The Inclusive Church

Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership

Today’s post is the second in our series on including teens with special needs in youth ministry.  Katie Garvert continues to discuss the subject of her upcoming preconference workshop at the Orange Conference.

Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs.  Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage for this multi-site church.  Access ministry hosts a dad’s support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and respite camp for students with special needs.  Katie also oversees the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry.  Follow Katie on Twitter @wvcaccess.


AFL:  In yesterday’s post, you explained why students with special needs may be resistant to church participation. Tell us, how has Woodmen Valley Chapel had so much success weaving individuals with disability into the church’s student ministry?

KG: We take a two-pronged approach that requires a partnership with parents and a tailored plan, crafted around the abilities of the student. Today, we’ll talk about the parent piece.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how we create the student’s plan.

First, our church sets up a meeting with the promoting student and their parents. As described in yesterday’s post, we bring in the family, all together, to talk through the upcoming promotion into student ministry. Parents share their goals and then the student tells us what they want (or don’t want) out of the youth ministry experience. We let any differences between the parents and their son or daughter surface. We don’t work to bridge the gap at this time. It’s important for parents to see that their vision doesn’t match what their student wants for themselves. This often creates an awkward moment, but as a ministry leader we know it may be a pivotal moment for many reasons. Once the tension is recognized, we calmly share that this isn’t the first time we’ve worked through a similar challenge. We convey that we aren’t worried and ask the family to trust us to work toward a solution. We adjourn the meeting and schedule a follow-up time to talk with the parents alone, without the student.

In our second meeting, when only the parents are present, we bring up their son or daughter’s apprehensions. We explain that the student’s spiritual growth is our priority. With discernment, we may address the fact that a desire for social growth is secondary. And in order for us (the church) to have influence in the life of their student, we’ve got to create a safe place for them. We’re not going to put their son or daughter somewhere they don’t feel they can succeed. So, we may remove the idea of Small Group participation if the student can’t get excited about it. We may also ask parents to table their goals for a mission trip. We explain that we’ve got to get their student okay about coming to church for a couple of hours before we start talking about overnight trips. We often tell families that this is not a forever “no,” this is a “not now.” Parents are usually supportive when they recognize our desire to provide a positive church experience for their student, just like we want for typically developing students. We help mom and dad understand that you can’t connect with someone spiritually if they don’t feel they’re succeeding.

Before we leave this meeting, we ask parents to partner with us, committing to the following for a period of time:

1. Require their student to attend our student ministry environment weekly. If participation is optional, our best efforts are likely to fail. Due to understandable anxiety, the student may prefer to stay home. Without making church attendance mandatory, we’ll never get the chance for trial and error. The church can’t force the student to come. But the parents can require the physical cooperation of their son or daughter.

2. Support our ministry team. We are going to try some new things with their student. We need the freedom to have some misses before we find a hit.

3. Commit to providing timely transportation for their student. Arriving late may mean their students misses the one thing we had planned to be their “success.” And leaving early could cause the student to miss a key spiritual growth opportunity.


Tomorrow, I’ll offer five strategies for helping students with special needs succeed in youth ministry settings

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To read other posts in this series:
Part 1:  Including Teens with Special Needs – The Challenge
Part 3: 5 Strategies to Include Teens with Special Needs