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Starting A Special Needs Ministry


Starting A Special Needs Ministry

Nancy Connell

Latest posts by Nancy Connell (see all)

Man In Wheelchair for Special Needs MinistryIf you’re a parent, you’ve probably spent long stretches of time at home with your kids, reminiscing about the days when life had a little less responsibility and a little more time for your own pursuits. As a parent myself, I’m sure that thought crossed my mind at one point.

Now, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a parent with a child that has special needs. The needs of a child with challenges can be incredibly demanding – physically, mentally and spiritually.

The same is equally true for those in adult caregiver positions. According to U.S. Census data taken in 2012, 56.7 percent of the U.S. population cited some form of disability in 2010. More than half of those indicated their disability was severe.

We all want our churches to be places where everyone feels welcome, regardless of disability & special needs. That’s why many churches have taken note of the special challenges their special needs & disabled members and their families face. These churches have learned to understand those challenges so that they can provide support that helps those in need live more fulfilling lives.

That’s where the special-needs ministry steps in. Churches across the country are showing their compassion for families faced with disability or special needs by working to meet their needs through a variety of programs. These programs serve to fill the gaps in their members’ lives – giving them support where it may be lacking.

Special-needs ministries can take a variety of forms, such as:

  • One-on-one “buddy” programs
  • Special-needs Sunday school classes
  • Respite programs for parents and caregivers

The High Costs and Rewards of Special-Needs Ministries Earlier this week I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about the REST program at Elmhurst, Illinois’ Moody Church.

The Church’s Respite Education & Support Tools, or REST, program offers caregivers regular breaks three Sundays a month thanks to a drop-off class for adults with special needs. On the remaining Sunday, caregivers give back by helping lead a class as a “139 Buddy”.

The Moody Church 139 Buddy Time Ministries, which began offering the REST classes in September of 2015, allows families who couldn’t be active in the church because of their caregiver duties to get involved with their church. Equally as rewarding, special needs adults that didn’t want to attend church now look forward to it as a time to learn, develop relationships, and spend time with their Buddies.

Joni and Friends is also another special needs ministry that’s been working since 1979 to help families through programs and services which would help meet the spiritual and practical needs of disabled people and their families, including family retreats, the distribution of wheelchairs and Bibles worldwide to people affected by disability, and church training at local and national disability ministry conferences.

Making Sure Your Ministry Is Covered

Before starting any formal special-needs ministry programs, talk with your ministry’s attorney and insurance agent. They can make sure that the program complies with relevant federal and state laws and any child care standards that may apply, and that the program is properly insured. You want to make sure your program works smoothly and effectively – a poorly run program takes away from the effectiveness of your ministry’s efforts. You also want to keep your ministry safe, so make sure you have special needs liability in your insurance coverage. If you’re not sure you do, we can help you with that.

Planning A Special Needs Ministry

A special-needs ministry helps churches welcome and involve those who may not be able to attend church or be active members of the congregation due to their disability. The special-needs ministry brings these folks back into the flock. When a church improves its outreach through a program like this, it helps improve the lives of people that may have found themselves pushed to the outer-edge of society. Here are some things your ministry can do to get started:

  • Set rules – Begin by deciding what policies and procedures your program will incorporate.
  • Attract experienced leadership – Staff your special-needs ministry with leaders who have worked with special-needs individuals and understand their needs. You may want current or former educators, as they can help lay out your program because they often have experience with both children and the disabled. They also know how to teach, so they’re great for training volunteers and staff on how to make the best impact.
  • Run background screens – As with all ministry-based programs, you  absolutely must run background screens on all workers and volunteers associated with the program. At ChurchWest Insurance Services we recommend running multiple screens.
  • Get started training – With a fully screened team in place, you can now start your training process. Make sure your team understands the rules, policies and procedures you put in place and how to stay compliant with them. Be sure to include regular retraining sessions to address any issues that come up during your work.
  • Involve church leadership – Your program will need the support of your church’s leadership to be successful. Church leaders that understand the “why” of your program are more likely to support your program and help it thrive. Your church’s leadership will also be a critical connection for keeping special-needs ministry leaders in touch with your church’s insurance and legal resources – both critical elements in keeping your program running effectively and safely with low risk.

Implement Your Special Needs Ministry

There’s one more important thing to understand about our friends with special needs (and their families). None of them are the same, even if they have the same disability. Some adults with Parkinson’s disease may be able to walk at certain times of the day, but not others. Some may not be able to walk at all. Some autistic children may thrive on music, some may find it overwhelming. Tailor your accommodations to each person. Sit down with your participants as well as their families and caregivers and find out what their strengths, challenges, interests, and aversions are. This can help in planning appropriate activities that will meet the needs of your members no matter what their ages or challenges.

Have something to add? Have you implemented a special needs program in your ministry? Tell us about it in the comments, below.

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