Many children are born with special needs, which include a number of issues. One of the most obvious is the growing number of children with various forms of autism. Many churches, however, are still struggling with providing effective ministry for these children. I know that is something our church has talked about for some time, but we often feel like we do not know where to start. In response to this, Katie Garvert led an Orange pre-conference workshop on “How to Build a Successful and Safe Special Needs Ministry.” Here are a few things I learned from Katie’s workshop.

The first thing is to find your team of people. Katie started with a team of four at her church, and she suggests the same for others:

  • Ministry Coordinator
  • Executive Pastor (face of ministry)
  • Community Resource (connect with community or other communities)
  • Prayer Warrior

The planning and pre-launch steps are very important. To start with, you need to connect with other people and ministries in the church:

  • Volunteers
    • Realize burnout rate is large.
    • Their commitment might look different than other ministries.
    • Their biggest goal is to connect with child and build relationships (hands & feet of Christ).
    • Setup your minimum requirement of commitment (once a month, once a week, etc).
    • Training is most important but possibly most difficult obstacle.
      • i.e. Buddy-style: Train team together about each student, classroom teacher included, parents sometimes; hold training every time a new volunteer begins (at least 2 times). Then send them into the classroom. Get a lot of feedback.
  • Parents
    • They are the expert on teaching church about their kid.
    • Have them fill out a profile, which will tell you what type of a parent you have.
    • Keep them involved if they want, but protect that time for them. Allow them to worship instead of serve in special needs ministry.
  • Church staff
    • Keep others knowing what the ministry DOES and DOES NOT offer.
    • They need to know what and how to communicate to others in the church, including guests.
  • Different church ministries
    • Special needs ministry typically starts in children’s, and moves into students. It could eventually include parents, others, etc.
    • Constantly educate and let others know about the fruit of your ministry.
  • Overall reputation of the church and the ministry
    • It is not just children’s ministries that are responsible for providing ministry for these kids.
    • You will be known as a special-needs church. Be prepared for that.

Other important steps include assigning a primary person, who is responsibility for the ministry; determining who will serve as the family liaison or coordinator; distinguishing long-term and short-term goals; and determining/publicizing the environments and times of programming your church aims to offer and accommodate (i.e. only available one of the three classes). Parents need to be informed, and the church needs to be informed by the parents. Make sure they fill out forms, which will provide basic, contact, special needs, and emergency information.

Behavioral management is the biggest issue where churches have questions. Always put the child first and the disability second. We have to protect others and our ministry. Redirection is your number-one best tool. Their profile form helps to know what will redirect them. Prohibit physical constraint, unless it is an emergency. In that case, only those with documented training may step in. Parents also need to know right away if there is any issue. Document each and every incident, even if you do not think it is necessary. Katie’s church also has procedures about no bathroom for those over five-years-old, no medication, and no snacks. They realized there are too many issues surrounding those things. Also, anything shared about a student is to remain confidential.

In closing, Katie provided a few resource ideas in the books “Special Needs Special Ministry” and “Let All the Children Come to Me.” She also stated that her best volunteer recruiting tool has been video presentations.

UPDATE (1/6/14): Katie Garvert will again be leading special needs ministry workshops for the 2014 Orange Conference.  To learn more click here.

Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves 70 individuals affected by special needs, many with autism spectrum disorder.  Katie has helped Woodmen Valley Chapel establish special needs inclusion programming and parent support events for this multi-site church.  She is also responsible for overseeing the church’s deaf ministry.  Prior to joining the Woodmen Valley Team four year ago, Katie was a special education teacher in the public school system.

2 thoughts on “How to: Build a Successful & Safe Special Needs Ministry (Orange 2011)

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