My sweet friend, Whitney Hardy, joins the conversation today. I am so proud of her for following where God called to meet an important need in her church. I’ll just let her tell you her story…
Last year, I embarked on an adventure that I never saw coming. I, along with a good friend, started a ministry. Now this was way out of my wheelhouse- God calls unexpected people to accomplish His will sometimes! I am a mom, a foster parent, and a good, southern, church going girl. But ministry leader? Um, maybe not.
However, when you are called, sometimes you can’t help but go. So began my journey from apprehensive and reluctant “helper” to co-leader of a church ministry.
It started so simply, so sneakily. I was walking to the sanctuary from checking on my youngest daughter in the nursery (helicopter mom to the rescue!) with my friend and we walked past another mom with her precious little boy. He had on noise-cancelling headphones and a harness with a leash and he was on the verge of a meltdown. He has autism, and his mom spent a lot of time walking the halls with him because there was nowhere else for them to go. My friend innocently said to me after we passed, “That is exactly why we need a special needs ministry.” I was intrigued because I had almost no awareness that a special needs ministry was even a thing that churches had. I told her, “And you’re the perfect person to start one!” This is true- she’s a pediatric occupational therapist and she works with special needs kids every day at work. Her husband is even a special education teacher. Obviously she was the perfect candidate. Obviously. And yet, she was as willing to volunteer as I was. Neither of us is a person you’d pick out of a lineup as a natural born leader. Or public speaker. Or ministry starter.
Some time passed after that Sunday, and the idea kept nagging at me. I randomly sent her a text message about it and she, in essence, said, “I’m in if you’re in.” So, for some unknown reason, my unqualified self agreed to help start and lead a ministry. To this day, when someone has to make announcements or lead anything, we have to coin toss over who will have to do it. WE ARE NOT LEADERSHIP MATERIAL, PEOPLE. But God calls who He calls.
We started by just planning and dreaming and shaping our vision. We talked about it, read about it, prayed about it, and pinned every single pin on Pinterest about it. Eventually, we decided we needed to talk to the Shepherds of our church about it to see if they would even go for it before we got in too deep. We set up a meeting with two men who are part of the leadership at our church that deals with the children’s ministry. We went in expecting to pitch our idea, be heard, and then have them get back to us after it had all gone through the proper channels (weeks, months, never?). What we got was these leaders saying, “This sounds in line with the vision and mission of our church, – our motto, after all, is ‘Helping People See Jesus’ – and the need is already here. Let’s pray about it and get started.”
Well, that was way more than we bargained for! What now?!
We decided to prepare ourselves. We went to conferences, we read ALL the books, and we visited other churches who had functioning special needs ministries. When we visited a local church that has a HUGE special needs ministry, we got the courage to finally take the plunge and BEGIN. The minister there told us that we were ready, and it was time to let go of our fear and jump. No more doubting, just trusting and doing. So we did.
That very day we asked the leadership for a room. A room that was near the Children’s Ministry (not off in a corner, not hidden- a room in the midst of the children’s classrooms) that we could use as a classroom, a worship area, a decompression room, and a safe, familiar place for these kids to unwind after a very overstimulating Bible class time. While our dream is for these kids to stay in classrooms with their typically developing peers, we know that sometimes they need a quiet and calm space to get away and reset. Real estate is in high demand at our church- we are not very far from outgrowing our facility- even so, our request was again granted on the spot.
We have intertwined our church mission with starting a special needs ministry. That mission is to make our church a special needs church. This means that not only do we have a space for special needs kids to learn, but we are also building a church culture of acceptance and welcome for these kids. We lead a panel during the Bible class hour of people who are advocates for people with special needs- nurses, advocates for vulnerable children, mothers of children with special needs, siblings of special needs kids. This panel addressed the things they have experienced at churches relating to their loved ones with special needs (good and bad), opportunities to involve yourself in the special needs community and serve them, how to talk with your children about people with special needs and myriad other topics that help to raise awareness and tolerance and acceptance within the church.
We are a fledgling operation, and we by no means have it all figured out, but we heard the call and we responded. Everything that has fallen into place since then is totally God moving through His Church. We have been blessed by this ministry and by the people that it serves. I personally can’t wait to see what God has in store for us!
It is easy for those of us without training in this specific area to feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to meet these families’ needs. Please share in the comments below how you intentionally include those with Special Needs in your ministry.