Developing Special-Needs Ministries at Church

Train volunteers and customize program to meet individual needs

Individuals with disabilities and their families face special challenges. Too often, they have difficulty finding places that understand those challenges, much less that are able to offer help.

Many churches across the country have come to the rescue, demonstrating compassion for such families by offering programs that accommodate their special needs. These ministries are becoming more common, filling a need for families that have traditionally been under-served.

Special-needs ministries can take on a variety of forms, including:

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

In 2010, Memorial Park Church in suburban Pittsburgh began offering a special-needs ministry called Friday Nite Kids. Once a month, the church hosts children with disabilities and their siblings for a few hours of arts, crafts, games, and other activities. Meanwhile, parents get a much-needed night off to recharge. Three years since its inception, attendance at Friday Nite Kids had grown from four children to 42—the vast majority of whom had no contact with the church before enrolling.

"Most parents I talk to say they found out about the program through word of mouth,” says Friday Nite Kids coordinator D’Etta Kriel. “Some kids like it so much, they ask their parents every Friday if it’s their night to go to church.”

Memorial Park Church also held a week-long summer Bible camp last summer for children with disabilities. The church has a longstanding special-needs program for adults, as well.

Planning a Special-needs Ministry

Starting a special-needs ministry takes careful planning and plenty of help. Consider these steps when getting started:

  1. Enlist dedicated, qualified program leaders. People with backgrounds in education can be especially helpful in setting guidelines and procedures, thanks to their experience in teaching and caring for children. They also can be instrumental in training volunteers. Just as importantly, program leaders should have a heart for ministry and a desire to make a positive impact on individuals with disabilities.
  2. Establish guiding policies. Allocate plenty of time to think about which policies and procedures will guide your program. Everything from registration forms to check-in procedures to chaperone-to-attendee ratios should be thoughtfully planned and written down. Also consider developing a Special Medical Needs Agreement for any children with special medical needs. Consult the ministry attorney when drafting these policies, and get approval from the ministry attorney for any policy changes.
  3. Screen all workers. As with any ministry program, people working on behalf of the church should be properly screened—whether they are volunteers or paid staff members. Application forms, personal interviews, reference checks, and background checks are all pieces of a thorough screening process.
  4. Train workers. Once your policies are approved, make sure paid staff members, volunteers, and participants understand and follow them. An initial training session is essential for workers and volunteers, and regular re-training can address any new issues that volunteers discover in the course of serving. It’s a good idea to include first aid and medical emergency response training, as well.
  5. Engage church leadership. When ministry leaders understand and support your program, it’s more likely to thrive. Pastors and church elders can be key recruiters in finding volunteers to staff your program, and it doesn’t hurt to request a time during Sunday services to tell the congregation about opportunities for them to help. The leadership team also may need to contact the ministry’s insurance agent to make sure that the program is properly covered.

Putting it into Practice

It’s critical to understand that no two people are affected by disabilities in exactly the same way. For example, some autistic children may love to participate in musical activities, while others find the noise overwhelming. With that in mind, accommodations should be tailored to each person. It may help to sit down with the parents of a child with disabilities and learn about the child’s strengths, challenges, interests, and aversions. Or, as is the practice at Friday Nite Kids, a registration form can include space for parents to include a diagnosis of the child’s special needs. This can help in planning appropriate activities that will include the child and help in his or her growth.

Issues to think about in special-needs ministries include:

  • Individual attention. Because the effects of disabilities are so wide-ranging, children with special needs may benefit from a “buddy” program. In it, a trained volunteer "buddy" gives a child one-on-one support during church activities. Ideally, a volunteer assists the same child regularly. This fosters understanding, social familiarity, and consistent care.

    At Friday Nite Kids, volunteers generally oversee the same child each month, and groups of children (and their volunteer chaperones) are supervised by a group leader. Kriel says she prefers to keep each group at approximately 12 children—at most—to ensure proper care and keep activities manageable. Before caring for a child, Friday Nite Kids volunteers are encouraged to read the child’s profile, which is provided by parents, in order to better understand the child’s individual strengths and challenges.
  • Structure and routine. It may be a good idea to introduce special-needs children to new surroundings or schedules on a gradual basis. Children joining the youth ministry might benefit from sitting in their new classroom by themselves at first. This way, they can get acclimated to their surroundings before their classmates arrive. It also helps to clearly lay out the day’s schedule in advance, so children know what to expect.
  • Positive reinforcement. Like most children, kids with special needs crave positive reinforcement. Encouragement and congratulations promote good habits and motivate children to build on successes.

Covering Your Bases

Consult with your ministry attorney and insurance agent before starting any formal special-needs ministry programs. 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.

Churches should be places where everyone feels welcome, regardless of disability. By forming a special-needs ministry, your church can become more welcoming to more people—expanding your outreach and improving more lives.