“Our desire is to love well. To allow our special needs kids the opportunity to hear God’s word in an environment where they can hear, touch and experience God’s saving grace.” – Theresa Messer, Hope Church, Mason Ohio
As we discussed in our opening blog this month, “Clueless”, going to church is one of the biggest challenges for families with special needs children in the US. No wonder 90% of families with special needs children are thought to be unchurched. With such a challenge confronting us how can the church respond?
We took the time to interview one church that is striving to promote a shift in this area. For the past eleven years Hope Church in Mason Ohio has offered a special needs program for their congregation that starts on Sunday mornings and stretches into the week. Theresa Messer, the Director of Special Needs, recalls the first days of the ministry development.
“Our ministry was born out of need. We had a boy with Down Syndrome who had attended Hope Church for years and his behavior had become unsafe for him in a typical Sunday School room (He was running away and hiding). As the children’s ministry staff, we gathered and began to think and pray about how we could better serve in this situation. God placed upon our heart a passion to uniquely love this child and his family.”
What started as an attempt to love and serve one child in need has blossomed into a ministry that reaches close to 30 students and their families on a typical Sunday morning. The Hope Church Special Needs Ministry is designed with a two-folded vision in mind.
The first part of the vision is to love well. For Hope Church, love has meant literally carving out a space for special children—a resource room. This room is organized and equipped to meet the needs of the children and to create a safe space for them to learn and grow in Christ. A safe space consists of a place that provides both physical safety (removing hazards and objects that may harm or injure the child) and emotional safety (providing a location where children can express their varying needs freely when communication is a challenge.)
The church also has designed what they call a “buddy” system. This buddy system matches up a trained volunteer (either an adult or high school student) one-on-one with a special needs student. Theresa mentioned that this is a highlight of their program.
“Our “buddies” are fabulous! They play with them, hang out and build relationships with our students. This is a highlight for our older special needs kids, being loved and accepted by their peers.”
One of the amazing things about this system is that many of the buddy relationships have extended beyond the walls of the church and Sunday mornings. The buddies have enjoyed so much their new friendships that they have started spending time with their special needs friends and families throughout the week. Buddies are hanging out with their new friends at football games and other school events. They are going bowling together, having dance parties, going to the arcade and participating in weekly Bible studies together. Some buddies are also providing reliable babysitting for parents and families. There was one example where a buddy even provided overnight care for a special needs friend so the parents could take a few days away for needed rest and recharging. Theresa says the buddies and their new special friends are “just doing life together and loving well along the way!”
The second part of the church’s vision for this ministry is to enable parents and siblings to engage in the life of the church.
“Many of our families will recount stories of their kids being ignored if not rejected by their local church. They were told they could stay if they walked the halls with them so the kids wouldn’t be disruptive. Some churches also seemed to want to help but they just didn’t know how. Parents and siblings need to be fed in their spiritual walk, and we know as parents if your kids aren’t safe, loved and cared for that is nearly impossible.”
With that in mind, this ministry has aimed to allow families to become involved in the life of the church. The resource room is open during both Sunday morning services so the parents have the freedom to attend the worship service as well as get integrated into a morning class, church Bible study group or serve in an area they feel called to serve in. The church also provides some support for weekday events such as the family Bible studies on Tuesday nights and various other kids events that are offered. There are also numerous times where Theresa recalls the ministry or buddies offering such things as babysitting, rides and meals to families with unique needs. As a whole Theresa recounts, “We love our special needs families by praying for them and joyfully loving their kids!”
When asked how the church handles up to 30 students on a Sunday morning in one resource room Theresa also explained the student integration system.
“Each child has different needs. We have therefore slowly begun to integrate those who can and are able back into the typical classroom setting. We begin by having a conversation with the parents, asking them what they would like to see happen at church. We then talk with the students and teachers in the typical classroom and encourage them to ask questions before the student arrives. We encourage them to love like Jesus! Then we bring the student into the classroom with a buddy for brief periods of time, building that support up. Finally, we transition the buddy out and either just have teacher support or peer buddies.”
Theresa stated that it is sometimes a system of trial and error because children are different and it can take a little time to fully understand what works best for each of them. “Through all of this we keep our goal in mind, to love each child for who God created them to be.”
We asked Theresa, “What advice would you give a church that is thinking about beginning a ministry towards special needs children and their families?”
“Pray and then enlist others to pray! Ask families what they want/need and then pray again! I am aware that asking can be dangerous, but I have learned through my experience that I presume to know what these families want and I don’t actually know! I don’t live their lives. I would also suggest they visit/talk to some other churches that presently have ministries. Ask what has worked and what hasn’t. I have found the community of special needs ministries to be amazingly generous with time and thoughts.”
Has your church considered a strategic outreach to families with special needs? How can your church be a people who love all, without exception? It’s quite possible that your church doesn’t currently have any families with special needs kids (if you don’t have services for them, those families are probably staying at home). The first step might just be to pray that God will bring a special family through the door and give your church a heart of love for them.
Theresa ended by acknowledging the joy she has experienced by being a part of this program: “It’s a beautiful ministry, one where Jesus is seen and experienced!”
Theresa Messer is the Special Needs Director at Hope Church in Mason Ohio. Theresa graduated with a degree in special education and has developed and worked in this ministry area for over 11 years. Baptist Press: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=16565