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How to Start a Special Needs Ministry at Your Church

If our mission statement is fully inclusive, why are we surprised when a family with a child with special needs walks into our church? They’re part of the mission and, now that we acknowledge that we’ve invited them, we need to be ready to serve.

Over the past few years, I’ve become very interested in the mission statements of various churches.  I’ve found that most of them, despite geographic region or even denomination, have a few things in common. Most churches focus their mission statements around God and love.  

I know what you’re thinking: A church with a mission statement focused on “God” and “love” —what a novel idea! One other similarity I’ve found in most mission statements is that each one has an inclusive statement of some type. Most have statements like “all” or “our community.” Others have the inclusion implied by not defining an audience.

I want you to think of your church’s mission statement. Imagine you’re a parent of a child with special needs and you’re reading this statement. Is there anything in the mission statement that would tell a family with a child with special needs that they aren’t welcome at your church?  

I’d venture to say, you won’t find anything in the mission statement that would exclude a family with a child with special needs, or anyone for that matter. Churches tend to write mission statements that are fully inclusive.

If our mission statement is fully inclusive, why are we surprised when a family with a child with special needs walks into our church? We invited them in. They’re part of the “all” or “community” we refer to in our mission statement as a church. They’re part of the mission and, now that we acknowledge that we’ve invited them, we need to be ready to serve.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you without a plan. Here are a few simple things you can do to serve any family with a child with special needs when they walk in your door.

1. Become lifelong students of the family

The parents and siblings of the student with special needs know their needs better than anyone else.  We often think we need to have everything ready to go and need to know everything about whoever might walk in our church before they come through the door.  

While this would be ideal, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Take some time to learn the student God has brought into your ministry. Don’t be afraid to ask the parents questions before they leave their child.  You can ask questions like: What activities does your child like? What things might cause your child to become anxious? What can we do to help calm your child if they become anxious?  

Once you have the answers to these questions, educate the volunteers who’ll be working with this student. If you have one specific volunteer, like a buddy who is ready to step in, have that buddy involved in the conversation with the family.

2. Develop a buddy bag  

Now that you’ve learned what your student with special needs likes and dislikes, put together a Buddy Bag for them to use alongside their volunteer helper. Most students with special needs have difficulty during long stretches of activities or during transitions.  

The Buddy Bag is designed to give a volunteer some additional tools that might help the student manage during activities that aren’t their preferred activities. Consider including a picture schedule, a fun (but quiet) fidget toy, a coloring page, and something you can use as an incentive. This could be a favorite toy car, a favorite squishy animal, or a scented marker.

3. Develop a plan

New students are going to come to your church and the needs of your current students are going to change. What works today might not work forever. Start thinking about how you can continue to meet the needs of families with children with special needs.  

Do you need a special space for students to retreat to if they’re overwhelmed by the environment? Do you need additional support for teens as they aren’t only dealing with their diagnosis, but also with hormones? Do you need to adapt some of your church-wide activities so families with children with special needs feel welcome and safe coming and participating as part of the church body?  

These things don’t have to happen immediately, but they should probably be on your radar. If you’re always a student of the families you serve, you’ll know exactly what the next step needs to be.

You’ve now started a special needs ministry

By doing these simple things, you’ve just started a Special Needs Ministry. Don’t allow yourself to think your church doesn’t have a Special Needs Ministry because you don’t have more than one student with special needs, or because there isn’t a dedicated staff person for the Special Needs Ministry, or because you don’t have dedicated rooms just for students with special needs.  

While all of these things are great and will probably come in time, if your church is serving a family with a child with special needs, you have a Special Needs Ministry. Keep plugging on. Keep serving the families God brings you.

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