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When Special Needs Ministry Becomes “Not My Problem”

March 1, 2011

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.

Budget Disagreements

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:

Church Staff – Team Approach to Special Needs Ministry

To read more about Briarwood Presbyterian Church’s use of teens inside their Special Connections Ministry see:

Using Teens as Special Needs Buddies

Teen Buddy Training

4 Comments
  1. Awesome post, these are issues we at Northland have had to work through. Our concern has never been whose budget, but is there budget. In the beginning we offered trained volunteers and as our program grows we train our childcare workers so we can accomodate these needs. The heart of Christ is to see all of His children cared for and equipped for service.

    In terms of responsiblity, I am a paid person and I coordinate things through-out the church. I work with Children’s ministry, student ministry, care ministry and our congreegational services teams to ensure all peole are cared for in a respectful manner!

    We have a long way to go, but it is fun because I have watched our team be transformed from what to………….how can we help. Parking teams come to me asking what to do for events, our security wants to know when our friends are on campus so they can be aware incase one of our friends decides to run!

    Disability crosses all departments!

  2. Laura Lee –

    LOVE your comment! And love what YOU are doing!

  3. this brought tears to my eyes- both the good and the bad! I LOVE the youth pastor who was so willing to share his youth with the kiddos who need them. Brilliant.

    I know from our personal experience that some of the teens who have befriended my son over the years have made a HUGE impact on him (and us). One teen in particular befriended my son before he was “diagnosed”- back when folks just thought we were terrible parents and my son was out of control. This teen took time out of his own life and stepped willingly into my son’s world. Now, a full two years after we moved away from that town my son still writes him letters and considers him one of his very best friends ever. The crazy part is that many in our church had already discounted that teen as “rebellious” just because he had a few piercings and dressed a little differently.

    We must not underestimate how wonderful the teens in our church are and what an amazing impact they can have on our children- those with special needs and those without alike.

    Thanks for this post Amy!

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  1. Checklist for Special Needs Children's Ministry

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