1) Don’t try to do too much at once. When Grace Church’s children’s pastor asked me to take the reins of the special needs ministry I was ready to go at full speed. Immediately, I wanted to grow the number of ministry participants beyond the three existing families. And so, of course, I wanted to increase the number of buddies and volunteers to match that growth. I also wanted to launch a quarterly respite, begin monthly parent support meetings, and start a ministry for adults with disabilities.
This was a lot to do all at once. I quickly discovered that it was difficult to start getting information out about the ministry in the community at the same time I was trying to recruit volunteers. It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to saddle my enthusiasm enough to pace myself and pace the growth of the ministry.
2) Focus first on building the ministry team. After taking a step back, I decided to make volunteer recruitment and training my first priority. By getting the team in place, we could be prepared for what God was going to do next. Grace Church Senior Pastor Tim Howey blessed us tremendously by allowing me to share the vision of the ministry on a Sunday morning to the whole church. More than 75 new volunteers joined our team as a result of that first vision-casting, giving us the manpower to launch the ministry.
3) Delegate and develop other leaders. Early on, I tried to lead, coordinate, and do everything myself. The ministry was really beginning to flourish. And I quickly became overscheduled and overstretched. In order to grow and sustain the ministry, I needed to develop other leaders. It was a good thing when I redefined my role to be a leader of leaders. That shift enabled other people to get passionate about the vision and share ownership in the ministry. And by having other capable and competent people serving in leadership roles, I was freed to expand the ministry into other areas. Giving others responsibilities also increased my availability to develop relationships with the families. Never underestimate the importance of getting to know the parents, participants, and siblings who are interfacing with your ministry.
4) Network with other churches already doing special needs ministry.Thanks to the help of another church, we started our respite with several best practices already in place. Where I made a mistake was in not being more diligent in pursuing additional conversations with other, more experienced special needs ministry leaders. I now know that just because one church or one ministry leader is less eager to help doesn’t mean the next connection will be the same. Of course there are exceptions, but most church leaders know that you aren’t trying to “steal” their attending families or “compete” in any sense. A competent and self-secure ministry leader recognizes there are far more families in need of a church home than there are churches prepared to welcome them. Churches and families with special needs are both better off if we all succeed.
5) Keep in mind that every special needs ministry is different. What works for one church may not work for another faith community. You must know your church culture and then develop your special needs ministry around it. The church’s stated mission, the pastor’s goals, the surrounding area’s demographics, and the volunteers’ skillset will all shape a special needs ministry.
Perhaps the most important part of starting a special needs ministry is remembering to pray daily for the families and volunteers. And be sure to enjoy the ride as God will bless your ministry!
Dr. Stephen “Doc” Hunsley is the Special Needs and People Care Pastor for Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas. Doc started Grace Church’s special needs ministry in 2011, helping it to become a hallmark ministry for the church. The SOAR (Special Opportunities, Abilities, and Relationships) special needs ministry serves over 170 individuals with special needs through weekend church programming, family support groups, and regular respite events. SOAR also has adult programming on the weekend and plans for a special needs day camp and VBS this coming summer. Doc leads the Kansas City Special Needs Ministries Network, for area church leaders. Prior to serving as a special needs pastor, Doc was a children’s pastor. Doc is a retired pediatrician while his wife, Kay, continues practicing pediatrics. They are proud parents to three beautiful children: Luke, Mark and Sarah. The Hunsley’s middle child, Mark, is presently running the halls of heaven. During Mark’s five-year earthly stay, he gave his family the opportunity to learn from and love a child with autism. You can follow SOAR on Facebook or Connect with Doc on Twitter: @DocHunsley