About a week ago, I received an email from a reader seeking guidance as she and her husband needed to handle a delicate situation at their church. This couple has two children with special needs and is very involved in their church. With her permission, I am sharing her story.
Not Welcome At Small Group
They were participating in a small group and had taken the time to educate the adults in the group on their children’s diagnosis and needs, explained how to care for them, and made it clear to contact them during small group if they were needed. I’m assuming it was a small group where they took turns providing childcare for the group. Everyone had agreed to this and seemed comfortable with the plan so this family could be a part of the small group. Then, it happened.
“This past Sunday our pastor told my husband that everyone in small group has a problem with our children. That they cannot come to small group anymore”. I have to say when I read her email I was filled with several emotions. Heartbreak, anger, sympathy for the family, but, I wasn’t surprised.
Time and time again, I hear stories from readers just like this woman who wants to be involved with their church family, but because their children are different, they are not as welcomed by the congregation. “I wondered how the pastor could preach about the Leper that same day with passion and conviction that we are called to love those who are different the same way Jesus did and still does. We are not supposed to cast people aside. But that is exactly what was done to our children without any discussion.” Again, my heart sank. She’s right, there is no other community of people that are so easily cast aside or not accommodated for within the church as the special needs community.
Mommy, is it ok For Me to go to Church on Sunday?
Then came the most gut-wrenching sentence throughout the email. The response from her son: “My son asked me if it is still ok for him to go to church on Sunday.” When I read this sentence, I knew I needed to act by writing this post. No one seeking God should ever have to ask if they are welcome to come to church on a Sunday morning, especially not a four-year-old child. We are all God’s Children.
It is time that we as a community of special needs families make our needs and struggles known to the church and stop being brushed off to the sidelines like an inconvenience.
Knowing this particular event is probably not an isolated incident, I reached out to other followers and asked them to share some of the difficulties they face while attending church. Along with the difficulties, I asked for stories of what their churches are doing right to help give church leaders ideas to better accommodate the special needs community. The following is a list of responses:
Supportive, But Our Son Still Doesn’t Attend
“Our church does a wonderful job welcoming families through its children’s ministry. Some have taken training on how to serve kids with special needs in Sunday School. Periodically a Sunday is designated when parents and kids attend a class together led by an engaging teacher.
A Treasure Fest ministry supported by the Tim Tebow Foundation sponsors special celebrations. One family has been certified to provide foster respite care.
When our son had to be transported to the ER for behavioral assessment, an amazing lady met my wife at the ER and then came back home with us to make sure we were stable.
Despite this support, our son still does not attend church with us. It is too much sensory overload for him to handle. It may be that some kind of alternative church format would be helpful. We don’t attend a small group because we fear it would be stressful.”
Given Up Until Finding a New Church
“I had pretty much given up going to church because I couldn’t really focus or concentrate because my special need child was constantly talking. I was constantly having to quiet him and getting looks from those around us so going to church was a stressful experience. It all changed last summer.
We were invited to attend a special needs family summer camp named Joni and Friends. It was an amazing experience for everyone in our family, especially for our “typical” high schooler. At the camp, our family reconnected with God and after the camp, they helped us find a local church with a special needs ministry/program.
Now we attend church every Sunday and our special needs child goes to a classroom with people who love him and understand his differences. The church also has a special needs support group for parents that meets twice a month and they provide childcare for siblings and special needs kids.”
We Don’t Go – Or Wonder if it’s Worth the Stress
“Just yesterday I had to take my 27-year-old daughter with CP out of Sunday School because she was making noise. I have to do this often during worship services, as well. We get lots of stares. Sometimes I feel like it’s not worth the effort it takes to actually get there.”
“I don’t go to or take my son to church because he is always crying and wants to run about. He just doesn’t sit, he’s very hyper.”
“Sunday schools and youth groups tend to have the attitude that kids will be kids. Some (special needs) kids just aren’t equipped to deal with kids being kids. They don’t understand social cues. Instead, this scary place has no social translator and has become very much avoided. A stoic kid is a kid about ready to melt down because of an unsafe situation.
She now chooses to sit in adult church with her family or help in toddler class with her eldest sister. We’ve explained. We’re not heard.”
Great Church Experiences
“I have had nothing but positive experience in taking my special needs granddaughter to church with me. I sing with the choir and she is with me and tries!”
“Our church has a “Joy Club” set up for special need kids during our second service Sunday morning. It has just been going on for a few months.”
We Just Want Acceptance
At the end of the day, all we really need and want from our church families is to know that our family members with special needs will be embraced and loved like any other congregation member. We live much of our lives in isolation.
Often times, church is the one opportunity we have as parents of special needs children to be out in the community. The one day our lives are not dictated by appointments or treatments. We simply want to attend, know are children are happy and safe, feel supported, and given the opportunity to worship and be spiritually fed.