It was my first day, my first Sunday as the new children’s minister at our church, and here I was being yelled at by a man I didn’t know. I remember how red his face was. You could almost see the steam coming out of his ears. He wasn’t a bad guy, he wasn’t rude or arrogant, he was a frustrated dad standing up for his son.
Our church has had a Special Needs Ministry for years. Two dedicated classrooms for different ages of students. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt the students who use those rooms are shown more love and compassion than just about anyone who comes through the doors at Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia. There are many families at the church who are so blessed by these rooms that provide lessons and care specifically for their children’s needs. But for this boy’s parents, it just wasn’t the right fit.
Their desire was to have their son mainstreamed. A perfectly reasonable desire. “We just want our son to be treated like everyone else,” they said, and the thought of having their boy in a different room or environment made this family feel unwelcome and less wanted than other parents. This was the “aha moment,” when I realized that we had both got it wrong.
I have three daughters, and I don’t treat them the same. “Raise up a child in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, emphasis added). I don’t want my daughter treated like everyone else. I want her Sunday School teachers to get to know her, to understand her personal quirks and differences. We don’t make all typical kids read or pray out loud. For one child ‘time out’ is a form of cruel and unusual torture, for another it barely phases them. I realized we weren’t treating typical kids the same way in our church, we were getting to know them personally and ministering to them in a way that best met their needs. We needed to do the same for our special needs community as well.
When new families come to our church, we now try and contact them as early as possible to find out what their hopes and dreams are for their kids. We learn if their kids are verbal or non-verbal, if they can read, if they have difficulty moving around, or even if they have problems with keeping their hands to themselves. For some kids, it works best to be in a specially-designed space just for them. For others, it might be in a typical Sunday school room with a volunteer dedicated just for them. In the situation of the young man above, our solution was that one of his parents would stay with him in the classroom and would alternate weeks in the sanctuary. Now that he is comfortable and has developed some coping mechanisms, he no longer needs one-on-one.
The big change to our ministry was when we realized that we needed to be proactive in reaching out to parents and really hearing from them what they wanted for their kids and working with them to try and make that work. We haven’t always succeeded, but we try. These families feel so much more loved and supported knowing that their church is on their side.
This post was written by Dave Miller who serves as Children’s Pastor at Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia.
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