5 Lessons Learned from Starting a Special Needs Ministry
Today I’m super honored to have Suzi Soares writing on the blog. It’s my privilege to serve alongside Suzi at Liquid Church … she’s a member of our Family Ministry Leadership Team. In today’s post she talks about some of the lessons we’ve learned as we set off to launch a ministry for families impacted by special needs. Click here to listen in on a message from a few years ago when we launched into Special Needs Ministry to catch the heart beat behind why we do what we do on this front. Suzi is a gift to our church! If you are looking for help with a special needs ministry … contact her!
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be part of starting a ministry for children with special needs, but God had other plans! Most of my life has been spent serving and leading in kids ministry, but I only recognized the need for including kids with special needs in our church when my youngest son was diagnosed with autism 5 years ago. It has been a wild adventure ever since!
I am no expert. I do not have a background in special education, but I am student of my son’s needs and have a burning passion to provide my boy with the same opportunities his peers have to learn about Jesus. When I started out I knew I needed to gather professionals in the field and other parents to get some advice. And that is where I’ll begin with lesson #1 I learned.
- Enlist all the help you can, but recognize there will be MANY opinions (about as many opinions as there are about the style of music in your church)! Having a clear, defined win or goal outlined and paired up with common language is what has helped keep everyone on the same page. We’re not perfect at it but we say things like, “We want to provide a safe, caring environment where children with special needs can learn about God’s love for them. We want to support every child to engage with their peers and feel a sense of belonging.” There will always be lots of opinions on how it should be done but knowing your win and acting on it makes it easier to sift through the good to get to the best.
- Get your safety ducks in a row! Providing a safe environment is half the challenge when it comes to children with special needs. Having systems and procedures in place such as a secure check-in system, bathroom policy, “two person rule” (always two adults in a room with a child), evacuation plan, etc. will save you time and nightmares. I didn’t understand the full value of our church’s safety systems until we began our special needs ministry. If you do not have these types of systems in place, do not start a ministry for children with special needs until you do!
- Special needs ministry is not school or therapy. We work really hard to give every child the best hour of their week which means it cannot look or feel like school! In our ministry children with special needs are paired with a “buddy” who serves weekly to provide extra TLC and support for them to be included in their age appropriate environment. While we offer multiple approaches to learning we also recognize kids just need to be kids sometimes. We always push toward having every child involved in the Bible lesson through the use of all kinds of supports (visual schedules, fidgets, etc.) but if bouncing on a trampoline is what’s needed instead for that day, we’ll bounce! In addition to creating a successful experience for the child we also want to give mom and dad the opportunity to worship so we’ll stand on our head if we have to for that to happen!
- Your follow up process will make or break your ministry. When we match a child with a buddy, we ask the parents to let us know when they will NOT be attending on any particular week. We assure parents we understand there will be last minute emergencies and rough mornings, but we still ask them to call. We let parents know that someone specific is coming in each week for their child and that usually does the trick. This population is often overlooked so when you call to see why they missed Sunday, they are so incredibly thankful for your support. In turn it strengthens your relationship and will grow your ministry numerically as it spreads through word of mouth.
- Create as many opportunities for people to get involved with this ministry as possible! Not everyone is cut out for this ministry, but there are lots of people who care about it. Some can’t get involved by serving as a “buddy” but they LOVE to give towards it. Provide an outlet or opportunity for people to be involved in other ways such as financially supporting this ministry or by serving at an event for families affected by special needs. It has been a faith stretching experience to watch the people in our church give so generously to this ministry.
What have you learned along the way about special needs ministry? I’d love to hear.