"Few things happen easily for the family of a child with special needs. Oftentimes a church’s matched buddies (volunteers) are the primary connection between the family affected by special needs and the entire church."
The Special Needs of Special Needs Families
As the need for special needs accommodation grows in churches, the responsibility for education and awareness is often landing in the hands of the children’s ministry team. Nursery workers and Sunday morning teachers are typically the first responders to a child’s unusual conduct or a parent’s disclosure that their child has a special needs diagnosis. For families of children with special needs, their likelihood of success in a church often hinges on the help of the children's ministry team. Finding a church that will accept the child with special needs into church programming is the often first obstacle.
Weaving the family into the fabric of the congregation is the next objective. While children's pastors and student ministry directors cannot take on the full responsibility of making the integration goal a reality, they can be the family's first means of networking inside the church. Few things happen easily for the family of a child with special needs. Oftentimes a church’s matched buddies (volunteers) are the primary connection between the family affected by special needs and the entire church. One children’s pastor explained that buddies are not responsible for meeting all of a family’s needs, but they understand that they are relied upon at times for communication on behalf of the family. The special needs shadows have the consistent connection through the child and can often relay ideas for ways the church can more successfully minister to the parents and siblings.
For the children’s ministry team, introducing the family to other ministries and appropriately relaying their story to key staff and lay leaders may be crucial. Due to sheer lack of time (if not emotional energy), parents of children with special needs may struggle to develop their own relationships inside the church. And sometimes these parents are immersed so deeply in the physical and emotional requirements of the special need, that searching for friendship is secondary to the goal of surviving.
Introducing the family of a child with special needs to a sensitive and welcoming typical family may be an invaluable service for a typically developing sibling. The typically developing sibling inside the family with a disability is often overlooked. Connecting this child with another family of a typical peer may begin a relationship that exposes this sibling to angst-free environments, crucial to their own social and intellectual growth.
A number of progressive churches pioneering the path forward for special needs accommodation are assigning full time and part time associates to head up the special needs ministry. Churches are recognizing the benefits of having a dedicated staff resource committed to understanding and effectively ministering to individuals and families affected by special needs. In churches where a lay leader heads up the special needs programming, it is crucial that a church staff member with a heart for the ministry assume the role of on-staff ministry liaison. Lay leaders often assigned to coordinate the special needs ministry rarely have privy to the weekly meetings and networking opportunities of church staff. The on-staff appointed special needs champion may help facilitate a broader church experience for families affected by special needs. Oftentimes the bigger-picture inclusion requires on-staff networkers to make introductions, sharing a family’s story and connecting them to church’s other ministries such as Moms-n-More, men’s discipleship, and the Stephen Ministry.
Amy Fenton Lee writes to equip churches for successful special needs inclusion. Amy administers The Inclusive Church Blog.