Note from the Editor: We thought this article is even more relevant than when it was published just about 2 years ago. If your facility is now considering how you can welcome special needs children and their families into your church, then you’ll find this article immensely helpful.
When Phil Heller became lead Pastor at White River Christian Church (WRCC) in Noblesville, Indiana, in 2006, he introduced the staff and congregation to his then 5 year old son, Cade. Precocious and full of energy, Cade also brought with him the challenges of downs syndrome, a genetic condition affecting nearly 6,000 new babies every year in the United States.
At the same time the Hellers came on-board at White River, the church was already serving a few other families whose children had special needs. So when Cade joined the church, an organically grown special needs ministry had already begun taking root. “I loved the level of servant heartedness I saw right away at White River,” recalls Heller. “And as more people became aware that we’re a church that supports individuals with special needs, more families started to come to us,” says Heller.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
At first, White River simply created a self-contained classroom and adapted its Sunday school curriculum according to the needs of each person that showed up. This provided an opportunity to share the Gospel with students of varying abilities, and it gave the families of these kids time to worship without worrying about their children's well-being. Over time, White River's own congregation began to understand the ministry opportunity of serving children with special needs and their families, and the desire within the church to fill that need grew.
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From 20102011, White River devoted intentional effort to creating a special needs ministry one that was shaped not out of pity for people with disabilities, but by the conviction that all people require a pathway to Jesus. "We're dedicated to reaching souls and nurturing people's faith," says Heller. "We didn't want to create a ministry that was just babysitting."
In 2012, White River's leadership team committed to hiring someone with significant experience facilitating special needs programs. They found Brooke Garcia, a seasoned professional with extensive experience in adaptive programming, to serve as the church's first special needs director.
Garcia instituted a buddy system, pairing up every special needs child or adult with a friend at church, someone who could keep them safe often children with disabilities ose a "flight risk" in the classroom and help them process Bible lessons according to their particular abilities and needs. White River also created a monthly respite program, which allows 15 to 20 families to drop
off their special needs children for a themed event while the parents get several hours to do whatever they'd like. According to Garcia, the respite program serves as a good outreach tool in the community.
"For families that are hesitant about coming to church, the monthly respite event gives them a way to check us out." First Baptist Church Geneva (FBCG) in Geneva, Illinois, has experienced similar growth with their respite events. Every five to six weeks they host Buddy Break, a free respite program where youth (ages birth20 years old) with special needs and their siblings
can make new friends, play fun games, enjoy crafts, stories, music and activities. Mean while, their parents get a break from ongoing
care giving responsibilities for three hours.
Jaimie Valentini, leader of Masterpiece Ministry, FBCG's special needs ministry, says attendance at Buddy Break has grown much faster than they anticipated. "There's an unmet need in our community for families with disabled children, both for respite for the parents and special Opportunities for the children," says Valentini. Like White River, First Baptist Geneva's special needs ministry has grown out of a belief that all children are loved and valued by Christ. Masterpiece Ministry is intended to help children with special needs and their families experience love and acceptance during worship, instruction, and fellowship.
MAKING SPACE FOR SPECIAL NEEDS
In 2015, FBCG put their money where their mouth is and invested in new ministry space devoted specifically to Masterpiece Ministry as part of an overall church building project. Their new space, designed by Aspen Group, features over-sized bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, and adult-sized massage tables that double as changing tables. Because of their height, size and stability, parents can manage diapering needs of any size child. First Baptist Church Geneva also created a new check-in area, which features a dutch door that directs kids through two doors, keeping them from running in or out. This allows them time and freedom to talk with families without their kids darting off unexpectedly. Another feature designed for children with sensitivities is a quiet room, a small space with two chairs and soft lighting that provides a calming, peaceful environment. All of these facility details and the expertise of Valentini and her volunteer team
make it possible for FBCG to provide ministry for children and youth with a wide array of needs and limitations including: autism spectrum disorders, speech delays, physical impairments, neurological disorders, developmental delays, behavioral problems, emotional issues, cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.
SPECIAL SERVICES FOR SPECIAL NEEDS
To help integrate children and adults with special needs into the entire faith community, White River offers a unique worship service at Christmas and Easter called "Lights Up, Sound Down."
White River also integrated special needs families into the Lord's Supper. "One family told me that this was the first time they had taken communion together as a family," Garcia says. "Another family told me their son could be himself without being shushed. It puts parents at ease to know they're surrounded by people who understand them." By far, one of White River's most well attended community outreach events is their adaptive prom. Hosted on a Friday night, this free annual gala attracts about 150 adults. People will drive an hour-and-a-half to attend.
All of the dresses are donated. And the event includes flowers, a horse and carriage, and the crowning of a king and queen. "Last year, a dad with a son in his mid-20s asked, Can my son come to this? He's so excited because he's never been to a prom.' Older adults in their fifties and sixties have a similar experience," Garcia says.
HOW TO GET STARTED
As White River and First Baptist experiment with adaptive programs and services, each church continues to learn and refine their disability ministries. Here are seven tips they've learned for integrating a special needs ministry into a church:
1. SPECIAL NEEDS MINISTRY IS NOT BABYSITTING; IT’S SPIRITUAL FORMATION.
Phil Heller and Brooke Garcia emphatically contend that adapting their programming to meet the needs of people with physical, cognitive, and behavioral challenges isn't about benevolence. It's shepherding and spiritual formation. "We don't have special needs ministry because we feel sorry for them," says Heller. "We want to connect Heller. "We want to connect them to Jesus. I want Cade to know how to pray and to have opportunities to worship. He's authentic and real and raw. There's no pretense in how he loves God. We're learning from this population as much as serving them."
2. CREATE AN INDIVIDUAL SPIRITUAL PLAN.
In schools, educators collaborate with parents to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each special needs student to help define their needs and the accommodations that will best meet them. Within the church, leaders can work with parents to develop an Individual Spiritual Plan (ISP) for each child. "There needs to be a process in place to discover a child's spir-itual needs," says Heller. "When I send Cade to camp, I want to be sure the church knows what medications he's on. And in a spiritual sense, I want them to know where he's at spiritually."
3. INVEST IN EXPERTS.
Children with special needs have just that special needs. For this reason, it's a good idea for churches to select someone to lead this ministry that has real expertise. "If you're a parent of a special needs child," says Heller, "you can be untrusting and skeptical of how well your child will be cared for. Is there any-one who will know that my child is a run-ner'? Or what to do if he becomes violent? At White River, we felt we needed a true expert to lead our special needs ministry."
4. DON'T GROW UNTIL YOU'RE READY. BUT ALSO, DON'T DELAY STARTING IF YOU'RE CALLED.
Many new businesses follow the TOP meth-odTrain, Operate, Promote. In the same way, if you're getting ready to launch a new special needs ministry in your church, it's wise to follow this format. "If you build a spe-cial needs ministry, they will come," says Garcia. "This is a population that's underserved. But make sure you've got key leaders in place and enough volunteer support before you market it or you'll scare families away."
5. USE YOUR SPACE WISELY.
"Space matters," says Garcia. "It shows you value the people you're serving and under-stand their needs." Be sure the space includes fidget and sensory items, and be intentional about how you design the space. "When I joined the staff at White River, the people's hearts were in the right place, but they didn't know what all of Cade's needs were," says Heller. "If you go into our space today, you can see we get it. It doesn't have to be a pris-tine space, but it should be intentional."
6. ENLIST THE HELP OF OTHER VISIONARIES.
Even if you have a special needs staff person whose job is to develop the ministry, it's a big load for one person to carry. Be sure to share the burden (and joy) with others who share your vision for serving the young and old. Valentini meets with other Masterpiece Visionaries to brainstorm ministry ideas and strategize on how to execute new ideas with
their volunteer corps.
7. DON'T GO IT ALONE.
Both Garcia and Valentini have discovered other churches in their area that are striving to provide special needs ministries. By tapping into the wisdom and soliciting input from oth-ers, churches are able to build up their minis-tries faster and better than if they go it alone. "There are two other churches in our area that have special needs directors," says Garcia. "We get together every month and share ideas. We refer families to each other's churches so that together we can serve our whole county." There's no question, launching a special needs ministry at church is a high and holy calling. And the impact extends far beyond the individuals who are served. As congre-gations learn more about disabilities and the challenges they pose for both families and those who care for them, the church as a whole grows in empathy. As for Cade, he's a teenager now and deeply immersed in his church. His dad says Cade plans to preach at White River. With the spiritual instruction and mentoring he's receiving, it's quite likely he will.
There are a growing number of accessibility conferences and resources for church leaders to tap.
Leading a Special Needs Ministry by Amy Fenton www.joniandfriends.org/ store/product/leadingspecial-needs-ministry
Making Your Church Accessible by Church Law & Tax/Christianity Today: http://bit.ly/1Kuej9n 2016
Accessibility Summit: www.accessibilitysummit.org
Joni & Friends: www.joniandfriends.org
MARIAN V. LIAUTAUD is a freelance writer and director of marketing for Aspen Group. You can follow her @MarianLiautaud