February 21st, 2011 at 9:54 am
As good Christians, we are all asked to love and minister to one another, with a special emphasis on those who do not have the power or ability to take care of themselves. I can think of no better example of this than the special needs ministry. These are groups who are often under-represented or completely dispossessed due to their special needs or circumstances. My heart is especially tender toward those with developmental disorders. God has placed my heart with them.
First, there has to be a need. Look at your congregation. Do you have members whose disabilities make them a poor fit for the other programs your church offers? Do you have members who have difficulty receiving the basic content of God’s love and care for them in their current placement? Do you have families who need respite care from their responsibilities, at least on Sundays? Any or all of these factors may be the catalyst you need to begin looking into beginning a special friends ministry at your church. Their need and your calling is all God needs to get started.
In our case, we had a small handful of five-six individuals who were having problems finding an appropriate place in our church family. Even though they were loved and cared for, neither they nor the church body were entirely comfortable with the fit. Your needs will help drive what your ministry looks like and becomes.
The easiest place to start is Sunday School. To begin with, you will need teachers and a classroom. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you need to be a trained professional to be their teacher. You do have to have great patience and great love. It helps to be able to simplify content, but don’t worry about that. Try saying or doing it one way and if that doesn’t quite work, try something else. I promise you that is how the professionals do it too. I know that from experience as a special education teacher for 30 years. God will give you the patience and love you need to minister to them. What they will want and need the most from you is love and acceptance.
With Special Needs members in a church setting, there are three basic groups:
- The first is probably the easiest to deal with and incorporate, the high functioning group. This group is going to want to be as close to “normal” as possible. You may need to use lower level materials and have extra help and support available, but the class should feel and operate as much like a regular Sunday School class for that age group as possible. They need to be incorporated into regular church activities like choir and VBS as much as they are able to.
- The second group is the moderately impaired. Their needs are greater and they will require more support. Their materials will need to be much simpler, their activities more basic, and you will want more support to help with them. They will more often require almost one-on one help. You may need to simplify basic tenets and explanations. Always explain even very basic Christian vocabulary to make sure they grasp the concepts. This group will probably be functioning on an elementary level and is more likely to respond to materials and activities at that level. They need to be involved too. Members of our class help with kitchen cleanup on Wednesday nights, sing in the church choir, and help with VBS.
- The last group is more profoundly impaired. They may lack speech, physical control, or independent movement. This group is going to require the greatest amount of support. Concepts will need to be very broad, simply stated, and repeated often. Tell them the simplest, easiest to grasp stories, repeated often, with the broadest themes. Sing simple songs with limited lyrics. Even those who can’t sing often love the music. My students who are unable to speak or communicate effectively often use puppets to move with the music and be a part of things.
You may have enough special needs members to form three groups, which is ideal, but most churches won’t. Even if you have all three types in one group, they will have different needs. Don’t be afraid to try different things. Find what works for you. Just do the best you can with the group God sends you.
Have higher functioning members help with lower functioning members. It helps you out and gives them a sense of pride. The ones who can write help put names on papers for those who can’t. They peel stickers for those who don’t have the dexterity to do it themselves. They help with crafts. Everyone wants to feel needed.
Do get them involved in missions. They need to give back too. Have them volunteer to help with VBS. Some can help with the children’s classes. Others could help in the kitchen or with cleanup. Be creative.
Another very important feature for a successful ministry is having a van to pick your members up. Many are not independent and do not own or operate cars. They depend on the van to get to any church functions. That is also a social time for them.
Be aware that many physical problems are often also found in this population. Get to know your members and know what their problems are. Check with their caretakers to see if there is anything you might want to watch out for. Mobility problems are common as well as dexterity problems. Don’t put your class at the top of the stairs or expect them to cut out many small intricate things until you know what they are capable of.
Include social functions especially for them. They often have no other social life or a very limited one. Go to the movies or watch DVDs at your house. Have a cookout at a park. Have a craft party at your church. Go to the zoo. You will have to watch costs. Most of them are on very limited budgets. Help them expand their horizons.
You must make time for yourself. You need to worship too. Get someone to take your class occasionally, so that you can refill your cup. You can’t pour out God’s blessings on others if your cup is empty.
You will need to set limits for your class. No talking during prayer time. No cell phones on during class or church. Tell them how often and under what circumstances they are allowed to call you. Many will have limited social skills and may need to have rules put down for problematic behaviors. Do it kindly, but firmly, and don’t expect it to stop immediately. You will have to remind them often, but it will eventually take hold. State the rules in the same way each time and you will eventually hear them applying them word for word with one another. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Use the Golden Rule.
These classes don’t usually change membership often or quickly. Over time you will see positive changes. Tommy doesn’t cuss at church anymore. Julia and Betty get along much better. Brian is comfortable and not anxious at church anymore. The blessings you will receive will fill your heart to the brim … and try your patience. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love, but you will love it. May God bless your efforts!
By Mary Nelson, Canyon Creek Baptist Church in Temple