The following is the second in a series regarding special needs inclusion in churches. Click here to read the first post.
Family and student pastors unfamiliar with special education often feel underprepared to lead their ministry teams toward better special needs inclusion. But the success of a leader is often less about their knowledge and prior experience than it is their ability to facilitate a corporate conversation, resource the right people, and generate solution-oriented action steps.
When leading a church through an inclusion initiative, approach the process from three angles:
Acceptance: Examine the current culture of the church. Pose the question to yourself and key influencers inside the church:
“If the family of a child with a social skills deficit, neurological impairment, or physical challenge were to visit our church, would they feel welcome?”
Envision such a family’s first visit, starting with their arrival on campus and walking through each step of a Sunday morning experience. Does the host team know how to recognize and appropriately respond to queues indicating a need for special accommodation? How does the children’s ministry team react when they first encounter a child who behaves in an unexpected way? Is there a protocol for placing the child in a small group for the immediate or longer term? Did church representatives exude warmth and acceptance to the family during each interaction? Asking these questions will naturally reveal the next action steps and resources the leader may guide his church towards. (1)
Accommodation: Invite ministry team members, outside experts, and selected parents to dialogue through an average Sunday, midweek, or VBS experience for a child with special needs. Anticipate a range of differences the church could expect to encounter. Review the variety of activities and environments in which a student may require appropriate accommodation. Simulate the potential experiences of participants with differences, considering conceivable challenges related to:
Physical barriers to space (e.g. no elevator access, lack of visual or acoustical borders)
Loud sounds or bright lights
Activities requiring fine motor skills or gross motor ability
Learning exercises necessitating independent reading
Tasks involving team work
Quantity and quality of planned activities (too few vs. too many)
Request special education professionals or therapists to address possible behavioral responses from a student experiencing a challenge related to the above issues. Discuss ways the ministry team can partner with parents and proactively prepare for the child who needs assistance to succeed. Facilitate the development of a plan to prevent and manage undesirable behavior. Simultaneously review the church’s risk management policy for addressing and prohibiting aggressive or unsafe behavior.
Note: Behavior-related policies should be communicated and applied uniformly across a church’s student ministries in order to prevent the practice or perception of discrimination.
Advancement: Begin thinking about how the church is providing opportunities for spiritual advancement to students with special needs. A ministry team may never fully grasp their eternal impact in the lives of students with intellectual disabilities. However, when learning experiences are planned to engage all of a child’s senses and when Bible truths are communicated in tangible ways, children of every learning preference and ability benefit.
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.
(1) Click here to learn more about a special needs training event for church greeters.