Join our mailing list

Profile: Ron Nydam on How to Discuss Adoption Issues in Worship

Not talking about awkward emotions, say after infertility, pregnancy out of wedlock, or adoption, may seem kind. But it's better for churches to include adoption and related issues in baptisms, worship, and church life. A feature story exploring the case for talking about adoption in worship.

Shame. Secrecy. Grace. Truth. Justice. Reconciliation. Forgiveness. These powerful emotions shape the lives of many adoptees, even as adults, says Ron Nydam, a former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and seminary professor.

In Adoptees Come of Agehe recalls being stumped by a couple who at first seemed to have a common problem: the husband was attracted to his secretary. Early on the husband had mentioned being adopted but said it was no big deal. After three months of sessions that went nowhere, Nydam realized the man's adoption was the key.

According to the adoption papers, his mom was tall, had dark hair and eyes, and was 34 years old. Ditto with the secretary. "When I suggested that perhaps he wanted to return to his birth mother/secretary, awareness dawned and this 42-year-old man wept deeply and in a child's voice wondered, 'Why didn't she love me?' " Nydam writes.

Since then, Nydam says, he has lived and breathed adoption issues. "The first thing we need to do in churches is talk about it. Get these adoption issues on the table of conversation. Normalize it. As long as you don't talk about it that's a problem," he says.

Redefine family

He suggests that "we as a church redefine family so we're not so focused on the biological unit." Churches with an Old Testament focus on bloodlines sometimes make adoptive parents wait up to a year to baptize adopted children. It's as if the congregation can't believe that a child could be part of God's covenant without a biological bond to the parents who present the child for baptism.

The New Testament describes believers as heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ. "I hinge quite a bit on the comment Jesus made from the cross to Mary and John: 'Behold your son' and 'Behold your mother,' " Nydam says.

Yet, even though he sees the wisdom in having the church define family more by faith or choice than by biology, Nydam warns against a crucial mistake. That mistake is trying to tell adoptees that their experience is just like the experience of any believer being adopted by God.

It isn't.

As Nydam explains in his book, adoptees often face unique psychological and spiritual struggles because they are adoptees. These struggles may include making peace with being adopted, forming an identity, sustaining intimacy, and wondering about (or searching for) birth parents.

And that's why, as John Witvliet points out in a lecture on worship planning as a pastoral task, it can be profoundly healing when intercessory prayers include a simple, direct prayer of thanks and petition for adopted children and for parents who adopt. After all, for some people in the congregation, adoption is their most significant source of their sense of self.

Nydam recommends that pastors and worship leaders use the phrase "families by birth or families by adoption," because this phrase "normalizes the story." They can talk about the blessing, joy, and excitement of discovering who a child is.

Practice honesty

Churches often help keep secrets about adoption. Maybe members notice that an unmarried young woman looks pregnant. She disappears from church for awhile. When she returns, her figure restored, no one says anything about her absence, at least not to her face.

Childless couples may feel stigmatized by infertility or looked down on for creating a family through adoption. Many people believe that learning about birth parents would traumatize an adopted child. Some parents choose international adoptions so birth parents can't influence children. Many states have sealed adoption records to protect the privacy of birth parents.

Meanwhile, adopted children get the idea it's not okay to ask about their births. They sense their adoptive parents don't think much of their birth parents. Nydam tells of adoptees who describe themselves as "broken condoms" or "bad blood" or "not worth keeping."

"We bless the idea that love from adoptive parents is enough to bring adopted children along to maturity, as if the experience of relinquishment does not matter. It matters. Adoption is all about shame. We have to wrestle that shame to the ground and put it on the cross, where it belongs," Nydam says.

Overcoming shame starts with remembering that every adoption involves a triad-child, birth parents, adoptive parents. Nydam recently conducted a baptism of a child adopted into a family of another race. "We were very careful to also pray for the birth parents, who are from Detroit. We prayed they would handle the grief of separation. A third of birth mothers who have relinquished babies never get pregnant again. It's too painful to revisit."

Nydam challenges churches to move from worship to justice by joining legislative efforts to unseal adoption records. "It's an injustice to not know your birth parents' names, ethnic heritage, or health issues. After all, there are 4,000 genetically related diseases," he says.

Be open to sadness

Nydam says silence doesn't erase grief.

For example, where does an unwed mother go with her shame and grief? How do couples get over the pain of miscarriages or infant deaths? What do adoptive parents do with their fear of being trumped by their child's birth parents? What does an adoptee do with knowing he or she was relinquished-even if that's described as being placed for adoption and chosen by an adoptive family?

"These griefs don't go away. They come back and bite you. But you can work through it. And as far as learning about or meeting birth parents, reality is always better than fantasy," he says.

One of the best ways for a church to be open to sadness is to choose worship songs that express a wide range of emotion, just as the psalms do.

"It's good to praise and worship but not okay to separate that from human suffering, sadness, or anger. If people go to church and have to be happy all the time, then you're telling them there's no place for them in worship.

"In fact, my colleague Carl Bosma often says that we've taken Jesus off the cross too much, because we no longer look at how he suffered with and for us. Being faithful is very, very different from singing all praise, all the time. You can't sincerely praise if you don't open your eyes to the pain and suffering that are part of life. And you cannot truly understand hope if you haven't grieved," Nydam explains.