Special Needs Ministry: 4 Lessons I've Learned

Special-needs ministry. Where to start with this? How about at my story's beginning? And I'll share with you what I have learned. Yes, you read that right. The first lessons in serving begin with what God taught me.
Hi, I'm Laura. In August 2016, my youngest was headed to college. I was looking forward to doing empty-nest things with my husband. And then, Jim volunteered us for special-needs ministry.

What?!? I wanted an easy ministry. I'm an SLP (speech-language pathologist) in the public schools, and Jim is a middle-school counselor. How about a ministry without kids? In fact, how about an adult Sunday School where we just listened and participated?

Yep, you know the answer. God had other plans.

And here we are today, in a bright and shiny suite - with space, toys, and sensory items - designed to serve.
Oh, there were things in the middle of volunteering and where our ministry is today, lots of things.

When I first showed up, I'm sure a had a deer-in-the-headlights look. The special-needs room was not built for the ministry. There was also some transition going on - the program was growing, some children were heading towards the teen years, and new children with more needs were moving in.

And, our church was getting ready to totally remodel all of the children's wing.

One of the volunteers graciously started heading up the special-needs ministry. Our church leadership recognized the need and created a position. Another volunteer started working with the teens. More children started attending. Without our church leadership recognizing the need to minister to children and families, we would have gone nowhere.

Lesson #1 - Church leadership has to be invested in the ministry.

With anywhere from 15-20% of children having a disability and 1 in 7 being on the autism spectrum, ministering to children is no longer an option. It's a must. We can do a lot as individuals and teams. Without support from church leadership, we are spinning our wheels. The leadership at my church recognized that and put a lot of thought (and money) into future plans.

Lesson #2 - We needed a plan.

Another early lesson learned was - we needed a plan. From safety issues to medical issues, each child had varying needs. Our director set up input forms for parents that included information about the child's needs and preferences and contact information. Many entry forms are long, and they should be, so we can best serve the children. I've made you a free form for first-time visitors. It's only one page, gets the basics, and isn't as intimidating for parents and guardians used to filling out mound of paperwork. You can get the About Me form by clicking HERE.

Lesson #3 - God gave me skills.

As an SLP in public schools, IEPs are my life. At church, I could play, I could love, I could talk. I didn't have to worry about IEPs. But then I found that speech therapy skills transfer over into my life. One Sunday, our lesson was about Esther. When a child played with blocks, I talked about Esther being a queen and living in a castle, and that's what we built. Other volunteers picked up on that, which led to a discussion about our children needing repetition. And I've learned from others. It's a team effort. God didn't give just me skills, he gave us all skills. We need to recognize that and use our skills, not hide them.

Lesson #4 - The Purpose.

One thing I personally struggled with was - what's our purpose? Is it to take care of the children so parents can worship without worrying? Or is it to teach Bible truths to the children? Well, yes. Part of our mission for His Kids (the name of our ministry) is: "It is a time for families to participate in Sunday morning church, for students with special needs to learn about Jesus in a loving and supportive environment..."

WHEW! Not exactly the easy empty-nester ministry I had been hoping for. The ministry moved to a portable for several months during renovations. There wasn't much space, there weren't ideal toileting facilities, and it was kind of a "make it till the remodel finishes" time.

But now we have a wonderful space, thanks to our director and church leadership! Let me show you around.

An entrance just for special-needs families. It's near the accessible parking. Children who feel overwhelmed walking through crowds can use this entrance. The doors lock so that we can monitor who comes in. And, they can also lock for safety in the case of runners or people not in the ministry.
We have materials to teach Bible truths with.
My favorite part is this cozy corner. With crash pads and weighted blankets, it will be a good calm-down space or comforting place for a child who needs it.
The lights in this room can be dimmed so that sensory objects can be used for calming or engaging with children.
There's also a fun light table.

Here is our space for children as they get older. The couch and "hang-out" atmosphere are more age-appropriate for children who have moved past the toy cars and Legos.

We now have age-appropriate bathroom stalls and a changing station.

To summarize, here are the lessons learned so far:
1) Church leadership must be invested in special-needs ministry.
2) A plan is needed for safety and medical concerns.
3) Use the skills God gives us.
4) Set up the room for the purpose of ministering to the children.

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Getting church leadership invested, setting up a special-needs church room, and using God-given skills are important lessons.

Thanks for reading. I'll be back soon with the next post in this series, Teaching The Story.

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