Interview with Marty Schwieterman

In even some of the richest areas of our country, the number of foster families is minimal. Why are we so unwilling to care for children in need? On the broadcast, Marty Schwieterman talks about the resources available for reaching out to kids in foster care, and how those resources are underutilized.

About Marty

Marty Schwieterman is the Pastor of Children’s Ministries at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, TN. He went from a career in systems engineering to serving as a missionary with FamilyLife before helping to plant Fellowship in 1997.

His heart for international and especially local adoption has encouraged many and brought awareness to children waiting to be adopted right here in the Nashville.

Click to read Transcript

EASLEY: Well welcome today. In the studio we have Marty Schwieterman. Marty is on staff with Fellowship Bible Church in the Nashville, Tennessee area where I also serve. Marty has also been…you’ve had an interesting career. You went to college at

Schwieterman: Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio.

E: And majored in Engineering?

S: Systems and Engineering.

E: And did that for a few years?

S: I worked for fourteen years working on a navigation and weapon systems on F-16s, F-15s, A-10s, B-52s.

E: You loved it?

S: Loved it! Yes. Until..

E: Until something interrupted your life. So you’re about, let’s do the math, you’re about thirty?

S: I got to be around thirty years old, around twenty nine years old or so. I was married and had a couple of kids and our church was doing these amazing mission conferences and we would find ourselves weeping over the lost. The question would always come to our minds, what does God do with a systems engineer?

E: (laughter)

S: So we got to the place where we were willing to eat bugs, go to Zimbabwe, live in a hut, sell it all, and we ended up in Arkansas.

S and E: (laughter)

E: It might have been easier to go to Africa, right?

S: There you go. I think there are bigger bugs in Arkansas than in Africa.

E: You went to Arkansas to work with Family Life Ministries at the time.

S: That’s right. Dennis Rainey is the Director of Family Life and they do Marriage and Parenting Conferences.

E: So you went to one of these weekend conferences? That was what put you over the top.

S: Yes, yes and we were actually supporting some staff who were with Family Life so we knew the inside and the outside. It was something that we had a real heart and passion for.

E: So you moved to Arkansas to work with Family Life for about five years?

S: Five years.

E: Para-church ministries have a phenomenal influence. They come alongside the church and do some really great things. But something stirred in you to go to a local church.

S: A couple of my friends decided to come to Franklin, Tennessee to start a church called Fellowship Bible Church. I was looking for another adventure, another adventure of faith, but also as I read my Bible and as I got to Revelation, what I realized is that the church is the Bride of Christ, and that my life is worth supporting that Bride. So that’s why I moved here in 1998 to help start Fellowship Bible Church.

E: Your role at the time?

S: At the time, It was Children’s Ministry, New Member Orientation, it was Community Groups. We hung drywall and…

E: Worked out of an old house.

S: Worked out of an old house. Absolutely.

E: So the engineering part of your brain is having a ball because you’re designing systems for how do we process children? How do bring people into a new church? How do we build a facility? You’re just running overtime and loving this. How’s your wife doing with all this change?

S: She’s doing fine. She loves it. My wife is a very faithful person. My wife followed me and as long as the family was taken care of her heart was full. In the early days of our church a lot of the people who came were what I call pioneers. They came with the idea that we were launching a church and it wasn’t going to be easy, so finding volunteers was simple and getting them to give their life away for long periods of time was simple. So we were able to build the church based upon that premise.

E: Somewhere along the line have you caring for children, caring for the parents of those children, obviously we have a large percentage of single parents who come to an average church and they have unique needs. You’ve got a soft heart for all of those things, but there was another soft part of your heart that kind of opened up.

S: In 2003, Family Life decided to do a prototype conference called If You Were Mine. Because they knew several of our staff they asked if we would prototype the conference. I got tagged to administrate it. Little did I know what was going to happen as a result of that conference because ..just in the first meeting, I pulled together some of our families around Fellowship, who had adopted. In the first meeting, I knew that God was calling my family to adoption. Now they say that eighty percent have an affirming kind of view towards adoption. Over the course of time, You know how it is, you build a career, then you get late in life, and adoption doesn’t look quite as wonderful as maybe it did when you were younger. Well, here my wife and I, we were probably forty five, forty six years old, and God’s knocking on the hearts, “Get ready, I’m going to do something in your life here.” So we did the conference; we boohooed through the whole thing.

E: Now when you’re doing this conference and this sort of God working on you piece is…there’s this little stir, if we’re going to do this we have to be all in or..?

S: Yes, we had two risks. We had to be all in, but at that time International adoption was around twenty-five thousand dollars. I was just Children’s Pastor and we were in a start up church and I was thinking how..

E: Making a big six figure salary, right? (teasing, laughter)

S: Making huge amount of money. I was thinking with this huge amount of money, how am I going to afford this? Cause we already had three other children at home.

E: Ages of your children at that time approximately?

S: Oh approximately it was twenty, eighteen, and ten.

E: Ok.

S: Launching children at various points, post college, high school, and then starting middle school at that point.

S: It was interesting. I did a Bibles study on finances and I realized God is in control of my finances.

E: Novel idea.

S: So that fear went away. Then I had a friend, had coffee with him. He said these simple words, “Marty, an old dad is better than no dad.”

E: Gosh! Ouch.

S: Then faith jumped across the table and enveloped my heart and it wasn’t long after that,that my wife and I decided to adopt from China.

E: If anyone thinks himself to be religious and yet does not bridle his own tongue, but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James is writing a very, as Luther called it, a right strawy epistle. He’s to the point. It’s brux at times. It’s just hard at times and yet if we understand the context of what he’s saying, is that religion is not the do’s and don’ts to earn favor with God. Religion is a service. It’s really ministry is technically the idea, of serving God. Sometimes serving God means serving people. So he gives us what’s called a merism or Hebraism in the Old Testament, but it’s like A-Z, you take care of the least to the most. We’d say New York to LA; James uses the phrase orphans and widows. Granted this verse has been misapplied, but what we do know about it is he’s saying, these are the vulnerable edges A-Z of society; an orphan who has no parentage, no home to go to; and a widow is helpless and the world can ingratiate, take advantage of her. You and I know this very well, but the Christian public when they read the idea of orphans and widows, they immediately track to, “Let’s adopt.”

S: Yes, you’re right.

E: So you have built a very robust system here in Middle Tennessee and alliance with the State of Tennessee not only working with adoptions, but also with foster care and taking some of these foster children who are older, who’ve been through some horrific experiences, many of them and yet, they need a home.

S: Absolutely, what I was finding was that people in our church were willing to spend thousands, tens of thousands of dollars and go all over the world, and yet there were children in our own backyards that were faceless and we didn’t know their story because they’re tucked away in the Department of Children’s’ Services System. So lately our emphasis has been to try to open the veil between the church and the state so that we might see the faces of children.

E: Dangerous territory.

S: Well you know what? They say it is a dangerous place, but I’ll tell you, ten years ago we initiated some relationships with the Department of Children Services, and more than that, we initiated with the people who worked there.

E: Now I want to try and understand this because this is where I think the Christian voice has great power in the community, but we’re afraid. You entered this pretty fearlessly and actually the Department of Children’s Services came to you at points.

S: Well, yeah, absolutely because they’re desperate. The state needs more foster families. I mean we live in one of the richest counties in the United States, and yet our county does not have enough foster families to take care of their own children. What I was finding out was the message of foster care and adoption in our state was not reaching the church at large. I went to a meeting one time and there were a few churches represented there who had smaller congregations and I knew that with just a few e-mails, I could quadruple at least the reach of this message. So that’s what I started to do. I contacted some of the largest churches in our county and I asked them, “Do you have an orphan ministry? Do you have anyone? Do you have anything?” So there were a few who did and so we started meeting and that became the beginning of the Middle Tennessee Orphan Alliance. From there we also maintained our relationship with the Department of Children’s Services and what we found was that God was going before us. There were state workers who were Godly people who were just welcoming us with open arms. Now there were some, they were wondering what our real…

E: Cautious, suspicious.

S: Cautious, suspicious, what were we going to do with our children? But over the course of ten years, we’ve developed some true friendships.

E: So this is important for people to hear. You are living in a state where there’s not a friendly alliance between the Department of Protective Services, the Department of Childrens’ Services. It’s called different things in different areas obviously, and we understand that relationship might be different. Here, Marty clearly has had a long track record and an important point; there are some fine men and women who work in these positions who really want to help these kids.

S: Absolutely!

E: I think we forget that.

S: They are some of the hardest working people doing the most thankless jobs. I mean, they are seeing the underbelly of our culture everyday. To me for example, I know that there’s ten thousand churches in Tennessee and there’s about two hundred and fifty four kids who are available for adoption. The church cannot take a blind eye toward that ratio. The fact that that ratio exists is an opportunity for the church to take a step forward and to say, “Here we are to serve.” Now some people can adopt, but that’s not the only thing. We have five hundred kids who age out of the system every year. Their family situation was never resolved or restored.

E: They’ve been taken away from both parent’s, they’ve been put in a foster system, bounced around from home to home.

S: Yes, and either they were not restored back to their parents or they aged out and they decided to emancipate out of the system.

E: And that’s usually at eighteen?

S: At eighteen years old, so these are the children who become homeless. These are the children who end up becoming the ones, I think sixty percent of the girls end up pregnant within the first couple of years; eighty percent of the boys end up being in jail;

E: Eighty percent.

S: Oh yeah, absolutely. Because these kids even though they’re eighteen years old, it doesn’t mean they graduated from high school. When you’re brought into foster care, as you said, you get bounced from home to home. Now the state tries to minimize that, but the fact is that the child stops growing emotionally, and cognitively every time they experience trauma like that and so a child who’s eighteen doesn’t necessarily know how to read; they don’t how to write; they don’t know to fill out a job application; they haven’t gotten their GED. So how do they find a job? And how do they find success in this world, without someone coming along side them saying we’ll help you take the other steps?

E: You and I for the record are both adoptive parents. You adopted a precious little girl from China.

S: Yes

E: We adopted three children from the states. Our oldest is a biological child, our bio girl we call her and then the rest are adopted children. Our second daughter was adopted at two weeks of age and then our son and daughter were half siblings. We adopted them at two and three. So all different stories. The last two were in a couple of foster homes before we got them, even at two and three being in a good, clean, safe, environment it was a bit austere. There were a lot of foster children in the home. They were cared for; they were fed; they were clothed, but even at that there was not that emotional, “This is my home.” I feel part of your phrase, your forever home, I feel part of this and they wanted so badly to belong, it was really interesting when we adopted them. Because we brought them into our home, It was a period for about two and a half years because of where they were born, so forth and so on. But the interesting piece of it was, they so wanted to belong in our home. Right away, It was like, “Do we get to stay here?” was sort of the idea.

S: Right

E: Is this going to be a permanent place? and it just broke our heart that at two and three there’s that I want to be a part of something and not be bounced around.

S: Oh absolutely. And you know in that first year of life there’s so much development that goes on. If a child isn’t held, cuddled, sung to, rocked, all those kinds of things; If they’re not fed in a timely way, if they’re not covered when they’re cold; they learn to become a survivor. There’s a part of their brain chemistry that gets tough so when they come into a new home, they want to be a hard of the new home but there’s something that doesn’t click at that point. A lot of times. So there’s issues with attachment in a lot of children’s lives. We see that right now at our church we experience probably about one child per month coming into our congregation through adoption. We assume there’s attachment issues there. We assume that there’s going to be trauma and brain chemistry that needs some therapy and some counseling.

E: Let’s jump a little bit ahead and talk first about you had some fears going into a International adoption.

S: Yes

E: But as a listener for me listening to you, I’m thinking, I’m not as worried about that as I am I’m bringing a child in that might be a little older. Let’s talk about birth order; let’s talk about bringing a child into a home that has a certain structured system already; let’s talk about bonding and attachment, some of these issues that are so important.

S: Those are all big issues but there’s always stories and there’s always facts that will tell you the opposite side of the story. For example: traditional wisdom says don’t interrupt your birth order, and yet we have seen it to where families have had young children and then they adopt a child who is sixteen and it does nothing to disrupt the family. On the other side though we have had it to where the child who is the youngest comes into the family and that is supposed to be the perfect arrangement but yet that ends up being one of the hardest adoptions for that family. So what I like to say is that there no certainties, even with having a baby from birth, there are no certainties. The average, now for example of children who will have autism from birth is one in eighty eight kids.

E: From a biological child.

S: From a biological child will be on the autism spectrum. That was not the case when you and I were having our families. There are maybe biological, there could be environmental issues that are impacting that. But the fact is, that just having any family is a risky adventure.

E: When Cindy and I adopted our two younger children, it was through the state. Actually, we had two children identified in Moscow, in an orphanage south of Moscow and it was as you said, “It was twenty, twenty five thousand dollars per child.” In those days, you traveled over there and spent two, three, four or five weeks, six weeks sometimes longer. It was all bribed money, you’re paying bribe money waiting for some person to sign papers and push it up a hill. We had friends, you had friends that have done this and we were in line to do that and our social worker contacted us and said, “Listen we have some children here we’d like you to meet and they’re a sibling group,” which we were open to. “ There’s some unique issues with them, different birth states, same mom, so forth and so on, would you consider it?” I was all in and Cindy was a little reticent. When we met them it was like why in the world wouldn’t we do this? But the state offers some things that in some ways are really good and in other ways they are really complicated and you fill out these forms: Will you take a child with? It’s frightening. Autism, HIV positive parents, fetal alcohol trait syndrome, cleft palate, and Cindy and I sat there and said, “How in the world do we fill out these forms?” We came to the conclusion that if any of these children could have come out of our body chemistry we would say yes to, which was pretty frightening in itself! We knew we wouldn’t have a fetal alcohol trait child or a HIV positive pregnancy, some of those were ruled out, but cleft palate, autism, those type of things. There were no guarantees. You know God this could happen if we had a biological child and when we filled it out I’ll never forget Marty, our social worker said, “Oh you’re a very flexible couple.” We’re like, “Oh no, what kind of child are we going to have?”

Help a couple who’s thinking those very thoughts. What would you tell them?

S: I think as you get older you realize how you deal with life. For example, my wife developed Type 1 Diabetes out of the blue several years ago. Prior to that point, I would have said, I could not adopt a child with Type 1 Diabetes because it scared me to death. I didn’t know what it was. But now we’ve lived with it for about the last seven years and now I don’t see it as a big deal so it’s taken fear away. What happens is when you have a community of adoption where you can look at a person who’s adopted a child with Down syndrome and you say, “Wow, if they can do it, maybe I can do it.” Or you look over here and you see somebody who’s adopted a child and they’ve got a cleft palate, or they have a speech impairment, or they’ve got a heart valve murmur or something like that and you see them and you’re taking care of them in your children’s ministry classroom and you realize there is nothing more special about them than about me. Then you know the workmanship of Christ in you can extend that far.

E: None of us really know what we’re capable of and that’s why you alluded to it at Fellowship, our Church has got a unique community, because you obviously have had a heart for that and it’s leaked out; it’s hemorrhaged out across the church. We have a lot of adoptive families, a lot of international adoptive families and you do need that community. You need people who have gone through the same kinds of things so you can talk to them and say, “What in the world did you do?” That said, we also live in a time with tremendous resources.

S: Absolutely! Tremendous resources. We have counselors; we have books. There is more understanding of century processing disorders, and attachment issues, than ever before. Actually the medical community, the counseling community, and the church is poised, more poised than ever to take care of these children. I keep on referring to our church, but it’s my own experience, it’s my story. Nearly half of our adoption now are all special needs adoptions. In the early days when people were filling out the forms you were talking about, it was all healthy babies, but now that’s not true. We’ve got children with spina bifida or with Down syndrome, or autism, and other countries are looking at this saying, “Why do you want to adopt these children?” Because they don’t understand Christ in us. So in a way we are living the gospel. Our life presents the gospel everyday and we get to share it with others. Even in the Middle Tennessee community, the fact of all these children, like if you come into our church it looks like a mini United Nations at times.

E: In our Learning Center, it sure does.

S: It does. It’s a way of sharing with people that we have taken our faith and we have done some works and what that does is glorify God. You know you reference James 1:21 earlier, just a little bit earlier in James says, Faith without works is dead, so I don’t understand why God has decided to bless this work that we’re doing here. It’s not something that is replicable, or producible just any where. I would say this is a work of God that we have joined Him in and we’re just trying to be faithful and He’s got so many things going on at one time that it can make our heads spin at times.

E: Well I agree with you in part, but I also agree, or I would affirm that God is using you as a leader, who’s a man who has a heart for this, and there are churches that are going to hear this in different places and times that people in churches that are hearing it going, “You know I’ve had that same angst, that same stirring, that same “Why aren’t we doing something more?” You know my encouragement to them is maybe God would use you to be a Marty Schwieterman in your community, in your church. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen the first time you talk to your pastor, or Children’s Ministry Leader or whomever so this stirred in you over eleven years ago and now you’ve recently partnered with Focus on the Family and there were two hundred and fifty four, what did you say?

S: Well there’s fifty four kids that are available for adoption. Their parental rights have been terminated.

E: This is in the State of Tennessee?

S: This is in the State of Tennessee. Yes

E: So this conference comes in, gives us the equipment, gives us the good and bad news, all of it and at the end of it, you had how many couples, how many parents step up and say, “We’ll investigate this seriously. We want to become adoptive parents.?”

S: We had at least one hundred and twenty two that dove in the deep end right away.

E: Wow!

S: So nearly half…

E: Almost half the children.

S: Half. And a lot of those families were willing to take sibling groups. Now what we’ve also learned is the State of Tennessee was at the conference as well taking names and that there are names on their list that aren’t on our list. So we’re not really sure what the final number is but what we know is that we opened the door and that people went through it. God had prepared some peoples’ heart to say yes right away.

E: Last question. Somebody’s out there. Maybe it’s the husband. Maybe it’s the wife. They go, “I want to do this, but I’m terrified.” You’re looking at them right in the eye, what do you tell them?

S: I’d look at them in the eye and I’d tell them, “I’m right where you are, because I went to the Wait No More Conference. My wife and I feel maybe we need to be called; maybe we need to be adopting and I’m scared. I don’t’ know if I have what it takes. I’m fifty five years old and my life situation is pretty stable right now, but am I willing to bring a sibling group, a fifteen, or sixteen year old child into my home. I think the answer’s yes.” Then I would say this, “Let’s talk.” What I’ve found is the more you talk, and if you can bring it down to Biblical answers, bring it down to the heart of Christ, you will figure out what your next step is. The next step doesn’t have to be adoption. Next step often is learning about the process; the next step is connecting yourself with a child who is adopted so you can kind of experience them first hand without having adopted. That’s my mind process; that’s where I am at right now.

E: Marty Schwieterman. You can email him at [email protected] He’d be happy to interact with you. Happy to put you in contact with others who could come alongside and help you. Thanks for being on inContext today.

S: Thank you Michael. I’ve enjoyed it.

E: Thanks for joining us. This is Michael Easley inContext.

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