I am writing this letter to ask for help. I don’t feel entitled to it. I am definitely not anyone special, just a fellow Christ-follower and special needs mom. My son has autism. His disability often limits him from being able to participate in typical activities and church is no exception. Ever since my son entered grade school, it’s been hard for us to find his place in the world. Simple daily tasks in the community have become major events. It’s also been hard to know what to do with him at church. He’s too big to be in the preschool hall with the littles, but not developmentally able to hang out for an hour during a grade-school Bible lesson. He makes loud unusual noises in service now and won’t stop wiggling.
I don’t say this to complain. We love him with all our hearts and are so happy to help him in any way that we can. I just want our need and the needs of so many families out there to be recognized.
Almost every special needs family I come into contact with has a similar story. It’s hard to manage out in the community and it’s hard to find a church that can handle or that will welcome medically fragile or seriously disabled children. Some make minor accommodations, but it’s not enough for a family to feel safe leaving their child to worship weekly. So, special needs families are left with nowhere to go.
I really do get it. I know that finding people to serve these kids is hard. I know that this type of ministry will take a lot of work. But ministry is hard and its messy. I realize many churches feel like they just can’t offer this ministry to the community because lots of people will flock to church for that simple reason, but I beg you to consider the goal. If it is evangelizing the lost and needy, please see that these families need you. Where will they be welcomed if they aren’t welcomed and invited to church? How can we ask women to choose life when they discover unexpected complications during pregnancy if the church isn’t even offering accommodations for their children with special needs?
I want to offer some practical advice for churches looking to add a special needs ministry, but that don’t know where to start.
Reach out to the special needs community. Share that your church not only loves, but welcomes individuals with special needs. Don’t just serve those that happen to come to your church. Families with children or adults with disabilities often feel like they will be a burden on you, your church, and your volunteers. Most do not feel they have a place to go. Very rarely do establishments say that they WANT our children. Invite them to church and set up a welcome team to greet them, look at them, and make them feel as though they are just as welcome as anyone else.
Your ministry doesn’t have to be fancy. It could start with volunteers offering to be “buddies” with children with special needs. The parents may need to shadow the first few times, but simply explain that your ministry is new and you want to serve their child as best as you can and that you need their help. Most parents will be thankful that you are willing to learn. If you are in a large community and expect many, find a classroom and a few volunteers and ask the parents to serve on rotation, or train the volunteers. This would be a great ministry for nurses or teachers to help out in. If the Pastor is invested in these children’s lives, the church will follow.
Make the ministry something you are excited about. For instance, have fun t shirts for the volunteers or have fun music playing. Allow the environment to be playful so that the parents feel that their kids are wanted at church beyond the first time visiting. Special needs ministry is hard and no one knows this more than their parents. Continue to serve in an uplifting way.
Offer resources for caregivers that point the parents to hope in Jesus. Caregivers are operating on an extreme stress level at all times. One study compared special needs parents’ stress to that of a combat soldier. Love them well by offering guidance to help reduce stress and increase faith, hope and obedience to Christ through the struggle.
As you read this letter I ask you not to consider us special interest groups that only some churches should help, while others ignore. Special needs families are an unreached people group desperate for the hope only found in Christ. They need the church to minister to their families and they need people ministering to their children with special needs. Your volunteers may have to learn a new way to communicate, but children and adults with special needs are just as valuable as any other people group needing the Gospel.
I am asking for your help. As the church is placing more emphasis on the value and dignity of all human life, please consider making an intentional effort to show families that no matter what disability their child may have, they are joyfully welcome at church.
Allison Hill, wife and mom of three, is an autism advocate who is passionate about encouraging acceptance for individuals with special needs. Allison graduated from Ball State University with Master’s Degrees in Special Education and Elementary Education. She resides in Humble, TX, and is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church.