On the theme of innovative church orphan ministry ventures, I’ve been impressed by a new church-based child sponsorship program launched recently by the orphan ministry at Watermark Community Church in Dallas.
Child sponsorship programs have the advantage of helping personalize the needs of children overseas by pairing individual American sponsors with specific children. This approach can be a tremendous way to help connect Americans to a real-world sense of the needs and preciousness of individual children and the joy of helping meet them, sometimes opening a door for long-term relationship as well. However, sponsorship programs sometimes have the shortcoming of being disconnected from the local church: making a sponsor-to-child connection while leaving out any element of church community on either the U.S. or the local side. (Certainly, not all sponsorship models have this weakness, but some do.)
Beau Fournet is a businessman in the finance sector and also helps lead orphan ministry at Watermark. (He’s also a member of the Christian Alliance for Orphans’ Church Orphan Ministry Council as well, and will be leading a panel at Summit VI on partnering U.S. churches with indigenous initiatives to serve orphans overseas.) Along with others at Watermark, Beau helped develop a child sponsorship model that works through their church community—pairing both individuals and the church community as a whole with local believers and churches in Africa to aid orphans.
Watermark began a partnership with its key partner ALARM (a ministry in Central Africa) in 2006 with an initial focus on equipping church and government leaders to pursue a biblical approach to leadership and conflict resolution. Early in the process, it became clear to Watermark’s leadership that a more holistic approach was required to respond more fully to the call of Scripture. This began an expansion of the ministry, first in Uganda and now in Burundi, to include providing clean water, addressing structural aspects on injustice, comforting the sexually traumatized, developing small businesses and basic education programs for widows, and caring for orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC).
Two years into the program, Watermark and ALARM are partnering to care for 600 OVC children in Uganda. The program provides school tuition, supplies, and uniforms for every sponsored child. In addition, other basic minimum needs are addressed where appropriate; for instance, homes are built for child-headed households, medication is provided for HIV-positive children, and food supplements are provided for malnourished children. A key partner in the ministry is local churches.
In addition to local churches assisting in the identification of those children most in need, mentors are identified at local church partners and then hired and equipped to disciple the children and address other needs of families in the program. For instance, mentors train the older children to resolve conflict biblically, share the gospel with children and their families (many do not come from Christian homes), and work with the children to identify any trauma that needs to be addressed. The program has hired 28 mentors to disciple the children, and each child is visited multiple times per month, through school, church, and the home. In addition, there are a handful of events each year that bring all of the children in each town together, such as VBS type program, holiday parties, and education classes.
Watermark and ALARM are jointly developing a number of new training classes and programs to send Watermark leaders to Africa to teach and encourage the four key constituents of the program: the children, the mentors, the custodians/parents, and the local church leadership.
The OVC care will continue to be integrated with and rely upon other aspects of the ministry. For instance, providing water wells in communities frees up the time a child previously spent walking hours per day to attain clean water, and this is as important and tuition funds in allowing a young girl to begin attending school for the first time. In addition, the trade school recently built by Watermark and ALARM will provide the children graduating from high school an opportunity to further their education.
So how does this personally impact individual members at Watermark? In the early stages, the program was fully funded through the general operating funds of the church. However, in early 2009, the church leadership identified an opportunity to allow each child to be individually sponsored by a member at Watermark, proving an ongoing experience that would directly impact 500 families at the church through the use of their time, talents, and treasures. This led to the launch of a new orphan sponsorship site, http://watermarkworldwide.com/ where members are now sponsoring and praying for individual children in the program. Click here to watch a video about the program.
This model may not work for every church, but it is yet another great example of creative, entrepreneurial approaches to helping American believers care for orphans in their distress in and through the local church.