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Starting a Special Needs Ministry

June 6, 2010

QUESTION:  Our church is in the early stages of developing a special needs ministry for children.  As a staff leader, I am nervous. Should I be concerned about launching the ministry too soon?

**2013 update:  In April my book, Leading a A Special Needs Ministry was released.  This is a fairly comprehensive handbook with related information not covered on this blog. ~ AFL**

ANSWER:  After talking with dozens of church leaders (including senior pastors) and special needs ministry volunteers, let me answer this question two ways:

At some point you will just have to take leap of faith.  

Formally launching a special needs ministry always requires faith.  And regardless of the amount of upfront planning a church does, some unforeseen issue will inevitably arise that requires the ministry team to rethink their approach and to 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.  So at some point, a church just has to start the ministry while still feeling underprepared.

In addition, churches should act with a greater sense of urgency to accommodate families already participating yet needing assistance in order to remain engaged.  While it may not be possible to offer buddies and/or alternate environments for every hour of programming, the ministry team should do their best to provide an option for immediate accommodation.  Churches with thriving special needs ministries will share stories from the early days of their inclusion efforts when they accepted a student with complex needs while silently praying God would work out the details.

A church should prepare before publicizing.

Having said all the above, I believe that a church can begin publicizing a special needs ministry too soon.  Let me explain.  What a church does in the early days of the ministry will establish its reputation for the next two or three years.  First impressions are lasting impressions.  News of early successes or failures will disseminate quickly.  And because special needs accommodation is not a fad but poised to become a permanent fixture on every church’s ministry menu, early decisions may have long term consequences (good or bad).

Failure in a special needs ministry can take many forms:
A child is hurt because the right questions were not asked at check-in;
Untrained buddies react poorly to “unexpected” behaviors;
Volunteers quit because of unreasonable expectations;
Parents feel disconnected with rather than supported by church staff

Hurt feelings, let alone hurt bodies, can generate negativity that spreads like wildfire.  As a result, it is important for a church to do their homework by assigning staff ownership and creating appropriate safety procedures, intake processes, and volunteer training before making big statements about the ministry.  The church owes it to families and to volunteers to set them both up for success.  And keep in mind that a new leader and a fresh set of volunteers will have a learning curve.  If mistakes are made,  relational cleanup is easier in the first few months when expectations are more easily tempered.  After the special needs team has a handful of ministry wins under its belt, God will nudge leadership to take the next leap of faith and to publicly declare, “All are Welcome!”  ~ Amy Fenton Lee

For more information on related topics:

LSNM_Cover_HI

Leading a A Special Needs Ministry (Book)
Surviving to Thriving (Volunteer Training DVD)
Creating a Special Needs Ministry Budget
Special Needs Ministry Checklist
Getting Started
Lifeway’s Kids Ministry 101 Blog
Special Needs:  Getting Started and the Pre-Launch Path
Special Needs Ministry Intake Forms
Best Practices:  Spotlight on Johnson Ferry Baptist Church
Developing a Special Needs Ministry’s Goals & Mission
SN Policies & Procedures + Link to Example
General P&P for Children’s Ministry
Policies & Training for Teen Helpers
Emergency Plan
When a Child Shows Signs of Autism (series of 3 posts)
Just the Facts!  Special Needs Statistics

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16 Comments
  1. I just wrote a post on my blog about this topic. There are some references at:

    http://sos-research-blog.com/06/who-else-wants-a-comfortable-place-of-worship-for-their-family-and-special-needs-child/

    I wish I had known about your pamphlet. Feel free to add your reference in the comments area on my blog. Thanks!

  2. Danette – Thanks for finding us and glad you find this blog helpful. I did just post a comment to your blog on the post about finding a church. Certainly feel free to refer to The Inclusive Church Blog on your site as appropriate for you!

    Thanks again!
    Amy

  3. My wife and I started a ministry to the special needs adults in our area in 2003. Our oldest son (now 33) wasn’t understanding anything in church, or even being able to participate in youth activities. We had close to 20 years experience as children’s pastors so we took what we had learned, listened to those we were ministering to, and developed a model that works great! We have services in two locations now, one with attendance of over 100, he other with attendance of 50. Find out more at http://www.specialchurch.com. We would love to help anyone wanting to start a ministry to this ‘silent community’

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