When Special Needs Ministry Becomes “Not My Problem”
This past fall a leader in children’s ministry circles asked me the following question:
“How can a church staff work together when ministering to children with special needs?”
Successful special needs inclusion requires coordinating solution-oriented conversations across multiple ministries within a church. Embracing a family affected by special needs and intertwining them into the fabric of a congregation often occur because of a shared ownership between any set of ministries or staff members. Conversely, if the “not my area of responsibility” mentality creeps into the mindset of any single staff member or lay leader, efforts to include children with special needs are poised to fail.
Recently I heard the story of a young mother who dropped out of her midweek women’s Bible study. This mother’s preschool-aged daughter was diagnosed with a mild autism spectrum disorder mid-year through the women’s Bible study. Everyone agreed that by providing an additional childcare worker for the already understaffed nursery (and to occasionally work one-on-one with this specific child), recurring behavior challenges and worker frustrations could be solved. Unfortunately a standoff emerged between the children’s ministry and women’s ministry directors over whose budget would cover the added childcare worker’s expense. The unwillingness of either staff member to give in eventually caused a frustrated and embarrassed young mother to quit attending her church altogether.
Shifting Responsibility Outside of Children’s Ministry
Occasionally I hear the story of a children’s ministry team who wants to shed all responsibility for special needs accommodation. This scenario tends to occur in a church with a larger staff and where the argument arises that a pastoral care-type ministry could better serve families affected by special needs. While there is good logic to involving a care team in the church’s ministry to such a family, successful inclusion of the child with differences requires ownership from inside the children’s ministry. If parents, volunteers, and other staff members perceive the children’s ministry team has developed a “not my problem” type attitude towards disability inclusion, failure is likely imminent. Unfortunately not everyone serving in a ministry role demonstrates a true calling to ministry. And when an attitude of excellence is absent and a “not my problem” mind-set rears its ugly head, a leadership deficiency and an unrecognized issue of sin are likely present.
Personal Note: Sin is often embedded so deep inside us that without active and prayerful reflection we miss opportunities for confession and spiritual growth. The need for reflection, humility, and personal accountability is no less important for a person serving in a position of church leadership. And if a leader recognizes a diminishing personal passion for Kingdom-minded work, God may be calling the lay servant or staff member out of ministry for a season of spiritual renewal.
The negative examples like those shared above are not representative of all church leaders. More often I hear stories where children’s ministry teams are going to great lengths to embrace a child with differences. But these examples illustrate why broad staff support for special needs is so important.
Collaborating Across Ministries for Solutions
Briarwood Presbyterian Church (Birmingham, AL) provides a great example of a collaborative staff effort to effectively serve children with special needs. When the demand for special needs buddies exploded a couple of years ago inside the children’s ministry, the high school minister quickly agreed to allow 36 of his students to serve in a once-a-month buddy rotation. Whereas this church leader could have fought against the idea of regularly losing his most trusted and active program participants, the youth pastor recognized the opportunity for all involved. Ultimately the youth serving in the special needs ministry have been impacted personally, growing spiritually because of their service. The 3-way partnership between Briarwood’s student ministry, the children’s ministry, and the Special Connections Ministry continues to be successful because of a true team effort and a non egocentric student pastor.
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For more on this topic, see my earlier post:
To read more about Briarwood Presbyterian Church’s use of teens inside their Special Connections Ministry see: