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Does your youth group have the ability to bring people in and embrace them as members of the body of Christ?

Are our churches and student ministries safe places for people to be themselves?

What practical steps can our churches take to better support parents of teenagers with disabilities, the volunteer leaders who work with these teens, and the teens themselves?

These were just some of the questions that panelists and conference attendees wrestled with in early August at a training event sponsored by Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America Disability Concerns ministries: “Doing Ministry with Youth on the Margins.”

Over 100 ministry leaders from across North America gathered in Grand Rapids, MI, for an afternoon of discussion and learning about doing ministry with students living with autism; hearing, visual, and mobility impairments; mental health challenges; and other disabilities. Children and youth like these are often marginalized outside of the church and many of the leaders on stage challenged the attendees to make sure that didn’t happen in their churches and youth ministries.

Topics that were discussed included how to create a culture of inclusion in congregational student ministries; an exploration of the experiences of parents with children with disabilities; offensive and defensive strategies for redirecting challenging behaviors; resources for disability awareness and ministry; and a presentation on Young Life Capernaum’s work with students with disabilities.

With as many as 20 percent of those under the age of eighteen struggling with some kind of developmental disability (see Conner, Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities, p. 3), these topics hit home for many leaders. Among some of the key takeaways for me were:

  • Many parents of teenagers with disabilities lamented that “my church had no idea how to come around us and help us on our journey.” They spoke of being judged as bad parents by fellow church members when their children acted out, feeling unwelcome in their own churches or new ones they would visit, and even being told not to come back to a church.
  • Ministries must be intentional when it comes to inclusion. The vision needs to come from the top (so listen up pastors): here’s what we are going to do, here’s why, and here’s why it’s unacceptable to keep doing what we have been going before. This is a leadership initiative.
  • Usually everyone in a church is on-board and willing to support families when a child with disabilities is young. But those young kids grow into their teens and twenties the support often disappears.
  • As church communities, it’s our responsibility to say “we want you here” and set up a system of support for families. Yes, it can be “scary” but we need to take the time to invest in building relationships, listening well, and educating ourselves and other students in our ministries about disabilities.
  • Buddy systems and having trained leaders that stick with students with disabilities and help them thrive in the environment of your ministry has proven to be a great practice for many churches.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of having your students know each other’s names and invite others into relationships. It’s something so simple we often overlook the importance of intentional verbal interaction as an invitation to community.
  • Ministry leaders need to sit and hear from the parents. Listen to their stories, and be willing to ask “What do you hope for your child through this experience?”
  • When it comes to challenging behaviors, remember, “all behavior is communication.” “Slip into detective mode” to try to understand challenging behaviors, and that starts by getting to know each individual. Once you take the time to get to know the student and family, you can make a behavior plan that will be proactive and supportive.
  • We are way less powerful when addressing challenging behaviors on the offensive than we are on the defensive. So set up an environment and learn to interact in helpful ways, and that all starts by knowing the student well.

What advice would you add to this list? Do you have stories you’d like to share about your experience doing ministry with students with disabilities? Are you a parent that would like to share your insight with others? We’d love to hear from you.

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