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

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

From Pediatrician to Special Needs Ministry Leader (OC14 Spotlight: Doc Hunsley)

Orange is having some fun this week promoting the Special Needs Track for the upcoming Orange Conference. If you follow @OrangeLeaders on Twitter, you may notice the special needs emphasis tomorrow, January 7.  To coincide with Orange’s promotion, this week we’re also spotlighting voices that you’ll hear at OC14.  Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, as Doc Hunsley joins us again to share advice for starting a special needs ministry.  And you’ll meet the other special needs workshop leaders as the week continues.

We’d love for you to join the conversation through comments here (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.  You may enter to win through Friday and we’ll announce the winner next Monday, January 13.

What question would you ask Doc?  

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


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AFL: As the only pediatrician (that I know of) serving in a church leadership role, how has your background helped you in ministry?

DOC: God has blessed me in preparing me to be Grace Church’s Special Needs and People Care Pastor. Looking back, I can see God’s hand in my story.

Since I was a child, I always wanted to be a pediatrician. I achieved that goal, working as a physician at one of the top children’s hospitals. I loved my job. Unfortunately, I was exposed to some nasty illnesses and, along the way, became very sick myself. I nearly died. Gratefully, my life was spared but ultimately I had to hang up my stethoscope forever. It was a difficult decision but the right decision for my health and my family.

Before going on long-term disability, I hadn’t considered working in ministry and certainly not special needs ministry. As a pediatrician, I took care of many children with special needs. I loved the kids. Candidly, I didn’t always connect with the parents. They seemed demanding. And I would get frustrated at times feeling they weren’t listening to me. But that was before I stepped in their shoes.

In 2005, God blessed my wife and me by making us parents of a child with special needs. Our son, Mark, had autism and Dravet Syndrome, a rare genetic seizure disorder. God provided valuable hands-on experience, helping me understand the unique journey of a special needs family. Little did I know that God was preparing me to build a church’s special needs ministry. Now, virtually everything we do in the SOAR ministry has been shaped in some way from our family’s experience.

After leaving medicine (and recovering from the worst aspects of my illness), I helped in the children’s ministry at the church where my family was active at the time. Eventually, I became the children’s pastor. It was during this time that Mark, age 5 ½, was cured from his physical disabilities and born into heaven. That period and those experiences (as a children’s ministry leader and as a parent wading through the loss of a child) profoundly impacted me.

Now, I can see how God has skillfully groomed me for my role at Grace Church. Because of my background, I have unique opportunities to build relationships and engage in meaningful dialogue. I love helping families understand complex medical issues or assisting parents as they determine the best way to communicate delicate information about their child. And through the death of my son, I can fully relate to the pain of losing a child. I’ve learned a lot about perspective and that’s often what I talk about when walking alongside a family journeying through loss. Time and again, I see where God has enabled me to be a part of conversations with eternal impact.

God has moved my heart from tolerating parents of children with special needs as a pediatrician to now being passionate for the family with special needs as a pastor. Daily, I’m thinking about how our church can impact an entire family, including siblings, parents and grandparents. I know that every member of that family needs to feel love and more importantly needs a place to worship. Special needs ministry is a whole-family ministry.

Consider this, 75 percent of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible where done on those with disabilities.  Really, Jesus ran the very first special needs ministry; He loved those with special needs! And as the earthly representative of Christ, the Church’s goal is the same today. Whether meeting the needs of one family or building a larger ministry to serve multiple families, my goal is to see every church equipped for special needs inclusion.


SOAR Image

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.


It was the Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Bridges Christmas Pageant 2013

Guest post from Kathryn Couchman

“Wouldn’t it be great if Bridges performed their Christmas pageant for the whole church?”

I responded with nervous laughter, doubting the viability of the idea.

For the past four years, “Bridges”, our ministry for children, teens and adults with special needs, has put on a Christmas pageant. We had seen the performance outgrow a classroom to requiring a small stage and seating for 200.  But the proposal to make our Christmas story reenactment the focal point of two Sunday morning worship services seemed risky.  Some of our participants would likely struggle with a new and more intimidating environment. And I wondered if our past success had been as much because we performed in front of familiar faces prepared for unscripted surprises. In the end our ministry leaders agreed to have the Bridges Christmas pageant in two Sunday morning services.

In the weeks leading up to the big performance our students and their accompanying onstage helpers attended regular practices.  The rehearsals alone generated obstacles as well as comedic relief.  During one practice, the student playing Mary became upset, declaring her intention to withdraw from the cast. We negotiated her return by allowing her to wear her favorite E.T. shirt and to hold a special E.T. picture as long as she was in character. Of course that agreement required some planning and explanation since the E.T. shirt would be worn under a Mary costume on the day of the pageant.  Meanwhile, the participant serving as our narrator had some confusion as to the responsibilities of the play director versus the play narrator. Again, our skilled ministry leaders navigated diplomatic conversations with success. And in order to get one of shepherd to cooperate during rehearsals, onstage helpers armed themselves with Skittles, offering a single candy anytime this particular cast member followed direction.

The morning of the pageant our ministry leaders gathered to pray before any students arrived. We asked God to exceed our expectations as we released our own anxieties. And God was faithful.  Mary and the Angel stepped on stage, reciting their lines perfectly. Joseph and the Donkey quickly joined them, with others following on cue.  At times assigned helpers assisted with lines while our students nodded or said, “yes”, in agreement.  Mary gave the baby Jesus doll an unscripted hug before gingerly tucking him the manger. A shepherd who refused to dress in costume instead suited up his favorite stuffed animal in shepherd’s attire and held it up during his performance.  At one point an angel plopped down on the stage wildly clapping his hands together and the audience soon joined in.  Along the way a few performers ad libbed an extra line or two, but who’s to argue what was really said on the night of Jesus’ birth?

One touching moment occurred shortly after our Inn Keeper rolled on stage. This particular student has limited verbal skills, rarely offering one or two words when he is in our ministry. During rehearsals our Inn Keeper performed by nodding in agreement as his assigned helper spoke the given line. But on the morning of the actual pageant our Inn Keeper surprised us.  Immediately following Joseph’s scripted line, our Inn Keeper gestured toward the stable and with his own voice said, “It’s not much, but it’s all I have.” Every ministry investor recognized the significance of his eight words. It was the first time any of us had heard him utter a complete sentence.  And the lines he recited seemed so ironically fitting.

As the pageant concluded, the student portraying the star was wheeled on stage.  An angel who had wandered a bit during her time on stage suddenly became still and attentive.  And in a priceless moment, our entire cast portrayed the essence of the pageant’s closing line,

“Everyone was very happy and praised and worshiped God.”

The audience then joined our performers singing Away in a Manger following it with a tearful standing ovation.  Listening, I was overwhelmed by God’s presence.  God wanted this beautiful re-enactment of His story for our entire church. As our students exited the stage our pastor stepped to the platform, after taking a moment to regain his own composure and before praying.  Later our pastor posted the below sentiment on Facebook:

“Today was seriously one of the most powerful portrayals of the Christmas story. For me, the most incarnational moment was when the innkeeper delivered his line, ‘It’s not much, but it’s all I have.’  That was all the sermon I needed.” ~ Matt Whiteford, Lead Pastor of CrossPoint Community Church

And in case you wondered, for me it was the best Christmas pageant ever. ~ Kathryn Couchman


Kathryn Couchman Bio ShotKathryn Couchman began serving in CrossPoint Community Church’s Bridges Ministry thirteen years ago as a junior high helper.   Since then, Kathryn has worked in numerous roles including monthly helper, buddy, and teacher.  Currently Kathryn leads the class of older students with learning differences.  CrossPoint Community Church is located in Modesto, California. Checkout Kathryn’s previous post, The Gift.

Alicia WeltnerAlicia Weltner wrote and co-directed the Bridges Christmas Pageant.  Alicia is a graduate of the theater program at Azusa Pacific University and the daughter of Kathy Weltner, longtime Director of CrossPoint’s Bridges Ministry.  Four years ago Alicia approached her mother with the idea of writing a script for ministry participants.  Alicia shares “Over the past four years this little dream of mine has grown into one of the greatest blessings I could possibly imagine.  No one can prepare you for the beauty of giving such an important story to those who often have no voice.”  In January 2014 Alicia will launch an after school program for individuals with special needs with Azusa Renaissance Theatre Company.

Understanding and Welcoming Individuals who are Deaf

Normally we do not cover the topic of Deaf Ministry on The Inclusive Church Blog.  However, given the trending news story regarding the controversial sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, I thought this guest post was both timely and helpful to our readers. I am incredibly grateful to Stacy Hodge and Justin Lee for their careful research to produce the following article. ~ AFL



Understanding and Welcoming Individuals who are Deaf

Several years ago I (Stacy) served as an interpreter at church for a young man who was Deaf.  Knowing that I was able to sign, another church staff person grabbed me one Sunday morning in a panic:

“We need you to come sign to a woman who has lost her hearing and needs help communicating with us.”

My staff friend rushed me to another area of the church where I found an older lady sitting in a chair.  As I began to both speak and sign to her, she looked confused, eventually interrupting (audibly),

“I don’t know sign language.”

This lady had lost her hearing later on in life and never learned sign language; she didn’t need an interpreter, she simply needed a pen and paper to communicate.  After providing this lady something to write with, we learned that our fellow worshipper was looking for friends from her ladies Sunday school class.  On that particular Sunday those friends had already left for lunch.  Our communication dilemma was solved.  But we all learned an important lesson that day…just because a person cannot hear does not mean they automatically sign in order to communicate.

Being a former Deaf Education teacher, I have encountered a number of funny situations and questions, reflecting the common misperceptions about individuals who are Deaf or who sign to communicate.  One question that I receive surprisingly often is, “Do you know Braille?”  I smile and remind those posing the question that Braille is for individuals who cannot see, not for those who cannot hear.

Below are some tips you may find helpful in understanding and welcoming fellow churchgoers who are Deaf or hard of hearing:

Culturally speaking, being “Deaf” and “hard of hearing” are not the same thing.  Individuals who prefer to be recognized as Deaf may have a mild to profound hearing loss, use American Sign Language to communicate, and identify with the Deaf culture. When referring to someone as being Deaf with a capital “D”, that signifies the person’s association with the Deaf culture.  To use the lower case “d” refers only to the condition of hearing loss and without association to the Deaf culture.  Of course these are generalizations and the choices and traits may not apply to every person who does or does not identify themselves as Deaf.

Individuals who consider themselves hard of hearing often identify less with the Deaf culture and more with the hearing world.   While some individuals may sign, generally, there is a greater reliance on technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants to aid in communication. 

Most Deaf individuals do not have “special needs.”  In a sense, a person who benefits from the aid of an interpreter does have a “special” or additional need for accommodation.  However because the term “special needs” often implies intellectual disability, is it important not to use the term “special needs” when referring to an individual who has hearing loss.  Most individuals who are Deaf  or hard of hearing are on the same intellectual level as the general population.  It is for this reason it is often best to create accommodation for these individuals separate of a church’s special needs ministry.

It is also preferable to avoid referring to individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing as “hearing impaired” or “disabled”.  Both of these terms have negative connotations, implying the person has something wrong or needs to be fixed.

Recognize that the Deaf community has their own culture.  Much like phrases from different regions or countries, some expressions and ways of relating do not perfectly translate.  Occasionally a person who is not Deaf may misinterpret an interaction with a person who is Deaf as insensitive or even rude.  In fact that is rarely the case, and more often than not the missed connection or hurt feelings is a function of cultural misunderstanding.  Similarly, an individual who is Deaf may miss a social cue inherent to the spoken language and common among hearing individuals.

Always talk directly to the individual.  A common mistake many people make is to talk to a nearby friend or an identified interpreter when attempting to communicate with someone who is Deaf.  However, this is not appreciated.  Look at and speak directly to the person who is Deaf.  This gives the person the opportunity to be acknowledged and be part of the conversation.

Seek the services of a qualified interpreter.  American Sign Language (ASL) has its own, complex language and needs to be studied just like any other foreign language.  A proficient and certified interpreter will be more likely to accurately translate complicated ideas.  This is especially important in the church setting where abstract concepts and involved analogies are often used to explain Scripture.  Reach out to the interpreting community and local agencies to find a qualified and respected interpreter.

While ASL is the most widely recognized form of communication for individuals who are Deaf, the following other languages are common and require their own qualified interpreters:

  • Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART – real-time-closed captioning)
  • Signed English
  • Total Communication or SimComm
  • Speech Reading
  • Cued Speech

Keep in mind that ASL is not universal.  A person from outside the U.S. may not be familiar with the language.  It is also important to note that occasionally the written English of a person who is Deaf can be confusing to someone unfamiliar with American Sign Language.  ASL has a sentence structure and grammar sometimes unlike our Standard English.  These differences are more evident in writing than in face-to-face dialogue.

Individuals who lose their hearing later in life may never learn sign language.  Much like the lady in the opening story, not everyone with hearing loss uses sign language.  Over the years these individuals have adapted and learned to communicate in some other way. Don’t be afraid to ask the person what works for them.  Pen and paper, pictures, and gestures are all good starting points for establishing initial communication.

Some individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing have learned speech reading.  Speech reading is essentially what we think of as reading lips.  If a person can communicate via speech reading, it is important to speak normally, keeping your mouth area clear of distractions, all while being mindful of the surrounding environment.

To help the person relying on speech reading, refrain from the following:  

  • Using exaggerated speech or movements
  • Speaking with a raised voice
  • Talking while any food or gum is still in your mouth
  • Covering your mouth with your hands
  • Positioning your face away from the person
  • Conversing in a dark or distracting environment

~ Stacy Hodge with Justin Lee

Stacy Hodge picStacy Hodge is the Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends Texas.  She graduated from Baylor University in 2005 with her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders, Deaf Education and a minor in Sign Language Interpreting.  Upon graduation, she taught for the middle school Deaf Education program in Round Rock ISD.  After a year of teaching, Stacy returned back to Dallas to get her masters in Christian Education.  For the past seven years she has been a substitute teacher in a local ISD subbing for Deaf Education Teachers teaching Deaf students ages 3-21.  Also, during her time serving at the church, she taught and interpreted for the Deaf.  Stacy still holds her certification as a Deaf Education Teacher for the state of Texas.  Connect with Stacy on Twitter: @Heart4sn

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 9.59.52 PMJustin Lee works full-time interpreting for ZVRS services and is the founder of ASLicherish interpreting agency.  He has served with the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board serving Deaf interest groups.  Justin is certified at the Advanced level by the state of Texas (BEI) and presents workshops to interpreters nationally based on the experience gained from his mission service along with the education he gained studying Cross Cultural Missions at East Texas Baptist University.  Justin and his wife are both experienced interpreters and can be contacted at

Other posts featuring Stacy Hodge:
Including Teens & Pre-Teens with Special Needs
iPads, iOS 6 and Special Needs Ministry

4 Tools to Engage Kids with Special Needs in the Christmas Story

Creating a sensory experience and inviting participation during the Bible story is important for every child, especially those with learning differences.  Below are a few ideas to involve listeners with special needs in the Christmas story.

Angel Sock Puppet

Make angel sock puppets using white socks, gold pipe cleaners, hot glue, and a Sharpie marker.   Retell the story from Luke 1:26-33, 38, 46 and slip an angel puppet on one hand of each listener.  As the storyteller shares about the angel’s visit to Mary, invite participants to mouth the angel’s words with their puppets.  Be sure to have the storyteller look for opportunities to quote the angel.  Students will be more likely to remain attentive if their puppet has opportunities to perform, silently mimicking the angel’s words.  The sock angel can be used for all parts of the Christmas story involving the appearance of an angel.  For a 2-minute tutorial on making a sock angel puppet, see the video (above) from Orange’s First Look curriculum team.


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Natural Raffia

Provide each listener a handful of torn craft paper or natural raffia.  For kids who have an aversion to touching scratchy materials, place the shredded paper inside a sandwich bag.  Invite students to quietly manipulate the material (or feel their plastic bag full of torn paper) as the storyteller shares from Luke 2:1-7.  The shredded craft paper serves as both a fidget and a concrete tool for helping listeners connect with the story.  The storyteller might say things like:

Feel the texture of the papers in your hand.
The papers in your hand (or bag) feel like hay.
Hay is on the ground in a stable instead of carpet.
Hay is placed in a manger for animals to eat.
Mary and Joseph could not find a place to spend the night in Bethlehem.
They had to sleep in a stable.
Baby Jesus was born while Joseph and Mary stayed in the stable.
There wasn’t a bed or a crib for Baby Jesus to lay in.
So Mary placed Baby Jesus on the hay in the manger.
Jesus slept on the soft hay in the manger.
The hay felt a lot like the crinkled paper you are holding.  


Sound Clips

Make the Bible story feel real and experiential by inserting sound clips as the story is told.  For example, when talking about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem, consider playing a 30-second sound bite of a donkey (or horse) clopping along a dirt road.  Invite kids to take turns carrying a backpack or riding a stick horse around the room, walking to the pace of the playing sound clip.  The storyteller might say things like:

Joseph and Mary went on a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
They did not have a car to help them get to Bethlehem.
They had to ride or walk alongside a donkey.
(Play sound clip of donkey walking, repeat as needed)
Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem sounded like this.
(Continue/repeat sound clip of donkey walking)
Let’s walk like Joseph and Mary walked to Bethlehem.
(Walk to pace of playing horse trot)
It was a long way between Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Joseph and Mary walked like this for four days.

Sound clips can be found by using an internet search engine and typing the description of the sound you want to play.  I found several good clips for this example by using Google and typing “sound clip horse walking on dirt road” in the search bar.  My favorite clip was offered as a free preview and download for purchase at (titled “horse trot and wander on dirt”).  Many of you are more savvy when it comes to technology and uploading media, feel free to share ideas in the comments to this post.

Star Wand Courtesy of Star Wand

Star Wand

Of course you can make your own, however Oriental Trading Company has a glittery star wand (originally purposed for princess birthday parties) that can be used to engage kids during the Christmas story.  Provide each listener a star wand to hold during the retelling of the Wise men’s visit to Baby Jesus (Matthew 2).  Invite participants to wave their star in the sky anytime the storyteller says the word “star” or makes reference to its amazing display in the sky.

Related posts:
Creating a Sensory Bin with Dried Beans and Nativity Figures
Christmas Countdown Advent Wreath
The Gift
No Room in the Inn

Like this post or any of its content?  See Rules for Repost.

~ Amy Fenton Lee

Orange Conference 2014 Special Needs Track

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I’m thrilled to announce the special needs workshops for the upcoming Orange Conference, April 30th – May 2nd, 2014.  Each workshop and breakout is held at a different time so that if a participant chooses, they can attend everything on the special needs track.  Details for the special needs networking event are not yet finalized, but rest assured our popular gathering will be part of the OC14 schedule.  We know special needs leaders value conversation and connection with one another.

The Orange Conference 2014 Special Needs Track

April 30th – Preconference Workshops

Training Volunteers to be Prepared for Children and Students with Autism
Dr. Stephen Hunsley
We’ll offer best practices for training volunteers and trouble-shooting so to engage kids of different ages and stages along the autism spectrum.

Transitioning Participants with Special Needs into Middle School, High School, and Adult Ministry Environments
Katie Garvert
We’ll look ahead, proactively creating church supports and transition strategies, as students with learning differences promote to the next ministry life stage.

Navigating Behavior Challenges
Meaghan Wall
We’ll cover best practices for hands-free strategies to reduce anxiety in ministry participants and to de-escalate unsafe or undesirable behaviors in the ministry environment.

5 Things Every Special Needs Leader Needs to Know
Connie Hutchinson
A special needs ministry veteran will provide insight from two decades of challenges and successes in disability inclusion.

May 1st – Conference Breakouts

Strategies to Engage Every Child
Amy Fenton Lee
30+ tips and tools to successfully include children with ADHD, autism, sensory needs, and other learning differences.

Promoting Spiritual Growth Inside the Family Impacted by Disability
Katie Garvert
We’ll offer practical ideas for how a church can strategically support the parents, siblings, and (often struggling) marriage inside the home of a child with special needs.

Leading Teen Volunteers
Meaghan Wall
We’ll show you how to train teens to be your ministry’s best asset while intentionally creating an environment that fosters life-change for serving teens.

Special Needs Ministry Top 10
Amy Fenton Lee
We’ll talk through current trends and issues a church can anticipate as they welcome more kids with special needs.


Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 4.17.18 PMKatie 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.

Image 1Dr. 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 & Sarah. The Hunsley’s middle child, Mark, is presently running the halls of heaven.  During Mark’s 5-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

 conniehutchinsonConnie 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.

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

Amy Fenton Lee Bioshot November 2013Amy Fenton Lee is the Director of Special Needs Initiatives for The reThink Group. Amy is the author of Leading a Special Needs Ministry:  A Practical Guide to Loving Children and Including Families (Orange, 2013).  Amy has written extensively on the subject of special needs inclusion in children’s ministry for in-print publications, journals and websites, including the  Along with her husband and young son, Amy lives in Cumming, Georgia.  Connect with Amy on Twitter:  @AmyFentonLee and @SpNeedsKidmin



In honor of CyberMonday, Orange Store is selling the book Leading a Special Needs Ministry for $13.99 (reg. $18.99) and offering FREE standard shipping.  Use code “cybermonday” in the coupon field to purchase the book for $13.99 including shipping.  This offer is good through midnight tonight!


This Thanksgiving I am Thankful for My Church


Yesterday I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw this picture and status:

“This little turkey came home from school today.  As I pulled it out of my son’s backpack, my heart overflowed with joy.  I am so thankful for our church’s Hearts & Hands Ministry and for many who show the love of Jesus to our son each Sunday.”

I caught myself fighting back tears. I personally know the mother, her sweet son, this church’s children’s pastor, and the special needs ministry coordinator who facilitates this little guy’s accommodation each week.

Every Sunday morning when my young friend arrives at church, he goes to a room where a screened and trained buddy is awaiting his arrival. That buddy has one agenda; helping their assigned student experience success in church that day.  One Sunday our young friend may participate in an environment among his typical seven-year-old peers.  And another Sunday this same little boy may remain in the Hearts & Hands ministry room with his assigned helper:

…to take a few extra jumps on the mini-trampoline;

…to work on a simple activity in a quiet environment; or

…to read a Bible story book while perched on a beanbag.

This child’s mother knows that she’ll be greeted by smiling faces inside the Hearts & Hands room, who without explanation seem to know of the major feat it was to arrive that day.  Through their warm welcome and extra hugs, she sees the joy the volunteers receive in knowing they are the reason she can attend worship.  And she anticipates being met with laughter and acceptance, never judgement, on the days she arrives at pick up and learns that her son:

…asked to ride the church elevator 15 times;

…attempted a Houdini-esque escape on a trip down the hallway; or

…expressed the desire to leave large group by screaming his “request”.

When I saw the turkey picture and it’s simply written answer of “my church”, I knew it communicated a much bigger story.  Writing those two words probably took several minutes for my little friend to scribble out because his penmanship is still evolving and requires a labored effort. For a child who has a fleeting attention span and is in constant movement, the investment of those few extra moments is significant.  What’s more significant is the evidence of success it provides to a church team who devotes several hours of the week coaching volunteers, coordinating their schedules, and ensuring there are safe, clean and appropriate activities inside the special needs ministry room.  And today I give thanks for that church and for the growing number of churches just like it, working to successfully include children with special needs.

Psalm 100 (NIV)
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his loves endures forever;

his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Happy Thanksgiving!  ~ Amy Fenton Lee


Don’t miss these Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals!


$5 off the new book, Leading a Special Needs Ministry
($18.99 Regular Price; $13.99 Purchase Price with Discount)
Available through the Orange Store
Checkout with Coupon Code:  LASNM5
Offer good today through Tuesday, December 3rd
Discount does not apply to books ordered through Amazon

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Orange Conference Preconference Tickets for $59
($109 regular price)
Available through Orange Conference Registration
No Coupon Required
Offer available Monday, December 2nd (one day only!)

We’ll be announcing the full OC14 special needs track next week.  But here’s a sneak peek of the Precon (Wednesday) lineup:

  • Helping Volunteers Include Children and Students with Autism
  • Transitioning Participants with Special Needs into Middle School, High School, and Adult Ministry.
  • Navigating Behavior Challenges
  • 5 Things Every Special Needs Leader Needs to Know

ADHD: Speaking into the Narrative of our Children’s Lives


Last week one of my co-workers at Orange suggested I read a fantastic guest post over on Eugene Cho’s blog.   One thing led to another and I eventually landed on the guest poster’s (Pam Christensen) personal blog, discovering a number of brilliant pieces.  I contacted Pam and she was gracious enough to allow me to re-run a particular post here.

Before I share Pam’s great guest post, I wanted to start with a personal note partially to explain my appreciation for the piece below.  By now, more than a few of you have probably connected the dots (especially those of you who have heard me speak).  You aren’t gonna be shocked at what I’m about to tell you.

I have ADHD.

Yep, I do.  This is not a self diagnosis.  This is a bonafide diagnosis made by a physician who specializes in these types of issues.

For those of you shaking your head thinking, “No way!  You seem anything but inattentive

Well, there’s this little term called hyperfocusing that pretty much sums me up.  And by no means is that my only ADHD attribute!  (I actually have many indicators.)  Oddly enough, I received this diagnosis one month after my book, Leading a Special Needs Ministry, was released.  That book was essentially the end result of years of hyperfocusing and then a rough 6-week period of ultra, mega, over-the-top hyperfocusing.  (Balanced, healthy people do not write and edit a 55,000 word book in less than two months.  This is true.)

So, the last few months I’ve been processing my own ADHD diagnosis and reflecting on how my wiring has impacted me for the last 40 years and even now.  The diagnosis does explain a lot, especially some difficulty feeling misunderstood at various points in my life.  Some days my personality has felt like a blessing and other days a curse.  If you know someone with ADHD, and particularly a female with the hyperactive form, then perhaps you can appreciate the upsides and downsides of my life experiences.  Fortunately, I’ve experienced the joy of seeing God’s redemptive hand in my own “disability”.  Without my quirks, I doubt I would have started this blog, written a book, or helped any church ever include a kid with special needs.

It is because of Pam’s post (below) that I’ve decided to share more personally today.   Virtually every reader of this blog has someone in their life with some sort of diagnosis or difference.  As you love and lead a child with a disability, may you give them a God-view of their personality, ability, and life journey.  Pam says this much better than I ever could. Amy Fenton Lee


“I like that I have ADHD”: Speaking into the Narrative of our Childrens’ Lives

Ever have one of those amazing conversations with your kids?  The ones you have when you least expect it, doing the most ordinary things?  The ones that remind you that you, in many ways, have as much to learn from your child as they do from you?  Recently, I had just such a conversation with my eight year old.  And, as they so often do, it happened in our mini-van just driving down the street (it’s a very strange thing, but we almost always have the BIG talks in our van: salvation, sex, baptism,  and even anarchy-but I’ll share that one another time).  From the seat behind me came these words:

I like that I have ADHD.

He then proceeded to list all the things he liked about himself that could be attributed to having ADHD:

I have a lot of energy.

I am creative.

I’m a good problem solver.

I notice things that not very many other people do.

I agreed that these things were in true.  Then I asked him how he knew these things about himself.  His response? “You told me.” I did?

While I could (and may) write a posting about how “able” kids (and adults) with ADHD are, that’s not what I learned through this conversation with my then 8 year old, driving through our town. What I was reminded of was this: the influence we have over our child’s narrative.

When our boys each received their respective diagnoses, it was important to my husband and I that we help them understand first of all that there is nothing “wrong” with them, but rather that they have some challenges that we as a family, along with their teachers, doctors and counselors, we’re going to help them learn to live and succeed with. The reality is that most children who have ADHD will not “outgrow it”, as was previously believed (hence the recent upsurge in adult diagnoses as medical and mental health professionals are beginning to recognize that this is not just a children’s issue), so they need to be aware that these challenges will affect them long term. However, we also wanted them to know that ADHD also contributed to many of their strengths and so, in that way, is also a gift. As with so many of the hurdles in life, this comes with challenges and blessings.  Your prayer is that God truly helps them “hear” these things.

Our child’s “story” (or our own, for that matter) does not start when they 30 or 25 or 18.  In Psalm 139, we are told that God knows everyone’s story, intimately, even before we are created:

“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before they even came to be.” (vs. 16, NIV)

Our children’s narrative is a life long sculpting by them and God, and yet we, as parents are called to play a critical role as collaborators in that story.  He chose to put this child in our lives. As we are awed and overjoyed, exhausted and impatient, humbled and overwhelmed, God comes along side and reminds us in little and big ways, that we are helping to shape our child’s story.

I can so easily get bogged down in the ways I may have spoken impatience and frustration, monotony and mediocrity, criticism and complaint into my child’s life.  It is important to recognize these things, address them and seek forgiveness for them. It is equally important to recognize those times, when God reminds us of the good, that by his grace working through us, despite our sinful nature, we have breathed into our child’s story.  Most of all, we need to remember how our influence helps shape our child’s story.  My prayer is that it will keep them coming back to God’s story. ~ Pam Christensen  Reposted with permission from

profile pic
Pam Christensen is the Associate Director of Children and Family Ministries at Quest Church. She has a passion for early childhood ministry as well as ministry to children and families with special needs. In her free time, Pam loves to read, study history, go on road trips, and play outside with her family and their dogs. She and her husband, have two boys and live in the Seattle area. You can reach her at  Pam is currently leading a new “Faith + Ability” class for Quest Church.

Good Finds! DVD to Help Peers Understand Autism


A couple of years ago I was looking for resources to help typically developing kids understand and interact with peers who have autism. Somewhere amidst an online search I stumbled onto Good Friend Inc.  Through the website, I contacted the company and received 2-Disc set of peer sensitivity films.  I was anxious to preview the DVDs to see if they could be helpful to a church audience.  So I popped in the videos (one for elementary and another for middle school-aged kids), and invited my son, who was age six at the time, to watch along side of me.

I was a little surprised how uncharacteristically quiet my son was through both 16-minute films, including the one for middle schoolers.  As soon as the videos were complete, my young son wanted process aloud the stories shared on the DVDs.  It was evident that my little guy had taken in more than I expected.  And at one point he commented:

Mom, I think I understand what you do now…you are writing to help churches understand kids just like the ones we heard about on the video.”

Because my family does often make sacrifices for my writing and all that goes along with it, it was great to have my son “get it”.  I loved that he caught my mission and saw the value in my work. But it wasn’t until more recently that I realized just how profoundly the two films had impacted my son.

Fast-forward two years and now my son is eight years old.

Through a series of conversations, I figured out there was a new child participating in one of his after school activities. My son was often coming home from this activity frustrated.  More than once he replayed dialogue where there were perceived unfair, and at times exasperating, interactions.  As I asked questions about the situation I secretly wondered if there was more to the story than my son was picking up on. Perhaps the new friend had a unique way of processing information….maybe he was struggling with social interaction…and possibly the frequency of changes during the activity were uncomfortable for the fellow participant.

One day when my son was at the end of his rope with this friend, I began asking questions to prompt him to think outside the box.  He played along, relaying what was happening before, during, and after the frustrating interactions.  Suddenly, my son became quiet.  For a moment he looked in another direction and then the furrowed brow over his eyes released.

Mom, do you remember those videos we watched a long time ago?”

(I nodded “yes” immediately remembering the Good Friend films)

Well, maybe my friend is like one of the kids who we on the DVDs.  I bet it isn’t always easy for him.”

At that moment, everything changed for my son, it was as if 100 light bulbs turned on.   A cloud of frustration was replaced by understanding and empathy.

Together we talked about how we can’t know for sure or assume that this friend has a learning difference*.  But my son could be sensitive to possibility his peer might be uncomfortable with change and may not intuitively know how to play with someone he actually wants to be friends with.

In the days that followed, my son viewed his peer through a different lens.  He came home with new stories about his friend.  But rather than conveying an escalating sense of frustration, he just wanted to dialogue about all he was processing during the interactions.  Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the two boys found a common interest during their time together.  And their mutual interest has led to a friendship that occasionally extends beyond the time and location of the original extracurricular activity.

Good Friend Forever Logo

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2-Minute Clip from Choosing to be a GFF (Good Friend Forever)

Needless to say, I think the Good Friend Forever DVDs belong on the shelf of every children’s or student ministry leader.  I recommend using the films as a key part of special needs ministry volunteer and buddy training events.  While the DVDs are ideal to show to teen buddies and peer-helpers, I think adults would benefit from their content as well.  I appreciated the everyday language used to explain sensory needs and unexpected behaviors that are common among kids with many special needs (not just autism).  Ministry leaders could also make the DVDs available to mission-minded families in their church, encouraging them to use the short films as discussion starters inside their home, much like I did with my son.

The DVDs could also be used in the typical ministry setting for all children and/or teens.  While the films were developed to show in secular schools, discussion questions with a Biblical tie-in can be easily added by a group facilitator.  (When you watch the DVDs you will not be surprised to know that Good Friend Inc.’s founders are passionate believers.)  The DVDs could used as introductory illustrations when covering Bible truths such as:

  • Accepting others as God made them
  • Treating others as you want to be treated
  • Intentionally including others, being the light of Christ
  • Not judging others
  • Standing up for peers who are being bullied


To learn more or purchase the DVDs,  see

For an excellent article, checkout Tips for Interacting with Individuals with Autism

*In my house, we refer to many special needs as “learning differences”.  I like to use this term because the word difference is less stigmatizing than the word disability.  Every child can relate to the idea of having some attribute or need that makes them different from their peers.  My son and I often talk about the fact he processes new information through his listening skills (auditory learner), which is different than most of his peers who process new information by seeing pictures (visual learners).  When my son was younger, we talked about differences such as needing glasses, not being able to eat ice cream (lactose intolerant), or only being able to eat gluten free cupcakes (Celiac disease runs in my family).  Obviously some differences are more common and less inconvenient than others, but the important thing was to help my son develop a God-view of our differences. (In God’s economy, the person with a cognitive or physical disability has the same treasured worth as the person with a food allergy.)  ~ Amy Fenton Lee

Special Needs Ministry Love Walk

Two weeks ago I flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles for the Orange Tour.  As soon as I hopped off the plane I braved the SoCal traffic in my rental car (no small feat) and headed up to Pasadena.  I spent the afternoon with Julie Keith, Pastor of Special Needs at First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena (known locally as PazNaz).  Julie is one of a small handful of leaders who’ve been directing inclusion ministry for a decade or more.  When I was writing the book Leading a Special Needs MInistryI drew from Julie’s wisdom for chapter seven.  She was the source for the idea to partner with a local college or seminary for volunteer recruitment. For a number of years, Julie has worked with faculty contacts to create incentives for students in a related area of study to serve in PazNaz’s special needs ministry.  I have always remembered the great interview Julie provided me where she rattled off ideas for recruiting solid ministry volunteers.

I could have spent another day with Julie just soaking in all her experiences.  She is as passionate about her career calling as her faith.  She has even written her own curriculum!  (I’m pretty sure there will be a special place in heaven for curriculum writers.  Y’all wave to me when I’m looking over from the “cheap seats” among non-curriculum writers.)

When I arrived at PazNaz Julie presented me with a Love Walk T-shirt.  And for those of you who know me, you can envision me interrupting Julie before she could finish her first sentence.  Of course I was begging her to guest post about this event.  Oh how I wish I was within driving distance of Pasadena, California.  You wouldn’t have to guess where I would be at 9am in the morning!  ~ Amy Fenton Lee



Special Needs Ministry Love Walk


Tomorrow is an exciting day for my church’s special needs ministries. PAZNAZ will host its 6th annual Love Walk to publicly celebrate our ministries.  We also use this event to raise scholarship funds for some of our ministry participants to attend a unique retreat designed for families with special needs.  The Love walk is publicized through the church newsletter and other congregational communications.  This event provides church members the opportunity to become aware of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena’s special needs ministries and to invite their participation.  For this event, we encourage our entire church family to join in the walk, to sponsor a walk participant, or to volunteer as an event helper.

By design, the Love Walk offers two short routes (half-mile and two-mile), so that individuals with special needs, their family members, and the entire community can join in the fun. Through participant sponsorships, last year’s event raised enough funds to scholarship nine families’ way to Joni & Friends Family Retreat.  Joni & Friends Family Retreat provides a unique getaway with special accommodations where teams of trained volunteers infuse laughter and God’s love into every activity. Because this retreat is designed with special needs in mind, it may be the only vacation some families ever experience.


If you live in the SoCal area, come join us!  Be sure to checkout our ministry Facebook page for pictures from the Love Walk and other events. ~ Julie Keith


ImageFor more than twelve years Julie Keith has been a Pastor to individuals and families with special needs.  Julie has a Doctor of Ministry degree and a Master or Arts degree in Marriage and Family Counseling.  Julie has served as Pastor to Special Needs at First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena (CA) since 2007.  Julie frequently teaches workshops at ministry conferences and writes on the subject of disability inclusion inside the church.  She has also worked in social work providing supportive living services to adults with special needs and support to their families through the transition.  Check out Julie’s blog or follow her on Twitter.

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