How To Start a Special Needs Ministry at your church
Could your church and community benefit from a special needs ministry? Do you feel called to start one? Maybe you’ve had the desire in your heart but didn’t know where to begin. We’ve put together some helpful resources to assist you in becoming a church with special needs or disability ministry.
START LEARNING ABOUT SPECIAL NEEDS
What don’t you know about special needs? Start learning and find out in order to create an effective special needs ministry. Here’s a start:
Some of the most common disabilities you may encounter:
- Learning Disabilities
- May have difficulty listening, speaking, reading, writing, or reasoning.
- ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder)
- May have difficulty controlling behavior, paying attention to details, organizing tasks or activities, and following instructions.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- May have impairments in social interaction, play, and communication.
- Intellectual Disabilities
- May have difficulty remembering information, paying attention, and regulating behavior.
- Physical Disabilities
- May have poor large and fine motor skills with trembling in hands or may have slurred speech with difficulty swallowing or chewing, and inconsistent attention span.
- Hearing Impairments
- May display behaviors like daydreaming, inattention, limited or unclear speech, problems completing simple tasks, or confused responses to questions.
- Visual Impairments
- May not understand or imitate social behavior or nonverbal cues.
While the gap has narrowed in recent years, it is a fact that a lower percentage of people with disabilities attend church than those without. And one study of special needs families that did attend church showed that close to half of them didn’t participate in a religious activity due to their child not being welcomed or included. (Source: https://church4everychild.org/2016/02/09/what-are-the-stats-on-disability-and-church/)
As your special needs ministry takes shape, you’ll want to include all church leadership in learning how to address families and people with special needs and that includes what language is appropriate.
What language to use:
- Use person-first language. Not “autistic person,” but “person with autism.”
- “Disability” isn’t a dirty word and is the most commonly accepted term. But different people prefer different words, like “special needs” or “differently abled.” The right term is the term the person prefers.
What language not to use:
- A lot of language is hurtful or exclusionary. Words like “deaf,” “lame,” “dumb,” or others are used as slang or as insults and are hurtful to people with disabilities.
Even before you begin a special needs ministry in church, learning more about common disabilities and how to better welcome and include these people and families in church will help grow and equip your congregation and community.
As you determine what kind of special needs ministry to begin, find out what will be most helpful in your own community.
ASK WHAT YOUR COMMUNITY NEEDS TO SUPPORT SPECIAL NEEDS
As you research what your community really needs from the church, consider the following questions:
- Which special needs exist in your church already?
- Which special needs exist in your wider community, even if they don’t exist in your church right now?
- Which needs has your church not yet accommodated? Maybe if you accommodated more needs, more people with those needs would come!
Now that you understand a bit more about disabilities and where to focus your efforts for your community, it’s time to bring in those with more knowledge to help inform your special needs ministry plans.
ASSEMBLE SPECIAL NEEDS EXPERTS TO INFORM YOUR CHURCH
In addition to doing your own research about disabilities, be sure to consult the experts, whether online resources, people in the community, or people you know with special needs.
Learn from expert resources:
- Joni & Friends
- Tim Tebow foundation
- Nathaniel’s Hope
- Collaborative on Faith and Disabilities
Learn from experts in your community:
- People in higher education who teach about disabilities and special needs
Learn from people who have special needs (and their families):
- Have a discussion time with families already in your church or from the community.
- Ask what they need, not just in a program but in support that extends beyond the church service.
With your supporting information gathered, you’re ready to develop the strategy for your special needs ministry and curriculum.
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IDENTIFY A SPECIAL NEEDS MINISTRY STRATEGY FOR EVERY AGE
As you work on your strategy for your church’s special needs ministry, you’ll want to evaluate each ministry age group to decide how to accommodate each kind of disability. For your Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, and Adult Ministry, consider the following and decide what adjustments to make to your church ministries for every age:
- Is there sign language interpretation?
- Is there closed captioning on all videos?
- Should activities or games that require listening without accommodations be removed?
- Is there narration of videos or object lessons that require sight?
- Should teaching aids that only accommodate seeing people be removed?
- Should there be an addition of descriptions in the captions of social media posts for people who can’t see the images?
- Does the church have an accessible website?
Mobility or neurological impairments:
- Should there be adjustments to activities or experiences to include people who use wheelchairs or other devices, have lost limbs, or whose bodies are otherwise limited in some way?
- Is the church’s physical space compliant with disability laws?
- Does the church include events and experiences that people of any mobility level can participate in?
Intellectual, learning, or neurological disabilities:
- Are there buddies, aids, or support provided when people are struggling with certain activities or concepts?
- Is there assurance that kids/teenagers are in age group environments appropriate to them, according to their families and healthcare providers (not our judgment)?
- Is the staff educated about mental illness and disability?
- Do team members know how to identify warning signs of depression, anxiety, suicide, or other potential mental health crises?
- Does the staff know how to get help from professionals rather than trying to handle it on their own?
- Does the church have a list of licensed mental health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, trauma-informed therapists, and counselors) to refer people to?
While these questions should be considered about your church’s approach to special needs ministry overall, how you implement any changes or adjustments or add special learning or special activities may differ according to the ministry age group.
ADJUST THE WAY YOU TEACH TO ACCOMMODATE DISABILITIES
Chances are, you don’t need a separate curriculum or church disability ministry service for kids, teenagers, or adults who have special needs. You just need to make small adjustments to what you’re already doing to make things more inclusive.
In Grow Curriculum, we use the terms “revise,” “replace,” and “remember” to help churches make adjustments to their teaching content to include everyone.
- What can you revise to make an activity, game, or object lesson more inclusive for people in the room with certain needs, limitations, or disabilities?
- Are you willing to replace an entire idea (even if you thought it was a great one) if it alienates someone with a disability?
- What do you need to remember about the needs of people with disabilities as you prepare for your service each week?
If you’re using Grow Kids or Grow Students, we already assemble experts to make these “hacks” for you every week — they’ll help you know how to adjust the curriculum you already have in small ways if you have kids or teenagers in your ministry with certain special needs.
MAKE SURE EVERYONE CAN SERVE SOMEWHERE
Is your church making it easy for anybody with disabilities or special needs to be involved? Identify roles where people with disabilities can volunteer in your church and create a plan to be more inclusive. Don’t wait until they fill out a volunteer application to think about it.
Don’t limit the roles that people with disabilities or special needs can choose from to make it easy on your church — instead, look for creative ways to help them serve in the roles they’re most passionate about. Make sure that everyone has the opportunity to serve others using their gifts and talents.
Now that you have the resources to get your special needs ministry up and running, let Grow Curriculum make it a little easier for you. Our Grow Kids and Grow Students packages already include ways to adjust your programs to accommodate special needs.
Grow Kids and Grow Students assemble experts to help you know how to adjust curriculum you already have in small ways if you have kids or teenagers in your ministry with certain special needs.
The Grow Team
A team packed with pastors, ministry leaders, writers, editors, designers, project managers, app developers, and more! The Grow Team works to bring curriculum and ministry strategy to church leaders everywhere.