Visiting a Church with your Special Needs Child: Try this 4 Step Plan

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Beautiful young girl with special needs
This guest post is from Amy Fenton Lee of the Inclusive Church blog.
Many churches are working to better include children with special needs.  Whether or not a church has taken steps to welcome children with learning differences or disabilities, parents can proactively prepare the children’s ministry team for their child’s successful inclusion.
#1 Contact the church in advance
When planning a first-time visit to a particular church, contact the corresponding ministry director at the church (preschool, elementary school, or youth).   Call or email the church early in the week prior to the planned visit, providing the staff adequate time to make necessary caregiver and classroom arrangements.  Keep in mind that church schedules are sometimes different than typical business work days.  Because Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings are the busiest times for a church, midweek time off is common – especially on Fridays.  In addition, children’s ministry leaders often serve on a part time or volunteer basis with limited work hours.  Calling well in advance of the weekend visit gives the church a better opportunity to recruit the right volunteers to care for your child.  Be sensitive to requests just prior to a religious holiday, when ministry teams are often scrambling to replace vacationing volunteers.
#2 Educate the children’s ministry team about your child
It is a good sign when a church requests parents to complete a special needs intake form.  If the church is asking questions about unique behavior issues, dietary needs, and medical concerns, they are most likely equipped to appropriately respond.  Unfortunately most churches don’t know what questions to ask, let alone how to prepare for a child with special needs.  This is where parents can help.  Provide the church with a concise and revealing information sheet about your child. By candidly disclosing a child’s unique issues with tips for successful inclusion, the ministry workers and volunteers are enabled to better serve the child with special needs.  Disclosing a child’s diagnosis may require unnerving vulnerability, however doing so is often essential for building a partnership between parents and the church.  Without parent-initiated dialogue, the likelihood of misunderstandings and mishaps increase.  A negative experience for anyone involved may unintentionally impede a church’s momentum for better disability accommodation.  Help the church by anticipating potential obstacles for your child and then focus the dialogue around the solution for and prevention of those problems.  Sharing details from a child’s individualized education plan may be especially helpful as many best practices translate well in a church setting.

Handsome young boy with autism
Many churches are discovering the joy of including all children.

If a church ministry team does not respond warmly to a special needs disclosure or fails to make a legitimate attempt to include a child with a disability, consider the losses minimized and try elsewhere!  The trend for special needs inclusion is growing rapidly among congregations of all denominations and demographics. Pray that God’s people will learn the statistics about special needs and open their hearts to all children.
#3 Offer to accompany your child for first time experiences
Parents may need to go the extra mile in helping their child and the church caregivers acclimate to the new arrangements.  Children who struggle with transitions or inside new environments may better adjust after having their parents accompany them for a week or two.  In the meantime, children’s ministry workers can gain confidence after observing parents interact with their child.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of children’s ministry volunteers are good-hearted lay people with little or no special needs familiarity.  Understandably parents of children with special needs may be eager to participate in their own independent worship, however foregoing an extra week of personal respite or spiritual renewal may be a worthy investment for your child.  Helping the church ministry team succeed is ultimately helping your child succeed.
#4 Give the church grace and gratitude
Nearly every church with experience in disability accommodation shares of mistakes made in the early days of the ministry.   Establishing a buddy program, training ministry workers, and creating protocols for children’s programming all with special needs in mind takes time and experience.  Few if any denominations provide instruction to help a church launch a special needs ministry.  Most churches are searching for special needs guidance related to teaching strategies, behavior management, and safety.  Unlike schools or not-for-profit secular organizations, churches lack access to tax dollars and secular grant monies.  Such funding could be used by a church to hire a special needs coordinator, employ an onsite nurse, or receive disability accommodation education.  Recognizing a church’s limitations, parents may need to extend grace during inevitable disappointment. Oftentimes the greatest gift families can offer a church is the expression of encouragement and gratitude for progress toward better inclusion.  Few things motivate a volunteer workforce like heart-felt words of appreciation.

Amy Fenton Lee writes to equip churches for successful special needs inclusion.  Don’t miss her post about starting a special needs ministry.

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