If you enter a movie 20 minutes late, it’s hard to appreciate the drama, mystery, or comedy that ultimately unfolds. Without the context from the introductory scenes, you miss little nuances and big pieces of the full story. There is a parallel for parent-church conversations. So much has happened inside the family before a parent approaches a church leader, requesting special accommodation for their child with special needs. There’s a life history for the family and for the church leader that have shaped the emotions, defense mechanisms, and coping skills that sometimes emerge in these conversations. Unfortunately, neither party has had the opportunity to watch the opening scene of the other person’s life movie. Without context, the opportunity for connection may be missed and hurt feelings are poised to emerge.
Occasionally, I hear from readers who want to work through a recent and difficult parent-church conversation. Sometimes the reader is a wounded parent, and other times the reader is a wounded church leader. After learning more about the conversation, I often find myself doing a bit of translating, explaining why the other party (the church leader or the parent) reacted the way they did and why the meeting didn’t end on a good note. There is a great misunderstanding between churches and parents of children with special needs. In today’s post, I hope to help church leaders gain context and better understand the parents of children with special needs. In the next post, I’ll share insight aimed to help parents better understand and work toward a healthy relationship with their church’s leaders.
Understanding Parents of Children with Special Needs
Obviously, many parent-church conversations go well or we wouldn’t have so many great stories to feature on this blog. But sometimes the relationship between the church and parents of children with special needs begins on rough footing. And whatever is said (or isn’t said) in these initial interactions plants a kernel of negativity that festers. The tone and personal connection (or lack thereof) can have long-term implications for the family, the church leader, and even the future of special needs inclusion.
Church leaders will (hopefully) receive parents differently when they understand that moms and dads of children with special needs have to fight on a daily basis to help their child succeed. Few things come easy for this family. For example, public schools are required to offer special accommodations or aids to students with qualifying needs. But getting access to those special services nearly always requires an uphill battle. School budgets are strained so tightly that assistance is sometimes only granted to the “squeaky wheel.” The squeaky wheel may have to crescendo to a siren’s volume in order to push through the process and finally get approval. Pursuing medical benefits is a similar experience. Rarely does an insurer happily issue reimbursement upon first request. Instead, parents may spend hours, days, weeks—even years—chasing payments for claims they were told their plan covered. Pursuing any type of assistance for the family with special needs can be a painstaking and mind-numbing process.
These parents have understandably adopted a “hyper-vigilant” stance with schools, insurance companies, doctors, and the list goes on. Virtually every effort a parent makes to help their child turns into an upstream swim. So, when their child experiences challenges on a Sunday, parents are going to navigate them with the same survivor skills they use every other day of the week. The heightened sense of awareness and sometimes aggressive mindset has (understandably) become second nature. And more is at stake to the family when it comes to a child’s success at church, further escalating the emotional temperature. If the child with special needs can’t be accommodated, then a whole family may be walled off from connection to their valued faith community. Parents may not be fully aware of how their anxiety is playing out. But nearly always there are underlying, perhaps subconscious, fears in cases where a parent approaches the church in a harsh manner.
Don’t take it personally. A parent may approach you with what feels like demands or high expectations. Generally speaking, they’ve been taught through experience to aim high just to gain marginal improvement.
Turn off your instinct to be defensive. You’ll have more success by receiving concerns with warmth and understanding. Some parents are in the offensive or defensive position all day every day. They literally forget when they can drop the combative approach and just be real. If you convey through voice tone and body language that this situation isn’t too big and that you care enough to figure it out, parents will most likely soften up. Once a family sees that you aren’t trying to find a loophole excuse to avoid helping, they can begin to transition into a “same team” or partnering mindset. (Notice I used the word “begin.” The shift will take some time, improving as the parent pursues emotional healing and as you earn their trust.)
First, focus on hearing a family’s concerns. You can’t rebuild a storm-damaged structure without clearing the debris. Let the first conversation be about clearing the debris. Providing a safe place for parents to share their story gives them an opportunity to work through grief. Wading through grief is the first step in the healing process. Don’t try to solve problems in the first meeting. Let this time be all about getting to know the family and hearing their heart.
Explore solutions in a separate, follow-up meeting. Take a week or so to do some homework, researching possible options such as a buddy assignment or small group placement. It is important to go into a second conversation prepared to talk through solutions. If needed, this meeting is also the opportunity to reset parent expectations for what the church can do and cannot do. Be sure to schedule this meeting with some sense of urgency. Failing to follow up in a timely manner after the first conversation will be interpreted as avoidance and ultimately rejection.
Recognize the bigger opportunity of ministry. Sometimes God allows rocky conversations to crack the door open for more meaningful interactions. Tolerating disrespectful behavior is not Christ-honoring and may need to be addressed. But even in truth there is great opportunity for grace and love. Oftentimes, emotions that come off as anger represent buried sadness and hurt. People aren’t always aware of their need for someone to enter their pain, provide validation, and help them process their grief. But that need may be the driving force behind harsh and even hurtful interactions. Pray for discernment, and as God directs, recognize opportunities to model both unconditional love and healthy behavior. Your church’s greatest opportunity for ministry may be in providing a safe environment for that parent to grow emotionally and spiritually. Remember, the person with the greatest influence in any child’s life will always be their parent. Making an investment in a parent’s spiritual health is always an investment into their child’s spiritual growth.
Stay tuned for part two next week, when I share some common traits and life experiences of ministry leaders.
Today closes out Orange Blogger’s week promoting the upcoming Orange Conference. To participate, we’re giving away a copy of the book Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families. Leave a comment here or on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page by midnight tonight (Pacific time) and you’ll be entered to win a FREE copy of the book. On a related note, Orange just made the book available via Kindle for $9.99. Check it out!