4 Ways to Minister to Families With Special Needs
I have a son who has been diagnosed with autism. He is four years old and nonverbal. He is the absolute joy of my life! God sent this little blessing to be my firstborn, and I am grateful to God that he is my son. After he received his diagnosis at the age of two, the Lord opened my eyes to my own shortcomings. I realized just how unprepared I was to parent this little boy as my wife and I searched for programs to support his needs. This inexperience in dealing with special needs individuals didn’t only rock my home life, but it also challenged my view on ministry. I realized that I had not been intentional in reaching out to special needs students and their families. I wasn’t even sure how!
Families with special needs children face unique pressures, and many marriages crack under the weight of them. These families face higher divorce rates. Loneliness and isolation become the norm. It is often easier for these parents to stay home in an environment curated for their child than to go out to places that can’t accommodate their needs. Families with greater needs face extreme levels of exhaustion and discouragement. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and little to no time during the week when they can get a break. Exhaustion. Isolation. Loneliness. Discouragement. Four words that mark the experience of many of these families. In a very real way, families that care for those with special needs are an unreached people group in our very backyards. And in many cases, the church has unfortunately forgotten about them.
As our son has gotten older, I have seen exhaustion, isolation, loneliness, and discouragement take root. As our son learned to walk, climb, and open doors, our house required some major changes. I often joke, saying that our house is like Fort Knox. Every door is baby-proofed—every door. We even need keys to open our cabinets! We take these types of extreme baby-proofing precautions to keep our son safe. If he had the freedom to, he would open the front door and walk away. He has no sense of danger. Because of this ever-present danger of wandering, any time we take him out, we morph into his shadow, following him wherever he goes. Even at church events, one of us is shadowing him as he wanders around playing his unique games. While attending any church functions, one of us is always unable to socialize. Since I’m a student pastor, my wife usually shoulders this responsibility. As she follows my son around at every event, she watches as everyone around her engages in conversation and longs to join the fellowship. She often finds herself feeling lonely and isolated, even in a crowded room.
One day, as is often His practice, God opened my eyes to what His Word has to say about those with special needs: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” My heart tore open as I read these words. The truth of His love hit me like a thunderbolt. God sees the weaker parts of the church as necessary. God considers my little boy indispensable to His church. And not just mine, but all children like him. If this is how God views them, then we, as the people of God, must also view them this way. Far be it from us to allow the eye to say to the hand, “We don’t need you here.” Once the church begins viewing special needs children and their families as indispensable, our ministries will begin to look much different. Here are 4 ways your church can begin doing just that.
- Specialized Programs and Activities
You would be amazed at how far something simple such as creating a Sunday school class for special needs students will go. Aim to have some activity for special needs individuals every time the church doors are open. There are also many youth camps that are dedicated to ministering to children with special needs. Put these events on the calendar and fundraise for them.
Many times, when wanting to create a new program for youth or children’s ministries, we look to the parents as the potential workforce. That cannot be the case for special needs programs. Churches need to see these programs as an opportunity to minister to the kids by giving them a place to belong and ministering to the parents by simply giving them a break. Creating a safe and welcoming environment for these exhausted parents to bring their children will be to them an oasis in the desert. However, that does not mean these parents cannot serve an important role. Who better to train volunteers to work with special needs children than these parents? I can almost guarantee that these parents would gladly take the opportunity to train volunteers to create a space for their children to belong and feel loved.
- Integrate Members with Special Needs into the Service
In order for this to work, leaders may have to give up the mirage of a perfect performance. How would people respond if an atypical person was a greeter in your church? How would the congregation react if a disabled person contributed to the worship service by singing or playing an instrument? These individuals may be able to help in these areas if they can perform the jobs sufficiently, but it may require us to relinquish the appearance of perfection. Look for intentional ways to integrate these indispensable members into the life and service of the church.
- Make Everywhere Accessible
Many students with special needs are limited by accessibility. I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve been to where the youth room is upstairs, and there is no elevator in the building. That sends an unintentional message to students who have limited mobility: “We don’t care whether or not you are here.” When designing youth spaces, be intentional to think of students with limited mobility and advocate for accessibility.
- Just Be Intentional
Caring for special needs students and their families will not happen by accident. Speaking from experience, these families often worry about being a burden to others. The church must take the initiative in alleviating that concern. We must initiate caring for them. Every child with special needs is unique and has unique needs. In order to successfully reach out to these children and their families, the youth worker is going to need three things: Communication, communication, and communication. Ask parents what they need to ensure an environment is considered safe. Ask what type of support they need as parents. Ask what type of support their child needs. Ask. Ask. Ask. Then, be consistent in including them and supporting them.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- Does your ministry and/or church currently consider and make space for families with special needs? How?
- If you’ve seen this done well, what do you think has been the most helpful thing for these families?
Ready for more articles and training? Check out these top posts!