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Awareness key to special needs outreach

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–A new family moves into town and searches for a church home. They are looking for solid, biblical preaching, a good youth program, and an exciting children’s ministry, but they are also looking for something more.

This family has a child with special needs and they are hoping to find a church that will minister to their entire family, welcoming their special needs child into the church and recognizing that people with special needs can be a vital part of the church fellowship.

This search may seem unusual, but it is reality for many American families who have a family member with a physical, mental or developmental disability. According to national statistics, as many as 18 percent of children have some sort of challenge that affects their daily lives. Sadly, most congregations don’t know these numbers and do not offer any ministry to the special needs community.

The first challenge in ministering to those with special needs is awareness, said Ellen Beene, editor of Special Education Today magazine, published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. “First, recognize there is a need,” Beene said. “What does our church need to do to help them become a part of our church?”

In addition to awareness, Jim Markle, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s special needs specialist, sees several other challenges that must be met in special needs ministry.

Communication between families and churches is vital, Markle noted.

“In most cases the family that includes a special needs individual does not know how to communicate with the church, and the church has no idea how to communicate with them,” he said. “The family is not going to be wild about explaining every aspect of the person’s special needs and the church does not know what to ask. This, of course, creates a barrier that, when left unchecked, blocks assimilation of the entire family to the church.”

Amplifying the need for assimilation, Markle said, “Special needs families need a church family. They need to be a part, feel a part, and fully participate in the life of the church just like any other family.”

Another challenge involves finances. “It costs more money per person than the average ministry,” Markle said. “It includes the need for extra workers who are trained and prepared to work with those with challenges.

“It includes extra equipment and supplies to meet these needs. I believe that in most cases, the families of the disabled pay for most of the ministry, yet we ask this of few other ministries.”

Markle also underscored the need for volunteers. “Special needs ministry is very labor intensive,” he said. “If a handicapped person needs a ‘buddy’ with him at all times while at church, and he wants to participate in Sunday School, church services, discipleship training, Wednesday night activities, fellowships, etc., it is easy to see that it takes a lot of people just for the one person.”

Despite the challenges, special needs resources, curriculum and training all are available for churches and individuals willing to get involved.

“One problem we have is that the church doesn’t have a history of special needs ministry,” said Carlton McDaniel, special needs ministry specialist at LifeWay. However, LifeWay is trying to change that history by providing a wide array of resources. “LifeWay has curriculum, resources and training to equip leaders in the church to minister to children, youth and adults and their families with special needs,” McDaniel said. “A lot of people don’t realize what we have to offer.”

Among the LifeWay resources is a “Special Buddies” specialized curriculum for children with special needs in the first through sixth grades. In addition, “Access” curriculum is available for youth and adults with special needs.

“We do want our churches to be places where everyone, regardless of ability, is able to learn about Jesus and what He calls all of us to do,” Beene said. In addition to Special Buddies and Access, LifeWay publishes the Special Education Today quarterly magazine for families and church leaders involved in special needs ministry. Also in 2008, LifeWay is offering a “Special Friends” edition of the “Outrigger Island” Vacation Bible School material encompassing lessons for youth and adults with special needs as well as material for special needs children.

However, LifeWay does more than just provide special needs curriculum.

“We also provide training for church leaders in adaptive teaching, using our resources and overall understanding of supporting and including family in all of the church ministry programs,” McDaniel said. “We offer training nationally through our LifeWay events, in specific states through Baptist state conventions, associations and through the local church.”

The most intensive special needs training in 2008 will be offered at the LifeWay Sunday School events at Ridgecrest, N.C., July 11-14, and at Glorieta, N.M., July 21-25.

Mostly teachers come to the training for a time of encouragement and renewal, McDaniel said. They share resources, hear stories of what is happening in other ministries and find answers to their individual questions. “This puts the heart back into it,” he said.

The “call” to special needs ministry is one that all churches should be open to accepting, McDaniel said. “Every church should be accepting that if God sends a family their way, that is a ministry start. There’s never just one person -– there’s a family there.”
Stephanie Heading writes for the Texas Baptist Crossroads, published by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online at http://www.sbtexas.com/news/SBTCCrossroadsWinter2008.htm.

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  • Stephanie Heading