Plug in the Professional
Not surprising, the greatest challenge for most churches starting a special needs ministry is in finding committed volunteers. Reflecting on a number of conversations with churches in the early stages of special needs inclusion, two mistakes frequently surface as to how a church is recruiting and using special needs volunteers:
1) Churches primarily recruit individuals who are weekday professional educators, pediatric therapists or medical providers to serve as volunteer caregivers.
2) Churches fail to consult individuals who are employed in these same fields for advisement.
Special education teachers and pediatric therapists may seem like the ideal target group to provide teaching and one-on-one care for individuals with special needs. However if the children’s ministry is banking on this group of weekday professionals to serve as special needs buddies and Sunday morning teachers, the result will likely yield a group of “drafted” rather than “called” ministry helpers. Don’t be surprised if after time these volunteers lack the endurance and enthusiasm needed to sustain any ministry, let alone special needs. In his book, Children’s Ministry Volunteers that Stick (Group, 2004), Jim Wideman shares that he rarely recruits professional educators as Sunday school teachers for typical environments. Wideman humorously explains that if these people are teaching “all week long,” then by Sunday morning “they’re tuckered out.” Wideman wisely advises using professional educators during their downtime and when they are fresh, such as for a summer Vacation Bible School.
While Wideman’s book is written with the typical children’s ministry in mind, this point and many others in his book, relate well to special needs ministry. Most people employed as special educators or medical providers spend their work hours emotionally engaged with the special needs population. Relationally speaking, these individuals may require Sunday (or Wednesday) to recharge before heading back to their own respective fields of ministry.
Now, having said the above, let me address mistake #2. Don’t miss out on talents and experience of this same group of professionals! Special education teachers, pediatric therapists and medical providers can provide invaluable (and free!) guidance for a church’s special needs ministry. Special needs professionals often relish the idea of utilizing their gifts and experience to make an eternal impact. And regardless of their religion or faith, every special needs provider I’ve encountered has a deep personal interest in helping families affected by disability develop a support system.
Listed below are ways professionals may enjoy giving their time and talents to a church’s special needs ministry.
- Develop and lead volunteer training for special needs caregivers.
- Teach volunteers behavior management strategies for church environments.
- Observe ministry programming for general guidance or student specific advisement.
- Review existing curriculum and suggest modifications for different learners.
- Consult on use of nonverbal communication strategies, utilizing picture symbols or sign language.
- Conduct or Assist in an intake meeting between parents and special needs ministry.
- Develop manipulative visual and tactile boards for demonstration of Bible lesson.
- Offer appropriate craft ideas suitable for participants’ capabilities.
- Recommend equipment and physical aides for special needs environments.
- Create a list of common special needs diagnoses for manual or ministry handbook.
- Speak at a ministry-sponsored function or support group in area of expertise.
- Advise staff on pertinent and current trends in education and healthcare.
- Conduct ministry risk assessment and counsel church staff on best practices for risk management.
- Assist church staff in creating special needs programming policies & procedures.
- Devise a space plan and layout of special needs classroom(s) and facilities.
- Design sensory murals and tactile art for ministry area.
P.S. For anyone on the hunt for volunteer recruitment & retention best practices, I HIGHLY recommend Jim Wideman’s book, Children’s Ministry Volunteers That Stick (Group, 2004). This book is a must-read for all special needs ministry startups! See www.jimwideman.com to order this book. – Amy Fenton Lee
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