Special-needs ministry doesn't only take place in a classroom on Sunday morning. It happens in the parking lot, in the hallway, during the service, and even during the week.
A few months after we moved to Houston, Craig Johnson invited me to take a tour of the Champions Club at his church. He showed me the classrooms that are totally decked out for the kids and adults the ministry serves, but he also mentioned the reserved parking spots for special-needs families. He showed me the desk where parents check their kids in and the volunteers take time to ask how the parents are really doing. He showed me the auditorium where adults and teens with disabilities serve, often as greeters and ushers. And even as we walked across the street for lunch, we met a woman in a motorized wheelchair Craig knew well. They chatted about what's been happening in her life recently and he said, "Let me pray for you right now." I was reminded that special-needs ministry doesn't just happen in the classroom on Sunday morning, and it doesn't just focus on the person with a disability.
True special-needs ministry ministers to the entire family and takes place every day of the week.
I knew this even when I was a child, growing up with a sister with Down syndrome. Our church in Duncan, Oklahoma had lots of special-needs families attending because we knew we were welcome. When my parents needed to focus on my sister, there was always someone else around to watch me or walk me to my parents if that's what was most helpful.
When our son James was diagnosed with autism in 2010, we were the only special-needs family at our small church in PA, but the church body loved us well. So well that other families with members who have disabilities started coming too.
The even smaller church we attend now as we prepare to plant a new church is showing us love by agreeing to meet at our house on small group nights, where James feels most comfortable.
Other ideas for serving the entire family:
Offer a Bible study/support group. My husband and I wrote a Bible study, Held: Learning to Live in God's Grip, that churches across the country are using. You could also offer a sibling support group.
Have reserved parking spots at church. This is especially helpful for single or spiritually-single moms (married to men who don't attend church).
Do respite nights for special-needs kids and their siblings.
Ask open ended questions and keep asking until you get real answers. "Everything's fine" is probably not true. Be a listening ear when you know a tired mom or dad really needs it.
Offer to help if there's a way the church can help. Maybe with baby sitting? Or a $20 gift card to Chick fil A? Or someone mowing their yard for them?
We are are all one body, and are called to care for one another:
... do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phililipians 2:4)
Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; (Romans 12:10)
So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:10)
Looks for opportunities to serve the families God has brought to your church in ways that will really minister to them. I know what a difference it's made in my life and the impact it can have on so many families like mine.
Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to two boys. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.