put them back in the jar. God could mind them until I was ready to deal with them again.

Forgiveness is not an end result. It is a continuous process; one which acknowledgement of the wrong that has occurred, grief and time plays a large role in the success of it.

Ecclesiastes describes this concept as there being a ‘time for everything’, especially in verse 5, there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”.

In this chapter of the bible there is permission for people to take time with the seasons of life. God does not give our healing an expiry date. He is patient, loving and kind. He understands how painful grief is and would not look down on us for mindfully and spiritually processing our pain.

To those of you who have suffered greatly as a result of the choices of others, allow yourself space to grieve and heal as you feel able. Forgiveness should not be controlled by the expectations of others and does not reflect the strength of your faith. As long as you are moving along the road of forgiveness with God in a forwards direction of some sort, that is all that matters.

The jar of rocks is yours and God will willingly help with that burden as you need Him to.

When your personal life requires a quarantine lock down

Yesterday I went to my local shopping centre to grab some groceries. This would normally be classified as nothing out of the ordinary, however amid the new social distancing, isolation and COVID-19 requirements, it was anything but that.

The vibe was different. I felt slightly anxious. My senses were over functioning, making mental note of every surface I was touching…the shop looks and feels different…where IS the toilet paper isle now, who is around me…am I too close to that person…do they have the virus…could I have the virus…who can I trust…don’t give eye contact…where is my hand sanitizer…what’s in the air I’m breathing! Get me outta here and back home!

I reflected on this on my drive home and couldn’t help but initially be amused at my overreaction, and then it dawned on me. I have been here before!

Following a season of relationship breakdowns in my life, venturing out to do a grocery shop has at times been a similar, if not more traumatic experience than what I had just felt. The anxiety of having contact with people, constantly being wary of who was there, who could be there, what people thought of me, how I was going to present myself and ensure my emotional safety; meant that doing daily tasks such as grocery shopping, was torture. It would not be uncommon for me to return to the car with my shopping bags, as well as a complimentary dose of body shakes.

Betrayal and rejection have a knack of getting under people’s skin, causing them to question every aspect of their life, just like living in a pandemic. Victims over-analyse every interaction, trying to deem whether they are trustworthy and safe. They’ve often seen the best in others, given them the benefit of the doubt, missed red flags, and they do not want to end up there again. They construct an imaginary crown of shame that adorns their heads wherever they go and whatever they do. In these circumstances one method of dealing with this is to quarantine people out of their lives until it is safe enough to venture into the realm of relationships again.

For me, I describe these times as ‘going into my fortress’ where I miminise contact with others, stay home, drink cups of tea, stare out the window for hours at a time and process events. Here I am safe from threats to my well being and I can practice self-care. I make decisions about things I can control, even if they are as little as not checking emails for a certain time or responding in my normal, ‘people pleasing’ manner. I wear my sparkly slippers and play worship music. In these times it is just God and I. God will not betray or reject me, instead he builds me up, tear by tear, worry by worry, weakness by weakness.

Over the years my need for ‘quarantine time’ has reduced. I am now strong enough to recreate that experience mentally when I am not physically at home. I have restructured many of my personal relationships so that the fortress is not needed as often. My social circles are smaller, but more enriching as I learn to draw more on my faith for my needs, than people themselves.

The social distancing requirements we are all facing right now replicate much of the above. We must put actions in place that minimise threats to our safety, we must build our own fortresses and change our lifestyle in to get us through. We can focus on the little things such as hand washing and coughing into our elbows, to make us feel somewhat in control of the uncontrollable. However at the end of the day, we will all need to dig deeper on a personal level to get our needs met, and perhaps this is the time to rely less on people and the busyness of life, and more on our Almighty Saviour God who understands our suffering and uncertainty. He will sit with us in it. He will care for us. He will provide us with the comfort that no matter what happens, if we love Him, we will be saved. 1 Peter 5:7 says “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (NLT).

Although quarantining ourselves over the coming months is not exactly an exciting prospect, can I ask you to spare a thought (or a text or phone call) for those have been isolated due to circumstances in their personal relationships too, and to use this as a valuable time to reconnect yourself with God who is the ultimate companion and support.

Photo by Tatyana Nekrasova