DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Changing minds with better stories

Written by: on April 5, 2019

Last night I had the opportunity to sit and talk with some future foster parents about their journey so far. It was a fascinating conversation about their first interest in foster care and adoption and how it has grown and how their church community is helping to foster their movement in this direction. One of our dinner guest made the statement, “it’s easier to conceive of doing [foster care] being in a community with people who are already doing it successfully.” There is so much going on in that statement, but what it brought up for me was that foster care is a hidden thing in our society most of the time, except for when it blows up. News stories about foster parents abusing children or driving off a bridge with the kids in tow or when a foster kid shoots up his school are real stories, but they are the outliers that skew the story and ultimately the perception of what foster care is all about.

Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, argues that our rational thoughts are the servants of our deeper intuitions. Like a rider on an elephant we believe we have control when in fact the elephant can at any point choose to ignore us.1 For Haidt moral reasoning is a skill that humans developed to further their social agenda and defend their teams.2 The teams we end up on are not the result of rational choosing, but are the ones that share similar narratives to our own. And once humans have bound themselves to a team they become blind to other world views.3

One of Haidt’s many points is that we are narrative creatures. Our intuitions are built in relation to the stories we have lived and seen lived. I wonder if one of the reasons for the stigma of foster care in our world is because we have not seen the successful stories. Too often, at least in American culture, there is the idea that foster parents are heroes because foster children are hard and as such it is an act of bravery on the part of the parents to take in these children. As much as it seems like this sort of praise for foster parents is a good thing, it is actually a curse in a couple ways. There is the false idea of some sort of greatness for the parents and the more false thought that the children are particularly difficult. Additionally this makes it more difficult to tell the more common success stories. If the kid has to start at absolute zero and become a Rhodes scholar for us to tell a successful foster care story then we will tell very few stories. But if we are able to tell an honest story about how a child grew to trust or how a parent struggled and found support in their community then foster care becomes a reality and not a comic book fantasy.

I think that if we start to tell real stories about foster care more families will start to make the move to welcoming foster children into their homes. This leads me back to my friend’s statement that seeing it done makes going into foster care easier. It is a statement of truth that the move in the direction of foster care is not a spontaneously generated idea. It is the result of seeing the lived stories. My children being people of color is significant in many ways, but the most obvious is that it is pretty clear (though apparently not to everyone) they are not biologically related to me. This allows me to tell an honest story of foster care and adoption whenever a stranger talks to me about them and hopefully change their intuition about what foster care looks like. I cannot convince people that foster care is great, but I can show them.

1. Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Penguin Books, 2013. xxi

2. ibid xx

3. ibid xxii

About the Author


Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

9 responses to “Changing minds with better stories”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks Sean. I spent five years in a home and school for children and at one point my baseball coach asked me if I would be ok with them adopting me. I had a pretty visceral reaction and told him NO and it wasn’t until years later I even know why. In that moment the narrative that was flowing through my head was leaving my mom all by herself and the feelings I felt when I felt like she did the same to me when she brought us to the home. My coach was like a father to me and they would have provided much more for me than my mom had ever or probably could ever but the narrative is what locked me into the no.

    I said all that to say, I think telling stories of truth can and will help the foster care community and others, so kudos to you for taking that path!

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Mario, thank you for this story. One of the things that has come out of my field research is that, while the foster system has many issues one of the best ways of making it better is finding systems of prevention. Finding ways to help kids stay with their parents, as long as they are safe. Your coach sounds like a safe space for you and that was an important role for him to take. I don’t know anything about your history with your mom, but it sounds like it was best for you to have the safe space of your coach while not being officially separated from your mom. This is an important story to be told as well. Thanks again for sharing.

      • Andrea Lathrop says:

        Appreciate this conversation between you and Mario. Wow.
        And I wonder if ‘seeing it done’ is always better than trying to convince someone – in so many areas of life. Sometimes we do need to use words but our example behind it makes our words much more powerful and persuasive. Thank you for this.

  2. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I think this is true of so many scenarios Sean. I think story is one of the most powerful tools we have at nurturing openness to knew ideas But story has also become a key part of advertising and marketing, which has nurtured skepticism in people. It’s also why I encourage caution in how we share stories/testimonies in church. If we only tell the hero version or the ‘and it’s all better now’ version, we can make it seem inaccessible to the very people we want to invite in. I applaud your call for more authenticity and for the celebration of much smaller wins. How important do you think it is whose persecpective the story is told from? Are we more shaped by hearing stories from people ‘like me’ (whoever that me is) or from those ‘unlike me’? So if we were trying to be strategic, would your son’s story or your story or your caseworkers story effect more change? I appreciate your insight on this.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I think if we’re being strategic, we need to know who the audience is for the story before we can decide whose story will effect the most change. Though I’m not entirely sure if that should be our goal. I think the strategic placement of stories leads to exactly the skepticism you mentioned. Honest stories with all their ups and downs, dissonance and resonance will be most impactful when told honestly without agenda.

  3. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you Sean for sharing this issue of foster parenting. We had an orphanage home in one of our churches and it took care of many homeless children. But when the the introduction of the foster parenting came up as a government order, all the children were taken to foster parenting. It did not work well with the children and we experienced a serious abuse than when they were in an orphanage. The nurturing moral perspective did not work well here. on the other hand, orphanages builds mechanical morality in the children which are not lasting.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I have some friends in Swaziland who set up foster homes for AIDS orphans. Initially they were trying to get married couples to take in the kids, but it ended up being only women. The ministry built houses on a farm that is self sustaining, so the women don’t have to worry about finding jobs. It has worked tremendously well because the kids get a regular home life, while also allowing the ministry to take in a good number of children. I think the context of foster parenting matters. What (mostly) works in the U.S. is could fail miserably in Kenya. What matters most is that we’re looking for the best outcomes possible for the children, not that we’ve cloned what someone else has done elsewhere. That being said, orphanages are just all around bad and a lazy way of dealing with a real problem.

  4. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Sean, Thanks so much for your practical wisdom of telling the lived stories. Not fantasy, not hype, just the reality of living day by day. Thanks again for your research and your passion for how you live day by day.

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    It is interesting how we tell stories. The longer I live the more stories I have to tell and the more stories I forget. A number of years back a counsellor confronted me after a sermon I preached and told me it was time a retold one of my stories in a different way. It was time to tell it as a gift of grace and not a story of failure. She spoke to my elephant – my intuitions and perceptions – and informed them they were wrong. Since then I often reflect on how I tell the facts as stories – what story am I telling? The one my feelings wish to tell, or my intuition senses people want to hear? Or do I tell the one that breathes the air of my own growth and healing and offers hopeful truth to others?

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