KidMin Myth #3775- “Having a special needs child attend our church is a rare thing and we just cannot be equipped to plan for that.

Truth: Did you know?? Children with special needs are all around us. In the United States, autism is still on the rise, with one in every 68 births now, being a child on the autism spectrum. (CDC 2014). Why the rise in children with special needs? That is not our debate. But it is no longer optional to include these kids in our ministries.  Our ministries cannot be for only CERTAIN children and not others. But too many of us have no idea where to start! What haunts me is “How many special needs kids and their families are NOT attending our church (or any church), because they do not feel welcome.  In part one we looked at some ways to begin ministering to families of special needs children.  Here are a few more ways we can reach out to these precious children and their families:

7. Get trainings for all of your leaders- offer them and track who attends. Now before you throw up your hands and say, “We don’t know anyone to do those kinds of trainings!” Hang on just a bit. We thought that too at first, but we were surprised by the great training that is out there and how eager people were to share it. Some places to start looking would be with your local public schools. Do they have special education teachers willing to come out and do a training for you? Look within your church. Are there teachers, nurses or behavioral therapists you can ask to come in? Volunteers become afraid or overwhelmed when they do not have the training or the “tools” to address a child’s special education needs.  The right training can help take away that fear, and that stigma and make the class run so much more smoothly. We brought in a behavioral therapist who works with autism and down syndrome children and their families at home and in the classroom.  We also brought in a public school special education teacher, and a parent of 3 autistic boys to do trainings, workshops and Q and A’s with us.  This was one of the best attended trainings we have ever offered. When I travel doing workshops at churches, this workshop is the second most requested, right behind recruitment. Again, we are looking for tips toward including all kids in our 45 min teaching session- NOT intensive interventions or medical treatments that we are not qualified to do. Let your leaders know, we are giving them the tools to be better children’s leaders to their whole class- not counselors or medical practitioners. REMEMBER: The parent is always the primary caregiver at all times.

8. Special Needs Children’s Ministry, ideas for integration. The key here to successfully incorporating children with special needs into your kids ministry is BALANCE. I have seen churches turn all sound down, forbid faster songs, get rid of flashing lights, eliminate puppets and costume characters, stop all black light productions etc. But to me, this is going to far in the other direction- you are there for that hour to minister to ALL of the children in attendance, of ALL learning styles.  This takes a lot of wisdom and balance. Do we occasionally have rocking strobe light, black light roller blading costume characters? Yes. It does happen. But because we intentionally plan our services pretty far ahead, I warn our teachers and parents of children with special needs that that element will be a part of our services that day. Then the parent has the option to either sit with their child (which we love) or let them go to their classroom a bit early that day for a special activity until the rest of the class joins them. We keep our dynamic kid’s worship services; and if it becomes too much for one of our autistic kids, we have their classroom ready (which doesn’t happen very often actually). We must be mindful and intentional when we craft our kid’s services to reach out to that specific group of kids using several different approaches. Don’t eliminate your illustrative methods- but have a backup plan and communicate a lot with parents about what is going on.

9. Ministry Buddies- Several churches I know, including ours, use “ministry buddies” for some of their children with special needs. This is an adult, a grandparent, or an older teenager (background checked and trained) who is one on one with that child. This is someone for them to sit with, ask questions of, and get help from if needed. Again, the parent is the one to talk with about this option. And we have found that recruiting for this was not as tough as we had thought it might be. Some people do not want to be upfront teachers or leaders; but they are AMAZING at being a FRIEND to a child for an hour on Sunday. And they have no idea what an impact for Jesus they make.  One Sunday at our church, a mom came to church with her two severely disabled children, Caleb and Donovan, both with cerebral palsy and in wheel chairs.  She planned to walk them up and down the halls and try to listen to the sermon over the loud speaker. She was that desperate to hear from God. To her astonishment, two of our “dads” (volunteers who sit with special needs kids in the services), talked with her, introduced themselves and checked her boys into kid’s ministry.  During the service they just walked the halls pushing the boys, took them to our kid’s worship service, and prayed with them, and walked around some more. The “dads” may still not realize that the ministry they did that morning was HUGE, and made an impact for eternity. The mom told me she sat in the second row through worship and just wept.

10. Parent support team- One side effect of opening up our kid’s ministry to more and more children of different needs was that more families started attending our church! And these families began having Bible studies together and taking time to pray with and encourage each other.  Some of the fantastic by-products of these families of special needs meetings were: a. We found connections, ideas for our leaders’ trainings b. We were able to run ideas past these parents and really partner with them in the kid’s ministry c. They helped us with recruiting, and finding “ministry buddies”.  d. We got to hear all the latest and best in special needs ministry e. We had a voice in the community for family special needs ministry (which had us growing fast in that area). f. These families felt supported, connected and understood.

What would Jesus do, if that child with ADHD came to His church on Sunday? I know Jesus take that child in His arms and bless her- like He would all of the other kids, AND their parents. I know the challenges can be big and seem scary, but if we focus on getting STARTED, if we focus on what we CAN do, instead of what we CAN’T do, I know we will be surprised at the miracles of ministry God will do through us. We don’t have to be perfect.  We just have to be willing to reach out. What small steps can we take right now, this week, to welcome special needs kids and their families into our ministries?

And Love Always, Trisha