Start With Hello: Introducing Your Church to Special Needs Ministry

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Let’s say a group of people at First church feel called to help their congregation become the kind of community where people with disabilities and family members feel welcome and can fully engage in the life of the church. They may have a difficult time knowing where to begin. Disability Concerns created the Inclusion Handbook for just that purpose.

Now Joni and Friends is producing a series of brief booklets with that same goal in mind. The first, Start with Hello, is now available for free on Amazon. (Check out the companion website with a great name: The Irresistable Church.) According to the promotional literature, “Start with Hello was written with the goal of introducing your church to disability ministry and training churches on how to lead a special needs ministry.”

Hello suggests five steps to “launching a special needs ministry:” ask, listen, plan, train, launch. Ask God for guidance; ask the church leadership for their blessing; and ask the people whom the ministry aims to serve for their wisdom and direction. Listen carefully in these conversations with church leadership and with the families and people with disabilities. Plan ministry based on what was learned during these conversations. Train volunteers, church leadership, and the congregation. Launch ministry, starting small and growing as needed.

Hello concludes, “Ultimately, effective disability ministry shouts to a world that values perfection, superficial beauty, and power that God and his people value those who seem weak, who depend on others, and who appear insignificant. Disability ministry proclaims that the gospel is for all people who have faith in Jesus, regardless of their abilities, social standing, or culture (p. 67).” To that, I give a loud, “Amen!”

Some things I like

Hello recognizes that church leadership may not be fully on board with the person eager for a special needs ministry, and it reminds readers that most church mission statements include people with disabilities whether that was the intention of the authors of the mission statement or not, because most church mission statements include language about ministering to and with “all people.”

“Ask the people you aim to serve (p. 18).” Yes, yes, yes. Too often people go about ministry to people with disabilities and miss the mark. Ministry must be with people with disabilities and their loved ones. “Ministry leaders who take the extra time and effort to meet with each family or individual affected by special needs always learn valuable information that shapes future ministry efforts (p. 21).”

The Family Ministry Profile is a fine tool for having a conversation with a family with a member with a disability, and the book includes a number of other practical ideas for ministry programs.

Hello recommends that not only volunteers but also church leadership and the congregation need training. If leadership don’t understand the breadth of opportunity for ministry, and if the congregation members feel fear toward people with disabilities, then any persons or families coming to a congregation who have a disability will feel rejection rather than welcome.

The commendation to small churches (pp. 45-46) reminds readers that you don’t need a big church with lots of volunteers and a big budget to minister well.

Some limitations

Although Hello says that special needs ministry does not necessarily mean a program or programs, the language, such as “special needs ministry” and “launch”, as well as the bulk of the book's content implies otherwise. Programs can be very helpful, but the book says very little about helping a congregation change attitudes so that people can feel welcome and be invited to serve. (For a great tool on changing attitudes, be sure to check out The 5 Stages.)

Disabilities come in many shapes and forms, including stroke survivors, people with schizophrenia, children with autism, and many others. A brief paragraph in Hello acknowledges this fact (p. 27), but the book focuses nearly all of its attention on “families with special needs,” meaning families in which one or more of the children has a disability.

Hello keeps its sights on meeting needs. While this is an admirable goal, it’s incomplete because it misses celebrating and encouraging the giftedness of each individual. Like my friend, Barbara Newman, likes to say, everyone is like a puzzle piece with a pink part (things we are not good at) and a green part (things we are good at). 

Bottom line

If you are looking for a good, brief primer on getting started with ministry with families who have a child with a disability, Start with Hello is a great place to begin, and did I mention it’s free??

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Community Builder

 I don't think people in my church are afraid of people with disabilities, because very often, in our congregation, the people who have disabilities now are people they have had around as they grew up.  I've been attending this church for 40 years, and other people who have developed disabilities with age have been around for even longer.  A couple of individuals have had strokes while others had accidents where they fell down a flight of stairs and now use a walker to get around, but some of those people are founding members of the congregation.  Others have joined our church, but what's one person with a disability more or less when you're used to having them around already?

Guide

Michele, Great question! Sounds like people with disabilities are part of the fabric of your church, for which I praise God. I have been in other congregations that are the same way, but that certainly is not true of all churches.