By Julie Redmond Donavan
North Shelby Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
This question can be touchy and difficult. Many families that have a child with special needs may not attend church because they feel their child is a burden or because churches are ill-equipped to take care of them.
If this is a ministry need in your church or community, it would be great to find someone who can train your teachers to teach children in the special needs ministry.
Perhaps you don’t have a large number of families with special needs children, but you want to minister and meet the needs of even one. How do you get started?
- Locate volunteers who will be buddies to children with different abilities. A buddy is the person who is always with that child while on campus. The buddy will know the child’s church schedule and parents’ cell phone numbers, and seek to discover how to help the child when he or she is in need. It will give the parents great comfort to know their child is in good and consistent hands. Consistency is important to children with special needs.
- Should children with special needs be in their own classroom? This answer is dependent on the severity of the need and the space available. I do believe children with special needs should be combined with other students their age or grade level whenever possible.
Children possessing special needs are often segregated, if not excluded from others — the church should not be a place of exclusion.
Once there was a boy in my Sunday School class with special needs; let’s call him Bryan. He sat on the floor and played with cars or put puzzles together while everyone else sat at the table. Bryan had a job every Sunday and that was to turn the light switch on and off when we watched a short Bible story video. One Sunday, Bryan was out of town and the other children missed him. They said he was important to their class and they wanted to write him a letter. So we all did. Having Bryan in the classroom allowed the children and Bryan to be blessed. Every child in your classroom is important.
In a best-case scenario, a special needs child in your classroom can be a blessing to everyone.
In a worst-case scenario, when the child is a distraction and keeps others from learning, the key is a one-on-one volunteer buddy or conscientious paid worker who is trained to know when to be part of the group and when to take a break.
- Meet with the parents and Sunday School teachers to discern how best to minister to the special needs child. Each child is important and children with special needs are no different. By you and the teacher sitting down with the parents, you both are showing how much you care about the child, and you can communicate that you want to teach them about God’s love.
While speaking with the parents, see if you can get the child’s school-teacher’s e-mail or phone number. If you can contact the child’s weekday teacher, he or she may be able to share with you from a different perspective and provide professional advice.
- Know how to appropriately speak to families with children with special needs. Many well-meaning people, out of fear of saying the wrong thing or simply feeling uncomfortable, avoid contact with special needs kids or their parents.
Your example, and annual training for servant leaders and teachers, is important. You never want to offend the family or make it seem as if the child is a burden.
Ensure you show love in everything you say when assisting families with children with different abilities.
I am far from an expert in this area, and unless your church has hired someone exclusively for this ministry, you probably do not have an expert on staff. You may have someone in your church or community who works regularly with special needs children who can take the lead or help train others.
We are still learning, growing and discovering more ways to show love to all people, especially children.