Building a Special Needs Ministry at Church
When Phil Heller became Lead Pastor at White River Christian Church (WRCC) in Noblesville, Indiana, in 2006, he introduced the staff and congregation to his then five-year-old son, Cade. Precocious and full of energy, Cade also brought with him the challenges of Down syndrome, a genetic condition affecting nearly 6,000 new babies every year in the United States.
At the same time the Hellers came on-board at White River, the church was already serving a few other families whose children had special needs. So when Cade joined the church, an organically grown special needs ministry had already begun taking root.
“I loved the level of servant heartedness I saw right away at White River,” recalled Heller. “And as more people became aware that we’re a church that supports individuals with special needs, more families started to come to us,” says Heller.
If You Build It, They Will Come
At first, White River simply created a self-contained classroom and adapted its Sunday school curriculum according to the needs of each person that showed up. This provided an opportunity to share the Gospel with students of varying abilities, and it gave the families of these kids time to worship without worrying about their children’s well-being. Over time, White River’s own congregation began to understand the ministry opportunity of serving children with special needs and their families, and the desire within the church to fill that need grew.
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From 2010 to 2011, White River devoted intentional effort to creating a special needs ministry—one that was shaped not out of pity for people with disabilities, but by the conviction that all people require a pathway to Jesus. “We were dedicated to reaching souls and nurturing people’s faith,” said Heller. “We didn’t want to create a ministry that was just babysitting.”
In 2012, White River’s leadership team committed to hiring someone with significant experience facilitating special needs programs. They found Brooke Garcia, a seasoned professional with extensive experience in adaptive programming, to serve as the church’s first special needs director.
Garcia instituted a buddy system, pairing up every special needs child or adult with a friend at church, someone who could keep them safe—often children with disabilities pose a “flight risk” in the classroom—and help them process Bible lessons according to their particular abilities and needs.
White River also created a monthly respite program, which allows 15-20 families to drop off their special needs children for a themed event, while the parents get several hours to do whatever they’d like. According to Garcia, the respite program serves as a good outreach tool in the community. “For families that are hesitant about coming to church, the monthly respite event gives them a way to check us out.”
Heller and Garcia created a foundation for a special needs ministry that would thrive long after their tenure at White River. Today, Paul Hathcoat oversees White River's special needs ministry as Special Needs Pastor. "Since joining the team in 2018, the focus has shifted to helping our special needs students find their Kingdom responsibilities; that is, like all of us, to find where they can serve others and serve the church," says Hathcoat.
"This goal is the fourth step in our church's faith development process, which includes establishing faith, building character, influencing others, and living missionally. Along with our ongoing monthly respite events, we have now also formed student small groups for different age groups."
Chapelstreet Church in Geneva, Illinois, has experienced steady growth with their respite events. Every five to six weeks they host Buddy Break, a free respite program where youth (ages birth–20 years old) with special needs, and their siblings can make new friends, play fun games, enjoy crafts, stories, music and activities. Meanwhile, their parents get a break from ongoing caregiving responsibilities for three hours.
Jaimie Valentini, leader of Masterpiece Ministry, Chapelstreet's special needs ministry, says attendance at Buddy Break has grown much faster than they anticipated. “There’s an unmet need in our community for families with disabled children, both for respite for the parents and special opportunities for the children,” says Valentini.
Like White River, Chapelstreet's special needs ministry has grown out of a belief that all children are loved and valued by Christ. Masterpiece Ministry is intended to help children with special needs and their families experience love and acceptance during worship, instruction, and fellowship.
Making Space for Special Needs
In 2015, Chapelstreet invested in new ministry space devoted specifically to Masterpiece Ministry, as part of an overall church building project. Their new space, designed by Aspen Group, features oversized bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, and adult-sized massage tables that double as changing tables. Because of their height, size and stability, parents can manage diapering needs of any size child. Chapelstreet also created a new check-in area, which features a Dutch door that directs kids through two doors, keeping them from running in or out. This space allows Sunday school leaders time and freedom to talk with families without their kids darting off unexpectedly.
Another feature Aspen incorporated into Chapelstreet's special needs ministry space is a "quiet room," a small space with two chairs and soft lighting that provides a calming, peaceful environment for children with light and sound sensitivities. All of these facility details and the expertise of Valentini and her volunteer team make it possible for Chapelstreet to provide ministry for children and youth with a wide array of needs and limitations, including autism spectrum disorders, speech delays, physical impairments, neurological disorders, developmental delays, behavioral problems, emotional issues, cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.
Special Services for Special Needs
To help integrate children and adults with special needs into the entire faith community, White River offers a unique worship service at Christmas and Easter called “Lights Up, Sound Down.”
White River also integrated special needs families into the Lord’s Supper. “One family told me that this was the first time they had taken communion together as a family,” Garcia said. “Another family told me their son could be himself without being shushed. It puts parents at ease to know they’re surrounded by people who understand them.”
By far, one of White River’s most well-attended community outreach events is their adaptive prom. Hosted on a Friday night, this free gala attracts about 150 adults each year. People will drive an hour-and-a-half to attend.
All of the dresses are donated. And the event includes flowers, a horse and carriage, and the crowning of a king and queen. One time, according to Garcia, a dad with a son in his mid-20s asked if his son could come to it. He was so excited because he had never been to a prom. "Older adults in their fifties and sixties have a similar experience,” Garcia said.
How to Get Started
As White River and Chapelstreet experiment with adaptive programs and services, each church continues to learn and refine their disability ministries. According to Hathcoat, churches looking to begin a special needs ministry should start with a passionate leader and keep it simple.
"Create one program that introduces families to the ministry, like respite nights or a new member class," he says. "Then create a way for special needs students to encounter God--through weekly worship services, for instance. Create a program that helps special needs students get connected to others, such as small groups, and then opportunities for this group to serve in the church and community. After that, finding volunteers who have a heart to see all individuals encounter Christ is key."
There’s no question, launching a special needs ministry at church is a high and holy calling. And the impact extends far beyond the individuals who are served. As congregations learn more about disabilities and the challenges they pose for both families and those who care for them, the church as a whole grows in empathy.
Here are seven tips White River and Chapelstreet have learned about integrating a special needs ministry into your church: "7 Tips for Launching a Special Needs Ministry at Church."