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Orange Conference Update and Live Stream

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We kick off Orange Conference one week from today.  If you can’t attend OC14, check back here next Wednesday and Thursday, as we’ll be posting notes and handouts from several Special Needs Track workshops. You can also follow the Orange Conference Live Stream. I’m working with the Live Stream team to (hopefully) schedule special needs ministry interviews on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. OC staff will release the tentative Live Stream schedule on the Orange Leaders Blog early next week.

If you are attending OC14, you need to dress comfortably and know about the following:

Special Needs Track Dinner – On Wednesday night from 5:00 – 6:30pm we are hosting an informal Special Needs Track dinner at Steverino’s Pizza in downtown Duluth, 5 miles from the conference venue. Anyone attending the conference is welcome to attend. The restaurant has given us the option to preorder dinner so that it will be waiting for us. We will be collecting preorder forms (OC14_SNTrack_SteverinosPizza_Directions_PreOrderForm) and $14 (cash only) during Wednesday’s Precon workshops. You do not need to preorder dinner in order to attend. Feel free to call in your own order ahead of time or just show up. This restaurant has a wonderful outdoor space that comfortably seats 60 people, so please pray for good weather.

Thursday night Gathering Event - Thursday night after the evening main session, every Orange Conference track will host a Gathering starting at 9pm. The Gathering location is at the John Maxwell Leader Center, on the other side of Satellite Blvd from the Gwinnett Convention Center. If you are in comfortable shoes and don’t mind a little stroll, you can walk. We will open up a Starbucks bar (our treat!) and offer complimentary cupcake bites from Special Kneads and Treats, a local bakery that employs adults with special needs. At our Gathering, we’ll have all the Special Needs Track speakers on hand as well as other experienced special needs ministry leaders including Julie Keith and Jennifer Ross, to answer your questions and connect with you. Look for our group on the 2nd floor in Suite A. (For those of you with an interest in curriculum adaptations for special needs, we’ll have surprise for you at this event!)

Connecting - Throughout the conference please make a point to meet the people around you. Your best takeaway may be a conversation or new connection. Introverts, come well-rested because you may be “pushed” a little! The number of people attending the OC Special Needs Track has grown notably, which is exciting. But it also means we may have to work a little harder to get to know one another. Unlike years past, our workshops won’t all be in the same room. In order to accommodate demand, the conference leadership moved several of our breakouts to larger rooms. Currently, we have special needs ministry breakouts that have been moved into rooms that seat 460 people and they too have sold out. Yes, you read that correctly. We have a conference of 6000 church leaders and more than 460 of them are making special needs ministry workshops a priority. (Amazing, huh?)

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“Amy Fenton” Confusion
–  I am one of two OC workshops presenters named Amy Fenton. This has caused all kinds of fun confusion. The other Amy Fenton, who I often refer to as Amy Marler Fenton, is a longtime friend of mine. Our lives have run parallel for two decades as she attended one Baptist University (Samford) while I studied at another (Baylor). And then for several years she was the children’s pastor at a Birmingham Baptist church, just down the road from the Baptist church I attended and where my father is the Senior Pastor. When we both lived in Birmingham we would receive each other’s snail mail. Now, Amy lives in Nashville and I live outside Atlanta…but we both are employees of Orange and receive each other’s emails, daily. To stir it up a little more, the OC staff booked us as hotel roomies all next week.


A Milestone In closing, today marks the one-year anniversary of the release of Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families. I cringe at too much self-promotion but I do want to express appreciation to so many of you, who have referred others to this resource or written Amazon reviews. Ironically, the second printing of the book is due from the printer today. For those of you who don’t know, there is not a great amount of profit in the sales of printed books. For me, the “profit” is knowing that the book has been helpful to churches. Thanks for celebrating this milestone with me. ~ Amy Fenton Lee

Three Crosses

Today’s guest post comes from an email that was sent out this morning to all the families participating in Woodmen Valley Chapel’s “Access Ministries” Special Needs Ministry. 


Dear Friends,

    This morning as I ran to our Father, I fought to release the heaviness and confusion I was wrestling with in my heart and mind. I spent time asking questions and forgiveness and praying prayers of hope for my family and our story. I got to a place where I could still my heart and my mind and my body and asked, God what is the message you want for me today? I looked down and did not hear much of anything. I looked at the tiny ripples in the water of the cold lake, felt the sun on my back and the chilly breeze on my face. Still I did not hear anything. I waited. I fought against the clock and the awareness of letting go of tasks ahead to be still long enough to hear what He had in store for me today. So I waited.

    After what seemed like an hour, I stood and decided to start my journey back home. I straightened my self and stretched and looked up. It took me a while but I realized what was staring at me in our Colorado sky. You see I was near the Air Force Academy where planes are practicing flying especially on a beautiful day like today. I did not see the plane that made the three crosses I was looking at. Three crosses in the sky. One set far apart from the other two.

     And then I could not quiet the stories and His voice, even if I had the best noise cancelling head phones money could buy.

    The stories were yours.

    There were stories of joy and celebration, where hugs and smiles could not begin to share the happiness in your hearts. There were stories of battles, as you fight to advocate for your little ones to be seen like everyone else. There were stories of suffering and pain, where you are looking for some glimmer of light to shine through the cracks of brokenness. No matter what chapter you are in your story, I can not express my gratefulness for allowing me to be an member of your audience. Allowing me the chance to see different perspectives. Allowing me to love messy! I realized that I have been looking ahead and looking down at times. Today, I am so thankful that I looked up. I am so thankful each of you!

    As you celebrate Easter with your loved ones this weekend I pray that you remember these words. I choked on them as I read them this morning to my girls, “Jesus could have just climbed down (from the cross). Actually he could have just said a word and make it all stop. Like when he healed that little girl. And stilled the storm. And fed 5,000 people. You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.”

My prayer for you no matter if you are full of joy or full of despair, is that you know how much you are loved by our Father in Heaven!

I do not tell you enough, but THANK YOU for putting your fingerprint in my heart.

Precious Easter Blessings,


Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 4.17.18 PMKatie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage for this multi-site church. Access ministry hosts a dad’s support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and respite camp for students with special needs. Katie also oversees the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry. Follow Katie on Twitter @wvcaccess.

Special Needs Ministry First Year Goals


In 2013 Mount Paran Church (Atlanta, Georgia) created a staff position to oversee special needs inclusion for all of its family ministry environments. Jillian Palmiotto, a former special education teacher and longtime children’s ministry volunteer, became the church’s first Family Ministry Special Needs Ministry Coordinator. A couple of weeks ago the newly named “Unlimited” Special Needs Ministry opened a sensory room. The room serves as a wonderful alternative environment for students who can benefit from the space during any part of their church experience. I was thrilled to be part of the room’s inaugural Sunday and loved meeting the students, families, and volunteers involved in the ministry. The staff at Mount Paran did a great job designing the new room and extra kudos goes to Jillian’s husband, who created the brilliant sensory wall.



IMG_4359  IMG_4360  Unlimited Special Needs Ministry Volunteer Lanyards

I met Jillian after she had been on the job only a couple of weeks at Mount Paran. She mentioned a timeline she had just drafted, outlining goals for the ministry’s first year. Jillian is a girl after my own heart! Of course I begged her to share the planning document here. Like many of you, Jillian is navigating new territory, figuring out her own job responsibilities on a daily basis. Now, inching toward the end of one year on the job, Jillian points out that many goals from the original outline (shown below) have changed or moved into the ministry’s second year. As many of you already know, flexibility is arguably the most important attribute of a special needs ministry leader.

Mount Paran Church - Unlimited Special Needs MInistry 
Year One Ministry Goals and Timeline 

Month 1:

  • Determine families and individuals impacted by special needs.
  • Create ministry forms
    • Individualized Plan (detailed for myself)
    • Individualized Plan at a glance (summary for volunteers & staff)
  • Contact Families for interviews
  • Begin volunteer recruitment and establish volunteer pool
  • Recruit mentor families

Month 2:

  • Determine which existing volunteers inside preschool, children’s and student ministry environments are willing to be trained for inclusion model
  • Create budget for the ministry
  • Continue parent interviews
  • Work with existing children’s ministry leaders to assess needs for buddies or other inclusion strategies
  • Research paid, trained, and bonded childcare providers and agencies for emergency needs
  • Plan transitional accommodations for large group and small group
  • Train volunteers already working with students with additional needs.

Month 3:

  • Provide pointers to students about including peers with special needs
  • Work with ministry leaders and parents to begin transitioning identified students to individualized accommodation plans
  • Recruit and train volunteers for transition environment(s)
  • Continue working with preschool, children’s, and student ministry leaders to identify and meet the needs of students
  • Begin planning training sessions to meet the needs of adults with intellectual disability

Month 4:

  • Assess transitional plans for each student
    Student A – Transitioning from elementary to student ministry
    Student B – Transitioning small groups within same ministry area
    Students C – M….
  • Reassess volunteer pool and budget concerns (i.e. materials/equipment needs)

Month 5:

  • Finalize budget needs for 2014 fiscal year
  • Refine environment, goals, accommodations, progress and volunteer placement for each identified student

Month 6:

  • Continue refining environments, goals, accommodations for identified students
  • Make plans for new enrollment of students to come through special needs ministry
  • Create plan for staff and volunteers to be rolled out as part of Lead Small training events
  • Begin modifying curriculum as needed
  • Set volunteer training goals and curriculum modification goals

Month 7:

  • Focus on intense volunteer recruitment.
  • Continue to assess effectiveness of program

Month 8:

  • Schedule appointments to meet with and interview adults who need to transition out of youth ministry
  • Begin monthly trainings for staff and volunteers
  • Begin assessing inclusion opportunities for summer children’s ministry experiences
  • Work with respective ministry leaders to discuss opportunities for smaller small group sizes

Month 9:

  • Continue staff and volunteer training events
  • Continue researching what is needed to make summer experiences inclusive
  • Schedule meetings/interviews with identified adults with special needs who attend worship

Months 10 – 12:

  • Continue outstanding items from previous months

Month 12:

  • Reassess all aspects of current plan for ministry
  • Revisit needs and goals of ministry (What is going well? What needs to change?)
  • Explore additional long term ministry opportunities:
  • Questions for our team:
    How can we improve the ministry for the kids?
    What is better now than 1 year ago?
    How do we move forward?
    What’s next?
    What kids are we currently serving?
    What consistent volunteers do we have?
    Commitment luncheon for special needs ministry?

Jillian PalmiottoJillian Palmiotto joined the Mount Paran Church of God staff in 2013 as the church’s first Family Ministry Special Needs Coordinator. Jillian is a longtime children’s ministry volunteer. She attends summer camps and special events with Mount Paran’s grade school children, leads a middle school small group, and participates in the services for the new 5th and 6th grade ministry as well as the high school ministry. Prior to coming on staff, Jillian was an inclusion teacher for the Paulding County School system. Jillian has a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education and an M. Ed in Special Education. Mount Paran Church has been Jillian’s church home for the last 15 years, along with her husband Anthony and 2 children, Samantha and Nicholas. She is excited to see how God will use the special needs ministry to build up strong, committed disciples of Jesus Christ.

Autism and the Church


Have you ever heard of a church that turned away a little boy because he had red hair? What if a mother was greeted at the children’s ministry check-in with news her redheaded son had to go back home? No, you can’t imagine. If any church ever sent home a child because of their natural hair color it would make the evening news!

Now, have you ever heard of a church that turned away a little boy because he was on the autism spectrum? What if a mother was greeted at church check-in with the news that her son with autism couldn’t be accommodated? Yes, you can imagine. It happens.

Did you know that the percentage of Americans with red hair¹ is roughly equal to the percentage of 8-year-old boys diagnosed with autism? I think it’s fair to say that statistically speaking, a children’s ministry should have the same number of participating boys with autism as with red hair. That’s pretty sobering. People would go nuts (justifiably) if families of redheaded kids had to figure out which churches were “redhead friendly”. The reality is that this same scenario is happening now for families of kids with autism. While many churches are working to become special needs-friendly, there is room for improvement.

Recently a church leader said to me,

“We just don’t have any kids with significant special needs in our church. We haven’t seen the need to create a ministry or think about doing anything special to accommodate students with disabilities.”

I didn’t say anything in response. But given the size of the church, this statement seemed doubtful. Intuition told me that this leader was disengaged and inexcusably unaware of what was going on in the lives of church families. I also wondered if perhaps this leader had somewhere along the way earned the reputation of being “unfriendly to special needs”. Once a church or church leader has earned that reputation, impacted families go elsewhere or nowhere.

Looking back on my brief dialogue, I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit restrained my sharp tongue. Everything inside of me wanted to quip back, “So your megachurch doesn’t have any kids with red hair?”  I’ve since envisioned a hypothetical conversation addressing the statistical improbability of that ministry leader’s declaration. But it’s just as well I didn’t respond the way I wanted to…real change never happens by embarrassing a person.

Okay, back to my point. In church world, we’re at a fork in the road. Up to now, it’s been an accepted norm that not all churches could or should accommodate kids with autism and other special needs. (And I share in my book that not all churches can accommodate to the same degree.) But times are a changin. It is no longer acceptable for any church to be unaware of and unprepared to welcome families with special needs. Every church needs a plan for inclusion. And the best place to start is by hiring a special needs-friendly family mininstry leader.

Autism Facts

  • About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)²
  • ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.²
  • ASD is almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189).²
  • Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2%–18% chance of having a second child who is also affected.²
  • ASD tends to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions. About 10% of children with autism are also identified as having Down syndromefragile X syndrometuberous sclerosis, or other genetic and chromosomal disorder.²
  • Almost half (46%) of children identified with ASD has average to above average intellectual ability.²
  • Most children identified with ASD were diagnosed after age 4, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age 2.²

¹ Number of Americans with red hair; Total US Population

Oh, and Happy World Autism Awareness Day!

Amy Fenton Lee

5 Things to Know about the Mother of a Child with Autism

Special Needs Ministry: An Interview with Meaghan Wall

Earlier this month Colleen Swindoll Thompson interviewed Meaghan Wall on Insight for Living’s Special Needs Blog. The interview video is simply too good not to share. Many of you know Meaghan from this blog or her Orange Conference workshops. Meaghan is the Pastoral Leader for Special Needs at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas. This video is helpful for students pursuing the career path of a special needs ministry leader or for churches on the hunt to hire the right person. And Parents, this interview gives great guidance on navigating the sometimes difficult church conversations. (Parents, be encouraged! I receive more emails than I can respond to from students who want to become special needs ministry leaders and from churches who are looking to hire for this role.)

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In this one-hour interview, Colleen asks Meaghan:

  1. How did you first get involved with special needs ministry?
  2. After serving with Easter Seals, did your direction change?
  3. After your work at the residential home, how did you end up at Stonebriar Community Church?
  4. The statistics on caregiving stress, health, faith, and finances are astounding. What are the needs of caregivers?
  5. What direction and advice do you have for parents and caregivers of any age about working in harmony with the church and with others?
  6. There is a lot of animosity between parents and caregivers and those in the church. What advice can you offer people in the church to better connect and work together with those in need?
  7. Can a church of any size help those with special needs?
  8. Biters, kickers, runners, and strippers . . . how do you handle symptomatic and safety issues, and are there places to go for learning how to deal with these issues?
  9. What resources have helped prepare you for special needs ministry?


To read Colleen’s post and watch the video interview, click here.

Meaghan’s workshops at the upcoming Orange Conference:
Navigating Behavior Challenges
Leading Teen Volunteers 

Related Posts:
Leading Teen Volunteers 
Visual Tour of Stonebriar’s Special Needs Suite
Welcome to the Bite Club!
Recruiting and Training Special Needs Volunteers
Bringing a Family Ministry Approach to Special Needs



Understanding Church Leaders (Parent-Church Conversations Part 2)


As we talked about in the last post, parent-church conversations don’t always go smoothly. A rocky (if not broken) relationship can result when either party comes to the table with open wounds or faulty assumptions. I can’t solve situation-specific interpersonal problems here, but perhaps I can help parents better understand common themes in the lives of church leaders and the culture of their “work” environment.

Church leaders often have a story too. Many people serving in ministry have experienced at least one of the following:

A difficult childhood
A painful or traumatic life event
A period of considerable trial, resulting in life change

Whatever happened in this leader’s life shaped them considerably and was probably a catalyst for their decision to go into ministry. It is not unusual for a leader to serve in a stage-of-life ministry that coincides with the most significant period in their own life (children’s, college, young marrieds, etc.). Like people outside of ministry, this leader may not recognize how prior life experiences still play out in their personality and ways of relating. Even if the leader has experienced authentic life-change and is in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, undesirable coping skills may still pop up, especially in times of stress.

Keep in mind that just because a ministry leader doesn’t appear to have a significant life story doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Ministry leaders are often underpaid if not unpaid. No one gets rich doing church work. It’s only been in the last two decades that churches started paying children’s ministry leaders and other similar staff positions. (Thank goodness!) But the reality is that churches still view many staff roles as hybrid volunteer/paid positions. Churches rarely budget a compensation package to match the realistic number of hours needed to do a family ministry job well. It is not uncommon to find staff members working many more hours than their position pays.

One of the most embarrassing things about the church culture in America is our custom of not paying hard-working laborers a fair wage. The reality is that every church has more people seeking the services of their ministries than they have people who are contributing financially. Generally speaking, churches are legitimately cash-strapped. This is the sad consequence of a low giving rate among churchgoers. Studies tell us that for every ten families enjoying a church’s

heating and air conditioning
running water
mowed front lawn
sound system
services provided by paid staff

only one of them is helping to pay for any of it. Very few church attenders give a significant offering, let alone tithe (considered to be 10 percent of a household income before taxes). On rare occasions you may find a church with a 24-percent giving rate.

Appreciation is the valued currency of a church leader. Ministry leaders aren’t rewarded through incentive-based compensation plans tied to productivity or sales. But they do have a natural desire to see the fruits of their labor. The best leaders, who could earn more from a secular job, stay in ministry because they are purpose-driven people. They refuel when they see results of their investments. Church leaders are more likely to perform at their peak and strive harder when the people around them recognize what they are doing right. Along the same lines, a ministry leader may avoid certain aspects of their job if they perceive related tasks to go unrecognized.

Many church staff members lack coaching and mentoring. Senior church leaders may not be good at managing the staff under their leadership. The gifts required to preach or cast vision for a church body are different from the skillset needed to lead individual employees. Pastors who are masterful communicators and performers often struggle with the process of leadership development. Pastors who are expert theologians and intellectual studiers don’t always relate to the everyday issues their staff faces. And highly relational, people-pleasers aren’t usually good at holding subordinates accountable.

As a result, it is somewhat rare to find a church staff receiving the healthy attention they may need to do their job well. Many staff members would benefit from grace-filled coaching to handle emotionally sensitive situations and truth-filled accountability that requires follow-through.

For a variety of reasons, churches tend to flounder when it comes to rehabilitating underperforming employees or helping them (gracefully) transition out of ministry. Unhealthy personnel situations have a domino effect on every other staff person and can take a toll on a ministry team. It is important to recognize that staff development (or lack thereof) and other behind-the-scenes workplace dynamics may be hidden factors contributing to fractured parent-church relationships.

Church leaders have families too. Ministry leaders may not have the same daily struggles as special needs families, but they too have children with unique needs, spouses who lose their jobs, and their own health issues. Their life issues may be less obvious but sometimes they are as heavy. Most ministry leaders wrestle on a daily basis with the conflicting needs of their job and their own family:

Should I answer this phone call related to ministry?
Or should I let it go to voicemail and help my son through his homework?

Should I attend a ministry participant’s IEP meeting on my day off?
Or should I keep my scheduled appointment for marriage counseling?

Should I stay up late to find a short-notice volunteer?
Or should I go to bed on time to finally lick this lingering virus?

The very best ministry leaders consider it a privilege and blessing to serve in their position. Few can imagine a more fulfilling life calling. But they all struggle, some intensely, with determining their own boundaries. Like parents of children with special needs, ministry leaders are usually stretched pretty thin.

To build a healthy relationship with your church leaders, consider the following:

Pray for your church’s ministry leaders and volunteers. You can naturally love people better when you are actively praying for them. You may still need to speak truth into a ministry leader’s life, but you’ll be more effective with a prayerful mindset and seeking God’s best for them.

Get to know the leaders serving your child. You’ll relate differently to someone when you know what’s going on in their life. And you might take things less personally when they mess up, knowing they are going through a divorce, struggling with infertility, or helping their spouse wrestle through depression. Recognize that people change through the context of relationship. And your relationship, whether smooth or rocky, may be the vehicle for a church leader’s personal growth.

Offer to help. I believe in the value of shared ownership in almost everything, including family ministry. It isn’t healthy for parents to do all the legwork for their child’s church experience and it isn’t healthy for the church staff to do it all either. A partnership mindset is only going to happen if both parties are investing. Church leaders are more likely to respond favorably when they sense that parents care about the success of the ministry team, and not just the success of their own child. It speaks volumes when a mother or father is willing to remain in the ministry environment for a period of time, showing volunteers how to work with their child. Expecting a church staff to “figure it out,” especially when complex behavior challenges, medical needs, and learning differences are present, is expecting too much. And there is great opportunity for shared community when a parent occasionally serves inside their child’s regular ministry environment.

Give a regular offering to your church. Some readers will have a hard time with this “tip.” I am fully aware of the financial hurdles many special needs families face. Don’t hyperventilate, but do pray about it. I have learned that God uses this important act of obedience to grow us. Giving our “first fruits” is always a significant step of faith development.

Keep your expectations in check. Recognize that coordinating an accommodation plan for a single child with special needs often requires a notable investment of time. Either someone inside the church must donate their personal time or the church is going to set aside funds to pay someone to navigate inclusion. Either way, there is an investment and perhaps some level of sacrifice. Putting pressure on the church to do more and to do it quickly is not always reasonable. Until churches have higher giving rates, they will be stretched thin. Keep this in mind before lobbying hard for respite, parent support groups, and inclusive summer experiences.

Develop a big-picture perspective. Don’t get stuck on the small stuff when a church doesn’t get it right. Every church, even the best ones, mess up. Special needs inclusion is so subjective, and unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Success ultimately requires a whole lot of trial and error. When a church does get it wrong, take a step back before letting (understandable) emotions get the best of you. Reflect on the big-picture attitude and progress the church is making (or not making). If the church’s general direction toward inclusion is positive, put the breaks on before conveying negative feedback. The greatest de-motivator for a church staff is to have to wade through criticism that is perceived to be unmerited or without grace.

If church leaders are legitimately failing, pray through the steps forward. People serving in ministry positions are no less susceptible to sin’s brilliant disguise. I have seen church leaders dig in their heels, refusing to accept responsibility for actions or consequences that are in fact theirs to own. At some point, there becomes very little you can do to change the attitude of such an individual. The church’s executive leaders or personnel committee may choose not to address the employee’s problem. As hard as it is, there are times a family may have to leave the cleanup to the Holy Spirit. Staying angry or sometimes staying in a toxic environment hurts everyone. The worst thing anyone can do is to let bitterness take root, causing them to sin in their anger.

Threatening the church with a lawsuit or blogging about your bad church experience may provide some cathartic relief, but it won’t advance the cause of special needs inclusion. Before doing something that damages your own credibility or creates public embarrassment, seek wise counsel from a discerning person. The best advice usually comes from someone who can provide a Biblical and impartial perspective. Then, begin the process of pursuing your own healing. The single most important thing you can do for your family is to take personal responsibility for your own spiritual and emotional health. Churches can be rough places. Ask any church leader, they’ll agree.

Whew! Okay, today’s post was long and heavy. If you can’t relate or don’t agree with my thoughts, don’t get stuck. No one ever accused me of having life figured out. As with everything I write, take what’s useful and leave the rest. ~ AFL

Like this post?  See Rules for Repost

Understanding Parents (Parent-Church Conversations Part 1)


If you enter a movie 20 minutes late, it’s hard to appreciate the drama, mystery, or comedy that ultimately unfolds. Without the context from the introductory scenes, you miss little nuances and big pieces of the full story. There is a parallel for parent-church conversations. So much has happened inside the family before a parent approaches a church leader, requesting special accommodation for their child with special needs. There’s a life history for the family and for the church leader that have shaped the emotions, defense mechanisms, and coping skills that sometimes emerge in these conversations. Unfortunately, neither party has had the opportunity to watch the opening scene of the other person’s life movie. Without context, the opportunity for connection may be missed and hurt feelings are poised to emerge.

Occasionally, I hear from readers who want to work through a recent and difficult parent-church conversation. Sometimes the reader is a wounded parent, and other times the reader is a wounded church leader. After learning more about the conversation, I often find myself doing a bit of translating, explaining why the other party (the church leader or the parent) reacted the way they did and why the meeting didn’t end on a good note. There is a great misunderstanding between churches and parents of children with special needs. In today’s post, I hope to help church leaders gain context and better understand the parents of children with special needs. In the next post, I’ll share insight aimed to help parents better understand and work toward a healthy relationship with their church’s leaders.

Understanding Parents of Children with Special Needs

Obviously, many parent-church conversations go well or we wouldn’t have so many great stories to feature on this blog. But sometimes the relationship between the church and parents of children with special needs begins on rough footing. And whatever is said (or isn’t said) in these initial interactions plants a kernel of negativity that festers. The tone and personal connection (or lack thereof) can have long-term implications for the family, the church leader, and even the future of special needs inclusion.

Church leaders will (hopefully) receive parents differently when they understand that moms and dads of children with special needs have to fight on a daily basis to help their child succeed. Few things come easy for this family. For example, public schools are required to offer special accommodations or aids to students with qualifying needs. But getting access to those special services nearly always requires an uphill battle. School budgets are strained so tightly that assistance is sometimes only granted to the “squeaky wheel.” The squeaky wheel may have to crescendo to a siren’s volume in order to push through the process and finally get approval. Pursuing medical benefits is a similar experience. Rarely does an insurer happily issue reimbursement upon first request. Instead, parents may spend hours, days, weeks—even years—chasing payments for claims they were told their plan covered. Pursuing any type of assistance for the family with special needs can be a painstaking and mind-numbing process.

These parents have understandably adopted a “hyper-vigilant” stance with schools, insurance companies, doctors, and the list goes on. Virtually every effort a parent makes to help their child turns into an upstream swim. So, when their child experiences challenges on a Sunday, parents are going to navigate them with the same survivor skills they use every other day of the week. The heightened sense of awareness and sometimes aggressive mindset has (understandably) become second nature. And more is at stake to the family when it comes to a child’s success at church, further escalating the emotional temperature. If the child with special needs can’t be accommodated, then a whole family may be walled off from connection to their valued faith community. Parents may not be fully aware of how their anxiety is playing out. But nearly always there are underlying, perhaps subconscious, fears in cases where a parent approaches the church in a harsh manner.

Don’t take it personally. A parent may approach you with what feels like demands or high expectations. Generally speaking, they’ve been taught through experience to aim high just to gain marginal improvement.

Turn off your instinct to be defensive. You’ll have more success by receiving concerns with warmth and understanding. Some parents are in the offensive or defensive position all day every day. They literally forget when they can drop the combative approach and just be real. If you convey through voice tone and body language that this situation isn’t too big and that you care enough to figure it out, parents will most likely soften up. Once a family sees that you aren’t trying to find a loophole excuse to avoid helping, they can begin to transition into a “same team” or partnering mindset. (Notice I used the word “begin.” The shift will take some time, improving as the parent pursues emotional healing and as you earn their trust.)

First, focus on hearing a family’s concerns. You can’t rebuild a storm-damaged structure without clearing the debris. Let the first conversation be about clearing the debris. Providing a safe place for parents to share their story gives them an opportunity to work through grief. Wading through grief is the first step in the healing process. Don’t try to solve problems in the first meeting. Let this time be all about getting to know the family and hearing their heart.

Explore solutions in a separate, follow-up meeting. Take a week or so to do some homework, researching possible options such as a buddy assignment or small group placement. It is important to go into a second conversation prepared to talk through solutions. If needed, this meeting is also the opportunity to reset parent expectations for what the church can do and cannot do. Be sure to schedule this meeting with some sense of urgency. Failing to follow up in a timely manner after the first conversation will be interpreted as avoidance and ultimately rejection.

Recognize the bigger opportunity of ministry. Sometimes God allows rocky conversations to crack the door open for more meaningful interactions. Tolerating disrespectful behavior is not Christ-honoring and may need to be addressed. But even in truth there is great opportunity for grace and love. Oftentimes, emotions that come off as anger represent buried sadness and hurt. People aren’t always aware of their need for someone to enter their pain, provide validation, and help them process their grief. But that need may be the driving force behind harsh and even hurtful interactions. Pray for discernment, and as God directs, recognize opportunities to model both unconditional love and healthy behavior. Your church’s greatest opportunity for ministry may be in providing a safe environment for that parent to grow emotionally and spiritually. Remember, the person with the greatest influence in any child’s life will always be their parent. Making an investment in a parent’s spiritual health is always an investment into their child’s spiritual growth.

Stay tuned for part two next week, when I share some common traits and life experiences of ministry leaders.


Today closes out Orange Blogger’s week promoting the upcoming Orange Conference. To participate, we’re giving away a copy of the book Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families. Leave a comment here or on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page by midnight tonight (Pacific time) and you’ll be entered to win a FREE copy of the book. On a related note, Orange just made the book available via Kindle for $9.99. Check it out!

Related Posts:
5 Things to Know about the Mother of a Child with Autism
Questions to Engage the Parent of a Child with Special Needs

Creating a Special Needs Ministry Budget

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Recently, a special needs ministry leader asked me the following question:

What kind of budget do we need to start a successful Disability Ministry and continue its growth over the next 10-15 years? 

As a natural planner, I’m a little shocked at my answer to part of this question:
Pondering a ministry’s growth and budget 10-15 years out is probably planning a little too far out.

This week is the 10-year birthday of Facebook. No one could have predicted Facebook’s impact on society a decade ago. Social media has changed the landscape of virtually every industry and even the way people relate. With the current speed of change, a supporting ministry inside a church may be more productive to develop goals within the five-year range. Many changes can impact a special needs ministry, including:

Change of church’s senior leadership.  All ministries, including a church’s special needs ministry, should support senior leadership’s vision for the church. A church’s big-picture mission will have daily bearing on how each ministry does its work. With an average pastor’s tenure of four years in mainline denominations, odds are high there will be turnover in your church’s leadership within the next decade.  

Change in local demographics. Several years ago a sleepy county in a southern U.S. state appointed a new school superintendent. Swift changes were implemented, shifting the somewhat rural county’s reputation from being culturally backwards to becoming educationally progressive. In fewer than five years, most local businesses made at least one change to the products they offered or the services they provided in order to match the needs of young families, who were moving in by the droves. And as you might guess, area churches quickly reallocated resources to meet staffing and programming needs associated with this exploding demographic. You can see where a school system’s changes regarding special needs accommodation can have a trickle down effect on nearby churches.

Change in ministry trends. Recently I sat in on a brainstorming session for family ministry leaders who met to discuss the future of summer programming. Children’s pastors and student ministry leaders shared ideas for how their churches were adjusting programming to meet the needs of students with two working parents, split custody households, and hectic summer schedules. I had a front row seat, watching in real-time, a group of influential church leaders transform the old model of Vacation Bible School into a ministry experience relevant to today’s culture. This change and others will have direct bearing on a church’s special needs ministry.

By design, the special needs ministry should be reactive to the plans of other ministries. The first priority of a special needs ministry is to facilitate accommodation and inclusion into existing church programming and scheduled ministry events. As a result, decisions made by other ministries will affect the special needs ministry. For example, a church’s decision to shift away from a Sunday school schedule and to move toward a small group model of discipleship will likely consume a special needs ministry team for a period of time, as they figure out new logistics for inclusion. Really, the best guidance for future planning is to look inside your own church, asking the leaders who shape the church’s programming. Based on their advice, work to create a handful of specific goals for the next three years. Then, identify one or two bigger dreams for the five-year range, making sure they compliment leadership’s five-year objectives.

Below are a list of budgetary considerations for a special needs ministry.  For a new ministry or smaller church, please don’t let this list overwhelm you. Instead, give God the opportunity to show His presence and bless your church. Proceed on faith, but be smart. Few of the below suggestions are mandatory, they’re just ideal. And if your church has the means to provide the “ideal”, start small.  Burnout will sneak up on you (or your volunteers) if you don’t pace the growth of the ministry. Once your families are successfully incorporated into regularly scheduled programming, then you can begin to think about broader opportunities for care and outreach.

Budget Considerations for a Special Needs Ministry

Paid Staff –  Conducting an intake interview with each family and coordinating an individual’s placement may require an investment of several hours.  In addition, ministry needs often surface in the course of intake conversations, quickly requiring a response beyond the availability of a volunteer coordinator.  As the number of participants with special needs and programming environments grow, so too does the need for additional paid hours.

Background Checks - Background checks should be performed on every adult volunteer and staff person that has any contact with ministry participants. This is not optional and there is a fee required by companies that perform the background checks.  Don’t forget to create budget to renew your background checks on existing adult helpers who were checked in the past. (Most churches re-run the check every two years.)  

Training Events – Churches should plan to host a major volunteer training event annually.  Many churches also have smaller training events on a semi-annual or quarterly basis to bring new ministry helpers up to speed.  Consider any costs related to providing childcare, food, printing costs for training materials, game prizes (make it fun!) or props needed for the training event(s).

Leader Development – Churches may want to purchase and make available a handful of resources to help volunteers.  In addition, several churches have created a budget to send designated leaders annually to an outside ministry conference or special needs-related training.  (Don’t forget costs associated with regular CPR training, etc.)

Volunteer Support – It’s smart to designate some budget dollars for volunteer appreciation gifts and other volunteer support costs.  Providing an occasional breakfast for ministry servants or giving a Christmas gift (e.g. coffee shop gift card) are great ways to say “thank you”.  Always keep some money on reserve to cover costs for sending flowers or a prepared meal to a volunteer who is hospitalized, goes through the death of a loved one, etc.

Curriculum & Class Materials – It is ideal when a church can contract a child life specialist, a speech pathologist, or other special education professional to make a handful curriculum modifications or additions for ministry participants. While curriculum modifications belong in the “bonus” category, it is a wonderful thing for a church to invest in the spiritual development of their participants with special needs.  A few changes to planned activities or the way the Bible story is shared may enable full participation for a student with learning differences.  Along the same lines, consider additional needs in terms of music and craft supplies for the ministry environment.

Snacks – Some churches keep a stash of (pricey) gluten-free or GFCF snacks on hand, as these diets are common among students with special needs.

Sensory-Friendly Toys & Equipment – Many churches have a dedicated space with products and activities designed to engage the child with a broad range of special needs.

Designated Space – We are seeing a growing number of churches design space with special needs in mind.  This area may include a room set up with any or all of the following:

Paid Childcare – During parent support groups or special events it may be necessary to pay childcare workers. (This is common practice in children’s ministry.)  You may also elect to utilize paid childcare during respite events, especially for medical or special education professionals.

Reimbursed Childcare – Occasionally a child or student is best served inside their own home by a care provider with whom they are already comfortable. It is ideal when the church can subsidize the added costs a family may incur for childcare services so that they can attend church themselves.

Budget for Care Ministry and Outreach

Parent Support Groups – A number of churches host life-changing parent connection groups for the families in their special needs ministry.  In addition to potential childcare costs, consider added expenses due to expanded staffing needs, curriculum/material, food, guest speakers and facilities costs.

Respite Events – Some churches offer parents night out events for special needs families.  These events require their own volunteer training, event activities, food, etc.  Many churches contract a medical professional to remain onsite and provide services for the duration of the respite event, handling toileting issues, dispensing medication, and addressing medical concerns as they arise.  (This is a wise and recommended practice.) In addition, some churches have made the decision to invest in the parents’ date night experience while their children are being cared for by providing tools for marriage enrichment.

Side story:  A special needs ministry leader I interviewed several years ago recalled her difficult decision to require RSVP’s and set a limit to 20 families for parents night out. Capping respite participation drew flack initially, but it kept the church’s underpaid staff and inexperienced volunteers from becoming overwhelmed. Her wisdom preserved the integrity and longevity of that church’s ministry, largely because she gained the trust of her church’s leadership with her conservative approach. That trust paid off when she asked for additional resources to grow the special needs ministry. (And by the way, the kids who came to those respite events received wonderful, individualized attention because volunteers had the margin to spend quality time with them.)

Summer Experiences – For a church that offers a Vacation Bible school, day camp, or overnight retreats for their typically developing students, the special needs ministry may consider ways to provide accommodation so that those experiences can be special needs-inclusive. Many of the same budget considerations for respite may be necessary to ensure success.  

Fore more help getting started, checkout Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families (The reThink Group, 2013).

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Special Needs Ministry Training in Northern California

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In one month I’ll be leading four special needs ministry workshops at the BASS Conference in Castro Valley, California.  BASS is an interdenominational conference with a long history of equipping church leaders and volunteers.

Debbie Lillo, Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends – Bay Area, has put together an unprecedented twelve workshops on all things special needs ministry. Debbie is one of the most fun people I’ve ever met, and possibly the best networker on the planet. She also has an unparalleled love for families of children with special needs. (Need an expert on respite or sibling support?  Debbie is your contact!) I’ll be joining Debbie along with four others to lead workshops on the BASS Special Needs Track. Conference registration is only $49 (unbelievable!) and is open to anyone. If you live on the West Coast and have an interest in special needs ministry, it doesn’t get better than this.  I am pinching myself at the opportunity to hear Diane Dokko Kim and Dr. Cynthia Zierhut speak, as both have been great friends and resources to me. And many of you know Stacy Hodge from her posts on this blog about Deaf Ministryteen inclusion, and technology.  Please join us!

BASS Church Workers Convention
Redwood Chapel Community Church of Castro Valley, CA
Registration Information
Recommended Hotels


Friday, March 7, 2014
Using Technology in Special Needs Ministry - Stacy Hodge
Loving the Family Impacted by Special Needs - Amy Fenton Lee
Autism: A Family and Church Perspective - Diane Dokko Kim
Adapting Curriculum for Special Needs - Kris Volkir
Including Teens with Special Needs in Your Church - Stacy Hodge
Special Needs FAQ - Amy Fenton Lee
Welcoming with Compassion - Debbie Lillo

Saturday, March 8, 2014
Autism and the Church - Debbie Lillo
Building a Special Needs Ministry Team - Amy Fenton Lee
What Autism Spectrum Disorder Has Taught Me About God: Insights From Research And Practice - Cynthia Zierhut
Surviving to Thriving: Engaging Different Learners  - Amy Fenton Lee
Special Needs Parent PanelDebbie Lillo and Kris Volkir

For expanded workshop descriptions and speaker bios click here
For more information contact

5 Strategies to Include Teens with Special Needs

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This is the 3rd and final post spotlighting inclusion in youth ministry environments.  Katie Garvert answers questions on the same subject she’ll be addressing as part of the Special Needs Track at the upcoming Orange Conference.

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Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs.  Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage for this multi-site church.  Access ministry hosts a dad’s support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and respite camp for students with special needs.  Katie also oversees the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry.  Follow Katie on Twitter @wvcaccess.


AFL: In the first post, you helped us understand why teen inclusion is challenging. And yesterday you talked about the parent partnership piece. So, how do you actually create a successful youth ministry experience for the student with special needs?  

KG: We use five strategies to craft a plan for students with any sort of disability, learning difference, or unique needs.  We recognize that God created these students as a distinct individuals.  And we allow God to pursue each one of them through the abilities and passions He gave them.

1. We help the student feel in control. We invite the promoting student to talk to us without their mom and dad. Assuming the parents have agreed to the requests I outlined in yesterday’s post, we start by acknowledging that this student’s church participation is not optional. But just because church is mandatory doesn’t mean it has to be miserable. Right off the bat, we talk about the fact we’re willing to make adjustments to their student ministry experience. We give the student a say and if they are adverse to being placed in a Small Group, we don’t argue. We then go through a series of questions to figure out what the student is good at and what they enjoy.

2. We create jobs inside the student ministry. We look for ways the student can do what they love or can feel like they are making a contribution. For example, if we discover a student likes to create PowerPoint presentations, we’re going to ask him to build a visual presentation for our student pastor. We’ll outline our needs and expectations and give this student a concrete deadline. If our student follows through, he may be asked to produce a PowerPoint presentation once a month, then twice a month and so on. This student is receiving a “reward” by seeing their work utilized at the weekly student ministry event. A routine is emerging (so important!) all while this student has a growing sense of worth and success.

3. We’re strategically creating opportunities for spiritual growth. We have a number of students with special needs running lights and sound or performing some sort of task on the production team. These students are sitting inside the tech booth for the duration of the student ministry experience, hearing the Bible-rich content we want them to hear. And they are having a shared experience, in a corporate sense, with the rest of the youth group. But it doesn’t end there. Just after the Large Group experience concludes and as other studentss are going to their respective Small Groups, the production team has a debrief meeting. The adult volunteer running the tech booth (brilliantly) invites discussion on what went right or what needs to improve for next week’s production. The students helping in the booth are often eager to weigh in on technical topics, meanwhile growing comfortable interacting with each other. The production team then closes out their meeting with a Bible-devotion, as would be the case for any ministry meeting at our church. It just so happens that the tech team’s devotion will always piggyback off the topic covered during Large Group. And the brief group questions may be from the Small Group Leaders’ discussion materials. Do you catch what’s happening here? There’s a Small Group that doesn’t know it’s a Small Group happening inside our tech booth. Our student ministry production team is a Small Group.

4. We solve problems before they become problems. Some students can and want to be part of a more traditional Small Group if we navigate their placement. Obviously the “job” approach or tech team assignment doesn’t work for every student with special needs. This is especially true for girls. Oftentimes in our early conversation with a female student, we’ll learn that she is uncomfortable around the “social girls” whom she perceives to be boy crazy or shallow. We’ve found success by pairing this student with an adult Small Group Leader who likes to explore topics outside of pop stars and trendy fashion. This Small Group Leader might be someone who throws out big ideas related to social justice or theology. While the student with learning differences may not always track with the group discussion, she isn’t going to be boiling in anger listening to the latest teen-scene gossip. In addition, we’ve placed the student with a Small Group Leader who is more naturally mindful of her needs. That leader is also going to create an accepting, safe group dynamic that invites this student’s participation.

5. We look for opportunities to multiply our own success. So, now we’ve got students inside the tech booth that are mentoring the newbies on sound, lights, etc. Some of these mentors are the same students who would have rather severed an arm than get involved in our church’s student ministry. And now these students are in their element, coming on their own accord, and in their own way leading in our student ministry. It’s really moving when you look out each week during our Large Group experience and see some students in the oddest places . . . and then you realize their unexpected task is their vehicle for spiritual growth.  God is good.

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To read previous posts in this series:
Part 1: Including Teens with Special Needs – The Challenge
Part 2: Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership

Other Posts Featuring Katie Garvert:
Helping the Marriage inside Families with Special Needs
Training Church Leaders to Start a Special Needs Ministry
Supplying a Special Needs Ministry on a Low Budget
Should Parents Lead a Special Needs Ministry?
Special Needs Space Planning Tips

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