Why I Quit Being a Pastor to Train Elephants

By Brian Mavis

I’m calling on the church, government, arts, and business to work together for the sake of kids.

Elephant Head Isolated“Our greatest dignity as creatures is not in initiative but in response.”
—C. S. Lewis

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
—Paul, in Ephesians 2:10

It’s been a great 20-plus years, but God has called me to a new challenge—training elephants. People are pretty pumped about it, but allow me to tell you the backstory before I get to the elephants.

My Wife, Orphans, and Her Lightbulb Moment

This story starts in my wife’s heart. As a teenager, she worked in an orphanage in Mexico, and she heard the inaudible, yet clear, voice of God say, “Care for orphans.” At that moment, she knew her purpose in life. Later, as a newly married couple, we moved to Honduras, and she continued to fulfill her purpose by working at an orphanage there.

Eventually, we moved back to the States and had children. We had a good life, but she felt she had lost her purpose. She prayed, “God, how am I supposed to help orphans when I’ve got my own family and we live in the United States?” This prayer seemed to lead us to Plan B, which was to become foster parents. We learned 100,000 kids in the United States needed forever families, and 300,000 needed temporary care until reunification could happen. We knew kids were in foster care because they were abused or severely neglected. Specifically, we discovered the parents were addicts, or in jail or prison, or living a dangerous life like prostitution.

When we learned why these kids were in care, Julie remembered being in Mexico and asking the director of an orphanage, “How did all these kids’ parents die?”

The director said, “They’re not dead. These kids are here because their parents abused them or neglected them. Their parents are addicts, or are in prison, or are prostitutes, and that’s why these kids are at this orphanage.”

That’s when a lightbulb went off for Julie, and she realized she was caring for orphans; it’s just that we don’t call them that in the United States. Children in foster care were the same type of kids as many kids in international orphanages.

This was still Plan A, and she realized she could still live out her calling in the United States.

A Nun and a Challenge from God

Two years later—or about nine years ago—I was working at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado, and I got a phone call from a recruiter in child welfare who said, “I’d like to meet with you about child welfare in Boulder County. Can we meet?”

I said sure, and a few days later Cindy met me at the church. The first thing she said was, “Thank you for meeting with me. I’ve been trying, off and on, to meet with a church for three years, and you’re the first church to say yes.”

I apologized for her experience with the church so far, but I also realized if she had called me two years earlier, I might have told her no too. I would have thought, What does the church have to do with foster care?

Cindy said she had been a nun for 20 years; then she met a priest, and they became Episcopalian and got married. I thought, I like this feisty nun! She then explained that in the 26-year history of child welfare in Boulder County, there had never been a day when kids weren’t waiting for grown-ups to take care of them—when kids were not waiting to be placed into a safe family.

“I have a challenge for you and your church,” Cindy said. “I want your church to help me change who waits. I want there to be so many grown-ups who care about these kids, that it’s the grown-ups who are on the waiting list, not the kids. Will you help me change who waits?”

So, I had a former nun asking me to help orphans. I knew if I said no, I was going to Hell—or at least purgatory . . . and talk about waiting. Actually, I sensed it was really a challenge from God. I said, “Yes, we will accept your challenge.”

A year later, we got a letter from Boulder County thanking us for our recruitment efforts, and it said that, for the first time, the county had more families ready for foster children than kids needing foster care. Our church and other churches in Boulder County stepped up in big ways and changed who waits.

A Businessman, My Funeral, and My Lightbulb Moment

We continued to take on this challenge statewide. We created a nonprofit called Adopt Colorado Kids to help meet the demand, and we saw churches make a huge impact throughout the state. Then, about a year and a half ago, our lives began to change again.

A Chicago businessman was investigating what was working in the United States to help foster children belong to loving families. After a few interviews and visits, he flew Julie and me to Chicago to spend a couple of days with him and a team of others concerned about foster children. A day and a half into it, I asked, “Can you explain what’s happening? I’m confused. Can you define this relationship?”

They said, “We’re on your team.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Help other places do what you did,” they replied. “Try stuff, and when you need our help, give us a call.”

So, we flew back home, and Julie asked, “Are you going to do this? Are you going to help other states?”

“Nope,” I said.

She was incredulous. “Why not?” she asked.

“Because getting kids into families is your thing; it’s not my thing,” I said. “My thing is leading people to Jesus.”

So that night I had the opportunity to sleep on the couch and rethink my answer. The next morning Julie and I received a text from a friend who had adopted a couple of kiddos through our work. Her text said, “I had the weirdest dream last night. Brian, I dreamed you died, and I tried to go to your funeral; in fact, you had two funerals, but I couldn’t get in, because there were so many kids there you had helped get into families.”

That hit too close, so I needed to deflect it. I texted, “I’ll see to it that you get into the second funeral.” But her text affected me, and I said to God, “I know it’s just a silly dream, but if I could have a legacy like that, it would be a life worthy of living.”

So you’d think I’d get it, but a couple months later, I was still saying no. One day, while meeting with my friend, Dan Scates, I said, “Dan, I am so frustrated. All these doors are opening and people are asking me to help other states help kids who need families, but that’s not my thing. My thing is leading people to Jesus.” I just kept talking. “But, wouldn’t it be amazing if the people I was supposed to lead to Christ were kids who didn’t have families, and they could come to know the love of God through a loving family.” And tears filled my eyes. Dan just looked at me, and I could read his thoughts: You are the slowest friend I have, but you finally get there.

God hadn’t changed my “what.” He changed my “how.” And so I finally said, “God I’m in. I’m all in.”

Meet Virginia

I knew, though, we had a problem on our hands. In Colorado, we had engaged the church and the creative arts community, but we were getting resistance from the governmental side because some key allies had moved on from there. So I called an acquaintance of mine, Janet Kelly. Janet had been the secretary of state of Virginia, and a year earlier she heard her pastor (who had been my intern 15 years ago) preach a sermon on the plight of kids in foster care. He said there were 1,000 kids in Virginia who needed forever families.

Janet shared this with her boss—the governor—saying something needed to be done. The governor gave Janet and her husband the green light to run a campaign out of the governor’s office called “Virginia Adopts,” and they increased recruitment of adoptive families by 50 percent over the previous year.

I said, “Janet, Colorado was all grassroots; Virginia was all grasstops. Or to switch metaphors, we each had just one oar in the water. What if we combined our efforts with the faith sector and the government sector, along with creative arts and business sectors?”

“Let’s do it!” she said.

The past year has been a wild and amazing ride. God has brought an incredible group of high-character and high-impact leaders together, and we are seeing some unprecedented results.


Training Elephants

In 2011, Stanford Social Innovation Review introduced the concept of collective impact—highly structured collaborative efforts that achieve significant change on a large-scale social problem. Collective impact is turning conventional wisdom about how social movement is accomplished on its head. The complex nature of foster care cannot be solved by the predominant paradigm of isolated impact in which numerous nonprofit, business, and government organizations each work independently; rather, it is achieved through a cross-sector coalition.

This can be pretty heady stuff coming out of Stanford, so I’d rather talk about training elephants. Though not literal elephants, they are real, and they are huge.

Let me explain. Last year I had someone from the Texas child welfare system tell me, “There is an African proverb that says, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’ We need to quit fighting with the church because it is the kids (in foster care) who suffer.”

When the powerful battle, the vulnerable suffer the most. When the large fight, the small get hurt worst.

God has challenged me to train the elephants called church, government, arts/media, and business to work cooperatively for the sake of our most vulnerable kids. (For people concerned by the possible breach in ‘separation of church and state,’ they are separated. Think of it like two divorced parents who have decided to be kind and cooperative with each other so they can do what is best for their children.)

This isn’t a new idea. We see it in action when Joseph and Pharaoh work together to feed nations during a famine, or when Nehemiah works with Artaxerxes to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall. These weren’t mere social movements with a spiritual sideshow, but spiritual movements with a social impact.

God is doing the same thing today, rousing the slumbering body of his church dispersed in the government (governing and bureaucratic), the arts, business, and gathered in local churches. We pray and work that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. There are no orphans in Heaven; therefore, let there be no orphans on earth.

Brian Mavis is the founder and president of America’s Kids Belong in Windsor, Colorado. Brian and his wife, Julie, launched America’s Kids Belong to end the foster care and adoption crises in the United States—state by state.

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1 Comment

  1. Jennifer Brost
    October 9, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Brian and Julie,
    I just want to take a minute to thank you for the commitment you have made. I have admired your family as I’ve watched the passion, sacrifices, and fatigue you have endured for the sake of this calling. Please know that I
    will continue to pray for you all and ask the Lord if and how we can take part in your ministry.

    To Him be the glory!

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