Chances are, if you've ever brought your child with special needs to your house of worship, you've had the experience of feeling excluded. Maybe it's the stares of fellow congregants making it clear that fellowship does not extend to your child. Maybe it's the polite assertion that a volunteer Sunday school teacher isn't really equipped to deal with your child's challenges. Maybe it's the lack of zeal in recruiting your child for religious education, or the realization that no one in a position of leadership has made any effort to get to know your family.
It's easy to feel angry and hurt, and resign yourself to a diminished spiritual experience. Yet just as parents of children with disabilities are called to advocate for their children at school, they can do the same -- in a positive and faith-filled way -- in their houses of worship. I asked Amy Fenton Lee, who blogs about special-needs ministry at The Inclusive Church, to suggest some things parents can do to make a difference. "With the more Americans impacted by disability than ever before, churches are making commendable efforts to better include individuals with special needs," she points out. "Yet many parents still run into roadblocks when trying to integrate their child with differences into church programming. Parents are on the front lines, they know what is needed to accomplish inclusion, and they know from their networks that there are more families like them who can benefit from a community of faith." Here are her five steps to get started:
1. Share statistics. "Help churches see the opportunity is bigger than one child and one family," Lee suggests. "Most churches are not aware of just how prevalent disabilities are in our society. The numbers tell an incredibly compelling story." To get started: Lee's blog post "Just the Facts: Special-Needs Statistics" is written for churches and includes a variety of diagnoses. Use it as a conversation starter.
2. Provide role models. "Share examples of what other churches are doing for special needs inclusion," Lee advises. "In this case, peer pressure can be a good thing. Especially among high-profile and progressive faith communities, the trend in children’s and student programming is to add a special-needs component to the ministry menu. Many churches post helpful information on their website about their special-needs accommodations. Take notes about your findings and prepare to share this information with key influencers in your church." To get started: Visit these websites recommended by Lee:
+ Grace Church, Greenville, SC
+ Woodmen Valley Chapel, Colorado Springs, CO
+ Capital Christian Center, Sacramento, CA
+ Montgomery Community Church, Cincinnati, OH
3. Help church leaders network. "Many communities have local networking groups just for special-needs ministry leaders," Lee explains. "San Diego, California, and Birmingham, Alabama, both have active nondenominational co-ops where church volunteers and paid staff members meet regularly to address issues unique to special needs ministry. These churches essentially equip each other, and they are always excited to welcome a new church to the group. These seasoned special-needs ministry leaders often mentor and partner with newer churches as they develop their own inclusion programming." To get started: If there's no such network in your neighborhood, "connect your church leaders with other local churches already doing special needs ministry," suggests Lee. "Do some research for what nearby churches are doing to promote disability inclusion. You may have to email or call a few other children’s ministry leaders around town, but typically one contact will have a good idea of what other local churches are doing in the way of special-needs accommodation."
4. Narrow your focus. While ideally you'd like your faith community to open up to your family in every area of ministry, starting small and building on success is the best strategy, says Lee. "Give the church an opportunity to experience success one step at a time. Be careful not to overwhelm the church leadership with too many requests or ideas for better inclusion. Recognize that the learning curve may be steep for a team of volunteers unfamiliar with the nuances of special-needs accommodation. And allow for a few mistakes in the growth process before expressing frustration and potentially burning bridges. Grace and gratitude are two of the best motivators for church leaders inching toward better inclusion." To get started: "Identify the one change that would make the biggest impact on families with special needs," Lee advises. "For most families, this high-impact time is on Sunday mornings. If the church can accommodate a child during one hour of Sunday morning programming, then siblings and parents are enabled to learn and spiritually grow in their own respective settings. Approach the appropriate ministry leader with ideas for achieving inclusion for this particular church setting. Start with the goal of achieving accommodation for just one hour."
5. Suggest helpful resources. Lee recommends two tools worth sharing, both published by CLC Network: G.L.U.E. Training Manual, "a very affordable resource that includes reproducible forms and walks a church through the processes to start a special-needs ministry," and Church Welcome Story, which is "tremendously helpful for children who struggle with transitions and change. The book provides very specific and important instructions to follow when choosing words for a child's 'church story.' Parents or children's ministry leaders can go to a website where they may personalize a child's story by putting in pictures of the environment and of the child's new teachers. They can also fill in provided blanks to provide details unique to that child." To get started: Humans can be good resources to bring in, too. "Introduce the church children’s pastor to a special education teacher or pediatric therapist who has helped your family. These experts can often provide ideas for creative and easy ways to modify a ministry environment or adapt a Bible lesson so to better engage children with special needs. They may even be willing to lead a one-time training event for children’s ministry volunteers."