by Amanda Brady
Children’s Pastor, Amanda Brady is a guest writer for INCM.
I remember singing a song during Sunday school as a child that began: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” The words of that song remind me that we are the same in God’s eyes, and he loves us all the same. As children’s ministers, it is our job to spread his love to all of the children in our churches, our community, and the world.
Unfortunately, one group has been under reached. Marie Kuck, founder of Nathaniel’s Hope, told me that one out of ten kids under the age of fourteen have some type of special need. But that isn’t the most alarming statistic. Rather, she shared that only 10 percent of people with a disability attend church services.
When we don’t have individuals with special needs in our churches, we miss the opportunity to know these individuals who have been created in God’s image as well, and we miss some important lessons God wants to teach us. How can we as the church and specifically children’s ministers help kids with special needs and their families know and feel that they are welcome, wanted, and loved in church services? Marie and I discussed ways we can do so in our churches.
There is a huge difference, Marie shared, between being tolerant and being intentional in your approach to ministering to children with special needs. When a family with a child with special needs shows up at church for the first time, are people scrambling to decide what to do with the child, or do you have a plan in place? Having a plan in place is the first way you can make families and children with special needs feel welcome.
Ask yourself the following questions and answer them honestly about your church and your programs:
Do you advertise to let people know when they are deciding where to worship that children with special needs are welcome?
Do greeters know how to be sensitive to the needs of the family and where to direct them when they arrive?
How are they received when they arrive?
Are they greeted with a warm smile and made to feel like this is a place for them, or are they greeted with a look of fright and bombarded with questions?
What is the intake process?
Is there a way to allow parents to share about their children and their special needs without fearing that they will be turned away?
Do you have a plan for outreach and special events to include children with special needs if they want to be involved?
You must also be intentional, Marie shared, in building relationships with the families of children with special needs. Disabilities are so varied and have a wide range of effects on an individual as well as the family. If possible, spend time with the these families in their home and with the children at school if that option is available. As you build those relationships, you become better able to understand what the family needs.
It is important to remember that your job is to minister not only to the child with a special need but also to minister to the entire family. Figure out how to take care of the parents or caregivers. Often they are struggling. They are tired. Most of the time they do not have much social life.
The percentage of single parents caring for children with special needs is high. Figure out what things your church can do to help. Determine not only how to get the children involved in church, but also how to help the parents out with normal, daily activities as well as how to help when the children may be sick or in the hospital.
Another way children’s ministers can be intentional is by evaluating their current programs to determine if they are designed to actively engage all of the children. What can you do to ensure that children with special needs can actively participate in your classes to the full extent of their ability? Consider pairing these children with one-on-one volunteers. They might even be other students in the class. A buddy can involve a child with special needs in the class by helping the child with activities, as needed.
Look for simple ways to adapt lessons and activities so that children with special needs can participate. Consider, for example, precutting items and offering help in pasting things for a child that has difficulty with motor skills. In teaching the lesson, you often tell a story and sometimes include a visual, but a child that has auditory and visual impairment is left out of the learning process when you do so. Instead, find ways to involve the other senses to help the child learn. The key is to find ways to emphasize capabilities instead of inabilities.
One final area where you can be intentional is in educating your congregation. Marie Kuck points out that it only takes one person to hurt a family. Often these hurtful experiences are unintentional and can even be done by someone with well-meaning motives. It is essential that you offer education as well as sensitivity and etiquette training to everyone in your church. It is just as important to ensure that greeters are trained as it is teachers.
You must also educate your congregation. People need to know why families with special needs are an important part of the body of Christ. The best way to do this is by sharing stories from the families. Stories not only give exposure and advocate for the family, but they also help the church to see the impact that small things can make in the lives of these families.
Finally, it is imperative that you educate other children. You need to teach all children that a child with a disability has the same needs they have—and more. Teach them to look beyond the disability to see that they all are God’s children.
Marie encourages churches and children’s ministers not to fall into thinking that it is someone else’s responsibility to minister to families of children with special needs. It is the responsibility of all churches and members of the body of Christ to reach out and care for these families. It happens when you are intentional about making all families feel welcome, building relationships, structuring your programs to focus on children’s abilities and not disabilities, and educating the entire body of Christ.
Marie points out that there are no “disabled souls.” Children with special needs can learn. When you take responsibility to care for all God’s children, blessings will flow.
Marie Kuck is the founder of Nathaniel’s Hope. Visit: www.nathanielshope.org to find resources to help your church minister to children and families with special needs.