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5 Tips for Starting a Special Needs Ministry (OC14 Spotlight: Doc Hunsley)

January 7, 2014

In yesterday’s post Doc shared how being a pediatrician, children’s pastor, and father of a child with autism have all shaped him as a special needs ministry leader.  Today, Doc gives great advice to other churches in the early stages of building a special needs ministry.  This week’s posts are part of Orange‘s promotion of the Special Needs Track for the upcoming Orange Conference. Be sure to follow @OrangeLeaders on Twitter today because I’m taking over and tweeting all things special needs.

We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments (below), on Facebook, or Twitter.  Anyone who leaves a comment or asks a question here or through a linked social media account will be entered to win one FREE ticket to The Orange Conference 2014.  We’ll announce the winner next Monday, January 13.

What tip would you share with others beginning a special needs ministry?  

The Inclusive Church on Facebook
Amy Fenton Lee on Twitter
The Inclusive Church on Twitter
Doc Hunsley on Twitter


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AFL: What advice would you share with a church in the initial stages of starting a special needs ministry?


1) Don’t dry to do too much at once. When Grace Church’s children’s pastor asked me to take the reins of the special needs ministry I was ready to go at full speed. Immediately, I wanted to grow the number of ministry participants beyond the three existing families. And so, of course, I wanted to increase the number of buddies and volunteers to match that growth. I also wanted to launch a quarterly respite, begin monthly parent support meetings, and start a ministry for adults with disabilities.

This was a lot to do all at once. I quickly discovered that it was difficult to start getting information out about the ministry in the community at the same time I was trying to recruit volunteers. It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to saddle my enthusiasm enough to pace myself and pace the growth of the ministry.

2) Focus first on building the ministry team. After taking a step back, I decided to make volunteer recruitment and training my first priority. By getting the team in place, we could be prepared for what God was going to do next. Grace Church Senior Pastor Tim Howey blessed us tremendously by allowing me to share the vision of the ministry on a Sunday morning to the whole church. More than 75 new volunteers joined our team as a result of that first vision-casting, giving us the manpower to launch the ministry.

3) Delegate and develop other leaders. Early on, I tried to lead, coordinate, and do everything myself. The ministry was really beginning to flourish. And I quickly became overscheduled and overstretched. In order to grow and sustain the ministry, I needed to develop other leaders. It was a good thing when I redefined my role to be a leader of leaders. That shift enabled other people to get passionate about the vision and share ownership in the ministry. And by having other capable and competent people serving in leadership roles, I was freed to expand the ministry into other areas. Giving others responsibilities also increased my availability to develop relationships with the families. Never underestimate the importance of getting to know the parents, participants, and siblings who are interfacing with your ministry.

4) Network with other churches already doing special needs ministry. Thanks to the help of another church, we started our respite with several best practices already in place. Where I made a mistake was in not being more diligent in pursuing additional conversations with other, more experienced special needs ministry leaders.  I now know that just because one church or one ministry leader is less eager to help doesn’t mean the next connection will be the same.  Of course there are exceptions, but most church leaders know that you aren’t trying to “steal” their attending families or “compete” in any sense. A competent and self-secure ministry leader recognizes there are far more families in need of a church home than there are churches prepared to welcome them.  Churches and families with special needs are both better off if we all succeed.

5) Keep in mind that every special needs ministry is different. What works for one church may not work for another faith community. You must know your church culture and then develop your special needs ministry around it. The church’s stated mission, the pastor’s goals, the surrounding area’s demographics, and the volunteers’ skillset will all shape a special needs ministry.

Perhaps the most important part of starting a special needs ministry is remembering to pray daily for the families and volunteers.   And be sure to enjoy the ride as God will bless your ministry!


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Dr. Stephen “Doc” Hunsley is the Special Needs and People Care Pastor for Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas. Doc started Grace Church’s special needs ministry in 2011, helping it to become a hallmark ministry for the church. The SOAR (Special Opportunities, Abilities, and Relationships) special needs ministry serves over 170 individuals with special needs through weekend church programming, family support groups, and regular respite events. SOAR also has adult programming on the weekend and plans for a special needs day camp and VBS this coming summer. Doc leads the Kansas City Special Needs Ministries Network, for area church leaders. Prior to serving as a special needs pastor, Doc was a children’s pastor. Doc is a retired pediatrician while his wife, Kay, continues practicing pediatrics. They are proud parents to three beautiful children: Luke, Mark and Sarah. The Hunsley’s middle child, Mark, is presently running the halls of heaven. During Mark’s five-year earthly stay, he gave his family the opportunity to learn from and love a child with autism. You can follow SOAR on Facebook or Connect with Doc on Twitter: @DocHunsley

Doc will be teaching OC14 Preconference workshop, Training Volunteers to be Prepared for Children and Students with Autism.

Related Posts:
Starting a Special Needs Ministry
Leading a Special Needs Ministry (Book)
Volunteer Training DVD
Special Needs Ministry Checklist

  1. I have started a Special Needs class at my church in the last year. Most of the kids in my class are picked up by church members and the parents are not involved. Any suggestions on how to get the parents more involved?
    Chuck Cardwell
    Chattanooga TN

  2. I serve in a bilingual immigrant church where we are limited in what we can offer in the area of special needs ministry. I know some families with special needs who want to take their children to a church with an established special needs ministry. But then they face language obstacles. How can churches with special needs ministry be more inclusive to families who are not primarily English-speaking?

  3. Chuck Cardwell – Congrats on starting the class! I love hearing this! The parents really don’t care what you know until they know that you care! If you do not have a lot of kids, I would encourage you to call these families each week, tell them what a joy it is having their child, if you can, tell them something good that their child had done, and then let them know that you are praying for their child and their family and that you wanted to see if there was something specific that you could pray about for them. If you feel comfortable, pray with them right there on the phone. The families will quickly see how much you care and may be more willing to try church themselves! Praying for you and your class! Thanks for the comment!

  4. Debbie Clark permalink

    What a wonderful thing you are doing, Doc! Children with special needs have a special connection with Jesus. He is their friend, and in most cases, their only friend. When I taught the class in the special needs ministry, each child was eager to lead in prayer. I tried to make the class fun and of course spiritually based when we studied Bible Stories — I used lots of puppets and scenery and the kids really loved my special sound effects machine! They felt like they were part of the congregation.

  5. Franktan – Thanks for the question. This is tough. You may want to try to reach out to the community and see if there are any organizations that are bilingual. Throw out Facebook or Twitter comments that you are looking for bilingual individuals to serve with special needs and see what happens. Obviously, I highly recommend a background check on any volunteer before serving if possible, but start asking around and friends of friends. You might be amazed by what you learn! Praying for your ministry!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story! My husband & I are parents of twins with Autism. God has opened our eyes to the special needs community & the pain & isolation that can come with it. We are in the beginning stages of initiating a special needs ministry in our small church in Maryland. We are so thankful for all of the great resources from leaders like you & Amy, & the awesomeness that is Orange!!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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