We asked four ministry experts to share their wisdom and experiences as parents of children with special needs. As these parent-experts shared their thoughts, several themes emerged. Here’s what they said helps—and hurts—families affected by disabilities when they come to church.
It helps to be included in community.
“Special needs families crave feeling like they’re embraced and accepted,” Davidson said, but special-needs circumstances, such as lack of time or resources, can thwart plans to get involved at church. It’s important for churches to become more inclusive. One family from Philo’s church brought a picnic to the hospital and ate with her family. Simply including families at the park, pool, or backyard barbecues can make a difference. Jamieson also shared the importance of children’s ministers’ efforts to “encourage, initiate, and ensure friendships for our child”—because many kids with special needs have few friends.
It hurts when people at church try to speak for God.
Our parent-experts shared several examples of well-meaning pastors who linked disability with “demons” or a lack of faith. Philo said this: “Because (our son) looked ‘normal,’ people thought we were exaggerating or making excuses. Some people equate mental illness with sin.” Davidson also shared about parents who left a church because members suggested that it would’ve been better if their children with special needs hadn’t survived.
It helps when people try to anticipate needs.
Raising children with special needs can create chaos and cause disruption. Churches that actively anticipate what families might need provide a more intimate culture of care. Philo said that some of her church friends learned how to administer their son’s tube feeding so she and her husband could go out for dinner. The more specific the assistance, the better, Hunsley adds. “Don’t say, ‘Let me know if you need anything.’ Instead ask, ‘What can I pick up for you?’” Similarly, Davidson reminds churches to be aware that “Sometimes just getting your child ready on a Sunday morning can be a chore.” Train volunteers for grace-filled, radical hospitality.
It hurts when parents feel their child isn’t welcome.
Davidson shared examples of families in his ministry who were asked to leave other churches because of their child’s disability. One mother told him that after visiting a church, she received a letter from the pastor requesting that she leave her son at home because he was a distraction. Sadly, many families experience this, making it difficult for them to feel comfortable in any church setting. The parents in your church have insights and unique perspectives, too. Why not ask what helps and what hurts in your own church?
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