Watching a Culture Grow

It was near midnight in the small, crowded living room of Brandon and Shelly Lemons’ Illinois townhome. Their interview with the pastor search team from Port Washington, Wis., was nearing its conclusion. What had been planned as a three-hour evening had stretched to seven.

But Shelly had one more question and nudged Brandon to ask it.

“Once we’re settled pastoring a church, we’re hoping to begin the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia,” Brandon began. “Would a black child from Africa be accepted and welcomed in a small Wisconsin town, or would he be seen as an outsider due to his ethnicity?”

There was silence for half a second as the team members seemed to inhale, and then the room exploded in sound.

“We’ll never forget the instantaneous response,” Brandon says. “It seemed like the entire search committee was speaking at once, reassuring us that our plans to adopt would not be a problem, because cross-racial adoption and foster care are such a big part of the culture of Friedens Church.”

Cultivating a culture

That conversation in summer 2009 was the Lemonses’ introduction to a 40-year legacy of adoption and foster care at Friedens Evangelical Church, which has an average Sunday attendance of about 175. In fact, Brandon and Shelly became the third pastoral couple in a row at Friedens to be adoptive parents when a son, Mikias, joined their family in January 2011.

Every church has a culture, says Don Price, church-health director with the EFCA’s Forest Lakes District. In the best cases, this culture is a godly thread by which its members live out the gospel for the benefit of the wider community.

Don describes a church’s culture—whether adoption/foster-care, conflict resolution, compassion for the poor or foreign missions—as “the personality, ethos or values of the church” that often stand apart from official ministries and programs, mission statements, and top-down direction from the church leadership. Not always for the good, however.

Some churches, he explains, say they value unity, but what they really value is lack of conflict, and so they sweep conflict under the rug at every opportunity.

Positive cultures, although not necessarily driven by a pastor or ministry leader, need the support of church leaders.

Triggered by the community

Several years ago, a sexual assault at a local school in Las Cruces, N.M., touched several families at nearby First EFC. Senior Pastor John Powell saw that healing was needed. “The church was thrown headlong into mediation between the parties,” he says. “I realized I needed formal training.”

So John and a church deacon went to Peacemaker Ministries and became certified Christian conciliators. Since then, a culture of peacemaking has percolated through the entire congregation. It is introduced in materials given to new members, and Peacemaker teams are available to step in whenever conflicts arise in the church, and even beyond the church’s walls.

For example, earlier this year, a team from First EFC mediated a family’s legal dispute after the lawyers representing each side contacted John Powell instead of going to court.

“Neither lawyer goes to our church,” John says. “Nor does the family. Four congregations, counting us, were involved.”

The power of a positive example

Besides the support of leadership, developing a healthy cultural focus requires champions, Don Price says, “people who have a real passion for adoption or peacemaking or whatever it is, so it just spreads.”

Today, nearly one quarter of Friedens’ members and attendees are in a family touched by adoption. This adoption/foster “culture” wasn’t triggered by a sermon or an official ministry. Rather, it started with one or two families, was helped by the example of church leaders, was taken up by friends and acquaintances both inside and outside the church, and today continues to spread.

Friedens’ legacy can perhaps be traced to Ed and Lila Kohn, who began foster-parenting unwed teenage mothers and their babies in the 1960s and later adopted one of the babies. At about the same time, Friedens’ then-pastor and his wife adopted two Native American boys. Their replacements, 20 years later, had already adopted a daughter before they arrived and later adopted a son. The Lemonses continued in their footsteps.

Although none of the pastors have ever told the congregation they should adopt, their doing so encouraged others to do so. “They were mostly people who couldn’t have children,” says Ed. “And they saw it happen and realized it was an alternative.”

One of Ed and Lila Kohn’s daughters, Litha, grew up in that atmosphere of foster-parenting and adoption. She and her husband have now foster-parented 101 children, adopting one of them and helping several other families to adopt or foster children.

“There’s a reason why we’re here,” Litha says. “You see other churches, and there’s a high number of college-age kids or retirees or what have you, and they can aim a number of their functions toward that. Yet you look at the families at Friedens and you see these young families coming in who can’t have children, and I think, I’m here for a purpose.”

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