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Churches and IEPs (OC14 Spotlight: Connie Hutchinson)

January 8, 2014

This week we’re spotlighting voices featured on the Special Needs Track at the upcoming Orange Conference.  Yesterday Doc Hunsley shared 5 Tips for Starting a Special Needs Ministry.  In today’s post, Connie Hutchinson answers a question she helped me wrestle through several years ago when I first started writing about special needs inclusion in the church.

We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments and questions (below), on Facebook, or Twitter.  Anyone who interacts here or through a linked social media account will be entered to win one FREE ticket to Orange Conference 2014.  (Be sure to check out the great conversation and shared pictures on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page from the last couple of days.) Interact with us before midnight Friday and we’ll announce the winner this coming Monday.

What issue have you wrestled through in your ministry?  

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AFL:   For several years there has been discussion regarding whether or not special needs ministries should adopt a similarly modeled plan to an IEP*.  As a long-time special needs ministry leader, what are your thoughts on IEPs in the church setting?

CH:   When I started in my role as Director of Disabilities Ministry in 1992, I thought our church should do an IEP type of plan for every participating child. Initially, doing the IEP was a good way for our evolving ministry to learn how to better serve the handful of participants with disabilities.   Setting up a plan for each child required the church staff and volunteers to work through all the details, such as determining who would walk a child’s companion dog outside during extended periods of church programming.  In addition, the IEP meeting taught the church how to create a shared ownership between the church and the parents.  The families left these meetings with a good understanding of what role they would play in providing for the successful inclusion of their child.

But as our program grew in numbers and the participants’ needs changed, the IEP process began to hold our ministry back.  Over time we discovered some unexpected drawbacks of continuing the IEP approach:

  • Prospective volunteers and lay people were intimidated by the idea that would be responsible for furthering a child’s IEP goals while in church care.
  • Families began to view their child’s time in church programming as an extension of the child’s prescribed therapy or intervention**.  The parents’ expectations of our ministry team grew, further reflecting the view that church was an extension of treatment.
  • Some children began dreading church participation because they desired a break from their treatment and therapy routines.
  • As the number of ministry participants increased, the time required to facilitate each child’s discussion and documented plan became cumbersome.

Now, twenty some-odd years into special needs ministry, we no longer do church-based IEP’s.  Initially we had some pushback when we stopped the formal meetings and documented plans, but that didn’t last long.  One of the greatest moments of affirmation came when a mother who had originally been a proponent for Christian IEPs came back to me and said

Thank you for telling me to relax and to allow Sunday to be Sunday.  I think I needed permission to back off from therapy.  We are all enjoying Sundays more now without feeling like we have to accomplish an education or therapy related goal while at church.

When our ministry quit the IEPs, we created a more relaxed atmosphere for the participants as well as the volunteers.  Everyone embraced idea that our staff and volunteers all have limitations.  Our ministry became more defined and comfortable with our (narrower) objectives.  We do still sometimes ask to see a child’s IEP from school so that we can compliment it during church care.  And we often talk to parents, more casually, about their goals for their child.  As ministry partners entering the lives of these families, we care about their child’s progress.  But we no longer hold ourselves to the documented requirements of a church-based IEP.

*An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a formal education plan required by law for public school students receiving services for qualifying special needs. This plan is developed on an individual basis by a team of interested parties (parents, school faculty, intervention providers). An IEP creates goals for the student and the means for their achievement within the public school system. Education and intervention providers involved in a child’s IEP process have responsibilities associated with the IEP, which is a legally binding document with the school.   IEP meetings occur at least annually to discuss the progress of a student and set goals for the following year.
**Intervention refers to the planned strategies or educational programs designed to produce behavior changes, academic progress, or health improvements for an individual or group of individuals.  In everyday terms, intervention may refer to speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, academic instruction, medical treatment, and/or behavior treatment plans.
Above definitions provided with permission from Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families (reThink, 2013).


Connie Hutchinson is the Director of Disabilities Ministry at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California. Considered to be one of the longest serving special needs ministry staff leaders, Connie has lead EvFree’s disability ministry for nearly twenty-two years.  Connie oversees ministry participants’ individualized inclusion plans, five Sunday school classes, weekend programming, and respite, as well as teen and adult connection events.  Connie also directs EvFree’s summer experience for kids with special needs, trained teen buddies, and typical peers.  Connie has directed camps for teens or abused children in the foster care system for more than ten years.  Connie’s husband of forty-two years, Mike, is her most important ministry partner.  And Connie considers the lessons learned from her adult daughter Julie, who has Down syndrome, to the most valuable training for her work in the disability arena.  Connie proudly shares that Julie was the first person with intellectual disability elected to EvFree Fullerton’s deacon board.

I’ll be interviewing Connie for Orange Preconference workshop, 5 Things Every Special Needs Ministry Leader Should Know.

Related Posts:
Interviewing Parents for Special Needs Intake Forms
Questions to Engage the Parent of a Child with Special Needs
5 Things to Know about the Mother of a Child with Autism
Exit Interviews: Your New Secret Weapon in Children’s Ministry

  1. I would love to read this in it’s entirety, but the words are cut off in the right margin. Some I can guess at, but many I can’t. Can you fix this?

  2. Julie, I think this is actually an issue on the reader’s end. Another reader had the same problem in December and we had a couple of people get involved who know more about blogs than me. Ultimately, we discovered it was an issue related to the settings on the reader’s screen. Could you reduce the size of what you are viewing? I hope this clears it up.

    And thanks for reading and for your comment!

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  1. Colorado Special Needs Networking Event + Special Night of Worship (OC14 Spotlight: Katie Garvert) | The Inclusive Church

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