In my last post, we discussed the different ways that inclusion ministries get started. It’s important to remember that there are no “one way” streets in this kind of ministry; many avenues for merging into this ministry exist! Choose the one that is right for your church and the families you serve.
BUT…don’t go it alone! As with most ministries, special needs are best addressed by a team. After all, we’re the Body of Christ, and we need the gifts of everyone to be a complete community. We only need to look to the long-standing public school method of identifying and educating kids with disabilities to know that a team approach works!
Here are some tips for creating your team:
- Identify “stakeholders” from all areas of your church: facilities, Children’s Ministry, leadership (elder board or pastor), parents of kids with special needs, parents of typically developing kids, medical/educational professionals from the church or community
- Invite anyone who might be interested. Remember: this is a ministry of inclusion. Begin your ministry with a culture of acceptance and model that everyone who has a willing heart has gifts that can and should be used!
- Find another church with a similar ministry. There is no need to re-create the wheel! Invite the advice and counsel of other leaders, especially those who are connected in your community.
Let’s go team!
Stay tuned: we’ll discuss creating policies and procedures that make sense in our next post!
For many kids, the month of May represents the advent of summer time fun. School schedules are packed with end-of-year parties and assemblies as the year winds down. Class trips often occur during this month as well. Concerts, tournaments and banquets fill evening schedules.And, lest we think that May is all fun and games, many states schedule mandatory testing at this time. Older students begin preparing for final exams and race to complete projects and papers.
Any parent will wearily tell you that May rivals December in the busy-ness department.
For kids with “hidden” disabilities, like anxiety, depression and autism, this rip-roarin’ schedule can really take a toll. Even “fun” events can be stressful, and changes in routine pose an extra challenge for these kids. As a result, many families not only feel busy, but also edgy; it can be impossible to determine what might cause a meltdown or anxiety attack during a month as packed as May.
The month of May is important in ministry as well. There is much to celebrate: graduations, promotion to the next grade or group at church, and year-end projects. In addition, high school and middle school students are in the throes of mission trip training, with the younger kids anticipating camping trips or class parties. Suddenly, the routine of church has also changed. Church staff and volunteers may notice that kids who have previously done well are now acting out or having trouble separating from their parents. This can be confusing–and discouraging.
So what is a Children’s Ministry Staff to do?
- Communicate! If a change in routine is coming, let the parents know through email, a pulpit announcement or a phone call. This small gesture can set kids up for comfort and success on Sunday morning.
- Create an alternate plan. Anticipate that some kids might have trouble with changes in routine. Be sure that you have some quiet activities (books, puzzles, games) that can be enjoyed with kids who might not be able to participate fully in a whole-group or loud activity…and be sure to have a “floating” volunteer or two to staff your quiet area.
- Review your “May Day” plan. Every children’s ministry should have an emergency plan that includes procedures for managing crises. Be sure that your staff and volunteers review these plans to keep everyone safe. This is especially important when warmer weather beckons us outside during church activities!
- Extend grace. We all know how important regular church attendance is to long-term spiritual health. For families affected by hidden disabilities, attending regularly can be challenging, especially during a stressful month. Many of these families aren’t busy with travel teams or choir competitions; they’re shuttling to therapies and working hard on planning summer services for their child. So, if families like these are missing church during May, be sure to stay in touch with them. Offer to email or drop off lesson materials or a CD of the worship music, or send a note of encouragement.
- Be kind to yourself. If a student in your ministry decides not to go on a mission trip, or fails to attend the promotion cook-out, try hard not to take it personally. That can be really difficult…all of us in ministry DO put our hearts and souls into the programs and events we plan! However, the family’s absence from your event probably has very little to do with you. Be encouraged that your ministry HAS made a difference in this family’s spiritual growth and development. Reflect on how the child has grown during the year, and be sure to jot down some of these successes to share with your volunteers.
May you have a Mellow May!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, as the Church, could simply take away the difficulties experienced by members of our church family? I can think of a long list of things I’d like to off-load onto someone for an hour or two. We’re called to bear one another’s burdens, but sometimes, that can be a daunting task!
In honor of Autism Awareness Month (and World Autism Awareness Day) I’d like to share a few strategies for making church a welcoming place for families affected by autism. For those of you who don’t know about autism, or would like to learn more, please click here for some excellent information provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. It’s helpful to have some background knowledge so that you and visiting families can “speak the same language.”
Remember, not all parents who have a child with autism will share information right away. However, when a parent does confide, “This is our first time here…and my child has autism,” you’ll want to be prepared. In order to accomplish this, consider the following recommendations:
- Plan proactively. Before the program year begins, be certain that your staff and volunteers know how to keep children safe in church. Practice “emergency” procedures, such as knowing what to do if a child appears agitated or runs out of the church building. Publish behavior and safety policies so that everyone understands the expectations. In addition, try to staff your program with a few “floating” volunteers who have been trained to understand special needs issues. That way, if a child with autism visits, a buddy is available if needed.
- Assess your space. Students with autism may become anxious in large, crowded spaces. Find–or create–a greeting space that feels a bit cozier. This can be accomplished easily and inexpensively by rearranging furniture or using mobile room dividers. Some churches open an office adjacent to the Welcome Center to provide a quiet space for parents and greeters to talk.
- Point the way. Be certain that your church has enough signage to make the space predictable for newcomers. If possible, use icons or pictures of activities; kids with autism manage visual cues very well.
- Turn down the volume. Loud voices, music and noises can be rough on anyone’s ears; many individuals with autism are particularly sensitive to this. Be sure that your welcoming area is on the quiet side, if possible, to accommodate this need.
- Make “good scents.” Strong perfumes and cologne are great for date night, but may be off-putting to children with autism.
- Listen and learn. If a parent discloses that his/her child has autism, be prepared to listen. If possible, staff the welcome area with more than one volunteer to allow this conversation to take place. Ask, “What will help your child feel comfortable this morning? How does your child communicate his/her needs? What activities will your child enjoy most?”
- Be glad! Many parents of kids with autism spend a good portion of the week explaining their child’s behavior, arguing with insurance companies, and working with the school to create appropriate behavior and learning plans. They often receive phone calls from teachers that bear bad news about the child’s day. Often, these families are excluded from neighborhood parties, play dates…even family reunions! As the Church, we have an opportunity to make a difference by simply saying, “We are so glad you are here!”
- …and be realistic. Most of the time, our church ministry teams are not staffed with autism specialists. We’re not in the position to provide individual therapies and follow specific treatment protocols. And that’s okay. Some parents might hope for Sunday School to be an extension of the child’s school interventions. If this is the case on that first visit, try this: “It sounds like you have some specific ideas for your child’s experience in Sunday School. Let’s talk about what might be effective for today, and then set up a time that we can discuss your child’s needs more thoroughly.”
- Accentuate the positive. Ask the parents, “What is wonderful about your child?” Most parents will be surprised by this question. I’ve had a mom tell me through her tears, “I have to think about it…it’s been so long since someone asked me what is good about my daughter!” As the Church, we KNOW that every person in our “family” has gifts!
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list… just a few pointers to get you started. Remember that not all suggestions on this list will be effective or appropriate with all families. Do you have ideas that work well in your church? Post them in the comments section! Are you the parent of a child with autism? Please lend your wisdom and experiences! Do you have questions or concerns? Add those, too! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re interested in some awesome ideas on planning your space to welcome kids with special needs,
tune in to CM Connect Radio on Monday, April 4 at 1 pm EST. My dear friend and Key Ministry colleague, Harmony Hensley, will be sharing her expertise on that topic…you won’t want to miss it!
Here’s to warm welcomes…