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Welcoming and Accommodating Special Needs in Church

We often talk about how not everyone is called to foster or adopt, but we are all called to participate in some way in caring for vulnerable children. As a church body, one of the best ways we can do that is by ensuring that our children’s ministry is equipped to welcome children with special needs.

The task may seem daunting.

Volunteers may already seem scarce.

But our God delights to see our faith worked out in justice and mercy to those around us.

He blesses those who are doers of the word (James 1).

Jesus set such a beautiful example of meeting us where we are to bring us to Himself.

Children in foster care or who have been in orphanages often come from traumatic backgrounds. Their time spent before or in care can mean developmental delays, attachment disorders, or neglect of health conditions. Even outside the realm of child welfare, we all encounter children with an array of special needs. They are ALL fearfully and wonderfully made, formed by our Creator who has put them in our midst.

So how do we begin to welcome children with various special needs into our children’s ministries? We asked several local churches for their input, hoping that by compiling their various approaches, we can empower you to build your children’s ministries to better care for children with special needs.

We want all children to thrive in our communities; give them opportunities to engage; form lasting relationships; and see the love of our Savior in action.

How do we begin to formulate special needs resources?

The best way to begin is to see who is already in your midst. Do you have families already attending your church who have children with special needs? Begin by observing and drawing near to that family. Ask them what may be supportive in helping them to care for their child while at church. Parents are their child’s first advocate. By stepping in and moving toward them, you offer yourself and your church to help in their defense.

Seek out church members who may have a background or training in caring for those with disabilities. Do you have teachers, therapists, or case workers who are already familiar with caring for children with special needs? They are great resources who are likely eager to help if asked.

How can we form a plan for each individual need?

Every child is unique and presents with different needs to help them thrive. Depending upon the age of the child and his or her communication level, the following may be helpful preparation:

  • With permission, take photos of the child during classroom activities. This would include story time, singing, craft time, and any other element of the Sunday school schedule. Send home a booklet of the photos with the parent to review with the child. This helps give visual cues and reminders to the child of the process and routine.

  • Consider any physical accommodations that may need to be made. Does the child need wheelchair assistance, a special chair, noise reduction, etc?

  • Accentuate the strengths and interests of the child by providing relevant activities for them and the entire group, helping to build their acceptance and incorporation with other children.

  • Create a survey for families that includes questions regarding the child’s strengths/weaknesses, likes/dislikes, allergies, calming techniques, triggers, and emergency contact information.

  • Consider creating a team of “buddies” for children who may need more one-on-one support. These buddies stay with the child to offer individualized attention, alleviating pressure on the classroom teacher. Such volunteers really get a chance to know the children, such as what helps them pay attention and participate in activities.

  • Create spaces for children to either seek out sensory stimulation or take a break from sensory overload. Some children may need some sensory tools that are less distracting for classmates during structured activities, while others may need to step away from the noise and activity for a moment altogether.

What does it look like to create a ministry team?

Begin with the needs currently presented to your church, then add a contingency plan should your needs grow.

The ministry team may be as simple as training and equipping your present volunteers to know how to handle various common special needs, in addition to implementing the parent survey mentioned above.

Or, start by recruiting a handful of volunteers to be one-to-one helpers for children, training them to help the child engage in Sunday school.

Can we go one step further?

The above are GREAT ways to help children while they are participating in your church gatherings, but families may need help outside of regular church meetings. One church has a monthly respite night, so that parents can go out for an evening, knowing that trained volunteers are caring for their children.

Another church has created a separate “sensory” room, stocked with gross motor activities like swings and mini trampolines where children can pull away from the larger groups to reset.

Yet another church offers a once monthly small service specifically for children and adults with more pronounced special needs.

Start small. Begin where God has placed people in your path.

Thank you to the following churches for their examples in welcoming children with special needs into their children’s ministries mentioned in this blog: Ogletown Baptist Church, Redeemer Fellowship, and Willowdale Chapel. Representatives from each church contributed to help create a picture of what could happen in various church settings.

For more help and resources on equipping your church to serve children with special needs and their families, we recommend Joni&Friends, a ministry dedicated to helping churches welcome and embrace people with disabilities.

Note: This blog is part of a series we are running through the summer. Our posts hope to cover helping vulnerable children within the spheres that we operate. We aim to help you navigate sensitive situations with wisdom and discernment.

Please see our past and upcoming posts in this series:

Recognizing and reporting abuse as we reengage with group settings.

How to interact with a child who has a history of trauma. (upcoming)

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