Ways the Church Can Help Special-Needs Siblings Thrive: nurturing faith and helping siblings connect

Key Ministry is very encouraged to hear from pastors and ministry leaders who are committed to becoming more effective in ministry with special-needs siblings. While there is a growing body of secular research on special-needs siblings, the church gets little mention in supporting these family members. Since we began a focused conversation on this topic back in January, feedback from siblings and parents alike shows that families deeply appreciate that this conversation is growing in the church. Thank you for joining us to explore practical ways the church can come alongside brothers and sisters who have siblings with special health, developmental, or mental health conditions.

In part 1 on this subject, we talked about nurturing a sibling’s identity in Christ and being an advocate for siblings. Next, we’re going to talk about nurturing faith and helping siblings connect with resonating relationships and resources.

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Nurture Growing Confidence in the Sovereignty of God

It is a great gift for special-needs siblings to have parents and spiritual leaders who recognize when they have hard questions. They need mentors and friends who will invite conversations and explore those questions with them. Nobody needs to have all the answers but siblings, like all family members, benefit from having pastors who teach the deep truths as well as companions who will come alongside them to pray and dig for God’s answers.

Even before I became a special-needs parent, Joni Eareckson Tada’s story inspired me in this respect. In her book When God Weeps, Joni tells about how she grappled with faith and hopelessness during the first months and years after the accident that left her paralyzed from the shoulders down. Joni battled serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubts. Herfriend Steve Estes joined her in a process of probing beyond glib answers to the problem of suffering. Together, they studied scriptures until they could see that God was “big enough to understand their suffering, wise enough to allow it and powerful enough to use it for a greater good than they could ever imagine.” The result of their collaborative process has been more than just two people thriving in faith. The result is spiritual giants who have written dozens of best-selling books and God’s fruit of countless people around the globe experiencing hope and eternal salvation in Jesus.

Offer Sibling Support Groups

The needs of siblings can sometimes get lost in a family affected by disability, long-term healthcare needs or serious mental health condition. (Dads and grandparents tend to fall into the periphery too, by the way.) Having a place of resonance, particularly a faith-based one, is rare for siblings. Some experience sibling workshops at Joni and Friends’ Family Retreats or through Sibshops. But peer social connections of any nature, let alone regularly-scheduled small group gatherings and faith-based conversations specifically for these siblings are uncommon and increasingly in demand. Our churches have an opportunity to fill this void and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Organized gatherings for siblings have the potential to bring tremendous encouragement and bear church-wide fruit. This can start by simply offering a space with a discussion facilitator who offers up a conversation-starter question and has a few related scriptures ready to interject when Christ-centered encouragement is most helpful. The value of simply letting some natural conversation unfold cannot be overstated. It’s a good idea to ask for a covenant of confidentiality and provide reassurance that they are sharing in a safe, unconditional, and confidential space. Facilitator training is available through the Sibling Support Project.

Please join me in praying about how special-needs siblings can increasingly be given opportunity to do life together in a faith-based context. I will be exploring more about sibling support groups in another post soon.

Facilitate Resource Connections for Siblings

Different life seasons, distinctive family circumstances and unique individuals present a wide range of referral opportunities. Sometimes a referral may be directly for the sibling. Other times a resource is needed by a family member but will indirectly help the sibling as well. For example, providing a referral to a summer camp for a child with special needs or including someone with a disability in VBS or on a mission trip is of tremendous value for that differently-abled child. Yet, that experience simultaneously provides respite to individual family members as well, including siblings. Siblings find great encouragement in seeing their sisters and brothers included.

I recently got a call from a friend whose 50-year-old sister is in a group home. My friend’s dad had passed away and her sister with intellectual-developmental disabilities was having a hard time coping. My friend asked if I knew about any books or grief resources that could help her sister process the loss. Would you know what to do if you were confronted with such a question? I wasn’t sure myself, at first. Thankfully, I am a member of online groups like Key Ministry’s Special Needs and Disability Ministry Leaders Forum where I could pose the question. (Let me encourage you to connect there.) Within a couple of hours, I had a great list of ideas for my friend and was able to create a document for sharing with other leaders too. (You can check it out here.)

Family Retreats like those offered by Joni and Friends provide an entire family with the opportunity to vacation together. The retreats foster wonderful connections with other families along with Christ-centered encouragement specifically designed for all the family members affected by disability.

Church respite nights sometimes include siblings too. If your church doesn’t offer respite nights, consider supporting or collaborating with an existing program at another church in your area. Organizations like 99 Baloonsand Nathanial’s Hope offer wonderful help to churches interested in offering breaks for families affected by disability.

Christian counseling can also be beneficial for siblings, no matter their age. My own children have experienced the advantages of Christian counseling over the years—some individual and some family-focused. Local resources can be identified through organizations like the National Christian Counselors Association. Throughout our marriage, my husband Larry and I have benefitted from Christian counseling too. Specifically, the Arno Profile System used by members of Sarasota Academy of Christian Counseling has remained one of our family’s most valued resources as individuals, in marriage and for parenting.

Notice I started this section with the heading “Facilitate resource connections for siblings.” I was careful to avoid simply urging you to “make referrals” because, as a special-needs parent, I know the degree of burnout I’ve lived through the constant need to dig up and fight for supports and resources. To the extent that a church can initiate and even lead a search for resources on their child’s behalf, parents of special-needs siblings will be unyoked from a burden (a rare occurrence) and tremendously encouraged by your help. In the meantime, their child will reap great rewards from the resources while gaining a parent who is refreshed by the church’s partnership.

When the church recognizes and embraces the opportunity to join in the faith journey of a special-needs sibling, there is potential to raise up a Christ-following giant whose glory story has the potential to influence countless lives.

Lisa Jamieson is the author of books and Bible studies including the Finding Glory series of resources and the new children’s book Jesus, Let’s Talk. She is co-founder of Walk Right In Ministries and leads the Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection. Lisa and her husband, Larry, have been married 30 years and have three grown daughters. Their daughter, Carly, has Angelman Syndrome and lives at home with them in Maple Grove, Minnesota.