Working with special needs children for more than ten years while in ministry at a large suburban church, I came to love, admire and respect the families who daily deal with the issues that special needs children face. Some churches find it difficult to incorporate those with different abilities and/or difficult behavior into the life of the congregation; some churches have embraced this challenge in order to support these families and, in doing so, have become truly inclusive.
Children have many different learning styles and behaviors—not all due to disabilities or learning styles. Do you know the differences? Some behaviors may be due to: physical disabilities, language issues, emotional problems, learning differences, family problems, relationship issues, and/or below- average intelligence. Some special needs are mild and may be only slightly noticeable. Others may require medications, special equipment, or even a trained companion to help. And some “just clap their hands.” Whether mild or severe, all special needs children require their leaders to accept them and to love them in the same way that Jesus accepts and loves us all.
Here are a few general ideas to consider when thinking about ministry with special needs children:
1. Are your church teachers/ leaders/ helpers called to ministry with special needs and equipped to welcome and teach them all? God gives us all gifts to use to help build up God’s kingdom. Do you have a call process in place in your congregation for calling people with the appropriate gifts to the appropriate ministries?
2. Are your special needs families on board? When the teachers/ leaders/ helpers called to work with special needs are in place, aim for consistency and a close partnership with the family by beginning with a parent meeting. No special needs child should come into a new situation without all of the adults in partnership and in agreement. Otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.
3. Do you have a church-wide discipline policy and do your children’s leaders have a discipline strategy for their meetings? Discipline is not a tool for controlling others, but for enabling the exercising of self control, especially important for the special needs child. A person who has learned self-discipline has self-control, self-reliance, self-esteem, and expresses orderly conduct. Self-discipline is assuming responsibility for our actions, and making decisions about our behavior.
It is important to accept special needs children as equal, to give them a sense of dignity and respect. For instance, it is essential that you do not add to the problems of your students by allowing them to do or say whatever they please, so you will want to engage everyone in the group in making a list of rules for all to use while learning, playing, sharing a meal, or worshipping.
Although there is a lot that the church can do to nurture and support the special needs child and his family, consider all that special needs children themselves can bring to the congregation. Adopt a zero rejection policy: exclude no children from the concern and activities of the congregation because of the severity of their handicaps. We all have handicaps; on some of us, they are more apparent.
• Do you have special needs children in your congregation? Enough for a “Special Needs Ministry Team” to plan and implement ministry programs for them? Or one or two who are enfolded into your general ministry activities?
• Is your church a welcoming, safe, and nurturing place for special needs children and their families?
• Do you have a call process in place for placing teachers and leaders of special needs children?
• Does your congregation screen volunteers for children/youth ministry?
• Are your special needs leaders equipped to guide the children who may need extra help?
• Does your Children’s Ministry enjoy an open and healthy partnership with the families of special needs children?
• Does your church have a discipline policy that applies to all who use your campus?
[Check out The LOGOS Ministry Webinars: “Hey You!” for more about calling people into ministry; “Love in Disguise” for more about discipline; “Friendly Fences” for more about church-wide discipline policies.]