One of the comments I hear frequently when writing about special needs and the church is how disability ministry just isn’t possible for small congregations.
Complaints and concerns about lack of time, money, and volunteers come pouring in every time I write about the importance of inclusion.
But the truth is, you don’t really need an abundance of any of those things. Starting a special needs ministry is work, yes, and it requires effort and time, as well as some money (although not as much as you might think). But it is doable.
I’m amazed at how disillusioned we Christians become. Although I’m not a church minister, I have seen the burnout that ministry can cause, especially within small congregations.
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on including persons with disability in the life of your church. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Who knows what families may be looking for a church right at this moment, special needs families, who need a place to plug in and serve themselves?
I’m not an expert in this field. There are plenty of those out there and you can find links galore on my Special Needs Resources page.
But if you want to start a special needs ministry in your small church and don’t know where to begin, here are five steps you can take to make it happen.
Special Needs Ministry in a Small Church
1. Begin with the heart.
It’s simple, but first your church needs to develop a heart for including all people. This seems like a no-brainer, but surprisingly, it’s usually the most difficult hurdle to overcome. People like to be comfortable. People like church “the way we’ve always done it.” People tend to be resistant to change. So developing a heart for all people, especially people who are different, can be an uphill struggle.
How do we do it?
First of all we pray. We pray for God’s leadership and direction, for His wisdom, for the increase in our congregations’ capacity to love people who are different, to value ALL people. This is not like shooting an arrow in the dark. When we pray to God specifically for help in something He has already commanded the church to do, He most definitely WILL come to our aid. It may not be in the ways we expect, but God is a God of infinite resources and strength, and He WILL help us in our quest to build inclusive congregations.
2. Get church leadership on board.
This so closely correlates with the first point that I almost put the two together.
If your church leadership is not supportive, your quest will be doomed from the start.
I don’t believe in trickle-down economics, but I do believe in trickle-down compassion.
If your pastor and leadership are passionate and vocal about the value of ALL people and the importance of including ALL people, that message will permeate the entire congregation.
This was where we hit a giant brick wall at our previous church. We were fortunate to know many with a heart for serving and including those with special needs, but the leadership did not support our endeavor and so ultimately, we failed.
This is also where our current church shines. We have received nothing but wholehearted support, respect, and compassion from our church leadership (which consists of only four ministerial staff) but it’s made all the difference.
3. Start where you are.
Chances are, you already have at least one family in your church affected by disability.
Get to know the family affected by special needs. Find out what kind of help or assistance they might need. Include them in your current programming and in the life of your church. Be friendly and kind, even though they might make you uncomfortable.
If the child seems poorly behaved or overly aggressive, look for reading material that may explain the behavior. Behavior is always contextual, meaning that there is always a reason. Don’t assume that it’s bad parenting or a bratty child. Look further and be willing to acknowledge that perhaps there’s a disability or special needs you aren’t aware of.
Instead of showing judgment and contempt, be willing to have an open mind. Offer to help. And again, ask for God’s discernment and assistance in helping you to love even those who seem unlovable.
Here’s a thought: what would you do if you saw a woman with two heavy bags of groceries ambling down the sidewalk and suddenly she tripped and dropped a bag, spilling its contents? Would you walk by? Or would you stop to help?
Most of us would stop and offer assistance, wouldn’t we? We would help her salvage her spilled groceries, stoop down and pick them up, and then probably offer to carry one bag for her. It’s common human courtesy.
This is what it means to come alongside those walking the path of disability. The reason they have been affected and not you is for God to know. Their burden is not the same as yours.
And yet we as the church are called to help bear on another’s burdens. To share the load.
Be willing to come alongside those walking the path of disability and to share their burden.
4. Educate and Train
Ah, training. This is where my blog posts get the most pushback. People tend to assume that training is overly time consuming and expensive.
The truth is that there are many free or very inexpensive resources available to churches who want to start special needs ministry. Training doesn’t have to be expensive at all. (Again, see my resources page!)
As far as the time commitment goes, I suggest starting small. Give volunteers a short handout about disability, show a brief video in your Sunday School class or worship service. Offer reading material that relates to disabilities of people already in your congregation (i.e. autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy) and expand from there.
Training doesn’t have to be formal or nearly as involved as some might think. Your current volunteers are already “trained” informally, because showing up to do the work is indeed training itself.
I received all kinds of “training” in music education through my college career, but the real “training” started on the day I actually stepped into the classroom and started teaching.
Training does NOT have to be (and should not be) an obstacle to get in your way of ministering to any and all.
The gospel of Mark tells a story about a man who couldn’t walk. He had four friends who cared about him and wanted to take him to Jesus. But there were too many people in the house where Jesus was. The door was blocked. They couldn’t fit him through on his stretcher. There was an obstacle.
So what did the men do? Did they turn around and go home?
No. They gave their mission the extra effort and creatively solved the problem. They bypassed the obstacle and went straight to the roof, lowering their friend down so that Jesus could help him.
This is what education and training are for us in small churches.
An obstacle to overcome, yes, but not one that can’t be tackled with creativity, prayer, and dedication to the mission to which Christ has called us.
5. Assimilation and Inclusion
It is so important, no matter the size of your church, to create a climate of inclusion.
Our churches need to have a culture that values ALL people, no matter how different they are.
We start by including people with disability in our existing programs.
- Figure out a way to make it work.
- Be willing to be flexible.
- Keep communication lines open with the families so that things can be tweaked and improved as necessary.
- Let the family know that you are willing and eager to do what it takes, to go the extra mile, to come alongside them so that their family can be an active and vital part of your church congregation.
Value them just as you would any other family, and include them fully in the life of your church.
During his ministry, Jesus told a parable about a great banquet. In the parable the master invites many guests to his table, but they begin to make excuses as to why they are unable to attend. The master then sends his servants out to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” The servant reports back that he has done so and there is still room. So the master sends him out even further, to the country, so that his house will be full.
This is God’s vision for the church.
We are to invite all, include all, value all.
You don’t need as much money or time as you might think.
You just need a willingness to let any and all come to the Lord’s table.
And then let the Master do His marvelous work.
What are your thoughts? Have you successfully ministered to those with special needs in your church? What ideas and tips would add to mine? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!