Recently, Christianity Today published an eye-opening report on how the church is ministering—or, as it seems, failing to minister—to people with disabilities. The study confirmed what those of us in and around the disability community already knew: we’re not doing very well.
I am the parent of a severely autistic son, so I have a strong desire to see churches step up to the plate. But I also have a view from the other side of the desk, because I serve as the associate pastor of an active church congregation. Our church developed a special needs kids ministry some years back in order to welcome people like my son. For us, it wasn’t hard, since we already knew the landscape. For others, it’s more complicated.
After reading reports like this, the parent in me wants to pick up the flag and storm the gates of church offices; to demand that the body of Christ wake up and get moving. But the pastor in me knows that churches are often already busy with other worthy ministry initiatives: things like foster care, homelessness, human tracking, evangelism, and a dozen others. So if we parents want to highlight the need for special needs ministry, we are going to have to be intentional.
With this in mind, here are six considerations for parents who want to talk to their pastors about starting something for special needs children.
- Let them in on your story. Pastors are just people. Real stories of real people move them more than facts and figures. If you want them to understand the realities that special-needs families face, it’s up to you to break the barrier of unfamiliarity. Take initiative. Invite them over for dinner. Let them meet your kids. Let them see what your life is like. Understanding and empathy flow from relationship, not from need alone.
- Demonstrate the need. Many pastors have no idea the number of special needs families live right in their own back yard. When they realize how this type of ministry can help so many in their community, they might be eager to start one. So show it to them. Gather local statistics if you can. You already know the fields are ripe for harvest, so make it plain to them.
- BE the advocate. When starting new ventures, church leaders want to find people who can help “take ownership” of a new venture. They need people who know what they’re talking about, and are willing to invest time and energy into helping others understand it. Are you able to be that person? Are you able to let them lean on you, at least in the beginning? This might be impossible, of course. There might be someone else who can do this better. Just remember, you’re carrying all sorts of personal insights that your leaders don’t have. Don’t undervalue that experience. Rather, be as generous with it as you are able. In other words, don’t just advocate: BE the advocate.
- Have a plan, but hold it loosely. When you start to talk specifics, you need to have a plan to present. You’re the advocate, remember? But keep in mind, churches have their own structures and commitments that will present roadblocks you have not yet considered. Church leaders have to balance and prioritize a variety of ministry efforts, all of which are (hopefully) important. So present your plan, but hold it with open hands. Be a flexible resource.
- Be willing to start small. Most of the time, new church ventures start small. It takes time to build a fruitful, sustainable ministry. That means you might not get a green light for all your ideas right away. That’s okay. Exercise patience. Trust your people, and trust God. Let Him build it.
- Be gracious in your zeal. Remember, you’re dealing with people who are conflicted and imperfect, just like you. They will probably make mistakes. They will probably let you down. And you will probably let them down, too. So be quick to repent and ready to forgive. The church is family, after all. So keep advocating, keep moving together, and don’t give up!