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Special Needs Training for Church Greeters

January 19, 2011

Grace Church (Greenville, SC) recently hosted a special needs education event for the church’s hospitality team and the children’s ministry greeters.  The volunteer training was tailored to equip the church volunteers who represent the first faces a newcomer might encounter when stepping onto one of Grace Church’s campuses.  This post is a follow up to my earlier post Special Needs: Managed or Ministered To?

Emily McGowan, Grace Church’s Special Needs Ministry Coach, shares the following about why the church launched this training event:

“Until recently, many of our church members weren’t aware that our children’s ministry has a plan for special needs inclusion.  As a result, prospective visitors or even already attending families affected by special needs could have missed out on a meaningful church experience.  Our church is now in the midst of a strategic effort to educate our faith community for how and why we include children with special needs.   The goal of the host team training was to equip church volunteers who serve as connectors and conduits for first-time guests.  If a new family affected by any type of special needs arrives on our campus, we want to make sure their first-time experience is positive – and that they feel comfortable worshiping at Grace Church.”

The purpose of the host team equipping event was to provide an overview of how Grace Church anticipates and accommodates a wide range of special needs.  As follows below, Grace Church has kindly granted me permission to provide the details of this training.  I hope other churches will benefit from this material.  (From my perspective, the training event was outstanding!)

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Special Needs Ministry Overview

The church’s hospitality coordinator started the event by introducing and interviewing the special needs ministry coaches to the host team members.  She posed the following questions to the interviewed special needs team members.  (I have provided their answers in cases where it may be helpful.)

How did you get involved in the church’s special needs ministry?

How do you define special needs in terms of ministry and this church?

Answer: Any need a family member may have that requires some forethought in order to ensure that family’s church experience is meaningful and safe.  This can include severe allergies, medical issues, or cognitive differences.

What happens when a first-time guest notifies us that their child has special needs?

Answer: The family is introduced to the children’s ministry host team, who asks the parents to complete a special needs intake form.  After a quick assessment, the kidmin host or special needs coach may assign the child to the best environment for that morning.   Then later, the children’s ministry and special needs team will follow up with the family and together develop a plan for longer term inclusion.

What should a greeter do/say if they suspect a new guest has an undisclosed disability?

Answer: The greeter should not press the issue of a disability with the family.  The greeter may want to privately notify the children’s ministry team of their observations, with the intent of facilitating a successful and safe church experience for the family.

What options does our church provide for special needs inclusion?

Answer: The special needs ministry coach talked about the church’s special needs self contained classroom and the buddy system, explaining the difference between these two inclusion options.

Could a host ask parents to recommend an age group to which they would like to see their child with special needs assigned?

Answer: It is best for the hospitality and welcome team members to avoid asking questions about a child’s placement.  The children’s ministry leaders and special needs coaches often take a number of factors into account before assigning a child to a certain environment – and those parent conversations can require delicate diplomacy!

Terminology & Tone

Phrasing and terminology related to special needs can be very sensitive.  Grace Church’s special needs champion (a former special education teacher) offered some general pointers including:

  • Take the parents’ lead, using their same terminology when talking with the family or introducing them to others.
  • Always use person first language saying “child with Down syndrome” or “child with autism” (not “Downs Syndrome Child” or “autistic child”).  For more on this subject see the blog post Politically Correct Wording
  • Do not refer to the family as a “special needs family”.
  • When paging other team members, do not say “I have a special needs family here”.  Simply say, “I have a family I would like you to meet.”
  • Be mindful of tone of voice.  A family affected by special needs will likely pick up on their host’s stress or concerns.
  • It is important to convey that the church cares more about the child and the family than the disability.

Buddy Etiquette & Responsibilities

While some children may be best suited for a self contained special needs environment, many children with disabilities thrive among their typical peers.  In these cases, a buddy or shadow may be assigned to provide comfort and consistency to the child.

  • For children assigned a buddy/shadow, teachers and peers should speak directly to the child and not the buddy.
  • Buddies are provided for a specific child who may need assistance.   Buddies are to function as a means for a specific child’s inclusion and not as an additional classroom helper.
  • Many of Grace Church’s buddies have developed long term relationships with their matched children and their families.  Some buddies have gone with the family to school IEP meetings or the child’s therapy in order to better help their assigned student.

Parent Experience

The hospitality coordinator then provided the audience the opportunity to better understand families affected by special needs.  See my earlier post Special Needs: Managed or Ministered To? for more about this part of the training event.   Two sets of parents affected by special needs were then interviewed.  These families shared powerful examples allowing listeners to understand the importance of their interactions inside the church.  Comments and questions that may seem inconsequential to a host team member or a children’s ministry servant are often significant to a family affected by special needs.  The interviewed families then provided excellent stories of how they perceived a church interaction to be positive or negative.  The coordinator asked the following questions, keeping the dialogue focused and the training on time:

Tell us about your family

How is parenting a child with special needs different than parenting a typical child?

If you were visiting a church for the first time and from the perspective of a special needs parent, what would you hope to see?

How has the special needs ministry of Grace Church impacted your family?

How can we be a more welcoming church for families affected by special needs?

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For a short video about Grace Church’s special needs ministry and the story of an impacted family, see Grace Church’s webpage on special needs.  Grace Church’s Children’s Ministry blog also has two excellent posts:  Special Needs Equipping Follow-Up and What do we mean by Special Needs?

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