— Southeastern Children’s Home cares for neglected and abused children on a 50-acre campus overlooking the Smoky Mountains.
Boys row out in a boat to catch bass and bream in a spring-fed pond. A beekeeper teaches girls how to cultivate honey.
The home’s residents ride horses as part of therapy and enjoy swing sets, basketball goals and a volleyball court.
As the Christian child-care agency meets physical needs, it fulfills a more important mission: sharing Jesus with children and families, executive director Robert Kimberly said.
“We’ve had eight of our kids become Christians this year, and so it’s been wonderful,” Kimberly said.
Yet he and many colleagues across the nation question if Churches of Christ are as passionate about caring for children in need as they once were.
In a survey of 20 children’s homes in more than a dozen states, The Christian Chronicle
found widespread concern about declining church support amid trying economic times and shifting ministry priorities.
“It has been tough to watch as more and more homes have been squeezed out of church budgets,” said Cory Long, CEO of Carpenter’s Place, a girls’ home in Wichita, Kan., “and more and more homes are having to look outside the churches to get support.”
For 50-plus years, children’s homes have been a core ministry of mainstream congregations, said Kimberly, a board member for the Christian Child and Family Services Association. (In the mid-1900s, congregations that opposed church-supported children’s homes became known as non-institutional Churches of Christ.)
But now, the South Carolina church member said, “we’re sort of falling through the cracks.”
“I think a big concern is that fewer and fewer of our dollars are coming from the churches,” said Kimberly, a member of the Central Church of Christ in Spartanburg, east of the small town where Southeastern relocated in 1986. “So the pressure is to go to corporations and maybe even to take state dollars.”
LESS EMPHASIS, LESS SUPPORT?
Growing up in the West Side Church of Christ in Muskogee, Okla., Kenny Holton knew where to look for elder Willis Tudor, husband of his second-grade Sunday school teacher, Alma.
“I fondly remember brother Tudor standing at the main door of the church building every month, with basket in hand after worship, inviting us to ‘put in our change’ for the kids,” Holton said.
The funds benefited Turley Children’s Home — now known as Hope Harbor.
The lesson in giving influenced Holton’s future career: He serves as executive director of Raintree Village children’s home in Valdosta, Ga.
“My experience has been that there has been less and less of an emphasis on Christian child care, which leads to less and less financial support,” Holton said.
Ralph Brewer, president of Potter Children’s Home and Family Ministries in Bowling Green, Ky., said: “I believe the support of children’s homes is directly related to the amount of education which takes place among the churches. God’s emphasis on it used to be taught more than it is today in many churches.”
In many cases, churches have kept supporting children’s homes but not increased the amount, leaders said — even as costs rise to meet increased government regulations and demand for professional caregivers and counseling.
“If they gave $100 a month 50 years ago, we continue to get that amount today,” said Brian L. King, executive director of Tennessee Children’s Home in Spring Hill. “The churches that are more in tune to the changes we have made have been generous in increasing their support.”
Delton McGuire, executive director of Cherokee Home for Children in Texas, said: “Probably a majority are giving the same amount as they gave 30 or 40 years ago. But considering the financial struggles of small, rural congregations, this must still be considered a generous gift.”
Many small congregations still provide “a large and steady part of day-to-day support,” said Ron Bruner, executive director of Westview Boys’ Home in Hollis, Okla.
“Yet as some congregations diminish in attendance and contribution to the point that their financial survival is at stake, they are sometimes forced to the unpleasant necessity of removing such ministries from their budgets,” Bruner said.
CHANGED FOCUS, MORE COMPETITION
Individual congregations have changed their focus, said Micah Brinkley, CEO and executive director of Children’s Homes Inc. in Paragould, Ark.
“I do not necessarily think the passion for ministries like Children’s Homes has changed,” Brinkley said. “It is just having to share the focus with a lot of other equally good ministries.
“Plus, I think a lot of congregations are having to turn inward to keep their members,” he added. “The church is competing today with all the things the world has to offer, so individual churches are having to develop programs and activities that pique the interest of the younger generations in order to keep them engaged.”
Churches desire much more personal involvement with the homes they support, said Glenn Newberry, president and CEO of Foster’s Home for Children in Stephenville, Texas.
“They want to see firsthand the work,” Newberry said. “They want some hands-on activities with our children. We are moving past the day where a church automatically sends a check each month to a post office box. And I agree that all of those changes are good, necessary and healthy.”
Too often, as Kevin McDonald sees it, churches view children’s homes as benevolence, not mission work.
As a result, homes have not received the same level of priority as other outreach efforts, said McDonald, president and CEO of Arms of Hope, which serves at-risk children and single-mother families at three Texas locations.
“In the past three years, we have seen almost 100 program residents in our care claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior through baptism,” McDonald said.
Among the converts: Chris Mayo, 16, baptized last year at the Eastridge Church of Christ in Rockwall, Texas.
Before moving to Boles Children’s Home, part of Arms of Hope, Mayo said he lived in a rundown trailer with drug-addicted parents.
“I remember waking up one night to my 4-year-old brother saying, ‘Bubba, go help Mommy! Daddy’s going to kill her!’” Mayo said. “That was the night God pulled us from that place. He gave me the strength to climb out my window and go call the police.”
SHIFT TO INTERNATIONAL ORPHANGES
In the U.S., the number of child-care agencies associated with Churches of Christ has declined to about 65, down from a peak of about 120, said Harold Shank, national spokesman for the Christian Child and Family Services Association.
A move in many states away from group homes — in favor of foster care, adoption and family reunification — has played a role, too.
At the same time, the last decade has brought “a dramatic rise in international work in child care,” from the creation of orphanages to the adoption of foreign children, said Shank, president of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.
“A dollar of support for a domestic children’s home barely buys a bottle of water,” said Ray Crowder, former executive director of Shults-Lewis Child and Family Services in Valparaiso, Ind. “A dollar given to a children’s home in Zambia may buy gallons of water.”
Childhaven Inc. in Cullman, Ala., has seen a “distinct shift” by major donors toward supporting international orphanages, executive director Jim Wright said.
“They see less cost and almost no regulation and find that attractive,” Wright said.
As church funding shrinks, Christian Home and Bible School in Mount Dora, Fla., receives a larger proportion of funding from estate bequests and individual donors, said Chuck Shepherd, director of social services.
“More and more of our donor base continues to age and pass on to glory,” Shepherd said.
ONE TEEN’S ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT
Southeastern Children’s Home traces its roots to the Carolina Lectureship in 1968.
That’s when a group of Christians got together and decided to serve needy and homeless children, Kimberly said.
In the beginning, Southeastern drew almost all its support from congregations, he said. But in the first 10 months of 2011, just 13 percent of revenues came from church treasuries.
On the Southeastern campus — located within a 150-mile radius of Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Columbia, S.C. — boys and girls reside in separate group homes. A few miles away, a third cottage benefits older girls transitioning into adulthood.
Southeastern also operates a community counseling center that serves a few hundred clients a year.
For eight years, Janice Axsom and her husband, Tony, have served as houseparents. Four girls — ages 17 to 20 — live with them in the transitional cottage and worship with the Central church.
The Axsoms and the girls stay busy with youth group activities. They travel to youth rallies and Palmetto Bible Camp in Marietta, S.C.
“Many of them have been baptized,” Janice Axsom said of the two dozen girls she has welcomed, “some of them in the swimming pool at the house.”
Jesse Roach, 15, came to live at Southeastern when a state caseworker removed him from his drug-infested home.
At Bible camp last year, he made the decision to accept Christ.
“I’m probably a lot stronger than I was before, both physically and emotionally,” Roach said of how he has changed since his baptism. “I used to have a bad attitude and all that. Now, I really don’t.”