How the Church Can Care For Special Needs Members Well
By: Eric Albert December 3, 2019
When I first started working in church ministry, I had more than 1,000 kids on my first Sunday. It was organized chaos. That same Sunday, we started a new ministry for children with special needs. I knew next to nothing about special needs kids and their families, but I especially didn’t know what they needed and what the church needed to be to them.
Honestly, at first, I had pity for the parents and treated the kids like they were breakable. Looking back I can see that I was uninformed and pretty stereotypical.
Unicef estimates that there are at least 93 million special needs children in the world. In the United States, there are about 2.8 million children with special needs of all kinds.
But despite that, it is evident that the Christian community could and does do an excellent job as a whole of caring for families and children—equipping, educating, and fostering healthy awareness and communication. But they can do it with the right resources and guidance.
In my limited experience and first introduction to this world, I couldn’t have done this role well, and I heard from other families stories of rejection and difficulty in the church as they navigated these day to day challenges.
But as time went on, nothing grew as quickly as the special needs ministry did. It was like there was a secret line of communication between special needs families and they started to come on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Within a year it went from two families to fifty. We had families from every background, religion, and medical needs. It seemed like everyone had a story of rejection: by their friends, their family, their spouse, or even in some cases, their church.
Training was developed, volunteers were put in place, kids were loved and parents went to church and worshipped for maybe the first time since their child had been born. We started adding them to First Friday, so that their parents could go on a date night. We did events just for their families at Easter, Christmas, and every other holiday possible so that they didn’t miss out on family events.
Then we noticed that there was a need for a place for older special needs students, such as junior high, high school, or college age, especially as they stayed in our budding program longer. So we started a Bible study for them on Sunday morning and set up buddies to shadow them in junior high, high school, and church. We started a flag football league for older students.
Maybe the moment that I remember the most was our first Special Needs Prom. Kids got dressed up, took pictures and parents cried because they only dreamed of this moment for their child: to walk down a red carpet with their buddies cheering them, and walk into prom with food, music, and a fog machine. Before our first prom, we had no idea how many students to expect. We had well over 75 kids attend. The next year, we had over 150. The year after, more than 200. There were carriage rides, live interviews on the red carpet, DJs, photo booths, swag to take home and t-shirts— because every church event has to have a t-shirt, of course.
Let me stop here and warn you.
Starting, maintaining, and nurturing a special needs ministry well is hard work. I have heard pastors, members of finance committees, and staff ask if it is financially worth it. It will not be, at least from a break-even point on your budget.
Special needs parents will never be a major part of your donor base. They can’t be, because all of their resources are going to their child. Special needs ministry will only cost money. There is a huge liability. It takes up prime space that could be used for a small group, Sunday school, or coffee shop. There are specialized needs in a special needs room that cost an exorbitant amount of money.
But Jesus tells us to take care of children. Not certain children, but any child. In Mark 10:14-15 Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
By no means am I the expert on special needs children and how to best set up and run a special needs ministry. But because of this ministry of which I was blessed to be a small part, I saw changed lives, special needs children understand that God loved them, and parents seeing the church love on them.
Is it a financial undertaking? Probably. Is it worth it to see the faces of special needs children experiencing what their peers take for granted, for families to find rest and peace from a neverending 24/7 caretaker job, for inclusivity and church as family and for the true gospel to be lived out?
At the end of the day, the church may have to ask themselves if it is worth it. I think it is.