Yes, Your Church *Can* Start a Special Needs Ministry

special needs community

What to keep in mind as you make your church welcoming to neurodivergent people

This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.

“It is difficult to start a special needs ministry…” Families with a neurodivergent[1] loved one hear this so often. But what if we misunderstand what the special needs community hopes for in ministry from the church? What if the real need is for your church to engage with their loved one and their family as participants in your community? This involves, I believe, the church listening with a willingness to learn and, then, choosing to act.

I was reminded of this after meeting my new friend, Jim.

A (Loud) Conversation with Jim

I was sitting in a favorite coffee shop when I noticed an older gentleman across from me. He was restless, fidgeting with his newspaper, and began to wander around looking for another landing place. Eventually found his way back to his original spot.

His gaze locked on me as I read my book and sipped my coffee. “Hi! I’m Jim,” he finally said. “I like to read, too. What is your name?” Thus began our loud conversation about favorite books, authors and places to read. Others in the shop looked over several times during our conversation. As we talked, a woman on her way out came over to me and said, “I used to be a librarian … please tell him that there are so many resources to get books!”

And then she left the shop.

I am sure she thought she was being very helpful. However, when she chose to ignore Jim and speak instead to me, she dehumanized Jim. Like everyone else in the coffee shop, she had seen and heard our interaction. They all saw that Jim and I had just met, and it was obvious as we talked that Jim knew more about books than I did. And yet she either assumed Jim needed someone to “translate” for him, or she feared personally engaging with him. Jim’s humanity, and ability to respond himself, was never considered.

For individuals who identify as neurodivergent, special needs, disabled or whatever label they choose, and those who love them, being dehumanized is not a unique situation. Jim was labeled as “less than” or “other,” whether this woman realized she did that or not, and therefore he wasn’t given the dignity of being spoken to. Unfortunately, this particular interaction is also seen in our churches.

What Really Is Needed?

There is a belief that to start a special needs ministry you need a large number of resources, money, and staff. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Effective special needs ministry starts, like any transformative ministry, with relationships.

Jim wasn’t just at the coffee shop to drink coffee and read his newspaper. Jim was at the coffee shop to talk to someone. He could have spent hours talking with me and whoever else would listen about his favorite books.  Like all human beings, Jim needs human connection.

Families with special needs members are not looking for impressive programming. They are looking for people to connect with, a place that embodies Christ’s compassion and love for all.  Imagine how families and individuals are impacted when the church responds with “we don’t have the capacity for you” or “we don’t have a place for you,” either out of ignorance or fear.

Most small- to medium-sized churches don’t separate the family during services. What does it say, then, to the neurodivergent community if they are told they have to go to a different place for worship while their family gathers together with the rest of the congregation? If that isn’t what is best for that individual or that family, then why do it?

Stepping into True Special Needs Ministry

Ask a lot of questions. What do the families need? Get to know them. Get to know the individuals you are walking alongside. Embrace their humanity. If the church approaches the topic of “special needs” without having made a personal connection, yes, it will seem daunting.

However, if church leaders meet with a special needs family, they will quickly discover that most families have a system and just need the church to fill in small gaps. Like I said before, if they want to feel a part of the community, it wouldn’t make sense to put together an entire new program for them, would it? It is no different than meeting with any other congregant. See them not as “other,” and be humble enough to realize you will be learning a lot more from them than they will ever learn from you. Families often know exactly what they need, so a simple conversation can lead to a new foundation.

Identify local nonprofits  for training and partnership. The neurodivergent community is tight knit. Once a family becomes an advocate for a church, more families will be open to check it out, especially if there are open ears and they feel actively welcomed. This will open so many doors to new opportunities. Again, the more interest, the more daunting it might seem, but don’t give in to typical programming.

Continue those relationships and utilize the many nonprofits in the area that can help. What resources do they have to train your volunteers? What events are they already putting on that your church can partner with? You could even offer your church as the location for the event and continue to build relationships. Education is so important, especially as you continue to grow.

Seek appropriate resources for your specific community. What are the needs the neurodivergent individuals in your church have identified? Show that you value them as individuals by seeking the resources they need. For instance, braille Bibles can be sent to your church for free through BiblesForTheBlind.org. Automated subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing community are free on Youtube and other streaming services for your livestream broadcasts, or provide an interpreter for services without being asked. There are more available resources than you think. Create paths and accommodations that allow special needs individuals to use their spiritual gifts to serve the church community.

Give your church congregation the tools they need. Make sure the congregation understands how to communicate well with special needs individuals and how to love them well. Teach them the terminology and encourage them to ask questions. Make your neurodivergent members and their families the experts! Teach congregants to talk directly to the individuals who identify as neurodivergent, rather than only to their family member or caregiver. If someone needs help understanding, a family member will jump in and help.

People often stay on the sidelines because they are afraid of doing something wrong, not because they don’t care. As a sister of a neurodivergent young man, I can’t tell you how much more painful it is for him to be ignored than when someone tries but does something silly. At least, then, he can make fun of them a little bit! Help your people to know best practices so they will choose to engage.

Advocate for the families and their loved ones. Enter into any difficult conversations with open ears and a willingness to learn, not to educate. If you see someone doing or saying something incorrect about or toward a special needs individual, be sure to correct it, but with grace and sensitivity. Correction doesn’t have to be a negative experience—how are people going to learn if they aren’t corrected? As you would with anyone in your church community, get to know the love language of a person with special needs and care for them in the way they need it. Support a family’s care decisions—never suggest a family put their loved one in a care facility; this is always a very sensitive topic. Allow God to use your church—and the church universal—to love all humanity well.

Individuals with special needs are the most unconditionally loving people you will ever encounter. Jim ended our conversation with a big smile and a handshake in hopes that we would cross paths again, and I hope we do. I have a lot more books for us to talk about.

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[1] Though the terms “special needs” or “disabled” are still used, even in this article, we are seeing a shift in terminology with a majority of the community preferring the term “neurodivergent.” The first two terms carry negative associations and therefore are being phased out. Consult the individual you are speaking with and ask which term they prefer.

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