Including Teens and Adults with Special Needs

by Amy Fenton Lee

We’ve all seen the climbing statistics of children being diagnosed with autism. And we know that those kids turn into teens, who should also experience inclusion inside the church. But the social and spiritual needs of older students are often different than young children. At last week’s Orange Conference, Katie Garvert shared how the special needs ministry and the youth ministry at her church partner to offer a “Sticky Faith” approach to teen inclusion. Below are key takeaways from Katie’s OC14 workshop:

Self-Advocacy: “If we don’t give students the opportunity to advocate for themselves and to have some control in their church experience, they are less likely to feel safe and trust us.” The church will have greater impact in the life of the student if we help them feel in control of their church experience. Parents and student may not always agree on what they picture for the teen’s church experience. Parents are asked to take back seat sometimes to student’s expressed desires.

Resistance: “If a student is resistant to some aspect of your ministry or means for connection, don’t fight it. Instead, search for another solution.” Shared Story: Student with special needs was overwhelmed by Sunday morning environment.  Didn’t want to come to church at all. The ministry team quit pushing for Sunday participation and suggested just trying Wednesday night programming, which is much smaller. The student loved the Wednesday setting and developed friends. After experiencing success, the student increased church participation and is now a regular on Sundays.

Service: Look for a way for a student to serve and play a role inside the ministry. Teens may be involved in the student ministry through their service. A student can help on the tech team and in big or small ways. Shared Story: One student with disability is responsible for pushing the button on the fog machine at designated times during large group. This student loves their role.

Personalize: “Invest in getting to know your students well so that you can get ideas for different solutions.” Solutions are crafted by knowing an individual’s preferences and abilities.

Chief Problem Solver: “The special needs ministry leader’s job is to coach and encourage everyone involved.” The student or family may not always be aware of the behind-the-scenes conversations the special needs ministry leader is initiating to support the student, their associated small group leaders, and the youth pastor. A good special needs ministry leader provides a safe place for a student ministry leader to go to ask questions and work through concerns. Shared Story:  Student with disability wanted to have a one-on-one conversation with youth ministry leader. When requested meeting was getting put off, the special needs ministry leader recognized possible fear and concerns for the leader. The special needs leader approached the youth worker (without judgment) to provide gentle coaching. The student ministry leader needed confidence and encouragement to schedule the meeting with the student.

Build a tribe: The special needs ministry leader works to build a tribe for the student with special needs. Woodmen Valley Chapel uses the Sticky Faith 5 to 1 approach for helping any student grow spiritually, including those with special needs.

Adults – Influencer Meeting: Once students reach age 21 or older, the church creates the opportunity for the individual to call their selected influencers into a meeting.  In this meeting the Access Ministries Adult shares their dreams and invites input for next steps from the team. The attending influencers help the student build their plan, starting with one year goals, and often take ownership for helping the individual accomplish the small steps on their path. Shared Story: Influencer in attendance may agree to provide transportation to event(s) the student needs to attend in order to achieve a goal.

Adults – Service: Adults with intellectual disability love to serve others. WVA creates regular service opportunities for their Access Ministries participants. Shared Story: Adults create “Prayer-Grams” from the church prayer list. Members of the church are receive prayer-grams after someone from Access Ministries has prayed for them. This is very meaningful to people who have requested prayer.  When church members receive a prayer gram letting them know that they were prayed for, they see the individual and the Access Ministries in a different light. The people praying are valuable contributors, doing the work of the Body of Christ. (A side benefit of the Prayer Grams has been the visibility it provides WVC’s Access Ministries.)  Ministry participants also love participating in regular service projects. Operation Christmas Child’s Shoe Box Drive is a ministry favorite.

Prayer Time Tip: Look for ways to involve students and adults during small group and Bible study. Shared Story: One student wants to lead in prayer time. He can’t write so another student writes the requests on the board. But the individual still stands at the front of the room and points to students, indicating when it is their turn to share prayer requests.

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Orange Leaders
The Orange Group is a gathering of leaders who are passionate about engaging churches and families to influence the faith and character of the next generation. Contributors include some of the most widely respected thought-leaders in children’s ministry, including Reggie Joiner, Sue Miller, Kendra Fleming, Jim Wideman, and Bre Hallberg. New blog entries, podcasts, webcasts, and video downloads are available every week to help you keep leading yourself and growing with your team.

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