Being a new family at church can be nerve-wracking, especially if your child has special needs. Here’s how your church can welcome all families.
Actively Welcome Families
I was in high school the first time I saw kids with disabilities included at church. Two kids with autism came to our youth group. One of them was primarily nonverbal, with only a handful of words. Honestly, I remember being nervous about having them in our group. But when they walked in the building, one of the other high schoolers in our youth group called their names and said, “You’re here! We’ve been waiting for you.” He sat with them all night. He explained the games, and he even came up with modifications so they could participate in all our activities. He did this every Wednesday night and Sunday morning.
It’s All About Building Relationships
This 17-year-old taught me that inclusion starts with a relationship, and because he set the example, everyone else followed. In my years professionally working with kids with special needs, I’ve seen this relationship piece confirmed time after time. Families don’t want flashy; they want people who authentically care for their children. One parent, Erin Loraine from St. Louis, Missouri, says, “I love that my girls go to service and their noises, rocking, or dancing don’t faze anyone. They are loved and welcomed for who they are.”
When our congregations have a welcoming spirit and desire to understand and know families impacted by special needs, it makes a huge difference. Another parent, Ali Grimshaw, also from St. Louis, says, “I need to see that people aren’t judging if [my son] wears his headphones or plays with a device in church. Sometimes it’s a miracle that we’re even there.”
I’ve experienced this firsthand. When my family moved to Minnesota, we visited a new church. Two of my girls have obvious disabilities, so we’re hard to miss. As we entered the sanctuary, the greeter looked at my girls and said to them, “I am so glad you’re here!” She was so genuine; my youngest gave her a hug and I was ready to say, “This is it, this is our new church home!”
Loving children and their families can be as simple as welcoming them into a relationship. When families with disabilities come through your door, do whatever you can to genuinely communicate “I’m so glad you are here!” It’ll make all the difference to them.
First Steps for Welcoming New Families
After that initial “I’m so glad you’re here!”—you need a plan. Most kids with disabilities (and their families) will benefit from a one-to-one time outside of busy church activities. Here’s how you can do that.
1. Invite new families to come for a tour of your church.
Some kids with disabilities have sensory issues so a quiet visit without the noise, crowds, and smells of Sunday mornings will help them feel comfortable in the building. As you tour, invite parents and kids to ask questions and mention potential accessibility issues.
2. Visit the children’s rooms.
Spend most of your time here. Let the kids explore, and watch how they interact with the objects in the room. Look for needed modifications and potential triggers to avoid. For example, you might need to rearrange some objects in the room. Give parents a chance to provide feedback or express their concerns.
3. Run through a typical Sunday morning time.
This is your chance to show new kids what to expect on Sundays in a setting that won’t feel overwhelming or threatening. Make this into a game, and have families participate as you go through the different motions and activities that typically take place in the children’s program. Don’t skip anything. With parents’ input, look for needed accommodations or areas where transitions might be a problem.
4. Invite the teacher to be a part of this meeting.
Including the room leader in this process will help kids feel safe. When they know who’s in charge, they know where to go when they’re struggling. It’ll also help the leader to facilitate connections with the other kids.
Ellen Stumbo is the director of Disability Matters, where she encourages every church to embrace disability.
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