The Blessing of Serving Children with Special Needs

Article May 17, 2024

Thinking about starting a special needs ministry in your church? Check out this inspiring testimony from a Children’s Ministry Leader who shares the blessing their church experienced when they began serving children with special needs.

As the children’s pastor taught from John 5 about the pool of Bethesda and the man who had been an invalid for 38 years, I looked around the room and my eyes filled with tears. I thought about this man who had no one to help him to the pool for all of those years. But that wasn’t why I was crying. I was tearing up because this was our first Sunday in which kids were “Super Friends” to our children with special needs.

Super Friends is a new part of our special needs ministry. Children were invited to sign up to be a Super Friend and subsequently attended a training with their parents led by our special needs director. As a Super Friend, the children were assigned to a same-aged peer to come alongside of and befriend. Other roles of a Super Friend include assisting a peer during large group time, prompting the friend during small group activities, showing friends the motions for the music and walking friends to the sensory room when needed. This new aspect of our special needs ministry aligns with our belief in helping all kids feel like they belong.

The statistics regarding the church and the special needs community are staggering. Twenty percent of the population identifies with having a disability. Less than one percent attend church due to a lack of programming that supports those with special needs, as well as not feeling welcomed. In fact, those with a family member who has special needs are the largest unchurched people group in America. Jesus commands us to, Go and make disciples. That command doesn’t have parameters; child discipleship is for all children, including those with special needs.

Our special needs ministry started with a vision to simply offer a place for a child to go and reset. We created a sensory room for that purpose. That room was used often, but we began to realize that just offering a calming room wasn’t enough (although if you are just starting a special needs ministry, this is a great place to begin), so we prayed.

God, the ultimate provider whose timing is always perfect, presented us with a woman who is a licensed and board-certified behavioral analyst and has served people with disabilities for 30 years. Her job had recently changed, so she had more time to give. The leadership of our church supported our vision for a special needs ministry and hired her as our special needs director. As she started in her new role, we began to pray for God to raise volunteers. Once again, God provided. We had volunteers with varying backgrounds who filled roles such as parent liaison, training and inclusion coordinator, volunteer coordinator and curriculum adapter. I say all this to show you God’s provision. But you don’t need extensive qualifications to start a special needs ministry; you just need to be willing to show the love of Jesus to these children.

Our special needs ministry is now more than a sensory room. We provide monthly volunteer training on disability awareness, curriculum and instructional strategy, and behavioral support. We adapt our curriculum to more appropriately serve our children with special needs. Mentors (known as one-on-ones in some settings) have been an enormous blessing. These mentors accompany the children who cannot remain alongside their peers without additional support. Sometimes, they help the child complete activities, or they assist with behavior. Sometimes, they take that child to the sensory room for a reset or use a visual schedule so the child becomes familiar and comfortable with the routine.

We have also created Individualized Spiritual Plans for a child with special needs, after talking with parents and learning how we can best support their child’s needs. We have the plans printed on cards, which are then laminated, placed on binder rings and hung in our sensory room so volunteers can quickly read and learn about the child they will be helping. As our special needs ministry continues to grow, we learn and adapt as we go. We do all this because we want all children to know they belong, and we teach them on their level about our belief in Jesus as we pray they become lifelong followers of Christ.

Reaching children with special needs is a vital component often missing in children’s ministry. As I looked around the room that day and saw a child in a wheelchair with a terminal diagnosis, a child whose family was told they weren’t allowed at their previous church because of her disability, a child wearing headphones because of his sensory sensitivities, a Super Friend handing a child a fidget toy to play with during the lesson, and a child with braces on her legs being helped to sit back down, I was overwhelmed at the thought of the invalid who didn’t have anyone to lead him to the water to be healed. Jesus came to him. This often overlooked group shouldn’t be left to sit by the pool to wait but should be invited into church, where all are welcome to hear the life-changing message of Jesus.