You know those kids that burrow into your heart with a combination of laughter that fills you with joy and tears that break your heart? Most of their time at church is characterized by struggle, but there are moments when your eyes lock in laughter and understanding, and you think you’ll explode with love?
Jimmy was like that. He was a pretty typical kid, oldest of three boys, super athletic, sweet. But like many others, things shifted when he entered his preteen years. One Sunday he inexplicably refused to enter his classroom. His dad attempted to drop him off for a solid ten minutes, all while Jimmy in screamed and strained to run away from them into the hallway. The week before, he had participated with no issues, but something had changed. I remember approaching his bewildered dad and asking if I could help, offering to take over (ooh, it hurts to write that, but it’s true). He just looked at me with some fear and frustration, and they eventually left the room together.
Over the next few weeks, Jimmy began to struggle to leave his parents’ presence for any activity, including school. Their fear turned to frustration and then grief as they went to therapists and started to hear scary words like “ADHD with impulsivity” and even “early signs of bipolar disorder.” Sunday after Sunday, Jimmy would sit on a pew in the hallway with one of his parents while they both cried. He just couldn’t bring himself to enter a social space with peers, especially not without a parent to anchor him, and his parents couldn’t participate in their own class either.
Eventually, we came up with a plan. Instead of attending a traditional Sunday classroom, Jimmy would become the hall monitor’s assistant. Like almost every preteen I’ve ever met, Jimmy loved doing meaningful work to. He would sort through files, organize gym equipment, clean up our costume rack, and set out snacks for other groups. He would frequently come to me with reports such as, “Ms. Sarah, you really need to buy better balls for the gym,” or “Um, that room is a total disaster.”
I have no professional designation that allows me to speak with authority about special needs. These thoughts are merely the result of my experience of working with kids and their families. When I think about that year with Jimmy I come to these conclusions about ministry with preteens who have disabilities:
1. The preteen years introduce new hurdles.
Kids entering 4th-6th grade develop an imaginary audience in their heads that tends to criticize them harshly and demand a high level of social performance. This internal monologue that preteens listen to all day, every day, can make social situations incredibly anxious and difficult.
This is especially true for kids who have already felt the hurt or rejection that can come with a physical or mental handicap. Researchers say that social anxiety skyrockets during the preteen years, and it’s no wonder. This is the same age when those of us in children’s ministry begin emphasizing small group interactions in a whole new way, right as they are becoming more wary of those environments. If we think participation in a small group is difficult for the typical preteen, we should try to imagine how discombobulating it must be for a child with ADHD, autism or a visible disability. It’s like throwing them directly into a minefield.
2. Ministry must be one person at a time.
I find that no matter where I serve in ministry, I spend 80% of my time with 20% of the people I am called to serve. Whenever this starts to feel inefficient and wasteful, I need to remind myself that real ministry happens one person at a time.
When it comes to preteen ministry, programs should fit around the needs of the individuals in the group, not the other way around. If we build a ministry based on the needs of the group members who must work the hardest, then the remaining 80% of the group will be included by default. That could mean starting off your small group hour with a quiet breathing exercise rather than a rowdy game, or moving your group to a meeting room that is closer to an accessible entrance, or only serving gluten free snacks. If we take one preteen at a time and consider their needs when making decisions, everyone will benefit—or at the least, no one will suffer.
3. Preteens are discerning God’s call.
My #1 prized theory that guides all my preteen ministry is that God whispers his calling into our ears in a whole new way during the preteen years. This is the time that many kids are just old enough to dabble in abstract thought and get excited about serving but also young enough to listen to their leaders and want to please them. They can perform at new levels in sport, music, critical thinking, art and just general tasks. They can concentrate on a project for more than ten minutes and even work in pairs or groups at times. They’re still precious little kids, but the spark of their potential is fanning into a flame.
One way to nurture this calling in their lives is to give them meaningful work within the church. If a preteen balks at entering worship, let them stand at the door to hand out bulletins or children’s worship activities. If one of your kids has a reaction to your space because of a sensory issue, sit down to interview them about what changes would make that space more welcoming, and involve them in the implementation. Preteens can be superb helpers in the sound booth, the nursery, the hospitality table, and even in worship leadership. Every time we serve we learn more about how God has made us and what brings us true joy, and this is true for preteens too.
Designing areas of service is the crux of preteen ministry, in my opinion, and this is especially, really, super true for preteens with special needs. Not only do these friends have the same desire to serve and contribute as all their peers do, but they often struggle more to interact in a quiet- or verbal-driven environment. Carrying on conversation or sitting still can feel like torture to a preteen who has not been affirmed for past attempts in these areas. If a preteen in our ministries seems to struggle in group interaction, let’s free them up! Create a job that fits their temperament and skill, and affirm them for doing the work. Better yet, recruit another adult from the congregation to partner with the preteen in their area of ministry and serve as a mentor.
This is by far the most fun age group I have the pleasure to work with in my ministry. They’re delightfully funny and often sweet, and their attempts to ham it up or put on airs of disgust are life-giving. If we can love on our preteens one at a time, we’ll soon find that instead of a church ministry that tries to include everyone, we are a ministry built upon the unique gifts of each participant. This sounds like heaven to me!
For more thoughts about creating an inclusive ministry for preteens in our churches, check out chapter 5 of Sarah Flannery's book, 6 Secrets of Preteen Ministry.
Sarah Flannery has devoted the last 15 years to ministry with children in many settings, both as a church staff person and a volunteer. She is currently Assistant Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Along with her husband, she parents two boys, Thomas and Jack. Sarah holds an undergraduate degree from Asbury University and a master’s degree in Family Sciences from the University of Kentucky. She co-chairs the Kentucky Annual Conference Children & Family Ministry Team.