4 Steps to Starting a Special Needs Ministry
Have you ever thought about having a special needs ministry at your church? What does it take to welcome special needs families while still proudly proclaiming the Gospel? These are questions I pondered pre-Covid as I took an inventory of my small student ministry, 20-30 regular students, and realized that nearly 20% of the students had some sort of special need – autism, Down Syndrome, cystic fibrosis, etc. We had become a hub for special needs kids and new ones were joining all the time! While we didn’t originally set out to create a special needs ministry, when I realized what God had allowed to happen, we started to do the following four things to intentionally make special needs ministry part of our student ministry and not just an afterthought. So here are 4 steps to starting a special needs ministry.
1. Get to know the special needs individual and their family.
It is almost impossible to advocate for a cause you know nothing about. I have found that as I get to know an individual and their special need, I learn how to step in and champion that person and their family. Someone with cerebral palsy will not have the same life as someone battling cystic fibrosis. Everyone has a different story and when we take time to understand an individual’s story, we back off the “one size fits all” mentality and actually see specific ways we can minister to them.
Sometimes this means you have to stop doing certain things. Several years ago, I had a type one diabetic in the student ministry at my church. Like every other student pastor, I was always offering sugary drinks and junk food loaded with carbs and empty calories at youth events. For this diabetic student, it would mess with their blood sugar levels and unintentionally exclude them from some group events, so I learned how to purchase alternates that would be more appropriate for their needs. Learning what to do, or what to stop doing, comes in time, by asking questions and being ready to implement the actions.
Be patient in learning to special needs individuals and their families. Relationships are the key to great ministry. Invest time in getting to know others, and you will be able to embrace the special opportunities in front of you to minister to special needs families.
2. Educate yourself/team about needs that are in your ministry context.
When I started in ministry 20 years ago, I only knew about autism and maybe a few other special needs. I had no clue about the spectrum that special needs covered, or how to come alongside special needs individuals and their families. The more time I took to educate myself about the specific needs that God had placed in front of me, the more I became comfortable with engaging individuals and their families.
3. Develop a plan to minister to special needs individuals.
For the student ministry that I lead, this happened organically – I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but the number one thing I learned was to communicate with parents – what we are teaching, how their child is processing, asking how we can better serve their family, etc. As I communicated specifically with the parents of special needs individuals, they began to trust me with their children and began to share with me more specifics about their child that made it easier to minister to their child.
For some students, I have made plans for what to do when they have temper outbursts and meltdowns, or how to redirect their behavior when they are fixated on a certain topic that has nothing to do with the lesson, or how we accommodate their medical needs for our fall retreat. Communication makes everyone, including me, more comfortable.
4. Take action.
One day I realized that our church had a ministry to special needs children, yet we did nothing to intentionally attract or develop this ministry. However, the DNA of our group was that we cared about people – whoever they were and whatever they were struggling with. If we open our arms to care for whoever God puts in our path, we can be assured that some of them will have special needs. The goal was the same – we wanted all our kids to be valued and know the love of Christ. We wanted them to have the same opportunities that other children and students have. With this goal in mind, we created individual ministry plans for our special needs students and started training small group leaders in how to implement them.
We shared tools for redirecting, overcoming social awareness issues, and constantly reminded volunteers to be flexible. Another useful tool is a Social Story; this tool tells students what they can expect when they enter the student ministry and is especially helpful to kids with sensory disorders. Another tool that is beneficial for special needs kids is a student handbook for your ministry. This handbook would describe the goals of your ministry, the plan to accomplish those goals, the events for the year with a short description of each, and contact information for each of your ministry’s leaders.
The outcome of putting these 4 steps to starting a special needs ministry into motion and persevering is a rich reward. It is amazing to watch special needs kids connect the spiritual dots and realize they are not a mistake! God has a plan for their life also!
Tim Drury is the Creative Director for Becoming Special. Tim also serves as the Family Pastor and Biblical Counselor in his local church in the metro-east area of St. Louis, Missouri. He has over 18 years of experience working with children, teenagers, and their families. Tim and his wife, Sarah Jane, have two beautiful daughters that were born with Cystic Fibrosis. Tim enjoys spending time with his family and advocating for special needs families. You can find Tim on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.
Connect with parents in less than 5 minutes!
Join over 15,000 church leaders who receive M2P’s latest parenting resources.
What if you and your church effortlessly planned an ENTIRE YEAR for upcoming Seniors and their parents with just one click?
The Parent Prep Kit equips parents of seniors to intentionally and thoughtfully pursue the heart of their child during the last year at home. Give your parents the tools they need to confidently send their students into the world with excitement and hope for the future.
This kit includes:
- Graduation Planning Timeline
- College Prep Timeline
- Senior Kickoff Event for Seniors and Parents
- Senior Year Bucket List (Family Style)
- Encouragement Notes for Seniors
- 10 Tips for Parents
- 10 Life Hacks to Diminish Parents’ Senior Year Stress
- Small-Group Reflection Questions for Parents