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More on Getting Started in SpNeedsMin (& thoughts for small churches)

June 18, 2011

Recently several of my articles written for other publications were made available to readers through other websites.  All of these articles provide guidance on helping a church launch a special needs ministry.

Special Needs Ministry Checklist (written for ministry-to-children.com)

Special Needs:  Getting Started and the Pre-Launch Path (originally written for K! Magazine and now made available through headhearthand.com).

Communicating a Vision for Special Needs Inclusion (written for OrangeLeaders.org)

Leading through the A’s of Special Needs Inclusion (written for OrangeLeaders.org)

Leading Leaders of Special Needs Ministry (written for OrangeLeaders.org)

For more help with links to sample forms and best practices, see the earlier post:  Starting a Special Needs Ministry

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A few thoughts on small churches…

This week I was in discussion with someone about the responsibility and expectations for inclusion inside a small church.  First I want to say that everyone defines big and small differently.  The church with 200 children attending on any given Sunday morning may consider their program small when comparing themselves to the mega-church around the corner.  And to the rural church with a part-time or volunteer children’s pastor that includes 50 children (or fewer) on any given weekend….the church with 200 participants seems huge!  In the end, emphasizing small vs. large can be dangerous and used as an excuse for a ministry leader to distance themselves from a responsibility for inclusion.  Some children’s ministries may not have all the bells and whistles of another church due to a lack of resources.  But there is never justification for leading a ministry without a spirit of excellence.  Not every church leader has the same work ethic.  Without a doubt a staff person’s personal drive and ability (or inability) to wisely mange their time has direct bearing on their willingness to accommodate children with special needs.

However, I would be doing smaller churches a disservice if I didn’t recognize the differences for churches of varying sizes and resources.  My father is and has been a church senior pastor my entire life.  He has pastored churches of all shapes and sizes…serving as a part-time preacher for a rural congregation  many years ago to now leading a church blessed with numerous staff members and an abundant volunteer base.  From personal experience I can say that smaller churches do have more limitations.  Creating a buddy rotation for a single child on Sunday mornings may be a considerable accomplishment.  Especially for churches staffed with bi-vocational, part-time, and volunteer leaders, coordinating a special needs inclusion program may be close to impossible. In churches where staff members are wearing multiple hats, there are real physical limitations on that church.  As a pastor’s daughter who heard the home phone ring at all hours with needs inside our congregation, the expectations for a church staff can be daunting.  Even the best pastors cannot meet every legitimate need inside their church.  For a smaller church with fewer staff members, it can be more challenging to fully minister to the family and child impacted by special needs.

If you are a leader of a small church, do your best to accommodate the needs in your midst.  Work  so that the families God has brought to your church can remain active on Sunday mornings.  Create a partnership with the parents (when possible) while taking ownership for finding and equipping special needs helpers.  Initiate a relationship with the parents and provide followup communication as if you were walking in their shoes.  And remember, you are reporting to the highest authority.  There is a higher expectation of ministry leaders.  And while it may not always be fair, it is Biblical (1 Timothy).  (For a staff person serving in any size of church…if planning, organizing, and managing the sometimes necessary details of children’s ministry and special needs inclusion is something you dread, pray for God’s guidance.  Take the time to do meaningful self-examination and address those weaknesses.  Sometimes ministry minded individuals are actually better suited for lay ministry where the requirements of administration, organization, and follow-through are less crucial).  

If you are the parent of a child with special needs, do your best to share some ownership in coordinating the care for your child – especially initially.  If you observe a staff person who exhibits a high personal work ethic and evidence of legitimate efforts to include your child, give grace when your family experiences a set-back (perhaps an assigned buddy is a no-show one week).   Pace your hopes and expectations while also placing yourself in the ministry leader’s shoes.  Think about what you can do to ensure the church leader’s success (they fear failure too!).  If your family experiences push-back or an ongoing lack of follow-through from the church staff, pray for God’s hand in the situation.  Sometimes God calls for perseverance and other times He directs us elsewhere…where a path for inclusion has already been paved.

7 Comments
  1. “If you are a leader of a small church, do your best to accommodate the needs in your midst. Work so that the families God has brought to your church can remain active on Sunday mornings.”I

    Honestly, that was not enough. Even small churches need to find out the family situation. I wanted to sing in the choir and participate in Bible studies for women, and without child care, I could not. We had no family nearby and struggled to find sitters. Small churches can provide names of potential sitters to the family or step up so that the parents can be active participants in other ministries and outreaches. I know that expecting child care for the child with special needs at church activities all of the time is not practical; however the Sunday morning mentality kept me from participating the way I wanted to. I wasn’t able to participate in other areas of my life, either, and not being able to get to know folks at church and pitch in because I had the responsibility of my child w/ special needs really stung.

  2. Penny –

    Thanks so much for candidly sharing. I think your experience and desires reflect those of many parents of children with special needs. Undoubtedly families like yours can benefit tremendously when the church is able to expand their accommodations beyond Sunday morning.

    Finding, coordinating, and sometimes paying for competent childcare is the biggest dilemma for most churches. One church I recently talked with secured a fantastic sitter to provide onsite Sunday care for a specific child with autism (the child is moderately impacted with notable learning and behavioral differences). I sat down with the children’s pastor and the parents of that child this past week. They openly shared of how they had helped each other over what has now been a 10-year partnership. In this case, the parents had developed a good database of special needs resources and they provided the name of the skilled professional to the church. This lady trained the church volunteers and at times even assisted the church in providing care. The family was thrilled and surprised when the church followed through on their promises, working so hard to successfully accommodate the child with special needs every single Sunday morning. And the children’s pastor said she knew she had the support and the appreciation of the family – even though she wasn’t able to provide special care for every setting and environment. Because of this parent-church relationship, that church has step-by-step warmed to and grown in their special needs inclusion. It was a blessing for everyone this past week as we saw the church’s VBS include and spiritually advance two participants significantly impacted by autism.

    One thing to mention…churches may be hesitant to provide the name of sitters due to liability.

    Providing childcare through mid-week Bible studies and choir practice are additional opportunities and challenges. I am familiar with churches who understand the parents’ desires and are trying to figure out how to accommodate through these settings. The discussion(s) for including working mothers and/or single parents are similar as there is a need for night-time studies and childcare. Even the mega-churches struggle in all of these areas.

    Many of these challenges/dilemmas/opportunities are not easily solved (I can’t wait until heaven!). Again, as a pastor’s daughter (my dad is still 100% at it!), there are usually so many needs and moving parts behind the scenes. Yes, there are lazy, incompetent, and apathetic people serving in ministry. I’ll be the first to recognize problem people and inadequate efforts related to churches and ministry….don’t get me started! But oftentimes churches are trying really hard to adequately address the needs inside their faith community while still operating within the constraints of their church’s resources and the needs of their own family.

  3. Hi5! Sharing Making Room , The Inclusive Church , Special Needs Ministry in discussion: ‘What about The Church?’ a perspective of Inclusion and Integration in the pews.ENJOY! http://t.co/gVabzJq

  4. Very helpful. Will be sharing. Thanks!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Implementing a S.N. Program in a Small Church « The Inclusive Church
  2. Starting a Special Needs Ministry « The Inclusive Church
  3. PRACTICAL PRESCHOOL: Special Needs Edition « HUSBAND. DADDY. PRESCHOOL GUY.

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