Dr. Karelynne Gerber Ayayo on Thinking about Adoption: A Practical and Theological Handbook for Christians Discerning the Call to Parent by Adoption

We are excited to announce the publication of Dr. Karelynne Gerber Ayayo’s (STH Practical Theology ’03) recent monograph Thinking about Adoption: A Practical and Theological Handbook for Christians Discerning the Call to Parent by Adoption! Written with her husband Michael Ayayo, Thinking about Adoption offers biblical teaching and theological principles related to adoption, as well as introduces various types of adoption. Here, Dr. Ayayo shares more about what inspired the book, their interdisciplinary methodological approach, and how she hopes Thinking about Adoption can encourage deeper and richer theological reflection for individuals and communities.

1. What inspired your research on adoption?

Thinking about Adoption

My research on adoption was the direct result of my own family’s discernment of a call to adopt and the subsequent roller coaster that we went through to make that happen. Even after my husband and I made the initial commitment to pursue parenting by adoption, we had no idea how to get started or what path to take. So I did what those of us in academia do best; I started to research and look for those resources that would tell us what we needed to know and help us weigh the various options.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to find theologically sound and practically helpful books to assist. I located works that engaged the theological doctrine of adoption, and while the theologian in me was stimulated, I was disappointed at how little interest they showed in the human practice of adoption. I found comprehensive “how to” books by adoption workers that offered loads of information about the adoption process, but they were overwhelmingly detailed.  It was just too soon in our process to be reading about how to write a birth mother letter or what to pack to travel to China to retrieve a child. Additionally most did not address faith-based issues related to adoption practices. The specifically Christian adoption books tended to say things like Moses and Esther were adopted, and thus God has great plans for adopted children – an application that I found to be hermeneutically suspect. They reminded potential adoptive parents to pray a lot.  That is sound advice, but I wanted theological reflection that went deeper.

I also read narratives detailing the adoption experiences that various Christian families had gone through. These were very inspiring, but they were also a bit frightening. They tended to be exceptional stories about people like the mother whose adoptive son got held up in the system such that she had to spend three years in Ukraine or the family that decided to adopt 19 children. I wanted to hear more “normal” adoption stories.

All of my searching convinced me of the need for a simple book that offered a practical theology of adoption meant to help families at the very beginning stage of discerning whether they were called to become adoptive parents, and if so, which path might be the best fit for them. Of course, our adoption process eventually led to the arrival of two little ones in our family within a span of five months so my plate was full. It took more than a decade before I was able to attend to the project in earnest!

2. How did you decide on your methodological approach? 

It was clear to me from the very beginning that what was missing in the current literature were conversations across disciplines so my methodological approach would need to be interdisciplinary. Fortunately, between me and my husband, we had the right disciplines! My training is in biblical studies and practical theology.  My husband already had training in pastoral ministry, and after we adopted our children, he went back for another degree in Social Work and has since worked in child welfare. As adoptive parents we were able to add our own personal experience into the mix, and we had easy access to a network of other adoptive parents. Thinking about Adoption lives at the intersection of all of these. As a result, the book marries historical and sociological information with biblical and theological insights, sections for readers to engage in personal reflection, and the stories of ten different adoptive families. It brings all of the pieces together.

3.You write in the Introduction, “Most importantly, we believed it was crucial to engage in solid theological reflection about adoption at every step. We wanted to meditate on biblical and theological principles alongside of practical concerns as we prayed to seek God’s voice with increasing clarity” (xvii). Were there particular biblical or theological principles that guided your theological reflections? 

When people think about the Bible and adoption, they are drawn to the stories of Moses and Esther or to the places in the New Testament where the word adoption occurs. It takes more time and work to recognize other biblical and theological principles that come to bear on human adoption, but we discovered some that guided us in our own decisions and adoption experience and more that percolated in our minds in the years that followed. The hardest part of the book project really was deciding which biblical texts and theological principles were the most significant and relevant to each chapter and then condensing the insights into a very small space!

One particular insight came as we recognized that spiritual adoption exists as part of God’s economy of redemption. Adoption – both literal and spiritual – follows the fall. That means that for all the good of adoption, its existence is a testimony to the on-going presence of sin and brokenness in the world, and thus it must be engaged in a way that allows room for grief.

There were other biblical and theological lessons that were powerful to us. For instance, we found a motivation for adoption in the biblical principle of overflow (2 Cor. 1:3-5) rather than just locating a call to orphan care in a text like James 1:27. We recognized in part that the messiness of human adoption results from the fact that unlike spiritual adoption some members of the human adoption triad cannot operate as truly free agents in the process. And we were able to apply wisdom from Paul’s teaching about how churches can best care for widows in their midst to the complicated relationship between individuals and systems, particularly in relationship to intercountry adoption.

4. Do you have an audience in mind for Thinking about Adoption? How do you hope practical theologians will engage your work? 

Thinking about Adoption was written with a popular audience in mind. The primary audience consists of Christians who are wondering whether they might be called to parent by adoption and who wish to consider the matter and their possible next steps in a thoughtful and theologically-informed manner. It is also intended for Christian adoption workers, Christian counselors, pastors, church adoption ministries, and others like them who seek a popular-level resource that they can use as they support families who are starting to think about adoption.

Due to the space limitations and the popular audience of Thinking about Adoption, we do not fully unpack all of the ideas that we introduce. There is space for other Christian thinkers and practical theologians to take the principles and insights into other specific scenarios and propose additional applications. I would love to continue the conversations with other Christians who are engaging such topics.

5. What’s next on your research agenda?

I am hoping to do further research and reflection in the area of ministry among those who are on the autism spectrum. I recently heard a paper that embraced hospitality as a lens through which to approach ministry to those with mental illness and I can see further applications of this idea specifically into the context of autism since this is another area where my family has personal experience.

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