"Minstry would be great if it just weren't for the people." Can you relate to that joke I heard from a pastor's wife a number of years ago? Nearly anyone involved in ministry can't help but laugh at it because they know the demands. Being a pastor often means having people put intense demands on you from every angle ranging from needing deep spiritual counsel to complaining about the worship music.
In a rapidly changing world, the demands are coming at pastors faster than the training received in seminary. Gone are the simpler days of merely providing basic worship services, women's ministry, Sunday school, and a church picnic. Congregations are now expected to be the epicenter of complex issues such as sexuality, addictions, and social justice movements. Those in the pews arrive with high expectations of what their house of worship will provide.
The Heart of The Matter
While the Church should be speaking God's truth into the critical issues of our time and welcoming all people into the family of Christ, resistance from leadership is not an unusual thing. I have heard countless families with complex kids complain about how their needs are neglected or ignored over my years of service. No stranger to that frustration myself, I would boil the lack of progress mostly down to one thing — FEAR.
Although a pastor may come across to a congregant as a prideful know-it-all, or as heartlessly avoidant, or as deeply interested but dropping the ball, the root always comes back to one thing. Feeling already stretched to the brink, so many concerns assault a leader's heart and mind when asked to start a special needs ministry: How will we find the financial resources? We're already struggling to raise ample funds. How will we find the volunteers? We're already short-staffed in children's ministry. We can't take more away from them. Who will lead this? Where do we even begin? There must be liability to this. It seems like a huge project, and we just don't have the time to take on something this big.
Hear me when I say, these are all valid concerns! However, I truly think pastoral fear outweighs actual facts. The concern is larger than need be.
Big Fear, Small Solutions
What most church leaders do not realize is that tiny changes can bring about big results. Something simple like an adaptation within a classroom can help. When I consult with churches, the first thing I ask them to do is to narrow their scope. I am commonly greeted with the words, "We want to start a special needs ministry." That can mean many, many things! Do you want to work with adults? Are you trying to do something with your Sunday school? Would you prefer to be more inclusive or are you thinking of a separate, dedicated group? Simply starting with a specific vision helps to break the mission down into bite-sized, manageable pieces.
Often times, Sunday school is the first target of leaders and parents alike. A simple place to begin can be with a buddy system. Licensed teachers or workers in disability care already attending your church can fill the void by training older youth, college students, and interested adults. This is a tiny step in the right direction. Expansion can grow from there as comfort level grows.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there has never been a time in history where there have been as many resources for stepping towards special needs ministry as there are now. I repeatedly recommend the book EVERY CHILD WELCOME by our friends and educators, Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo. These ladies make it so simple to be successful in getting started. Other organizations like CLC Network and Nathaniel's Hope also do an incredible job of equipping churches.
"But What If We Fail?"
Probably the greatest fear for ministers is that starting a special needs ministry will produce a disastrous result. That is a normal concern with taking any new risk. Perhaps the greater worry should be, "What will happen if we don't do this?" Current estimates stand at nearly 20% of all children having some sort of developmental disability. As fewer people are connected to a faith community each year, how will you show the world around you what it looks like to love like Jesus? How will you draw people in and keep them connected? How will you dispel the accusations of hypocrisy by practicing what you preach?
The phrase, "Fear not," is the most repeated command in the Bible. It is time for pastors to face that fear head on and lead by example. In the end, you may find that those anxieties were largely unfounded.