Nothing will drive two people farther apart than each having an opposing set of expectations. That can be painfully true despite our best intentions in serving people of diverse abilities in a church setting.
THE WELL-INTENTIONED CHURCH PLANS
I was recently speaking with a friend whose special needs ministry leader questioned them, “Do you expect your child with special needs to be provided spiritual formation while at church?”
It seemed that this leader was attempting to provide safe, suitable child care for couples that desperately need to attend church together. However, the parents were expecting far more of this ministry. They thought that their children should be taught spiritual concepts at a cognitively appropriate level. You can imagine their discontent when those goals were not anywhere close to being met.
The church leader felt dismayed and frustrated, thinking he was doing a good thing in serving these families. He also thought the families’ expectations were unreasonable. How could he possibly teach every student at a cognitively appropriate level when the participants were each on a completely different level?
LAY IT ALL OUT IN THE OPEN
Perhaps it was this leader whose expectations were unreasonable! When we don’t clearly define our ministry program and what it has to offer, then we are setting ourselves and our participants up for disappointment.
My friend realized that spiritual development is centered at home. She wasn’t upset that her child wasn’t participating in a full Sunday school curriculum. Merely sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her spouse to hear a sermon or participate in a worship service made her pleased as punch. But she was the exception rather than the rule.
This ministry leader might not have met with so much frustration had he fully laid out what his program does and does not offer when people enrolled.
Having been active in “disability ministry” for the past 15 years, I have to say that it ALWAYS cracks me up when a church says, “We have a special needs ministry.” What does that mean, exactly? Is it a Sunday school class for adults with cognitive challenges? Is it respite care for kids with disabilities? Are you hosting a support group for parents? Is your program inclusive, meaning integrated into the regular Sunday school classes? Or do you separate the children with exceptional needs? Do you offer diapering or tube feeding? Do you have a sensory room? WHAT do you mean by “special needs ministry”?
As you can see, the definitions of what that means can differ GREATLY. If you do not clearly set up those expectations early on with participants or potential participants, then you are the one whose demands are unreasonable. People are not mind-readers. When you are vague in your description, you leave that space open for those approaching you to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions.
BE A PROBLEM SOLVER
If you do find yourself in this sort of position, frustrated despite your best intentions, it’s not too late to start afresh. For example, if you are currently unable to offer spiritual formation for those with cognitive challenges, point parents to resources they can use at home and tell them what your goals are for offering that sort of thing in the future. Don’t do respite care at this time? Point them to other places you are familiar with that do offer that service. Be sensitive in meeting them where they are at and be crystal clear about what you can offer them at the present time. This way, neither you nor those you serve are as likely to go away from the situation angry.