The following is the first in a series regarding special needs inclusion in churches.
With the rise in autism and other special needs diagnoses1, the faith community is recognizing the growing need to better include children with learning differences and disabilities. But as churches are working to embrace families impacted by special needs, they are wading into new territory largely unfamiliar to a church staff. As a result, ministry leaders are facing new and sometimes unexpected decision points as they guide their staff and volunteers. Until recently, disability accommodation inside student ministries has largely occurred on an as-needed and responsive basis. While the reactive approach has arguably sufficed, it has failed to both maximize the ministry opportunity and benefit the servants assisting with inclusion efforts. Going forward, proactively formulating and communicating a vision for special needs inclusion is crucial for the success of the church leader directing a family and student ministry.
When a church defines special needs inclusion, success becomes achievable. Special needs accommodation can mean different things to different school systems, let alone different people. As a result, it is up to a church’s leadership to define what successful special needs inclusion looks like for their unique body of believers. Without expressed objectives and a tangible road map for achieving those objectives, disagreement and disappointment are almost inevitable. One family may interpret successful inclusion to mean their child has a safe and positive experience in a particular ministry setting. Another parent may envision Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, or summer programming as a venue for reinforcing their child’s individualized goals for educational or behavioral development. Neither parent is wrong in the hopes for their child. But the same church may or may not be able to satisfy both families. The ministry leader who proactively develops and communicates the goals for special needs inclusion simultaneously shapes and unifies the expectations of everyone involved.
Concrete goals create cause for celebration. For the child with special needs, every developmental milestone is significant and worthy of celebration. There is a parallel in special needs ministry. Churches that present a methodical plan for growing their church’s inclusion efforts give hope to parents while providing recognition points for the ministry and its volunteers. Astute ministry leaders pause when accommodation is added for an additional hour of church programming or VBS expands to include children with significant learning differences. They know that achievement without recognition is a lost opportunity to refuel the breath of the ministry. And by delineating short-term from long-term goals, the church staff and servant workforce are enabled to build a special needs ministry one success at a time.
Amy Fenton Lee is the writer behind The Inclusive Church blog. Amy’s passion is in equipping faith communities to successfully include families and children with special needs. As an active children’s ministry volunteer and the daughter of a church senior pastor, Amy understands the unique subculture of the church. Amy researches for her writing and speaking by interviewing next-generation ministry leaders, as well as secular education and medical professionals. Her writing on special needs inclusion and other family ministry-related topics have been featured in numerous secular and Christian publications. Along with her husband and young son, Amy lives outside Atlanta, Georgia.
1To learn about the statistics of special needs diagnoses among children, click here: https://theinclusivechurch.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/just-the-facts-special-needs-statistics/