Churches that minister to people with special needs and their families are discovering the double blessing of investing in this underserved population. Both the ones being served and the ones serving are blessed to share the love of Christ in the face of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. If you're thinking about launching a special needs ministry, here are seven tips for integrating it effectively:
1. Special needs ministry is not babysitting; it's spiritual formation.
Adapting 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 Phil Heller, lead pastor at White River Christian Church (WRCC) in Noblesville, Indiana. "We want to connect them to Jesus." Heller, whose son, Cade, is part of his church's special needs ministry, says, "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. Just as it's critical to know each person's medical and physical needs, it's equally important to have a process in place for discerning where they are spiritually.
3. Invest in experts.
Children with special needs have just thatspecial needs. For this reason, it's a good idea for churches to select someone to lead this ministry that has real expertise. Parents can be skeptical of how well their child will be cared for. Be sure your special needs ministry team knows whether a child is a "runner" or what to do if he becomes violent.
4. Don't grow until you're ready.
But also, don't delay starting if you're called.
Many new businesses follow the TOP methodTrain, 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. According to Brooke Garcia, special needs ministry director at WRCC, if you build a special needs ministry, they will come. "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," she says.
5. Use your space wisely.
"Space matters," says Garcia. "It shows you value the people you're serving and understand their needs." Be sure the space includes fidget and sensory items, and be intentional about how you design the space. Your space doesn't have to be pristine, 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. Jaimie Valentini, leader of Masterpiece Ministry, the special needs ministry at First Baptist Church Geneva in Geneva, Illinois, meets with other Masterpiece Visionaries, parents of special needs kids who share the church's passion for providing an excellent special needs ministry, to brainstorm ministry ideas and strategize on how to execute new ideas with the volunteer corps they have.
7. Don't go it alone.
Many churches have been providing special needs ministries and more are joining the ranks. Try to connect with other churches in your area to share ideas and lessons learned. By tapping into the wisdom and soliciting input from others, churches are able to build up their ministries faster and better than if they go it alone.
There's no question, launching a special needs ministry at church is a high and holy calling. The impact extends far beyond the individuals who are served. As congregations learn more about disabilities and the challenges they pose for those who live with them and their families, the church as a whole grows in empathy.
Marian V. Liautaud has written extensively on church ministries as a freelance writer and former editor at Christianity Today. Currently, she serves as marketing director at Aspen Group, a company dedicated to designing, building, and furnishing church facilities to radically enhance ministry impact. You can follow her on Twitter@MarianLiautaud