Use this blueprint for special needs ministry success.
You’ve heard the Field of Dreams line, “If you build it, they will come.”
It’s the truth.
When God called us to build a special needs ministry at our church, we knew we had to build. We questioned whether we could do it; we wondered where we’d find resources; and of course we — and others — wondered if it would flop. Still, we built.
They came, all right — they’re still coming!
It all began when two children with special needs joined our children’s program at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado. We knew we needed to serve these kids and their families. So what began with a couple of volunteers stepping up to build relationships with these kids and their families soon grew into, quite literally, our field of dreams.
We initially envisioned a program for children with severe needs, but our dream quickly expanded. We met families whose children needed just a little extra assistance, so we began a buddy program, enabling kids to attend class with their peers. Today our dream is thriving and people are still coming! We’ve connected with families we might never have had the opportunity to know. We’ve learned that all children with special needs have a place in our ministry — regardless of their situation. And we’ve learned that disabilities impact entire families, not just a single child.
“If you build it, they will come” — that’s truth. So is Jesus’ message of love and redemption, and it’s a message we want everyone to hear regardless of circumstances. Our special needs families are hungry for God’s Word; they’re also hungry for love, care, rest, and comfort.
Consider the impact a special needs ministry could have in your community.
My eyes were opened when I first coordinated our special needs ministry. As these precious children attended our classes, I learned that many of their families didn’t attend church or special events because they had no help or supervision for their children. Some parents said they took turns attending church — one parent stayed home with the child while the other went to church alone. But most frequently, families skipped church altogether because it was too difficult to attend, they couldn’t go as a family, and their churches weren’t equipped or prepared to welcome them.
According to pastors.com, one obstacle families with special needs children often face is a lack of acceptance in churches. About 90 percent of special needs families are unchurched.
Is this the church Jesus would’ve built? Of the miracles Jesus performed in the Gospels, nearly two-thirds were done to assist people who had physical needs. The Bible’s very clear that Jesus ministered to the lame, mute, blind, and sick — the disabled. As his followers, we’re called to do the same.
Our special needs ministry reaches entire families — not only the children with special needs — because entire families are impacted by a child’s disability. As children’s ministers, we know how important it is for families to attend church together. But families also need the opportunity to go to Bible studies, church events, and other activities together. They need our church’s acceptance, support, and assistance. So we’ve designed these special needs programs specifically around families.
Sunday School — The goal of our Sunday school is to allow families to attend church together. Parents don’t have to worry about who’ll take care of their child or who’ll have to stay home. Each child has the option of our contained special needs classroom or the buddy program, where he or she can attend regular Sunday school with an assigned buddy.
FunFest — This is our respite program, and it gives parents the opportunity to recharge and relax. Parents drop off all their children with us on the first Friday of the month — leaving adults with four hours of alone time. Siblings of kids with special needs get to hang out with other siblings experiencing the same struggles and joys. Children with special needs get to see their friends and have fun.
Sibling Saturdays — During one potluck our families mentioned that often the majority of their attention must be focused on a child with special needs, resulting in less time with the other children. After that conversation, Sibling Saturday was born. Sibling Saturday allows families to spend quality time once per month with their other children while our ministry provides a free, fun-filled day of activities for children with special needs in a safe, loving environment.
Moms Night Out — Moms can fellowship and network with other moms of children with special needs through Moms Night Out. This program lets moms refuel, relax, and share with other moms living in similar circumstances. During our first Moms Night Out, we worked on a scrapbook and enjoyed one another’s company.
Support — We support families in other ways as well. We minister to families — including those outside our church — by hosting speakers who address topics relevant to special needs families. We have an additional respite program called Drop-and-Shop in December to give parents time to finish Christmas details or take a break from the season’s hustle. Each summer our ministry offers an adapted VBS program the same week that our church sponsors regular VBS so children with special needs aren’t left out. Each year our ministry also sponsors one family for a one-week special needs family camp.
I once thought it was necessary to have a structured program completely set up and prepared for every child with every special need known before the first child walked through the door. Here’s the real-world wake-up call to that thinking: You can never be totally prepared for every person who attends your church. Each child is unique, and each child’s needs are unique. It’s impossible to be prepared for everything that might come up. But as long as you accept and love everyone who enters God’s house, he’ll provide the help you need.
So if you’ve ever considered starting a special needs program, be encouraged by our experience. You don’t need a long list of programs and activities to start a special needs ministry. What you do need is to start with what God’s given you. Here’s how.
- Pray. First, pray that God will lead your church in creating this ministry. Pray for the right people to coordinate and volunteer.
- Survey. Survey your church. Learn your church’s current needs. There are already people in your church and community who can benefit. Begin with their needs.
- Recruit. Look for the right volunteers and train them to minister to the people in your church. Sponsor a special needs awareness Sunday to help educate your congregation and spark interest.
- Research. Visit other churches with special needs ministries. Interview the people involved to learn more. There are a variety of resources available that can give you sample documents, schedules, curriculum, and ideas.
- Trust. This special needs ministry is God’s ministry, not yours. God provides volunteers, materials, funds, and most importantly, the amazing families who will minister to you every bit as much as you will minister to them.
- Plan. Create a strategic planning team for your special needs ministry consisting of parents, volunteers, and leaders from your church. Together we’ve completed a strategic plan to guide our ministry over the next five years.
- Envision. Draft a clear mission and purpose statement to use everywhere in your ministry. Our mission is to minister to those with special needs and their families by leading them into a deeper relationship with Jesus while helping them discover and exercise their spiritual gifts. Our purpose is to minister to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people with special needs and their families.
- Reach out. Support other churches with their special needs ministries. We work with our community to minister to our neighbors with special needs.
- Focus. Focus on four main areas: individuals, families, churches, and community. We support and meet specific needs of individuals so they can become church members while fulfilling their purpose. Our church continually contributes to these families’ lives and needs. We provide accessibility to church activities to help provide spiritual growth while their physical and emotional needs are being met. Finally, we work to increase awareness and acceptance of people with special needs in our community.
- Protect. Ensure that your church is covered by insurance before implementing a program. One vital aspect of this is release and information forms that are signed by parents. Consult your church attorney and senior pastor to go over any legal and liability issues. Research your current policies and procedures and revise as needed to control risks.
Some time ago, two autistic teenage twins joined our program. To meet their needs, we created a very structured setting with visual cues to assist the boys through Sunday school. Over time, the boys got more involved in the class through our adapted curriculum and structured setting. One day after a prayer lesson, the boys recited the Lord’s Prayer using magnetic words on a dry erase board. That was quite a moment! It’s difficult to express the family’s joy — and the wonderful reward our volunteers felt — knowing the boys were learning about God and the importance of prayer.
Another wonderful result of this ministry has been that parents are more involved in our church community. One of our parents is on the worship team, tech team, and attends a Sunday school class — something that probably never would’ve happened if she didn’t feel comfortable leaving her son with us. That mom is using her God-given talents and gifts.
Parents and kids aren’t the only people touched by our special needs program. I hear again and again from volunteers how this ministry has impacted them. Many say they feel they’ve been ministered to more than they minister to others. These children and families touch us in ways that leave everlasting imprints on our hearts. We are so blessed to know them.
Amy Switzer is the special needs coordinator at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.