Starting a Special Needs Ministry
Question: “Our church is in the early stages of developing a special needs focused ministry for children. As a church staff member I am nervous about the ministry failing. Should I be concerned about launching the ministry too soon?”
This is a great question! I have engaged in countless conversations over the past year with individuals serving in church staff roles (including senior pastors) as well as special needs focused volunteers. Many have offered insights that address this issue. Drawing from those conversations and my own observations, let me answer this question 2 ways:
Take a Leap of Faith
Formally launching a special needs focused ministry will at some point require a leap of faith. And regardless of the amount of upfront planning a church does, some unforeseen issue will invariably arise that requires the team to rethink their approach and make a change. Because the effects of special needs diagnoses vary so dramatically and because each family is unique, many challenges have to be tackled on a case-by-case basis and as they happen. So at some point, a church just has to get started while still feeling under prepared.
In addition, churches should move forward with some sense of urgency to accommodate children with special needs already participating in their congregation. While it may not be possible to meet each immediate need for every hour of programming, the church staff and children’s ministry team will at some point proceed (and accommodate) purely on faith. Every church already engaged in successful disability ministry has stories of accepting a child while silently praying God would work out the details and provide protection and sustainment for everyone involved.
Prepare Before Publicizing
Having said the above, I believe that “yes” a church can formally launch and publicize a special needs ministry too soon. Let me explain. What a church does for the first 60 days of the ministry will be the reputation that church carries for the next two to three years. First impressions are lasting impressions. News of early successes and/or early failures will disseminate quickly. And because special needs accommodation is not a fad, but a soon-to-be permanent fixture in churches everywhere, it is important that a strong culture and respected program is established early.
Failure in a special needs ministry can take many forms: a child may be hurt because the right questions were not asked at check-in or the childcare workers were inadequately trained; volunteers quit because they were saddled with unreasonable expectations or experienced a lack of staff ownership; parents feel a disconnect rather than support from the special needs ministry team. Failure in any one of these areas can leave damaging lasting impressions and breed a public relations nightmare in a congregation and the broader community. As we all know, hurt feelings, let alone hurt bodies, can generate poisonous negativity that spreads like wildfire among a church’s membership. As a result, it is tremendously important that a church does their homework by creating appropriate policies and procedures, securing building space, and recruiting “called” and trained volunteers before publicizing the church’s capability to accommodate children with special needs.
I think a church owes it their membership to execute special needs accommodation with a heightened desire to provide quality programming and protection for participants and volunteers. There may be times that a children’s ministry team needs to address weak areas inside the typical programming before launching an initiative to draw in children who need extra care for successful inclusion. For example, if a church lacks a solid safety culture or has inadequate curriculum development and too few planned activities, those areas need to be improved before devoting serious efforts to growing a visible special needs ministry. Keep in mind that children with special needs are more likely to be the victim of abuse than typical children. Similarly, whereas a typical child may constructively self-direct in an environment with insufficient planned activities or a poor teacher ratio, a child with a disability such as ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, or sensory integration disorder may become disruptive and difficult to manage. The potential complications that could arise as a result of weak safety policies or under planning are both unnecessary and avoidable! The importance of planning and providing quality and organized programming cannot be stressed enough for the children’s ministry team evolving to special needs inclusion.
For more on the following related topics…
Volunteer Training Video: Surviving to Thriving: Techniques to Engage Different Learners
Special Needs: Getting Started and the Pre-Launch Path from K! Magazine and headhearthand.com
Emergency Plan Form to prevent a safety compromising event
When a Child Shows Signs of Autism (series of 3 posts)
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- Amy Fenton Lee