When we got our son's autism diagnosis in 2010, there was no special-needs ministry at our church. Because my husband was the pastor, we couldn't go to the big church in the next town that did have a great disability ministry. We had to hope and pray church members would step up and take care of James.
And they did step up. It started with our friend who was an occupational therapist, then another friend who taught special ed, an adult on the autism spectrum, and more. When we moved away a few years later, the special-needs ministry was serving many families. They knew their children would be safe and loved because the church did such a good job with James.
Now we're at a new church. And again, there is no special-needs ministry. So we're starting again, hoping and praying for an even bigger ministry to serve our community.
If you attend a church that doesn't have a special-needs ministry, here are steps you can take to encourage your church family to step up.
- Pray. Share with God your desires for inclusion in the church. You being able to meet together with other believers is important to Him. It is His will for you and your family. Ask Him to guide your conversations. Ask Him to connect you with the right people. And ask Him for wisdom throughout this process.
- Talk to your pastor(s) about their theology of disability. Maybe it’s just never occurred to your church’s leadership to form a theology of disability. It hasn’t impacted them personally, so they’ve just focused on all the other issues they are faced with and have experience with. You can meet with your pastor or email him to share what God has taught you about disability and what an important topic it is for churches to understand. Nearly 1 in 5 families in the U.S. are impacted by disability, so it’s an issue they can’t ignore. You may want to share with him what Scripture says. Some passages that have shaped my understanding of disability include:
- Find an advocate. You may not be able to do all this on your own, and you shouldn't have to. In chapter 6 of Acts the church was growing, but one group was feeling neglected (the Hellenistic widows). The apostles weren’t doing it with malicious intent, they were simply so busy with the growth of church they didn’t notice. The issue was brought to the attention of the apostles and they responded by appointing men to meet the need. The result—”And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7). These deacons were advocates for the Hellenistic widows. You will also need advocates—people who understand your needs and can go to the leadership of your church on your behalf.
- Share resources. Here at Key Ministry we consult with churches serving families with disabilities and mental health conditions. We also have posts, books, videos, and more that we hope equips churches. Here are a few to start with:
- What Special-Needs Families Wish Their Pastors Knew
- What Special-Needs Families Want from the Churches We Attend
- The Biggest Challenges Small Churches Face in Special-Needs Ministry
- The First Steps We're Taking to Launch a Special-Needs Ministry
I hope taking these steps will lead to a healthy ministry for special-needs families that includes people with disabilities at every level. But we know the reality is some churches just won't understand the need or be willing to put forth the effort. If you've tried to start a special-needs ministry and it's causing you additional stress, you may want to pray about finding a new church home. Ultimately, you're responsible for the spiritual growth of your family and you should be in a church that welcomes and appreciates you.
Sandra Peoples is the editor and community manager for Key Ministry. She also serves as co-director of her church's special-needs ministry. You can connect with her on her site, sandrapeoples.com and check out her Bible study for special-needs parents, Held: Learning to Live in God's Grip.