Meeting the Mosaic of Needs
By Beth Campbell, With Donna Forrest and Carrie Forrest
Six-year-old Teddy*broke down every Sunday on the way to church. His parents dreaded these Sunday morning showdowns as he cried, screamed, and yelled in the back seat. Of course, Teddy’s parents, devoted church members, insisted he go to church, including Sunday School and children’s church. After weeks of tantrums, Teddy’s parents begged him to tell them why he was so upset. Teddy finally confessed it was because he didn’t want to do the worksheets and coloring pages his teachers gave him.
Teddy has a diagnosis that makes seemingly ordinary tasks like worksheets difficult. While Teddy’s classmates enjoy the fun activities on their pages, for Teddy it represents another struggle to stay focused and the frustration over how easy and enjoyable the assignment is for everyone else. As a result, Teddy dreads Sundays.
How can churches help children like Teddy? As churches seek to minister to families and children, chances are some attendees will need unique methods for biblical instruction to meet their mosaic of needs. Recent statistics show 4.3% of children in the U.S. have some type of disability, with a cognitive difficulty being the most common (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). The CDC reports approximately one in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2016 data. For these families, church can be a daunting place, filled with unknowns, frustrations, even danger.
When our church realized we needed to serve struggling families more effectively, we were blessed to have special education professionals within the congregation who provided guidance. Because not all churches have these resources, allow us to share some basic principles that helped us minister to these families.
1. Church should be a place where families and children feel accepted and safe. Often, parents of children with special needs want to avoid embarrassing scenes or disruptions during the service. Publicly welcome them to your congregation and to your services. Use your church website or social media page to invite special needs families to your church and to explain how your church is meeting their needs. Be upfront about your desire to help families impacted by disability.
Educate the congregation on how they can embrace and minister to these individuals. Start with small things: not staring or reacting negatively to outbursts. Remove any “stigma” surrounding interruptions or behavioral issues and make your church a welcoming place for everyone. Remind your congregation God knows, loves, and has a unique plan for every person (Psalm 139).
No matter how welcoming your church may be, safety remains a challenge. Charley’s* parents were concerned for his safety at church. Charley has a developmental delay that means he doesn’t sense or understand risk or danger. His parents worry about sending him to Sunday School without them. What if he dashes out the door into the parking lot or from the breezeway into traffic on his way to children’s church? What if he pulls a rack of chairs down on top of him while trying to climb them?
These and other serious safety issues for those with disabilities are something churches must address. Some safety and accessibility challenges can be overcome with simple solutions. Assign a volunteer to accompany at-risk children at all times. Create safe meeting spaces that prevent easy wandering or unintended access to potentially dangerous furniture or equipment. Remove physical access barriers by providing wheelchair ramps, adjustable height tables, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Offer training for volunteers on how to handle a “runner,” a child who may have occasional violent outbursts, and other common situations that may arise.
Other safety challenges may prove more difficult. If no one in your church family has experience in these areas, seek outside help. Invite a professional or a special needs family to visit your church, making note of their experience and identifying areas for improvement. Partner with other congregations to meet the wide variety of needs and make informed recommendations to parents about which congregation is best equipped to help them.
2. Parents are key to helping church workers understand their child’s needs. As you prepare your church to welcome families with unique needs, talk with parents. Be open about your desire to make church a place where they feel safe, welcomed, and included. However, be honest about limitations. If you church is not equipped to handle certain challenges, acknowledge those limitations. Then ask parents what can be changed to help. Understand each person and each situation is unique and requires unique solutions.
Be prepared for criticism. Special needs ministry is hard, and things aren’t always going to go right. Exhausted and frustrated parents may not respond well. Encourage parents to voice their complaints but direct them to a key person in the church rather than teachers and other volunteers. Ask parents to be involved in finding solutions, perhaps even training volunteers.
Develop a notification system. Church workers may need parents quickly on occasion. Develop an emergency response procedure and train all workers to use it. This can range from the wireless “buzzers” like those used by many restaurants to a volunteer ready to make a quick dash to the sanctuary if the need arises. How you notify parents is not as important as being ready to do so before a situation arises.
3. Not all children learn at the same rate, or in the same way. This brief article does not allow space for a “deep dive” into educational methods, but consider a few suggestions: Equip rooms with sensory toys/activities. Avoid full spectrum (bright, primary colors) for painting and decorations. Keep lessons simple. Have active and alternative learning options for those who struggle with traditional learning methods (coloring sheets, activity sheets, etc.). Review often, using short, easy-to-remember points. Use audio-visual teaching aids, but don’t rely on video, understanding it may over-stimulate some students. Remember music is a valuable (though sometimes chaotic) learning tool for most children.
Are you just getting started? Don’t expect perfection. Special needs ministry is challenging, and the parents to whom you minister will understand the ups and downs. They live with them 24-7. Keep the “big picture” in mind. The goal is to provide a place where families are loved, accepted, and grow closer to Christ. Charley’s mom reflects, “We’ve always appreciated how much the church tries to include Charley, and you all make him feel welcome....Charley loves Jesus, and when we miss church, he is all over us, wearing us out. He loves church and does not like to miss. He takes a lot of patience, love, and understanding, and you give him that.”
How can the church help children like Charley? It’s simple, according to his mom. “Charley is a person with a heart and a soul, and we just want him to be included, loved, and accepted like any other child. Smiles and encouragement can really uplift a parent and give them the validation that they’re doing something right. Everyone needs a ‘Charley’ in their life.”
About the Author: Beth Campbell is a counselor and administrator at Cheatham County Central High School in Ashland City, Tennessee. She works with Donna and Carrie Forrest in the children’s program at Bethel FWB Church.