Our son was diagnosed with autism seven years ago, and the church we attended in Pennsylvania started a special-needs ministry first by meeting his needs and then growing the ministry as more families attended.
But this year my husband became the pastor of a new church outside of Houston that's twice the size of our church in PA. They have taken good care of James in our first months here, but it's time to develop a full ministry with and for people with disabilities. Here are the first steps we're taking. (I'd love your feedback and advice in the comments on what has worked and not worked for you!)
We assessed the needs we currently have in the church. At his age and stage of development, James can't sit in the Sunday school class offered to his typical peers. It causes him stress. So our first need was to add a class for him. There was another child in the church who benefited from a class that better met her needs as well, so she joined him. We had people willing to teach this class right away (who had experience and didn't require any training beyond getting to know our kids' needs). We filled their room with toys they like and sensory-friendly activities. After a few months of meeting, the class now attends the big group time with the larger children's ministry and then returns to their class during the lesson time (when all the kids break up for smaller classes). It's working great for them. We also have two teenagers who have been attending the youth group with help from buddies. They are able to attend the service and sit with their parents. Adults with disabilities are fully integrated into the church, so no modifications are needed at this time for the ones who attend.
We recruited leadership. Because we want our disability ministry to serve all ages, we didn't combine it with children's ministry. We needed someone willing to work with the leaders already in place for each ministry (children's, youth, music, men's and women's ministry ...). We decided on two leaders: one who will meet with the families and assess their needs and connect them to the ministries they are interested in (I will fulfill this role) and one who will implement the plans, train the volunteers, and teach the classes.
We explored curriculum options. There are a few options for curriculum and we looked at samples of as many as we could. We decided the curriculum LifeWay offers meets our needs best at this time.
We are offering an interest meeting for volunteers. Word is spreading and excitement is growing about this new ministry. We have an interest meeting scheduled in a couple weeks and are praying for a variety of people to attend. We are specifically inviting adults with disabilities who already attend the church to be a part of the ministry in whatever capacity they are comfortable with at this time (from being a consultant to helping in the classes).
We scheduled a respite night and formed a plan to advertise it. The first way we want to get word out about the ministry is by offering a respite night. We got training from 99 Balloons and put a date on the calendar. The first time we'll advertise by words of mouth and through our social media accounts. We plan to expand to advertising through the school system (who we have a good relationship with) and local therapy places.
We're excited about getting this new ministry launched this year and are praying for the families who will visit our church and hear the good news of the gospel because they see we're a safe and welcoming place for every member of their family!
Sandra Peoples (M. Div) is a special-needs mom and sibling. She and her family live outside of Houston where she serves her church as co-director of the special-needs ministry. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.