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Understanding Parents (Parent-Church Conversations Part 1)


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!

Related Posts:
5 Things to Know about the Mother of a Child with Autism
Questions to Engage the Parent of a Child with Special Needs

Creating a Special Needs Ministry Budget

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Recently, a special needs ministry leader asked me the following question:

What kind of budget do we need to start a successful Disability Ministry and continue its growth over the next 10-15 years? 

As a natural planner, I’m a little shocked at my answer to part of this question:
Pondering a ministry’s growth and budget 10-15 years out is probably planning a little too far out.

This week is the 10-year birthday of Facebook. No one could have predicted Facebook’s impact on society a decade ago. Social media has changed the landscape of virtually every industry and even the way people relate. With the current speed of change, a supporting ministry inside a church may be more productive to develop goals within the five-year range. Many changes can impact a special needs ministry, including:

Change of church’s senior leadership.  All ministries, including a church’s special needs ministry, should support senior leadership’s vision for the church. A church’s big-picture mission will have daily bearing on how each ministry does its work. With an average pastor’s tenure of four years in mainline denominations, odds are high there will be turnover in your church’s leadership within the next decade.  

Change in local demographics. Several years ago a sleepy county in a southern U.S. state appointed a new school superintendent. Swift changes were implemented, shifting the somewhat rural county’s reputation from being culturally backwards to becoming educationally progressive. In fewer than five years, most local businesses made at least one change to the products they offered or the services they provided in order to match the needs of young families, who were moving in by the droves. And as you might guess, area churches quickly reallocated resources to meet staffing and programming needs associated with this exploding demographic. You can see where a school system’s changes regarding special needs accommodation can have a trickle down effect on nearby churches.

Change in ministry trends. Recently I sat in on a brainstorming session for family ministry leaders who met to discuss the future of summer programming. Children’s pastors and student ministry leaders shared ideas for how their churches were adjusting programming to meet the needs of students with two working parents, split custody households, and hectic summer schedules. I had a front row seat, watching in real-time, a group of influential church leaders transform the old model of Vacation Bible School into a ministry experience relevant to today’s culture. This change and others will have direct bearing on a church’s special needs ministry.

By design, the special needs ministry should be reactive to the plans of other ministries. The first priority of a special needs ministry is to facilitate accommodation and inclusion into existing church programming and scheduled ministry events. As a result, decisions made by other ministries will affect the special needs ministry. For example, a church’s decision to shift away from a Sunday school schedule and to move toward a small group model of discipleship will likely consume a special needs ministry team for a period of time, as they figure out new logistics for inclusion. Really, the best guidance for future planning is to look inside your own church, asking the leaders who shape the church’s programming. Based on their advice, work to create a handful of specific goals for the next three years. Then, identify one or two bigger dreams for the five-year range, making sure they compliment leadership’s five-year objectives.

Below are a list of budgetary considerations for a special needs ministry.  For a new ministry or smaller church, please don’t let this list overwhelm you. Instead, give God the opportunity to show His presence and bless your church. Proceed on faith, but be smart. Few of the below suggestions are mandatory, they’re just ideal. And if your church has the means to provide the “ideal”, start small.  Burnout will sneak up on you (or your volunteers) if you don’t pace the growth of the ministry. Once your families are successfully incorporated into regularly scheduled programming, then you can begin to think about broader opportunities for care and outreach.

Budget Considerations for a Special Needs Ministry

Paid Staff –  Conducting an intake interview with each family and coordinating an individual’s placement may require an investment of several hours.  In addition, ministry needs often surface in the course of intake conversations, quickly requiring a response beyond the availability of a volunteer coordinator.  As the number of participants with special needs and programming environments grow, so too does the need for additional paid hours.

Background Checks – Background checks should be performed on every adult volunteer and staff person that has any contact with ministry participants. This is not optional and there is a fee required by companies that perform the background checks.  Don’t forget to create budget to renew your background checks on existing adult helpers who were checked in the past. (Most churches re-run the check every two years.)  

Training Events – Churches should plan to host a major volunteer training event annually.  Many churches also have smaller training events on a semi-annual or quarterly basis to bring new ministry helpers up to speed.  Consider any costs related to providing childcare, food, printing costs for training materials, game prizes (make it fun!) or props needed for the training event(s).

Leader Development – Churches may want to purchase and make available a handful of resources to help volunteers.  In addition, several churches have created a budget to send designated leaders annually to an outside ministry conference or special needs-related training.  (Don’t forget costs associated with regular CPR training, etc.)

Volunteer Support – It’s smart to designate some budget dollars for volunteer appreciation gifts and other volunteer support costs.  Providing an occasional breakfast for ministry servants or giving a Christmas gift (e.g. coffee shop gift card) are great ways to say “thank you”.  Always keep some money on reserve to cover costs for sending flowers or a prepared meal to a volunteer who is hospitalized, goes through the death of a loved one, etc.

Curriculum & Class Materials – It is ideal when a church can contract a child life specialist, a speech pathologist, or other special education professional to make a handful curriculum modifications or additions for ministry participants. While curriculum modifications belong in the “bonus” category, it is a wonderful thing for a church to invest in the spiritual development of their participants with special needs.  A few changes to planned activities or the way the Bible story is shared may enable full participation for a student with learning differences.  Along the same lines, consider additional needs in terms of music and craft supplies for the ministry environment.

Snacks – Some churches keep a stash of (pricey) gluten-free or GFCF snacks on hand, as these diets are common among students with special needs.

Sensory-Friendly Toys & Equipment – Many churches have a dedicated space with products and activities designed to engage the child with a broad range of special needs.

Designated Space – We are seeing a growing number of churches design space with special needs in mind.  This area may include a room set up with any or all of the following:

  • Special lighting
  • Television to provide live feed from the worship center.
  • Built-in structures (e.g. in ceiling) for installing sensory equipment
  • Added security features to prevent elopement
  • Easy entry from handicap parking or drop-off area
  • Large bathroom with space for changing table and a wheel chair

Paid Childcare – During parent support groups or special events it may be necessary to pay childcare workers. (This is common practice in children’s ministry.)  You may also elect to utilize paid childcare during respite events, especially for medical or special education professionals.

Reimbursed Childcare – Occasionally a child or student is best served inside their own home by a care provider with whom they are already comfortable. It is ideal when the church can subsidize the added costs a family may incur for childcare services so that they can attend church themselves.

Budget for Care Ministry and Outreach

Parent Support Groups – A number of churches host life-changing parent connection groups for the families in their special needs ministry.  In addition to potential childcare costs, consider added expenses due to expanded staffing needs, curriculum/material, food, guest speakers and facilities costs.

Respite Events – Some churches offer parents night out events for special needs families.  These events require their own volunteer training, event activities, food, etc.  Many churches contract a medical professional to remain onsite and provide services for the duration of the respite event, handling toileting issues, dispensing medication, and addressing medical concerns as they arise.  (This is a wise and recommended practice.) In addition, some churches have made the decision to invest in the parents’ date night experience while their children are being cared for by providing tools for marriage enrichment.

Side story:  A special needs ministry leader I interviewed several years ago recalled her difficult decision to require RSVP’s and set a limit to 20 families for parents night out. Capping respite participation drew flack initially, but it kept the church’s underpaid staff and inexperienced volunteers from becoming overwhelmed. Her wisdom preserved the integrity and longevity of that church’s ministry, largely because she gained the trust of her church’s leadership with her conservative approach. That trust paid off when she asked for additional resources to grow the special needs ministry. (And by the way, the kids who came to those respite events received wonderful, individualized attention because volunteers had the margin to spend quality time with them.)

Summer Experiences – For a church that offers a Vacation Bible school or day camp for their typically developing students, the special needs ministry may provide assistance to make those experiences more inclusive. For summer experiences like vacation Bible school, a church may hire a bonded nurse through a third-party staffing agency. This trained and bonded healthcare provider could perform all duties associated with toileting and diapering. These considerations are good for events like respite, where parents do not remain onsite and where the duration of care is longer than Sunday morning programming. 

Fore more help getting started, checkout Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families (The reThink Group, 2013).

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Special Needs Ministry Training in Northern California

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In one month I’ll be leading four special needs ministry workshops at the BASS Conference in Castro Valley, California.  BASS is an interdenominational conference with a long history of equipping church leaders and volunteers.

Debbie Lillo, Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends – Bay Area, has put together an unprecedented twelve workshops on all things special needs ministry. Debbie is one of the most fun people I’ve ever met, and possibly the best networker on the planet. She also has an unparalleled love for families of children with special needs. (Need an expert on respite or sibling support?  Debbie is your contact!) I’ll be joining Debbie along with four others to lead workshops on the BASS Special Needs Track. Conference registration is only $49 (unbelievable!) and is open to anyone. If you live on the West Coast and have an interest in special needs ministry, it doesn’t get better than this.  I am pinching myself at the opportunity to hear Diane Dokko Kim and Dr. Cynthia Zierhut speak, as both have been great friends and resources to me. And many of you know Stacy Hodge from her posts on this blog about Deaf Ministryteen inclusion, and technology.  Please join us!

BASS Church Workers Convention
Redwood Chapel Community Church of Castro Valley, CA
Registration Information
Recommended Hotels


Friday, March 7, 2014
Using Technology in Special Needs Ministry – Stacy Hodge
Loving the Family Impacted by Special Needs – Amy Fenton Lee
Autism: A Family and Church Perspective – Diane Dokko Kim
Adapting Curriculum for Special Needs – Kris Volkir
Including Teens with Special Needs in Your Church – Stacy Hodge
Special Needs FAQ – Amy Fenton Lee
Welcoming with Compassion – Debbie Lillo

Saturday, March 8, 2014
Autism and the Church – Debbie Lillo
Building a Special Needs Ministry Team – Amy Fenton Lee
What Autism Spectrum Disorder Has Taught Me About God: Insights From Research And Practice – Cynthia Zierhut
Surviving to Thriving: Engaging Different Learners  – Amy Fenton Lee
Special Needs Parent Panel– Debbie Lillo and Kris Volkir

For expanded workshop descriptions and speaker bios click here
For more information contact

5 Strategies to Include Teens with Special Needs

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This is the 3rd and final post spotlighting inclusion in youth ministry environments.  Katie Garvert answers questions on the same subject she’ll be addressing as part of the Special Needs Track at the upcoming Orange Conference.

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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 the first post, you helped us understand why teen inclusion is challenging. And yesterday you talked about the parent partnership piece. So, how do you actually create a successful youth ministry experience for the student with special needs?  

KG: We use five strategies to craft a plan for students with any sort of disability, learning difference, or unique needs.  We recognize that God created these students as a distinct individuals.  And we allow God to pursue each one of them through the abilities and passions He gave them.

1. We help the student feel in control. We invite the promoting student to talk to us without their mom and dad. Assuming the parents have agreed to the requests I outlined in yesterday’s post, we start by acknowledging that this student’s church participation is not optional. But just because church is mandatory doesn’t mean it has to be miserable. Right off the bat, we talk about the fact we’re willing to make adjustments to their student ministry experience. We give the student a say and if they are adverse to being placed in a Small Group, we don’t argue. We then go through a series of questions to figure out what the student is good at and what they enjoy.

2. We create jobs inside the student ministry. We look for ways the student can do what they love or can feel like they are making a contribution. For example, if we discover a student likes to create PowerPoint presentations, we’re going to ask him to build a visual presentation for our student pastor. We’ll outline our needs and expectations and give this student a concrete deadline. If our student follows through, he may be asked to produce a PowerPoint presentation once a month, then twice a month and so on. This student is receiving a “reward” by seeing their work utilized at the weekly student ministry event. A routine is emerging (so important!) all while this student has a growing sense of worth and success.

3. We’re strategically creating opportunities for spiritual growth. We have a number of students with special needs running lights and sound or performing some sort of task on the production team. These students are sitting inside the tech booth for the duration of the student ministry experience, hearing the Bible-rich content we want them to hear. And they are having a shared experience, in a corporate sense, with the rest of the youth group. But it doesn’t end there. Just after the Large Group experience concludes and as other studentss are going to their respective Small Groups, the production team has a debrief meeting. The adult volunteer running the tech booth (brilliantly) invites discussion on what went right or what needs to improve for next week’s production. The students helping in the booth are often eager to weigh in on technical topics, meanwhile growing comfortable interacting with each other. The production team then closes out their meeting with a Bible-devotion, as would be the case for any ministry meeting at our church. It just so happens that the tech team’s devotion will always piggyback off the topic covered during Large Group. And the brief group questions may be from the Small Group Leaders’ discussion materials. Do you catch what’s happening here? There’s a Small Group that doesn’t know it’s a Small Group happening inside our tech booth. Our student ministry production team is a Small Group.

4. We solve problems before they become problems. Some students can and want to be part of a more traditional Small Group if we navigate their placement. Obviously the “job” approach or tech team assignment doesn’t work for every student with special needs. This is especially true for girls. Oftentimes in our early conversation with a female student, we’ll learn that she is uncomfortable around the “social girls” whom she perceives to be boy crazy or shallow. We’ve found success by pairing this student with an adult Small Group Leader who likes to explore topics outside of pop stars and trendy fashion. This Small Group Leader might be someone who throws out big ideas related to social justice or theology. While the student with learning differences may not always track with the group discussion, she isn’t going to be boiling in anger listening to the latest teen-scene gossip. In addition, we’ve placed the student with a Small Group Leader who is more naturally mindful of her needs. That leader is also going to create an accepting, safe group dynamic that invites this student’s participation.

5. We look for opportunities to multiply our own success. So, now we’ve got students inside the tech booth that are mentoring the newbies on sound, lights, etc. Some of these mentors are the same students who would have rather severed an arm than get involved in our church’s student ministry. And now these students are in their element, coming on their own accord, and in their own way leading in our student ministry. It’s really moving when you look out each week during our Large Group experience and see some students in the oddest places . . . and then you realize their unexpected task is their vehicle for spiritual growth.  God is good.

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To read previous posts in this series:
Part 1: Including Teens with Special Needs – The Challenge
Part 2: Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership

Other Posts Featuring Katie Garvert:
Helping the Marriage inside Families with Special Needs
Training Church Leaders to Start a Special Needs Ministry
Supplying a Special Needs Ministry on a Low Budget
Should Parents Lead a Special Needs Ministry?
Special Needs Space Planning Tips

Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership

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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.

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 4.17.18 PMKatie 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

Including Teens with Special Needs – The Challenge

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For the rest of this week, we’ll be spotlighting special needs inclusion in youth ministry environments. Today’s post is the first of three posts where Katie Garvert previews the preconference workshop she’ll be leading at the upcoming Orange Conference.

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Katie Garvert leads the Access Ministries of 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 multisite 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: I’m hearing from a number of church leaders who are struggling to include older kids and teens with special needs. Why is teen inclusion difficult?

KG: Two reasons come to mind. As our team has come to better understand the root problems, we’ve been able to come up with some good solutions.

1. The very nature of student ministry is social and relationship-driven. The typical student is really into their friends. The tool for life-change is shared experiences and conversation with other students. So, a good youth pastor is constantly thinking about how they can create an environment that invites interaction. But for the student who has poor social skills or struggles to communicate, the idea of conversation and interaction with others is not appealing. For some students with special needs, they literally can’t think of anything they’d enjoy less than having to be social. And who blames them? No one enjoys doing things they aren’t naturally good at.

Students with special needs can be easily misunderstood. One individual might be unfiltered, blurting out the first thought that pops into their head. Another student with disability struggles to form and express complete sentences. Both scenarios create tension for the student with special needs as well as their peers, who may be attempting to interact. Typically developing students sometimes react harshly in these awkward moments. In general, teens don’t exactly have the market cornered on emotional maturity. They’re still developing. So, odds are high that a student with severe ADHD or high functioning autism has already had a number of uncomfortable peer encounters by the time they reach your youth ministry. Perhaps this student was even bullied by some of the others that show up at youth group. You can see why the very tool (social interaction) that a student ministry team uses may be the one thing that a student with special needs associates with failure.

2. Parents and students with special needs often disagree on their goals for church participation. Let me illustrate this challenge. Just before anyone who has come through our special needs ministry promotes from children’s ministry to student ministry, our leadership meets with each family. We bring the parents and student together along with someone from our ministry team. First, we ask parents to share their goals for their daughter or son’s participation in the church youth group. Nearly always, we hear things like “be active in a small group;” “make quality friends;” and “participate in a student ministry mission trip.” After parents have shared their desires, we then ask the student to talk about the student ministry experience they envision for themselves. And it is not uncommon for us to hear this response:

“Nothing. I don’t want to be at church at all.”

We dive a little deeper with the promoting student and the story that emerges is fairly predictable. For this student, moving up to the youth groups feels like a setup for failure. His or her memory bank isn’t full of successful interactions in social situations. Most likely . . .

  • She isn’t good at small talk.
  • He has difficulty talking about the interests of others.
  • She’s already felt rejection from some of the same girls at school.
  • He thinks the youth group games are silly.

And to add to this list, nothing sounds worse than traveling on a mission trip, an experience full of unfamiliar environments and changes to their routine.

Mom and dad have their own goals for their son or daughter. And either consciously or subconsciously, the parents are pushing against the grain with their child. This push is causing even more resistance from the student. And as a ministry team, we feel it. (To the student’s credit, they are probably more in tune with their differences and the realities that accompany them.) In situations like this, a church can easily feel like they are in a no-win situation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. At Woodmen Valley Chapel, we’ve found solutions—great solutions—for scenarios like this.

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To read subsequent posts in this series:
Part 2: Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership
Part 3: 5 Strategies to Include Teens with Special Needs

5 Tips for Special Needs Ministry Parent Support Groups

This past fall, I had the opportunity to visit Church of the Resurrection’s Matthew’s Ministry in Kansas City. If you follow The Inclusive Church on Facebook, you may have caught a few photos from my October 22nd tour. Let me introduce you to Matthew’s Ministry Director, Jennifer Ross. Without knowing it, Jennifer is one of your heroes. I wouldn’t have any information to share on this blog if it weren’t for the handful of special needs ministry leaders who worked to figure things out before the days of Google or social networking sites. Jennifer is one of those people who learned from trial and error, and then shared. Many churches have been influenced by Church of the Resurrection’s special needs ministry and Jennifer’s leadership.

A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer and I were together again when we visited the special needs ministry of Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado. Bless her heart, that meant Jennifer was pelted (again) with my questions and my own rambling conversations about all things special needs ministry. (And I should probably also thank Amanda’s Fonda Restaurant in Colorado Springs because I’m pretty sure they thought I’d never shut my laptop and leave.) Anyway, I’ve done my best to capture a gracious helping of Jennifer’s wisdom here. But I still have pages of unedited notes with golden quotes. (Rumor has it, she’s coming to Orange Conference; I’m starting a petition to have her help with a special needs ministry Q&A session.) ~ AFL


AFL: What tips can you share with other special needs ministry leaders for creating healthy parent support gatherings?

JR: Our special needs ministry has been part of our church’s culture long before Church of the Resurrection became a multisite church with sprawling campuses. We were once a small ministry inside a small- to medium-sized church. Our pastor actually started the ministry after he went to the home of a family who had been recent first-time guests at our church. He wanted to invite the family to come again but realized our church was not prepared to provide care for one family member, Mathew, who had a number of disabilities. The next Sunday our pastor announced an opportunity for our growing congregation and they responded. Within days our church had people serving in what would eventually become “Matthew’s Ministry.” I was one of the first volunteers, and I’ve been leading in a staff position for the last ten years. I share this story for two reasons:

1. To show that a church doesn’t have to be big in order to be inclusive;
2. To explain that our church culture was shaped early on to be supportive of the special needs family.

Over the past 20 years we’ve had the opportunity to try all kinds of things inside our ministry. The “Listen and Learn” parent group is definitely one of our successes. While we are always evolving, I can share some best practices we’ve learned along the way.

1. Value the participants’ time. When you realize how scarce time is for the special needs family, it impacts your own motivation and how you plan the group gathering. We’ve got to make every minute count. If you can’t do 90 minutes well, then only do 45 minutes. I want the moms and dads to leave thinking, that was time well spent. In addition, we recognize that hosting a parent support group gives us a unique opportunity to breathe emotional healing and eternal hope inside these families. We know that some married couples come because they are trying to save their marriage. Seldom do these parents go anywhere together, let alone interact together with other couples on a similar journey. You’ll work to create a more meaningful group experience when you recognize that some parents are relying on this short window of time to provide the emotional glue for their whole family.

2. Focus on creating connection. The featured topics, invited speakers and group dynamics will all be different in a group that’s all about building relationships. In fact, you may find that you don’t need a speaker at all. In today’s world, parents are hungry for connection. With the growing number of online resources and nonprofit educational organizations, families have access to a lot of information. But the Internet and Facebook can’t replace in-person connection. Parents of children with special needs are craving meaningful relationships, especially with others who understand their daily lives. And this need fits into our church’s mission, to build a Christian community where people can connect through relationships.

3. Choose speakers who facilitate healthy dialogue inside the group. It is more important to have a leader who invites group interaction than it is to have a speaker who is a knowledgeable expert. People remember more from the conversations they participate in than from the presentations they hear. Just like our kids, our parents learn experientially too. Interactive discussions help people process new ideas. We have participants gathered around tables, not sitting in rows. Each table has a leader to invite everyone into the dialogue and to help guide the conversation. This table leader may also look for opportunities to make personal introductions and connect people with similar situations, especially when newcomers arrive.

4. Know the needs of your families. Common ground is what brings people together. We work to keep the meetings relevant to everyone there. And we do this by learning about our families and then inviting speakers accordingly. It is also important that invited speakers be versatile enough to address a broad set of life experiences. For example, we tend to shy away from subject matter experts, especially if their focus is too narrow. We see attendance drop off if parents can’t identify with a speaker or topic (i.e., certain diagnosis). Along the same lines, we’ll feel some frustration emerge if the group conversation is dominated by the nuances of one family’s unique situation. If the speaker or table leader is in tune with what’s going on in other families, they will more naturally steer dialogue to keep everyone engaged. And occasionally, we do choose to have a less interactive gathering that features an expert-speaker. But we only do this when we know the presentation will be helpful to and appreciated by the majority of our families.

5. Consider starting the gathering with a shared meal. Food brings people together. And it sets the stage for a relaxed group setting. We host our parent support group on the same weeknight that our church offers a variety of study groups as well as a prepared meal. Our “Listen and Learn” parents all sit together over dinner, catching up on each other’s lives. We encourage anyone with special dietary needs to bring their own food but to still come. Eating together directly impacts the quality of group interaction later. People aren’t going to pour out their hearts to strangers. They’re more likely to ask questions without fearing judgment and share authentically if they feel comfortable with others in the group. The light interactions over dinner are important for these relationships. We’ve also found that if we provide the opportunity for parents to get together in a spiritual setting, naturally meaningful social relationships grow as well.


IMG_0373Jennifer Ross is the Director of Matthew’s Ministry, the Special Needs Ministry of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.  Church of the Resurrection is a church devoted to renewing mainline churches.  Matthews Ministry offers a comprehensive special needs ministry which includes one-on-one Sunday school assistance, family respite nights, Scout Troops, a handbell choir, and a weekday learning program for adults with intellectual disability.  The weekday learning program also runs the Sonflower Bakery, known for selling delicious baked goods.  Jennifer also serves as Education Board Chairperson for the Kansas City Down Syndrome Guild.  Jennifer has degree in special education and thirty years of experience working with individuals with special needs in schools, state facilities, colleges, and churches. Jennifer’s next dream is to build a boating facility and provide a nautical experience for people with special needs and their families.  Follow Jennifer on Twitter @specialneedsdir

Leading Teen Volunteers (OC Spotlight: Meaghan Wall)

Today is this week’s final post promoting the Special Needs Track at the upcoming Orange Conference.  Meaghan Wall provides a guest post that captures the very reason she’s teaching the workshop Leading Teen Volunteers.

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 BEFORE midnight tonight will be entered to win one FREE OC14 ticket.  We’ll announce the winner on the The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page on Monday.

How does your ministry utilize teen volunteers?  

The Inclusive Church on Facebook
Amy Fenton Lee on Twitter
The Inclusive Church on Twitter
Meaghan Wall on Twitter


We all have people in our lives who forever change who we are and how we see the hand of God working around us.  Today as I wrote a Happy Birthday message on the Facebook wall of one such person in my life, I was reminded of the various points over the past seven years where she has challenged me, inspired me, and made me laugh so hard I had tears streaming down my face.  Because of this person, I have made changes to the way I do ministry.  No longer am I only focused on serving the special needs children and adults at the church, I’m now also focused on raising up leaders.  Because of this person, I have learned to delegate, not because I wanted to free up my time to do other things, but because I wanted to give others opportunities to learn, grow, and make mistakes in a safe place.  Because of this person, I can honestly say that I have grown as a leader and I am forever grateful.

So today was bitter-sweet in several ways.  Sweet because I had the opportunity to reflect on all the good this person has brought to my life , but also sad because I know in a little over seven months this person will move on.  I can’t expect to see her on a weekly basis.  You see the person I’m referring to turned 18 today.  Gracie is her name.  She is a high school senior looking forward to venturing off to college after graduation.  While I’m already prepared to be a wreck as I’ll have to write in her graduation journal and watch her stand up during Senior Recognition Sunday, I’m excited knowing what the Lord has in store for her.  A few years ago Gracie started talking about the things she wanted to do with her life and what she wanted to be when she grew up.  Though it has changed some, her interest in working with special needs children has been a constant and I have no doubt the Lord is going to use her in amazing ways.

I tell you this story because it came full circle when I heard Reggie Joiner speak this past Fall at an Orange Tour event in Dallas.  During one of the main sessions, Reggie was working through two questions:

  1.  What do I want someone to become?
  2.  Where do I want someone to be so they can become who I want them to become? 

Listening to Reggie, I realized he was communicating a mindset I had already adopted, thanks to Gracie.  Before Gracie, I viewed my role as Pastoral Leader of Special Needs as one of caring for children and their families.  But because of Gracie’s involvement in our ministry,  I realized my role was much bigger.  I have a responsibility and opportunity to shape future leaders of this church and other churches.  And I knew I needed to start leaning into the youth serving in our special needs ministry, with the hopes they would grow into leadership in whatever ministry they found themselves in down the line.

Mentoring and leadership training has since become a major part of our church’s special needs ministry.  One small way this has happened began in the summer of 2011 when I formed a leadership team.  The purpose of this group was to  to help me guide the ministry and keep it moving forward rather than becoming stagnant.  I selected two youth to serve on the team.  Both students had shown an interest in leadership as well as a desire to pursue some sort of special needs ministry in the future.  Gracie was one of the students asked to join our small  leadership team.  I can honestly say that I saw her grow more because of the increased responsibility and the freedom to make mistakes.  Reggie Joiner said it best when he said,

“You can tell a teenager they’re significant and the Lord has a plan for their life.  But they’ll never know that until you allow them to be involved in something significant.”

Reggie is right.  I’ve seen this firsthand.

While I’m sad knowing Gracie will be leaving our ministry, I’m determined to enjoy every moment she’s still here.  I will pour into her all I can to prepare her for for ministry outside our church.  And I know the Lord will continue using her to push me in my own development as a leader.  I now know that I’m not only a leader of Special Needs, I am also a leader of teens.  I am a leader of future leaders.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way. ~ Meaghan Wall

This post first appeared on the Orange Blog, Lead Small.


Meaghan_WallMeaghan Wall is the Pastoral Leader of Special Needs at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas where she has served for the past seven years.   Stonebriar Community Church currently welcomes around 100 students with special needs in the GIFT Ministry, providing various opportunities for their families to be actively involved in the church.   The GIFT Ministry offers specialized classrooms and inclusion programs on Sunday mornings, a weekly Art Class for teen and adult participants and monthly respite.  Meaghan leads training events to help other churches develop and grow their own special needs ministry.  Meaghan is a licensed and experienced social worker with a degree from Texas Tech University.   Meaghan is currently pursuing a Masters of Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary.  Connect with Meaghan on Twitter: @meaghan_wall

Meaghan will be leading the following OC14 workshops:
Navigating Behavior Challenges
Leading Teen Volunteers (Conference)

More on Stonebriar’s GIFT Ministry:
Visual Tour of Stonebriar’s Special Needs Suite
Welcome to the Bite Club!
Recruiting and Training Special Needs Volunteers
Bringing a Family Ministry Approach to Special Needs

This week’s earlier posts:
From Pediatrician to Special Needs Ministry Leader 
5 Tips for Starting a Special Needs Ministry
Church-Based IEPs
Colorado Networking Event + A Special Night of Worship

Colorado Special Needs Networking Event + Special Night of Worship (OC14 Spotlight: Katie Garvert)

This week we’re introducing you to Special Needs Track speakers at the upcoming Orange Conference.  We’ve had a great week so far, as many of you have interacted with our two previous guest posters.  Doc Hunsley shared his story on Monday and on Tuesday he provided tips for starting a special needs ministry.  Yesterday (Wednesday), Connie Hutchinson talked about church-based IEPs.  Doc and Connie have been busy answering your questions here and on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page.  We’ve had an incredible exchange of ideas for the past three days.  (This is such a great reader audience! Thank you!)

Today we are spotlighting Katie Garvert, Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I’m also excited to share about an upcoming event that Katie is a big part of this weekend.  If you live in Colorado, we’d love for you to join us.  (Yes, I’ll be there too!)  Woodmen Valley Chapel’s Access Ministries and Awakening Artists are joining together to host Night of Worship: Loving Beyond Our Limits.  This special service is to honor, bless, and share stories of church families who are affected by disability.  This is a first-time event for Woodmen Valley Chapel and is open to anyone to attend.

In addition, Katie has offered to host a special needs ministry gathering for leaders from other churches immediately preceding this special service.  This will be a casual time to talk about special needs ministry, answer questions, and share ideas before going into the Worship Center for Night of Worship.  If you live anywhere near Colorado Springs and have an interest in special needs ministry, it doesn’t get much better than this.  I am pinching myself, excited to be flying to Colorado for Sunday’s events.  I hope to meet those of you who can make arrangements to join us.  Here are the details:

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Sunday, January 12th 
Woodmen Valley Chapel
(Rockrimmon Campus)
240 Woodmen Road
Colorado Springs, CO 80919

Special Needs Ministry Leader Gathering + Q&A
4:00 – 5:30pm
Worship Center Lower Level, Room #112

A Night of Worship:  Loving Beyond Our Limits
WVC’s Worship Center 
No RSVP needed

Now, a little about Katie and Orange Conference…Katie has led workshops previously for the Special Needs Track.  She’s returning this year to lead two conference breakouts.  To give you a taste of Katie’s rich content, we’re linking over to Steve Cullum’s blog, where he provides excellent summaries of Katie’s 2011 Orange Conference Breakouts: 

Building a Safe and Successful Special Needs Ministry
Successfully Including Teens on the Autism Spectrum

After reading Steve’s posts, I think you’ll understand why Katie is such a popular presenter.  Katie is essentially a walking textbook on all things special needs ministry.  She has invested tremendously in me personally, leaving her fingerprints of influence on everything I write.

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 on social media will be entered to win one FREE ticket to The Orange Conference 2014.  Names will be added to the drawing through Friday and we’ll announce the winner on Monday, January 13th.

What has worked for your church when including a teen with special needs?  

The Inclusive Church on Facebook
Amy Fenton Lee on Twitter
The Inclusive Church on Twitter
Katie Garvert on Twitter


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Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves around 90 individuals affected by special needs.  Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish special needs inclusion programming over virtually every age group and stage of life for this multi-site church.  The Access ministry hosts a dad’s support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and respite camp experiences for students with special needs.  Katie also oversees the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry.  Through her role with WVC, Katie connects attending families to different agencies in the Rocky Mountain Region while also serving as a family advocate at students’ meetings in schools.  Katie frequently speaks at other ministry conferences to train church leaders for better special needs inclusion.  Prior to joining the WVC staff, Katie was a special education teacher in the Colorado public school system.  You can follow Access Ministries on Facebook and Katie on Twitter.

Katie will be leading two 2014 Orange Conference workshops:
Special Needs Transitions: Middle School, High School, and Beyond
Promoting Spiritual Growth in the Family with Disability 

Other Posts Featuring Katie Garvert:
Helping the Marriage inside Families with Special Needs
Training Church Leaders to Start a Special Needs Ministry
Supplying a Special Needs Ministry on a Low Budget
Should Parents Lead a Special Needs Ministry?
Special Needs Space Planning Tips
CM Connect Radio Interview:  Training SpN Ministry Volunteers

Churches and IEPs (OC14 Spotlight: Connie Hutchinson)

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?  

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



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

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