For the rest of this week, we’ll be spotlighting special needs inclusion in youth ministry environments. Today’s post is the first of three posts where Katie Garvert previews the preconference workshop she’ll be leading at the upcoming Orange Conference.
Katie Garvert leads the Access Ministries of 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 multisite 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: I’m hearing from a number of church leaders who are struggling to include older kids and teens with special needs. Why is teen inclusion difficult?
KG: Two reasons come to mind. As our team has come to better understand the root problems, we’ve been able to come up with some good solutions.
1. The very nature of student ministry is social and relationship-driven. The typical student is really into their friends. The tool for life-change is shared experiences and conversation with other students. So, a good youth pastor is constantly thinking about how they can create an environment that invites interaction. But for the student who has poor social skills or struggles to communicate, the idea of conversation and interaction with others is not appealing. For some students with special needs, they literally can’t think of anything they’d enjoy less than having to be social. And who blames them? No one enjoys doing things they aren’t naturally good at.
Students with special needs can be easily misunderstood. One individual might be unfiltered, blurting out the first thought that pops into their head. Another student with disability struggles to form and express complete sentences. Both scenarios create tension for the student with special needs as well as their peers, who may be attempting to interact. Typically developing students sometimes react harshly in these awkward moments. In general, teens don’t exactly have the market cornered on emotional maturity. They’re still developing. So, odds are high that a student with severe ADHD or high functioning autism has already had a number of uncomfortable peer encounters by the time they reach your youth ministry. Perhaps this student was even bullied by some of the others that show up at youth group. You can see why the very tool (social interaction) that a student ministry team uses may be the one thing that a student with special needs associates with failure.
2. Parents and students with special needs often disagree on their goals for church participation. Let me illustrate this challenge. Just before anyone who has come through our special needs ministry promotes from children’s ministry to student ministry, our leadership meets with each family. We bring the parents and student together along with someone from our ministry team. First, we ask parents to share their goals for their daughter or son’s participation in the church youth group. Nearly always, we hear things like “be active in a small group;” “make quality friends;” and “participate in a student ministry mission trip.” After parents have shared their desires, we then ask the student to talk about the student ministry experience they envision for themselves. And it is not uncommon for us to hear this response:
“Nothing. I don’t want to be at church at all.”
We dive a little deeper with the promoting student and the story that emerges is fairly predictable. For this student, moving up to the youth groups feels like a setup for failure. His or her memory bank isn’t full of successful interactions in social situations. Most likely . . .
- She isn’t good at small talk.
- He has difficulty talking about the interests of others.
- She’s already felt rejection from some of the same girls at school.
- He thinks the youth group games are silly.
And to add to this list, nothing sounds worse than traveling on a mission trip, an experience full of unfamiliar environments and changes to their routine.
Mom and dad have their own goals for their son or daughter. And either consciously or subconsciously, the parents are pushing against the grain with their child. This push is causing even more resistance from the student. And as a ministry team, we feel it. (To the student’s credit, they are probably more in tune with their differences and the realities that accompany them.) In situations like this, a church can easily feel like they are in a no-win situation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. At Woodmen Valley Chapel, we’ve found solutions—great solutions—for scenarios like this.
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To read subsequent posts in this series:
Part 2: Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership
Part 3: 5 Strategies to Include Teens with Special Needs
This past fall, I had the opportunity to visit Church of the Resurrection’s Matthew’s Ministry in Kansas City. If you follow The Inclusive Church on Facebook, you may have caught a few photos from my October 22nd tour. Let me introduce you to Matthew’s Ministry Director, Jennifer Ross. Without knowing it, Jennifer is one of your heroes. I wouldn’t have any information to share on this blog if it weren’t for the handful of special needs ministry leaders who worked to figure things out before the days of Google or social networking sites. Jennifer is one of those people who learned from trial and error, and then shared. Many churches have been influenced by Church of the Resurrection’s special needs ministry and Jennifer’s leadership.
A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer and I were together again when we visited the special needs ministry of Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado. Bless her heart, that meant Jennifer was pelted (again) with my questions and my own rambling conversations about all things special needs ministry. (And I should probably also thank Amanda’s Fonda Restaurant in Colorado Springs because I’m pretty sure they thought I’d never shut my laptop and leave.) Anyway, I’ve done my best to capture a gracious helping of Jennifer’s wisdom here. But I still have pages of unedited notes with golden quotes. (Rumor has it, she’s coming to Orange Conference; I’m starting a petition to have her help with a special needs ministry Q&A session.) ~ AFL
AFL: What tips can you share with other special needs ministry leaders for creating healthy parent support gatherings?
JR: Our special needs ministry has been part of our church’s culture long before Church of the Resurrection became a multisite church with sprawling campuses. We were once a small ministry inside a small- to medium-sized church. Our pastor actually started the ministry after he went to the home of a family who had been recent first-time guests at our church. He wanted to invite the family to come again but realized our church was not prepared to provide care for one family member, Mathew, who had a number of disabilities. The next Sunday our pastor announced an opportunity for our growing congregation and they responded. Within days our church had people serving in what would eventually become “Matthew’s Ministry.” I was one of the first volunteers, and I’ve been leading in a staff position for the last ten years. I share this story for two reasons:
1. To show that a church doesn’t have to be big in order to be inclusive;
2. To explain that our church culture was shaped early on to be supportive of the special needs family.
Over the past 20 years we’ve had the opportunity to try all kinds of things inside our ministry. The “Listen and Learn” parent group is definitely one of our successes. While we are always evolving, I can share some best practices we’ve learned along the way.
1. Value the participants’ time. When you realize how scarce time is for the special needs family, it impacts your own motivation and how you plan the group gathering. We’ve got to make every minute count. If you can’t do 90 minutes well, then only do 45 minutes. I want the moms and dads to leave thinking, that was time well spent. In addition, we recognize that hosting a parent support group gives us a unique opportunity to breathe emotional healing and eternal hope inside these families. We know that some married couples come because they are trying to save their marriage. Seldom do these parents go anywhere together, let alone interact together with other couples on a similar journey. You’ll work to create a more meaningful group experience when you recognize that some parents are relying on this short window of time to provide the emotional glue for their whole family.
2. Focus on creating connection. The featured topics, invited speakers and group dynamics will all be different in a group that’s all about building relationships. In fact, you may find that you don’t need a speaker at all. In today’s world, parents are hungry for connection. With the growing number of online resources and nonprofit educational organizations, families have access to a lot of information. But the Internet and Facebook can’t replace in-person connection. Parents of children with special needs are craving meaningful relationships, especially with others who understand their daily lives. And this need fits into our church’s mission, to build a Christian community where people can connect through relationships.
3. Choose speakers who facilitate healthy dialogue inside the group. It is more important to have a leader who invites group interaction than it is to have a speaker who is a knowledgeable expert. People remember more from the conversations they participate in than from the presentations they hear. Just like our kids, our parents learn experientially too. Interactive discussions help people process new ideas. We have participants gathered around tables, not sitting in rows. Each table has a leader to invite everyone into the dialogue and to help guide the conversation. This table leader may also look for opportunities to make personal introductions and connect people with similar situations, especially when newcomers arrive.
4. Know the needs of your families. Common ground is what brings people together. We work to keep the meetings relevant to everyone there. And we do this by learning about our families and then inviting speakers accordingly. It is also important that invited speakers be versatile enough to address a broad set of life experiences. For example, we tend to shy away from subject matter experts, especially if their focus is too narrow. We see attendance drop off if parents can’t identify with a speaker or topic (i.e., certain diagnosis). Along the same lines, we’ll feel some frustration emerge if the group conversation is dominated by the nuances of one family’s unique situation. If the speaker or table leader is in tune with what’s going on in other families, they will more naturally steer dialogue to keep everyone engaged. And occasionally, we do choose to have a less interactive gathering that features an expert-speaker. But we only do this when we know the presentation will be helpful to and appreciated by the majority of our families.
5. Consider starting the gathering with a shared meal. Food brings people together. And it sets the stage for a relaxed group setting. We host our parent support group on the same weeknight that our church offers a variety of study groups as well as a prepared meal. Our “Listen and Learn” parents all sit together over dinner, catching up on each other’s lives. We encourage anyone with special dietary needs to bring their own food but to still come. Eating together directly impacts the quality of group interaction later. People aren’t going to pour out their hearts to strangers. They’re more likely to ask questions without fearing judgment and share authentically if they feel comfortable with others in the group. The light interactions over dinner are important for these relationships. We’ve also found that if we provide the opportunity for parents to get together in a spiritual setting, naturally meaningful social relationships grow as well.
Jennifer Ross is the Director of Matthew’s Ministry, the Special Needs Ministry of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. Church of the Resurrection is a church devoted to renewing mainline churches. Matthews Ministry offers a comprehensive special needs ministry which includes one-on-one Sunday school assistance, family respite nights, Scout Troops, a handbell choir, and a weekday learning program for adults with intellectual disability. The weekday learning program also runs the Sonflower Bakery, known for selling delicious baked goods. Jennifer also serves as Education Board Chairperson for the Kansas City Down Syndrome Guild. Jennifer has degree in special education and thirty years of experience working with individuals with special needs in schools, state facilities, colleges, and churches. Jennifer’s next dream is to build a boating facility and provide a nautical experience for people with special needs and their families. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @specialneedsdir
Today is this week’s final post promoting the Special Needs Track at the upcoming Orange Conference. Meaghan Wall provides a guest post that captures the very reason she’s teaching the workshop Leading Teen Volunteers.
We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments (below), on Facebook, or Twitter. Anyone who leaves a comment or asks a question BEFORE midnight tonight will be entered to win one FREE OC14 ticket. We’ll announce the winner on the The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page on Monday.
How does your ministry utilize teen volunteers?
We all have people in our lives who forever change who we are and how we see the hand of God working around us. Today as I wrote a Happy Birthday message on the Facebook wall of one such person in my life, I was reminded of the various points over the past seven years where she has challenged me, inspired me, and made me laugh so hard I had tears streaming down my face. Because of this person, I have made changes to the way I do ministry. No longer am I only focused on serving the special needs children and adults at the church, I’m now also focused on raising up leaders. Because of this person, I have learned to delegate, not because I wanted to free up my time to do other things, but because I wanted to give others opportunities to learn, grow, and make mistakes in a safe place. Because of this person, I can honestly say that I have grown as a leader and I am forever grateful.
So today was bitter-sweet in several ways. Sweet because I had the opportunity to reflect on all the good this person has brought to my life , but also sad because I know in a little over seven months this person will move on. I can’t expect to see her on a weekly basis. You see the person I’m referring to turned 18 today. Gracie is her name. She is a high school senior looking forward to venturing off to college after graduation. While I’m already prepared to be a wreck as I’ll have to write in her graduation journal and watch her stand up during Senior Recognition Sunday, I’m excited knowing what the Lord has in store for her. A few years ago Gracie started talking about the things she wanted to do with her life and what she wanted to be when she grew up. Though it has changed some, her interest in working with special needs children has been a constant and I have no doubt the Lord is going to use her in amazing ways.
I tell you this story because it came full circle when I heard Reggie Joiner speak this past Fall at an Orange Tour event in Dallas. During one of the main sessions, Reggie was working through two questions:
- What do I want someone to become?
- Where do I want someone to be so they can become who I want them to become?
Listening to Reggie, I realized he was communicating a mindset I had already adopted, thanks to Gracie. Before Gracie, I viewed my role as Pastoral Leader of Special Needs as one of caring for children and their families. But because of Gracie’s involvement in our ministry, I realized my role was much bigger. I have a responsibility and opportunity to shape future leaders of this church and other churches. And I knew I needed to start leaning into the youth serving in our special needs ministry, with the hopes they would grow into leadership in whatever ministry they found themselves in down the line.
Mentoring and leadership training has since become a major part of our church’s special needs ministry. One small way this has happened began in the summer of 2011 when I formed a leadership team. The purpose of this group was to to help me guide the ministry and keep it moving forward rather than becoming stagnant. I selected two youth to serve on the team. Both students had shown an interest in leadership as well as a desire to pursue some sort of special needs ministry in the future. Gracie was one of the students asked to join our small leadership team. I can honestly say that I saw her grow more because of the increased responsibility and the freedom to make mistakes. Reggie Joiner said it best when he said,
“You can tell a teenager they’re significant and the Lord has a plan for their life. But they’ll never know that until you allow them to be involved in something significant.”
Reggie is right. I’ve seen this firsthand.
While I’m sad knowing Gracie will be leaving our ministry, I’m determined to enjoy every moment she’s still here. I will pour into her all I can to prepare her for for ministry outside our church. And I know the Lord will continue using her to push me in my own development as a leader. I now know that I’m not only a leader of Special Needs, I am also a leader of teens. I am a leader of future leaders. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. ~ Meaghan Wall
This post first appeared on the Orange Blog, Lead Small.
Meaghan Wall is the Pastoral Leader of Special Needs at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas where she has served for the past seven years. Stonebriar Community Church currently welcomes around 100 students with special needs in the GIFT Ministry, providing various opportunities for their families to be actively involved in the church. The GIFT Ministry offers specialized classrooms and inclusion programs on Sunday mornings, a weekly Art Class for teen and adult participants and monthly respite. Meaghan leads training events to help other churches develop and grow their own special needs ministry. Meaghan is a licensed and experienced social worker with a degree from Texas Tech University. Meaghan is currently pursuing a Masters of Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. Connect with Meaghan on Twitter: @meaghan_wall
Meaghan will be leading the following OC14 workshops:
Navigating Behavior Challenges (Preconference)
Leading Teen Volunteers (Conference)
More on Stonebriar’s GIFT Ministry:
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
This week we’re introducing you to Special Needs Track speakers at the upcoming Orange Conference. We’ve had a great week so far, as many of you have interacted with our two previous guest posters. Doc Hunsley shared his story on Monday and on Tuesday he provided tips for starting a special needs ministry. Yesterday (Wednesday), Connie Hutchinson talked about church-based IEPs. Doc and Connie have been busy answering your questions here and on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page. We’ve had an incredible exchange of ideas for the past three days. (This is such a great reader audience! Thank you!)
Today we are spotlighting Katie Garvert, Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I’m also excited to share about an upcoming event that Katie is a big part of this weekend. If you live in Colorado, we’d love for you to join us. (Yes, I’ll be there too!) Woodmen Valley Chapel’s Access Ministries and Awakening Artists are joining together to host Night of Worship: Loving Beyond Our Limits. This special service is to honor, bless, and share stories of church families who are affected by disability. This is a first-time event for Woodmen Valley Chapel and is open to anyone to attend.
In addition, Katie has offered to host a special needs ministry gathering for leaders from other churches immediately preceding this special service. This will be a casual time to talk about special needs ministry, answer questions, and share ideas before going into the Worship Center for Night of Worship. If you live anywhere near Colorado Springs and have an interest in special needs ministry, it doesn’t get much better than this. I am pinching myself, excited to be flying to Colorado for Sunday’s events. I hope to meet those of you who can make arrangements to join us. Here are the details:
Sunday, January 12th
Woodmen Valley Chapel
240 Woodmen Road
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Special Needs Ministry Leader Gathering + Q&A
4:00 – 5:30pm
Worship Center Lower Level, Room #112
RSVP to KGarvert@woodmenvalley.org
A Night of Worship: Loving Beyond Our Limits
WVC’s Worship Center
No RSVP needed
Now, a little about Katie and Orange Conference…Katie has led workshops previously for the Special Needs Track. She’s returning this year to lead two conference breakouts. To give you a taste of Katie’s rich content, we’re linking over to Steve Cullum’s blog, where he provides excellent summaries of Katie’s 2011 Orange Conference Breakouts:
After reading Steve’s posts, I think you’ll understand why Katie is such a popular presenter. Katie is essentially a walking textbook on all things special needs ministry. She has invested tremendously in me personally, leaving her fingerprints of influence on everything I write.
We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments (below), on Facebook, or Twitter. Anyone who leaves a comment or asks a question here or on social media will be entered to win one FREE ticket to The Orange Conference 2014. Names will be added to the drawing through Friday and we’ll announce the winner on Monday, January 13th.
What has worked for your church when including a teen with special needs?
Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves around 90 individuals affected by special needs. Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish special needs inclusion programming over virtually every age group and stage of life for this multi-site church. The Access ministry hosts a dad’s support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and respite camp experiences for students with special needs. Katie also oversees the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry. Through her role with WVC, Katie connects attending families to different agencies in the Rocky Mountain Region while also serving as a family advocate at students’ meetings in schools. Katie frequently speaks at other ministry conferences to train church leaders for better special needs inclusion. Prior to joining the WVC staff, Katie was a special education teacher in the Colorado public school system. You can follow Access Ministries on Facebook and Katie on Twitter.
Katie will be leading two 2014 Orange Conference workshops:
Special Needs Transitions: Middle School, High School, and Beyond
Promoting Spiritual Growth in the Family with Disability
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
CM Connect Radio Interview: Training SpN Ministry Volunteers
This week we’re spotlighting voices featured on the Special Needs Track at the upcoming Orange Conference. Yesterday Doc Hunsley shared 5 Tips for Starting a Special Needs Ministry. In today’s post, Connie Hutchinson answers a question she helped me wrestle through several years ago when I first started writing about special needs inclusion in the church.
We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments and questions (below), on Facebook, or Twitter. Anyone who interacts here or through a linked social media account will be entered to win one FREE ticket to Orange Conference 2014. (Be sure to check out the great conversation and shared pictures on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page from the last couple of days.) Interact with us before midnight Friday and we’ll announce the winner this coming Monday.
What issue have you wrestled through in your ministry?
AFL: For several years there has been discussion regarding whether or not special needs ministries should adopt a similarly modeled plan to an IEP*. As a long-time special needs ministry leader, what are your thoughts on IEPs in the church setting?
CH: When I started in my role as Director of Disabilities Ministry in 1992, I thought our church should do an IEP type of plan for every participating child. Initially, doing the IEP was a good way for our evolving ministry to learn how to better serve the handful of participants with disabilities. Setting up a plan for each child required the church staff and volunteers to work through all the details, such as determining who would walk a child’s companion dog outside during extended periods of church programming. In addition, the IEP meeting taught the church how to create a shared ownership between the church and the parents. The families left these meetings with a good understanding of what role they would play in providing for the successful inclusion of their child.
But as our program grew in numbers and the participants’ needs changed, the IEP process began to hold our ministry back. Over time we discovered some unexpected drawbacks of continuing the IEP approach:
- Prospective volunteers and lay people were intimidated by the idea that would be responsible for furthering a child’s IEP goals while in church care.
- Families began to view their child’s time in church programming as an extension of the child’s prescribed therapy or intervention**. The parents’ expectations of our ministry team grew, further reflecting the view that church was an extension of treatment.
- Some children began dreading church participation because they desired a break from their treatment and therapy routines.
- As the number of ministry participants increased, the time required to facilitate each child’s discussion and documented plan became cumbersome.
Now, twenty some-odd years into special needs ministry, we no longer do church-based IEP’s. Initially we had some pushback when we stopped the formal meetings and documented plans, but that didn’t last long. One of the greatest moments of affirmation came when a mother who had originally been a proponent for Christian IEPs came back to me and said
“Thank you for telling me to relax and to allow Sunday to be Sunday. I think I needed permission to back off from therapy. We are all enjoying Sundays more now without feeling like we have to accomplish an education or therapy related goal while at church.”
When our ministry quit the IEPs, we created a more relaxed atmosphere for the participants as well as the volunteers. Everyone embraced idea that our staff and volunteers all have limitations. Our ministry became more defined and comfortable with our (narrower) objectives. We do still sometimes ask to see a child’s IEP from school so that we can compliment it during church care. And we often talk to parents, more casually, about their goals for their child. As ministry partners entering the lives of these families, we care about their child’s progress. But we no longer hold ourselves to the documented requirements of a church-based IEP.
*An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a formal education plan required by law for public school students receiving services for qualifying special needs. This plan is developed on an individual basis by a team of interested parties (parents, school faculty, intervention providers). An IEP creates goals for the student and the means for their achievement within the public school system. Education and intervention providers involved in a child’s IEP process have responsibilities associated with the IEP, which is a legally binding document with the school. IEP meetings occur at least annually to discuss the progress of a student and set goals for the following year.
**Intervention refers to the planned strategies or educational programs designed to produce behavior changes, academic progress, or health improvements for an individual or group of individuals. In everyday terms, intervention may refer to speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, academic instruction, medical treatment, and/or behavior treatment plans.
Above definitions provided with permission from Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families (reThink, 2013).
Connie Hutchinson is the Director of Disabilities Ministry at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California. Considered to be one of the longest serving special needs ministry staff leaders, Connie has lead EvFree’s disability ministry for nearly twenty-two years. Connie oversees ministry participants’ individualized inclusion plans, five Sunday school classes, weekend programming, and respite, as well as teen and adult connection events. Connie also directs EvFree’s summer experience for kids with special needs, trained teen buddies, and typical peers. Connie has directed camps for teens or abused children in the foster care system for more than ten years. Connie’s husband of forty-two years, Mike, is her most important ministry partner. And Connie considers the lessons learned from her adult daughter Julie, who has Down syndrome, to the most valuable training for her work in the disability arena. Connie proudly shares that Julie was the first person with intellectual disability elected to EvFree Fullerton’s deacon board.
I’ll be interviewing Connie for Orange Preconference workshop, 5 Things Every Special Needs Ministry Leader Should Know.
Interviewing Parents for Special Needs Intake Forms
Questions to Engage the Parent of a Child with Special Needs
5 Things to Know about the Mother of a Child with Autism
Exit Interviews: Your New Secret Weapon in Children’s Ministry
In yesterday’s post Doc shared how being a pediatrician, children’s pastor, and father of a child with autism have all shaped him as a special needs ministry leader. Today, Doc gives great advice to other churches in the early stages of building a special needs ministry. This week’s posts are part of Orange‘s promotion of the Special Needs Track for the upcoming Orange Conference. Be sure to follow @OrangeLeaders on Twitter today because I’m taking over and tweeting all things special needs.
We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments (below), on Facebook, or Twitter. Anyone who leaves a comment or asks a question here or through a linked social media account will be entered to win one FREE ticket to The Orange Conference 2014. We’ll announce the winner next Monday, January 13.
What tip would you share with others beginning a special needs ministry?
AFL: What advice would you share with a church in the initial stages of starting a special needs ministry?
1) Don’t dry to do too much at once. When Grace Church’s children’s pastor asked me to take the reins of the special needs ministry I was ready to go at full speed. Immediately, I wanted to grow the number of ministry participants beyond the three existing families. And so, of course, I wanted to increase the number of buddies and volunteers to match that growth. I also wanted to launch a quarterly respite, begin monthly parent support meetings, and start a ministry for adults with disabilities.
This was a lot to do all at once. I quickly discovered that it was difficult to start getting information out about the ministry in the community at the same time I was trying to recruit volunteers. It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to saddle my enthusiasm enough to pace myself and pace the growth of the ministry.
2) Focus first on building the ministry team. After taking a step back, I decided to make volunteer recruitment and training my first priority. By getting the team in place, we could be prepared for what God was going to do next. Grace Church Senior Pastor Tim Howey blessed us tremendously by allowing me to share the vision of the ministry on a Sunday morning to the whole church. More than 75 new volunteers joined our team as a result of that first vision-casting, giving us the manpower to launch the ministry.
3) Delegate and develop other leaders. Early on, I tried to lead, coordinate, and do everything myself. The ministry was really beginning to flourish. And I quickly became overscheduled and overstretched. In order to grow and sustain the ministry, I needed to develop other leaders. It was a good thing when I redefined my role to be a leader of leaders. That shift enabled other people to get passionate about the vision and share ownership in the ministry. And by having other capable and competent people serving in leadership roles, I was freed to expand the ministry into other areas. Giving others responsibilities also increased my availability to develop relationships with the families. Never underestimate the importance of getting to know the parents, participants, and siblings who are interfacing with your ministry.
4) Network with other churches already doing special needs ministry. Thanks to the help of another church, we started our respite with several best practices already in place. Where I made a mistake was in not being more diligent in pursuing additional conversations with other, more experienced special needs ministry leaders. I now know that just because one church or one ministry leader is less eager to help doesn’t mean the next connection will be the same. Of course there are exceptions, but most church leaders know that you aren’t trying to “steal” their attending families or “compete” in any sense. A competent and self-secure ministry leader recognizes there are far more families in need of a church home than there are churches prepared to welcome them. Churches and families with special needs are both better off if we all succeed.
5) Keep in mind that every special needs ministry is different. What works for one church may not work for another faith community. You must know your church culture and then develop your special needs ministry around it. The church’s stated mission, the pastor’s goals, the surrounding area’s demographics, and the volunteers’ skillset will all shape a special needs ministry.
Perhaps the most important part of starting a special needs ministry is remembering to pray daily for the families and volunteers. And be sure to enjoy the ride as God will bless your ministry!
Dr. Stephen “Doc” Hunsley is the Special Needs and People Care Pastor for Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas. Doc started Grace Church’s special needs ministry in 2011, helping it to become a hallmark ministry for the church. The SOAR (Special Opportunities, Abilities, and Relationships) special needs ministry serves over 170 individuals with special needs through weekend church programming, family support groups, and regular respite events. SOAR also has adult programming on the weekend and plans for a special needs day camp and VBS this coming summer. Doc leads the Kansas City Special Needs Ministries Network, for area church leaders. Prior to serving as a special needs pastor, Doc was a children’s pastor. Doc is a retired pediatrician while his wife, Kay, continues practicing pediatrics. They are proud parents to three beautiful children: Luke, Mark and Sarah. The Hunsley’s middle child, Mark, is presently running the halls of heaven. During Mark’s five-year earthly stay, he gave his family the opportunity to learn from and love a child with autism. You can follow SOAR on Facebook or Connect with Doc on Twitter: @DocHunsley
Doc will be teaching OC14 Preconference workshop, Training Volunteers to be Prepared for Children and Students with Autism.
Orange is having some fun this week promoting the Special Needs Track for the upcoming Orange Conference. If you follow @OrangeLeaders on Twitter, you may notice the special needs emphasis tomorrow, January 7. To coincide with Orange’s promotion, this week we’re also spotlighting voices that you’ll hear at OC14. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, as Doc Hunsley joins us again to share advice for starting a special needs ministry. And you’ll meet the other special needs workshop leaders as the week continues.
We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments here (below), on Facebook, or Twitter. Anyone who leaves a comment or asks a question here or through a linked social media account will be entered to win one FREE ticket to The Orange Conference 2014. You may enter to win through Friday and we’ll announce the winner next Monday, January 13.
What question would you ask Doc?
AFL: As the only pediatrician (that I know of) serving in a church leadership role, how has your background helped you in ministry?
DOC: God has blessed me in preparing me to be Grace Church’s Special Needs and People Care Pastor. Looking back, I can see God’s hand in my story.
Since I was a child, I always wanted to be a pediatrician. I achieved that goal, working as a physician at one of the top children’s hospitals. I loved my job. Unfortunately, I was exposed to some nasty illnesses and, along the way, became very sick myself. I nearly died. Gratefully, my life was spared but ultimately I had to hang up my stethoscope forever. It was a difficult decision but the right decision for my health and my family.
Before going on long-term disability, I hadn’t considered working in ministry and certainly not special needs ministry. As a pediatrician, I took care of many children with special needs. I loved the kids. Candidly, I didn’t always connect with the parents. They seemed demanding. And I would get frustrated at times feeling they weren’t listening to me. But that was before I stepped in their shoes.
In 2005, God blessed my wife and me by making us parents of a child with special needs. Our son, Mark, had autism and Dravet Syndrome, a rare genetic seizure disorder. God provided valuable hands-on experience, helping me understand the unique journey of a special needs family. Little did I know that God was preparing me to build a church’s special needs ministry. Now, virtually everything we do in the SOAR ministry has been shaped in some way from our family’s experience.
After leaving medicine (and recovering from the worst aspects of my illness), I helped in the children’s ministry at the church where my family was active at the time. Eventually, I became the children’s pastor. It was during this time that Mark, age 5 ½, was cured from his physical disabilities and born into heaven. That period and those experiences (as a children’s ministry leader and as a parent wading through the loss of a child) profoundly impacted me.
Now, I can see how God has skillfully groomed me for my role at Grace Church. Because of my background, I have unique opportunities to build relationships and engage in meaningful dialogue. I love helping families understand complex medical issues or assisting parents as they determine the best way to communicate delicate information about their child. And through the death of my son, I can fully relate to the pain of losing a child. I’ve learned a lot about perspective and that’s often what I talk about when walking alongside a family journeying through loss. Time and again, I see where God has enabled me to be a part of conversations with eternal impact.
God has moved my heart from tolerating parents of children with special needs as a pediatrician to now being passionate for the family with special needs as a pastor. Daily, I’m thinking about how our church can impact an entire family, including siblings, parents and grandparents. I know that every member of that family needs to feel love and more importantly needs a place to worship. Special needs ministry is a whole-family ministry.
Consider this, 75 percent of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible where done on those with disabilities. Really, Jesus ran the very first special needs ministry; He loved those with special needs! And as the earthly representative of Christ, the Church’s goal is the same today. Whether meeting the needs of one family or building a larger ministry to serve multiple families, my goal is to see every church equipped for special needs inclusion.
Dr. Stephen “Doc” Hunsley is the Special Needs and People Care Pastor for Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas. Doc started Grace Church’s special needs ministry in 2011, helping it to become a hallmark ministry for the church. The SOAR (Special Opportunities, Abilities, and Relationships) Special Needs Ministry serves over 170 individuals with special needs through weekend church programming, family support groups, and regular respite events. SOAR also has adult programming on the weekend and plans for a special needs day camp and VBS this coming summer. Doc leads the Kansas City Special Needs Ministries Network, for area church leaders. Prior to serving as a special needs pastor, Doc was a children’s pastor. Doc is a retired pediatrician while his wife, Kay, continues practicing pediatrics. They are proud parents to three beautiful children: Luke, Mark and Sarah. The Hunsley’s middle child, Mark, is presently running the halls of heaven. During Mark’s five-year earthly stay, he gave his family the opportunity to learn from and love a child with autism. You can follow SOAR on Facebook or Connect with Doc on Twitter: @DocHunsley
Doc will be teaching OC14 Preconference workshop, Training Volunteers to be Prepared for Children and Students with Autism.
Guest post from Kathryn Couchman
“Wouldn’t it be great if Bridges performed their Christmas pageant for the whole church?”
I responded with nervous laughter, doubting the viability of the idea.
For the past four years, “Bridges”, our ministry for children, teens and adults with special needs, has put on a Christmas pageant. We had seen the performance outgrow a classroom to requiring a small stage and seating for 200. But the proposal to make our Christmas story reenactment the focal point of two Sunday morning worship services seemed risky. Some of our participants would likely struggle with a new and more intimidating environment. And I wondered if our past success had been as much because we performed in front of familiar faces prepared for unscripted surprises. In the end our ministry leaders agreed to have the Bridges Christmas pageant in two Sunday morning services.
In the weeks leading up to the big performance our students and their accompanying onstage helpers attended regular practices. The rehearsals alone generated obstacles as well as comedic relief. During one practice, the student playing Mary became upset, declaring her intention to withdraw from the cast. We negotiated her return by allowing her to wear her favorite E.T. shirt and to hold a special E.T. picture as long as she was in character. Of course that agreement required some planning and explanation since the E.T. shirt would be worn under a Mary costume on the day of the pageant. Meanwhile, the participant serving as our narrator had some confusion as to the responsibilities of the play director versus the play narrator. Again, our skilled ministry leaders navigated diplomatic conversations with success. And in order to get one of shepherd to cooperate during rehearsals, onstage helpers armed themselves with Skittles, offering a single candy anytime this particular cast member followed direction.
The morning of the pageant our ministry leaders gathered to pray before any students arrived. We asked God to exceed our expectations as we released our own anxieties. And God was faithful. Mary and the Angel stepped on stage, reciting their lines perfectly. Joseph and the Donkey quickly joined them, with others following on cue. At times assigned helpers assisted with lines while our students nodded or said, “yes”, in agreement. Mary gave the baby Jesus doll an unscripted hug before gingerly tucking him the manger. A shepherd who refused to dress in costume instead suited up his favorite stuffed animal in shepherd’s attire and held it up during his performance. At one point an angel plopped down on the stage wildly clapping his hands together and the audience soon joined in. Along the way a few performers ad libbed an extra line or two, but who’s to argue what was really said on the night of Jesus’ birth?
One touching moment occurred shortly after our Inn Keeper rolled on stage. This particular student has limited verbal skills, rarely offering one or two words when he is in our ministry. During rehearsals our Inn Keeper performed by nodding in agreement as his assigned helper spoke the given line. But on the morning of the actual pageant our Inn Keeper surprised us. Immediately following Joseph’s scripted line, our Inn Keeper gestured toward the stable and with his own voice said, “It’s not much, but it’s all I have.” Every ministry investor recognized the significance of his eight words. It was the first time any of us had heard him utter a complete sentence. And the lines he recited seemed so ironically fitting.
As the pageant concluded, the student portraying the star was wheeled on stage. An angel who had wandered a bit during her time on stage suddenly became still and attentive. And in a priceless moment, our entire cast portrayed the essence of the pageant’s closing line,
“Everyone was very happy and praised and worshiped God.”
The audience then joined our performers singing Away in a Manger following it with a tearful standing ovation. Listening, I was overwhelmed by God’s presence. God wanted this beautiful re-enactment of His story for our entire church. As our students exited the stage our pastor stepped to the platform, after taking a moment to regain his own composure and before praying. Later our pastor posted the below sentiment on Facebook:
“Today was seriously one of the most powerful portrayals of the Christmas story. For me, the most incarnational moment was when the innkeeper delivered his line, ‘It’s not much, but it’s all I have.’ That was all the sermon I needed.” ~ Matt Whiteford, Lead Pastor of CrossPoint Community Church
And in case you wondered, for me it was the best Christmas pageant ever. ~ Kathryn Couchman
Kathryn Couchman began serving in CrossPoint Community Church’s Bridges Ministry thirteen years ago as a junior high helper. Since then, Kathryn has worked in numerous roles including monthly helper, buddy, and teacher. Currently Kathryn leads the class of older students with learning differences. CrossPoint Community Church is located in Modesto, California. Checkout Kathryn’s previous post, The Gift.
Alicia Weltner wrote and co-directed the Bridges Christmas Pageant. Alicia is a graduate of the theater program at Azusa Pacific University and the daughter of Kathy Weltner, longtime Director of CrossPoint’s Bridges Ministry. Four years ago Alicia approached her mother with the idea of writing a script for ministry participants. Alicia shares “Over the past four years this little dream of mine has grown into one of the greatest blessings I could possibly imagine. No one can prepare you for the beauty of giving such an important story to those who often have no voice.” In January 2014 Alicia will launch an after school program for individuals with special needs with Azusa Renaissance Theatre Company.
Normally we do not cover the topic of Deaf Ministry on The Inclusive Church Blog. However, given the trending news story regarding the controversial sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, I thought this guest post was both timely and helpful to our readers. I am incredibly grateful to Stacy Hodge and Justin Lee for their careful research to produce the following article. ~ AFL
Understanding and Welcoming Individuals who are Deaf
Several years ago I (Stacy) served as an interpreter at church for a young man who was Deaf. Knowing that I was able to sign, another church staff person grabbed me one Sunday morning in a panic:
“We need you to come sign to a woman who has lost her hearing and needs help communicating with us.”
My staff friend rushed me to another area of the church where I found an older lady sitting in a chair. As I began to both speak and sign to her, she looked confused, eventually interrupting (audibly),
“I don’t know sign language.”
This lady had lost her hearing later on in life and never learned sign language; she didn’t need an interpreter, she simply needed a pen and paper to communicate. After providing this lady something to write with, we learned that our fellow worshipper was looking for friends from her ladies Sunday school class. On that particular Sunday those friends had already left for lunch. Our communication dilemma was solved. But we all learned an important lesson that day…just because a person cannot hear does not mean they automatically sign in order to communicate.
Being a former Deaf Education teacher, I have encountered a number of funny situations and questions, reflecting the common misperceptions about individuals who are Deaf or who sign to communicate. One question that I receive surprisingly often is, “Do you know Braille?” I smile and remind those posing the question that Braille is for individuals who cannot see, not for those who cannot hear.
Below are some tips you may find helpful in understanding and welcoming fellow churchgoers who are Deaf or hard of hearing:
Culturally speaking, being “Deaf” and “hard of hearing” are not the same thing. Individuals who prefer to be recognized as Deaf may have a mild to profound hearing loss, use American Sign Language to communicate, and identify with the Deaf culture. When referring to someone as being Deaf with a capital “D”, that signifies the person’s association with the Deaf culture. To use the lower case “d” refers only to the condition of hearing loss and without association to the Deaf culture. Of course these are generalizations and the choices and traits may not apply to every person who does or does not identify themselves as Deaf.
Individuals who consider themselves hard of hearing often identify less with the Deaf culture and more with the hearing world. While some individuals may sign, generally, there is a greater reliance on technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants to aid in communication.
Most Deaf individuals do not have “special needs.” In a sense, a person who benefits from the aid of an interpreter does have a “special” or additional need for accommodation. However because the term “special needs” often implies intellectual disability, is it important not to use the term “special needs” when referring to an individual who has hearing loss. Most individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing are on the same intellectual level as the general population. It is for this reason it is often best to create accommodation for these individuals separate of a church’s special needs ministry.
It is also preferable to avoid referring to individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing as “hearing impaired” or “disabled”. Both of these terms have negative connotations, implying the person has something wrong or needs to be fixed.
Recognize that the Deaf community has their own culture. Much like phrases from different regions or countries, some expressions and ways of relating do not perfectly translate. Occasionally a person who is not Deaf may misinterpret an interaction with a person who is Deaf as insensitive or even rude. In fact that is rarely the case, and more often than not the missed connection or hurt feelings is a function of cultural misunderstanding. Similarly, an individual who is Deaf may miss a social cue inherent to the spoken language and common among hearing individuals.
Always talk directly to the individual. A common mistake many people make is to talk to a nearby friend or an identified interpreter when attempting to communicate with someone who is Deaf. However, this is not appreciated. Look at and speak directly to the person who is Deaf. This gives the person the opportunity to be acknowledged and be part of the conversation.
Seek the services of a qualified interpreter. American Sign Language (ASL) has its own, complex language and needs to be studied just like any other foreign language. A proficient and certified interpreter will be more likely to accurately translate complicated ideas. This is especially important in the church setting where abstract concepts and involved analogies are often used to explain Scripture. Reach out to the interpreting community and local agencies to find a qualified and respected interpreter.
While ASL is the most widely recognized form of communication for individuals who are Deaf, the following other languages are common and require their own qualified interpreters:
- Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART – real-time-closed captioning)
- Signed English
- Total Communication or SimComm
- Speech Reading
- Cued Speech
Keep in mind that ASL is not universal. A person from outside the U.S. may not be familiar with the language. It is also important to note that occasionally the written English of a person who is Deaf can be confusing to someone unfamiliar with American Sign Language. ASL has a sentence structure and grammar sometimes unlike our Standard English. These differences are more evident in writing than in face-to-face dialogue.
Individuals who lose their hearing later in life may never learn sign language. Much like the lady in the opening story, not everyone with hearing loss uses sign language. Over the years these individuals have adapted and learned to communicate in some other way. Don’t be afraid to ask the person what works for them. Pen and paper, pictures, and gestures are all good starting points for establishing initial communication.
Some individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing have learned speech reading. Speech reading is essentially what we think of as reading lips. If a person can communicate via speech reading, it is important to speak normally, keeping your mouth area clear of distractions, all while being mindful of the surrounding environment.
To help the person relying on speech reading, refrain from the following:
- Using exaggerated speech or movements
- Speaking with a raised voice
- Talking while any food or gum is still in your mouth
- Covering your mouth with your hands
- Positioning your face away from the person
- Conversing in a dark or distracting environment
~ Stacy Hodge with Justin Lee
Stacy Hodge is the Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends Texas. She graduated from Baylor University in 2005 with her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders, Deaf Education and a minor in Sign Language Interpreting. Upon graduation, she taught for the middle school Deaf Education program in Round Rock ISD. After a year of teaching, Stacy returned back to Dallas to get her masters in Christian Education. For the past seven years she has been a substitute teacher in a local ISD subbing for Deaf Education Teachers teaching Deaf students ages 3-21. Also, during her time serving at the church, she taught and interpreted for the Deaf. Stacy still holds her certification as a Deaf Education Teacher for the state of Texas. Connect with Stacy on Twitter: @Heart4sn
Justin Lee works full-time interpreting for ZVRS services and is the founder of ASLicherish interpreting agency. He has served with the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board serving Deaf interest groups. Justin is certified at the Advanced level by the state of Texas (BEI) and presents workshops to interpreters nationally based on the experience gained from his mission service along with the education he gained studying Cross Cultural Missions at East Texas Baptist University. Justin and his wife are both experienced interpreters and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Creating a sensory experience and inviting participation during the Bible story is important for every child, especially those with learning differences. Below are a few ideas to involve listeners with special needs in the Christmas story.
Angel Sock Puppet
Make angel sock puppets using white socks, gold pipe cleaners, hot glue, and a Sharpie marker. Retell the story from Luke 1:26-33, 38, 46 and slip an angel puppet on one hand of each listener. As the storyteller shares about the angel’s visit to Mary, invite participants to mouth the angel’s words with their puppets. Be sure to have the storyteller look for opportunities to quote the angel. Students will be more likely to remain attentive if their puppet has opportunities to perform, silently mimicking the angel’s words. The sock angel can be used for all parts of the Christmas story involving the appearance of an angel. For a 2-minute tutorial on making a sock angel puppet, see the video (above) from Orange’s First Look curriculum team.
Provide each listener a handful of torn craft paper or natural raffia. For kids who have an aversion to touching scratchy materials, place the shredded paper inside a sandwich bag. Invite students to quietly manipulate the material (or feel their plastic bag full of torn paper) as the storyteller shares from Luke 2:1-7. The shredded craft paper serves as both a fidget and a concrete tool for helping listeners connect with the story. The storyteller might say things like:
Feel the texture of the papers in your hand.
The papers in your hand (or bag) feel like hay.
Hay is on the ground in a stable instead of carpet.
Hay is placed in a manger for animals to eat.
Mary and Joseph could not find a place to spend the night in Bethlehem.
They had to sleep in a stable.
Baby Jesus was born while Joseph and Mary stayed in the stable.
There wasn’t a bed or a crib for Baby Jesus to lay in.
So Mary placed Baby Jesus on the hay in the manger.
Jesus slept on the soft hay in the manger.
The hay felt a lot like the crinkled paper you are holding.
Make the Bible story feel real and experiential by inserting sound clips as the story is told. For example, when talking about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem, consider playing a 30-second sound bite of a donkey (or horse) clopping along a dirt road. Invite kids to take turns carrying a backpack or riding a stick horse around the room, walking to the pace of the playing sound clip. The storyteller might say things like:
Joseph and Mary went on a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
They did not have a car to help them get to Bethlehem.
They had to ride or walk alongside a donkey.
(Play sound clip of donkey walking, repeat as needed)
Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem sounded like this.
(Continue/repeat sound clip of donkey walking)
Let’s walk like Joseph and Mary walked to Bethlehem.
(Walk to pace of playing horse trot)
It was a long way between Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Joseph and Mary walked like this for four days.
Sound clips can be found by using an internet search engine and typing the description of the sound you want to play. I found several good clips for this example by using Google and typing “sound clip horse walking on dirt road” in the search bar. My favorite clip was offered as a free preview and download for purchase at SoundClip.com (titled “horse trot and wander on dirt”). Many of you are more savvy when it comes to technology and uploading media, feel free to share ideas in the comments to this post.
Of course you can make your own, however Oriental Trading Company has a glittery star wand (originally purposed for princess birthday parties) that can be used to engage kids during the Christmas story. Provide each listener a star wand to hold during the retelling of the Wise men’s visit to Baby Jesus (Matthew 2). Invite participants to wave their star in the sky anytime the storyteller says the word “star” or makes reference to its amazing display in the sky.
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~ Amy Fenton Lee