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Special needs community can be involved

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Walt Micksch has cerebral palsy.

He also has a wife, two daughters, a business degree and years of experience in the field of operations management and logistics.

“From the time I could hear words, I was told, ‘God has a plan for your life and there is a reason you are here,'” said Micksch, who credits his parents, Joe and Ella Micksch, and his childhood physical therapist, Dorothy Spark, with pushing him to “be involved in the world” regardless of his cerebral palsy.

It was Spark, a member of the church Micksch attended as a child, who introduced him to special needs ministry by encouraging him to volunteer with a special needs community group when he was a teenager.

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“She used that to show how I had no room to complain and that God could really use these people,” Micksch recounted.

That early understanding led Micksch to a lifetime of service both in and outside of church, though not necessarily to the special needs community. Micksch said recent contact with several families with children who have cerebral palsy has reawakened his desire to serve in special needs ministry.

The timing was perfect for Carlton McDaniel, special needs specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, to approach Micksch about helping start a leadership team of people who have special needs. The team is the next step toward more fully integrating the special needs community into the larger church community.

“Anywhere that we go typically in our community, whether it be at the gas station, we see people with special needs. But when we go into our churches, why don’t we see people with special needs?” McDaniel said during an Inside LifeWay podcast.

Finding ways to not only minister to, but also through, members of the special needs community is the mission of LifeWay’s special needs ministry team.

“It’s not just about ministering to them, we’re helping them to see that they are called by God to be leaders as well,” said Ellen Beene, editor of LifeWay’s Special Education Today magazine, Access curricula, and the special needs edition of LifeWay’s Vacation Bible School curricula.

AN EVOLVING MINISTRY

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LifeWay has a heritage of providing resources for special needs ministry dating back to 1979, McDaniel said. The ministry has developed considerably during the last 28 years and, in particular, during the past couple of years.

“Society as a whole is more accepting and aware of special needs and more churches are recognizing the need to create ministries to reach the special needs families in their community,” McDaniel said. “This generation of parents is more likely to expect the church to provide a place for their child with special needs.”

In 2007, LifeWay launched LifeWay.com/specialneeds, an online resource of articles, downloadable items, event information and other materials intended to meet the growing demand for special needs ministry resources.

LifeWay also has introduced a new five-year study plan for “Access,” a resource for adults and older youth with special needs that uses a storytelling approach to communicate biblical truths.

The Access curriculum has been available since 2000, but the fall 2007 edition was the first curriculum designed specifically for learners with special needs to follow a five-year plan.

In addition to the change in the Access curriculum, LifeWay’s church resources area introduced a new line of curriculum for children in grades 1-6 called Special Buddies.

Beene said the education strategies of Special Buddies grew out of what LifeWay learned from years of working with local special needs programs.

“Special Buddies is a new resource, but not a new thought,” McDaniel said, adding that the curriculum is intentionally designed for compatibility with the mainstream Bible Teaching for Kids curriculum. This compatibility means that Special Buddies can be used as a resource for adapting lessons for learners who may need additional help or for the teacher who may be teaching a self-contained class.

MORE THAN A STUDY

Having access to specially tailored curriculum is important, but McDaniel said training is where church leaders, parents and volunteers garner encouragement and skills for building a successful special needs ministry.

In the past, special needs training opportunities and curricula focused on older youth and adults. LifeWay, however, now has expanded its special needs ministry to include tools for effectively teaching all ages of learners with special needs.

McDaniel said LifeWay provides hands-on training during its annual Sunday School events at Ridgecrest and Glorieta conference centers.

During those sessions, McDaniel or a LifeWay staff member coordinates a lab where conference attendees volunteer to serve as teachers to children and adults with special needs in addition to attending seminars focused on special needs ministry. The students in the lab often are adults attending the conference with a church group. Sometimes the students are the children of parents attending the Sunday School events.

While teachers in the lab gain valuable experience in special needs ministry, the students in the class gain exposure to biblical truths through Vacation Bible School.

McDaniel also conducts training seminars with local churches, associations and other groups as requested. In these settings, he strives to keep the ministry individualized and personal.

“We don’t start classes — we start ministries,” he said. “We want to teach Jesus in understandable ways, but we have to get families in the door to start that ministry.”

Beene said special needs ministry impacts nearly every aspect of church life, including the church building itself.

“You have to consider how they get to the choir loft or the pulpit. How do we adapt the playground?” she said, pointing out that LifeWay’s church architecture area can help with the renovation of existing churches as well as designing original structures that anticipate the need for accessibility.

As churches develop special needs ministries and involve members of that community, McDaniel said church leaders should think in terms of individuals and consider each person’s strengths.

“Most of the time we begin a special needs ministry thinking of the impact it will have on the members,” McDaniel said. “It doesn’t take long to realize that our members with special needs are actually ministering to us.”

TIPS FOR ENLISTING

Micksch has spent nearly 30 years serving the church in some capacity, so he knows the breadth of service that individuals with special needs can perform. He offered the following tips for involving individuals with special needs in church service:

— Ask them whether God has already laid a service or function on their heart.

— Offer to pray with them as they seek God’s direction for service.

— Create a list tailored to what you know to be each individual’s strengths. Ask them to pray through those options. Often this generates additional ideas not on the original list.

— Involve loved ones in the process.

“The goal of every Christian is to serve God,” Micksch said. “People usually ask, ‘How can we serve this segment of God’s people better?’ but I think the question is ‘How can they serve us?’

“Their special need is to serve God, just like everyone’s special need is to serve God.”
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Brooklyn Noel is a corporate communications specialist at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.