Have you noticed that whenever you experience something new in life, it’s never quite what you expected? Whether it’s something as insignificant as trying a new flavor of ice cream or something as big as getting married, people always have well-intentioned opinions and advice to help prepare you for what’s ahead. But in my case, things have never turned out the way I expected, regardless of how prepared I felt.
I don’t know why I thought starting a disability ministry at my church would be any different—this experience has definitely thrown me for a loop. If you’ve been following my posts, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. But this past week, I had the biggest “aha!” moment to date. I was sitting in Starbucks meeting with the director of the children’s ministry at my church. I couldn’t quite understand why our disability ministry still seemed to be lagging in momentum. We have approval and encouragement from our church leadership to run the ministry the way we feel is best. I have an excellent team working with me to keep the cogs turning. And we now have several people serving as Special Friends and many others expressing interest. So, what is the problem?… Then it hit me, our PARENTS!
In the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to understand more deeply the life of special needs families. As I’ve worked hard to serve the kids at my church on the weekend, it’s exposed me to more of what these families experience during the week. Most of the time, parents are advocating for their child to experience a “typical” childhood as much as possible. They attend Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings at their schools. They schedule therapy appointments to improve their child’s motor skills, their speech and social behaviors. They’re constantly negotiating with insurance companies and government funded programs to cover services and medical costs. And they’re often met with unsympathetic administration, or burnt out service providers whose resources are “maxed out.” So, when they finally come to church, all they want is for their child to have a “normal” day. They don’t want someone else talking to them about their child’s special needs and the care they require. All they want is for their child to be loved and accepted for who they are.
So, when we started the special needs ministry at my church we were met with some resistance from the parents of our special needs families. Sitting in that Starbucks I stopped and put myself in their shoes. I realized that we wanted the same thing for their kids—to experience God’s loving care through the body of Christ. But for us to demonstrate that love, we must first gain their parents’ trust. So now, we’re taking extra time to get to know our parents and the dreams they have for their kids. If we can meet them there and really listen, we might be able to figure out how we can best serve them and their children.
Rachel Roleder serves as the Supervisor to the Cause 4 Life, Global Missions and Internships Department at Joni and Friends. Rachel enjoys learning more of God’s design for His church as she leads teams of interns on disability ministry outreaches all over the world.