How do we help new volunteers prepare for the adventure of serving children with special needs? My wife and I have served in the special needs ministry at our church for about four years. Having raised four typical children, we came into the program with no experience and no training. Our encouragement was, “Just love the kids. You’ll do great!” I agree that loving the kids is the biggest part of being successful, but boy were we uncomfortable for the first few months. Here are a few things that helped us fully embrace serving families affected by disability.
Provide vision. Why are we spending 90 minutes each week hanging out with kids who don’t often look us in the eye or use spoken words to communicate with us? Get down to the basics. We are giving parents and siblings the blessing of attending a worship service or children’s program with the assurance their child with special needs is safe and cared for and does not need any of their thought or attention for this period of time. Understanding the significance of offering this rare opportunity to these special families helped us overcome the challenges of serving in disability ministry.
Define their role. The best gift we give the children in our special needs programs is Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance. By simply being present, giving the kids our attention, offering words of encouragement, keeping them safe, and modeling the love of Jesus, we are successful. And when we get to share a Bible story, complete a craft, or play a game – all the better.
Have realistic expectations. Many children with special needs require extra time to process your words. When you ask a child to put on their shoes, ask once and give them time to process the words and move forward with the request. It is normal to see a delay from the time a request is given to its completion. Slow obedience is obedience in the world of special needs!
Give permission to fail. Like most things in life, we don’t always get it right. All of us will have times when we lose our patience, become frustrated or angry, or find it difficult to like a child we are serving. That does not mean we are not a fit for special needs ministry. Instead we need to remind ourselves of the call God has put on our lives and ask Him for more of what we need in order to love and serve these special children.
These simple reminders will bring encouragement, perspective, and longevity to volunteer involvement with special needs families. Please share with us any ideas you have on preparing your volunteers for disability ministry.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
Bret Welshymer serves as Director of Church Engagement, Response, and Biblical Counseling at Joni and Friends.