Paul Pennington had only traveled to Korea to adopt Ethan. He hadn’t planned on also equipping thousands of churches for orphan ministry.
That changed when he came face-to-face with orphans, many of whom were not even adoptable for a variety of reasons, in their closest equivalent to “home.”
An unadoptable 3-year-old Korean girl trailed him through the orphanage and tugged at his leg. She kept repeating the Korean word for “daddy.”
“That’s the day I realized there’s something here that the Church has really missed,” Paul says.
Paul called his wife, Robin, to tell her that God would use them in orphan ministry beyond adoption. Paul and Robin now have six children, five of them adopted, but their ministry extends past their family. In 2001, they started Hope for Orphans with a vision for Biblically based adoption education in the local church.
Paul and Robin’s skills and personalities have complemented each other in this ministry from the start.
“Paul sees more globally,” Robin says, “and I see individuals.”
Paul agrees, describing his role as macro work and business strategy, while Robin’s heart is in coming alongside families during crisis.
“We’re working in Cuba partnering with the Gospel Coalition,” Paul says. “I build those sorts of business partnerships, whereas we’ll probably have a call in the next few days from a family that’s struggling, and Robin would be more effective in ministering to that.
“We’re not an adoption agency, but we try to bring tools and vision for a sustainable ministry. We believe from a Biblical worldview that Christians are supposed to care for—not necessarily adopt—orphans, widows, and strangers.”
Scripture gives this mandate over 40 times. The Dave Thomas Foundation found that 48 percent of those who considered adoption would look to their local church to learn more. However, most churches are not prepared to meet that need, so Hope for Orphans produced resources such as a book/DVD set Launching Orphan Ministry in your Church. Another resource, If You Were Mine, is a video-based workshop for families considering adoption for the first time.
Hope for Orphans also recently launched Rooted, an online parenting resource geared toward families post-adoption. Agencies are starting to use this Gospel-rooted training pre-adoption as well.
“We are seeing families take children who never would have found homes before,” Robin says. “And there’s a very difficult component to that, like going to the mission field.”
Rooted provides a framework for parenting at-risk kids. Pastor Halim Suh speaks on spiritual warfare in adoption, a topic overlooked at most adoption events. There are also complementary sections on the father being a leader in the home and on the role of a mother. The course features a variety of speakers, including Dr. Voddie Baucham, Association of Biblical Counselors’ Jeremy Lelek, Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Larry Bergstrom, and play therapy expert Dr. Mary Bennett.
Orphan ministry isn’t only for the parents.
“We believe the Bible teaches that you don’t have to be 22 before God begins to use you in Kingdom work,” Paul says. “Most children very much identify with orphans, because they can imagine what it would be like without a mom and dad to care for them.”
Hope for Orphans plans to launch Project Lionheart in the fall, a video resource that introduces orphan ministry to children through the lens of the Gospel, connecting the concepts of spiritual and physical orphans. A group of fifth-graders beta tested the program and held a read-a-thon that raised thousands of dollars to build a school for orphans in Africa.
“Not only do the orphans get help, but children are introduced to evangelism, to missions, and to the truth that God can use anybody,” Paul says.
Paul and Robin are careful to reiterate that the way to care for orphans isn’t necessarily to adopt. In fact, most orphans are not adoptable. Even when adoption is not an option, the Church is still called to care for orphans. Paul provides many ideas for orphan ministry, starting with being a safe church for families who do adopt.
Robin encourages the local church to come alongside families who have adopted and are struggling.
“It may make the difference between the family surviving with that child or not,” Robin says. “There’s this huge opportunity for fellow believers to step into the lives of those taking kids who are really, really difficult and loving them well.”
Paul lists respite care, supporting families financially, and watching the other children during doctor visits as only a few of “a thousand practical ways” to help adoptive families.
Another way to care for orphans is through being an advocate for children in foster care. One example is becoming a court-appointed special advocate volunteer, who goes before the judge to advocate specifically on behalf of the foster care child.
Members of one church, made up mostly of senior citizens, cared for orphans by requesting pictures of children waiting for families, and then carrying the pictures in their billfolds or purses. They prayed for and shared the stories of the children with others. Because of the congregation’s commitment to advocate for these orphans, many of them were adopted.
Churches can also minister to foster-care children in practical ways. Many orphans don’t have a suitcase and instead pack their belongings in a large trash bag as they’re sent from house to house. Some churches choose a ministry of providing suitcases to those kids.
Other churches may choose to minister to orphans in another country. With Hope for Orphans’ recent partnership in Cuba, they dream of local churches in America serving local churches in Cuba to meet the needs of orphans and at-risk children.
“There are many practical ways to support orphans and families in orphan ministry,” Paul says, “and they’re all a part of what we call the visible Gospel.”
Because many orphans internationally are not adoptable and 99 percent will never set foot in the United States, the Church in those countries needs to step in to provide food, clothing, and the Gospel. The good news is that most places with orphans have a local church that could meet the need—but they need to have the vision to do so.
For instance, while there are thousands of evangelical churches in Guatemala, only 27 children were adopted domestically a few years ago. Similarly, in South Korea, there are millions of Christians, but adoption isn’t normal in their culture. The need there is great, as thousands of North Korean orphans are escaping through China and into South Korea. Hope for Orphans is bringing a vision to countries like these for the Church to bring children into their families or to serve them in the orphanages.
“When the local church is available for God to use, then we have the ability for sustainable orphan ministry to those kids where they live,” Paul says.
Paul sees a common chord between Hope for Orphans and Samaritan Ministries, equipping the Church for ministry to the vulnerable, whether in orphan ministry or health care ministry.
“We’ve always believed that the way to care for 150 million orphans is the mass mobilization of the Church,” he says. “Samaritan Ministries actually accomplishes the mass mobilization of the Church for the benefit of the vulnerable. As a parachurch ministry, we’re at best a bridesmaid and this story has always been about the bride, the Church.”