Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week, Meaghan Wall, Pastoral Leader of Special Needs at Stonebriar Community church in Frisco, Texas, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to talk developing a special needs ministry.
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Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. Your intrepid hosts—Mike, Kellen, and Gina—are live from the Orange offices, recording on the third floor instead of the second floor. We’ve moved up in the world! But, unfortunately, as Kellen points out—further from the fridge.
Get out your note-taking device of choice (or just crib our notes below), because today we’re joined by Meaghan Wall to discuss developing a special needs ministry.
Meaghan wants to know how the crew is doing. It’s warm in the room, but we’re too cool to be hot, according to Kellen. Mike whips out some Ghostbusters. Who you gonna call? Us. Because it gets better, we promise. Starting with Meaghan.
1. Every church’s mission statement says in some form to go into all the world and make disciples. You’ve said the key word is “all.” Can you unpack that?
Meaghan: We don’t think about what that means. When you’re looking at students with special needs, “all” means “all.” If you’re talking about reaching “all” children, you’re not defining it as those who can sit still in a lesson. Or those who can attend without the use of medical equipment. Or those who can understand their ABCs by the age of 5. “All” means all children.
Families who have children with special needs are not hiding. They’re saying: “we’re part of your community. We’re going to be there whether you’re ready or not. We’re going to help you through the process and bring our kids.” They’re part of that “all.” They’re part of that body that needs to know the love of Jesus Christ.
As churches, we’re on the back end of that. How can we make sure they are cared for the same way as anyone else?
Mike: Being ready versus getting ready. Some churches have a ministry. They are ready. Some know they have special needs children, but don’t feel like they are ready.
Kellen was at a church that had a special needs ministry that was a well-oiled machine. Now, planting a church, the very first weekend, he had three or four parents ask if they had a program for their special needs child.
I love that you said “all” because my heart is for “all” kids. We help people find God and experience life in Christ. “People” includes special needs. That’s one of the biggest needs at our church.
Gina: Multi-site campuses. We have a buddy system, pairing a volunteer with a kid to help them navigate the environment.
2. Is there a fear that comes with starting a special needs ministry?
Meaghan: Absolutely. That fear is there for me, too, even in an established ministry. Every Sunday, I walk in and think, “Okay God, are we gonna be able to handle who you bring us today?” That fear can be healthy, because you’re always trying to expand your boundaries. But it can also be crippling if you’re not letting God take care of those things you’re worried about. If we step into the relationships in front of us, God can work wonders and do big things with that.
3. What are the biggest fears ministry leaders have when it comes to starting a special needs ministry?
Meaghan: Twenty years ago, the first day our church was open, we had a special needs family walk in. A volunteer offered to sit with that child during the service. That’s how the special needs ministry was born. It was the relational piece.
“You’re here, I want you to feel comfortable.” That’s where the ministry started.
We think we have to have something big and elaborate planned to start a special needs ministry, and that’s not true. You can start with what God’s given you. If you have one child and one volunteer willing to sit with them, then you have a special needs ministry.
Start with what God’s given you. Work with that family. Allow God to expand that vision.
In a special needs ministry, volunteers work one on one. It gives volunteers a sense of purpose: “If I’m not there, that child cannot participate.”
Special needs ministry volunteers seem to be more committed and attentive to the needs of the students.
4. It seems all of this centers around a relationship or connection.
Gina: That’s where a ministry can spark. It begins with a family brave enough to come and a ministry leader willing to say “I don’t have all the answers, but let’s figure it out together.” It just begins with one.
We’ve always been able to find a volunteer willing to commit to that relationship with a child and family and help discover how to provide care. That relationship with those parents becomes important.
Meaghan: The families don’t know what the church can offer, if you can take care of their student, or if they can even share their child has a diagnosis because they’re scared they might be asked to leave. The questions back and forth – that’s where the relationship and trust start to develop. Relationship helps to build trust and community so we are able to care for the students.
Gina: It is a ministry leader’s responsibility to fight to build trust with the parent. The parent has been in scenarios where they feel like they are sticking out. They are taking a big risk to walk in. You may be starting with a trust deficit.
5. What are the top questions for a ministry leader to ask to be able to build a bridge of trust with a special needs parent?
Meaghan: Most of them are coming from places where they have been hurt before. A lot of families have been asked to leave a church because of their child. So we don’t use the term special needs.
–First, we offer observation of the specific behavior. “Does he do this at school”?
The type of information they offer may clue you in to their awareness of the special need. Then you can dive in deeper. But a lot of times they aren’t aware of it, especially at an early age.
–Next, I ask, “What can we do as a church to make this a place that Johnny wants to come every Sunday? Can we do something on our end that would allow him to feel welcomed and comfortable?”
Kellen: The first step in making a family comfortable is allowing the conversation. Conversations usually happen in the hallway when a parent pulls them aside.
When they open up about a child, if you look at their face, this is a point of vulnerability. When they begin to speak, it’s: “I’m about to let you in to my family’s world. I may not know you, but I’m doing everything I can to fight for my kid.”
As a church, don’t miss that opportunity. They’re saying, “I don’t fully trust you, but I need support.”
This weekend, Kellen talked with a special needs parent who is a newly single mom. Vital question: What can I do to assist your child in anything she needs?
Even if you don’t have a special needs ministry, don’t avoid the conversation with parents. You will give so much life by sitting down with the parent.
Gina: Coming from a place of curiosity is important. It affects the tone of your question.
Gina shares how she made a mistake by assuming a special needs parent wasn’t being consistent to bring her daughter when Gina had carefully prepared. Later, she discovered the family had come for three Sundays, but the daughter would get out of the car. Gina lost curiosity and moved into judging.
6. As a ministry leader, how do you address the issue of consistency with special needs families?
Meaghan: Consistency is a hard thing. Churches function on schedules and order. That’s a hard thing for families with special needs. Their lives are so different.
A special needs parent told me: “I need you to be consistent, but I don’t know if I can be consistent. I need you to be there and ready. Not every Sunday will I be able to get him in the car, or out of the car, or through the door. But that one Sunday we can, are you going to be ready for us?”
For a church, that can be hard. You have volunteers waiting for someone who doesn’t show up. Remind your volunteers: “These families are dealing with a lot of things we can’t even imagine. When these families are there, we need to be ready and present.”
We have a volunteer pool—volunteers who are serving in other areas or taking a week off. We can send a text and ask if they can serve last minute.
They get that text and think, “Now is my chance to feed into this family. Today is the day God has brought that family together with me and I have the opportunity to serve.”
This ministry might look differently than any other ministry in the church. When they are there they need us. And when they are not there, they need those phone calls and texts and letters to say: “We see you. We’re going to be community whether you can be that community back to us.”
Gina: You can also say to a volunteer: “Here’s a family that I want you to be praying for on a regular basis and then show up for them on Sunday, whether they show up or not.”
As a ministry leader, I know if I can give a volunteer something consistent to do, they will show up consistently. If the child is not consistent, they start to feel like they are not being used well; that lack of consistency can prevent building a volunteer team. You can build consistency in grafting a volunteer’s heart to a special needs family through prayer, calls, and cards.
Kellen: Give that volunteer access to own the situation and be a part of that family. While they are waiting for a family to show up, have them pray or make a phone call to check in.
Meaghan: As those relationships are built, a year from now, that family may call that volunteer and say, “I can’t get my child out of the car, can you come and help?”
We’ve had volunteers at cars to coach a child in. Let us start in the parking lot.
Let your special needs families know: “It’s okay not to be okay. You can come in broken. You can come in after a rough night.” That’s what the church is supposed to be.
Gina: At one of their campuses, the parents have the phone number of their child’s buddy. They will text on the way in and the buddy will go outside and stand in the parking spot by the door. The parents swoop in and the buddy is right there.
Meaghan: Have special needs parking. Reserve a couple places up close for families with special needs. They are not coming blind. They have done their research. If they drive past and see that parking spot, it screams, “we want you here. We want you as part of your congregation. We are ready whenever you come in.”
7. How do you scale a special needs ministry after starting with one child and one buddy?
Meaghan: Scaling is easy if you have a family that feels connected and involved. Special needs families talk to each other. They will tell each other that your church is a comfortable place.
Take whoever God brings you, look for volunteers who have open hearts, and train those volunteers.
The local school system is great for training resources.
Mike: Where else do I go for training resources?
Meaghan: In different parts of the country different organizations take the lead in training: Joni and Friends, Easter Seals, Down Syndrome guilds, Autism associations, etc.
Also consider special education teachers and behavioral/physical therapists.
Parents are an incredibly valuable resource. Ask a parent to come in and give a training on their specific child – especially for the buddy system. It gives the parent the ability to really invest and to know who is with their child and what they understand. It allows parent to start that relationship and build the connection.
Gina: It goes back to building that bridge of trust.
Everyone acknowledges that this conversation barely scratches the surface. We gotta get Meaghan back. Look out for more to come in future episodes! In the meantime, check out some of her articles on Orange Leaders (below).
And as Kellen melodiously styles: It’s always a pleasure to have you listening to the Oooooorange Kiiids Podcast!
- Start simple. If you don’t have a special needs ministry, begin with the first family God brings to your church. If you have one special needs student and one volunteer, you have a special needs ministry. Trust God to grow the vision.
- Communicate with parents. Build trust through open conversation. Don’t be scared to say, “I don’t have the answers, but let’s figure this out.” Be consistent, even if the family can’t be consistent.
- Find volunteers. You may need a pool of volunteers who can be flexible since your special needs ministry may look different every week. Encourage them to be consistent in prayer and checking in on their special needs student/family even when the child can’t come.
- Train your volunteers. Parents are your best resource for training as they know their own child so well; this also builds trust. You can lean into local school systems and organizations like Joni & Friends, Easter Seals, Down Syndrome guilds, and Autism associations for further training.
Special Needs Ministry Articles by Meaghan Wall
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