Thanks to Heather Brower for writing this post. Heather is a parent of two autistic teenagers and knows firsthand how life-changing a little extra support at church can be for a family. She now leads inclusion and support strategies for NextGen ministries at Life.Church which includes LifeKids Buddies and Switch Support.
In this article:
- Why do churches need to think about support strategies for kids and teens?
- What are the top-three myths that hold churches back from having extra support for their kids and teens?
- How can our church get started with offering extra support to the kids and teens who need it right away?
- Training resources for providing extra support to children.
- Training resources for providing extra support to teens.
Why do churches need to think about support strategies for kids and teens?
“We will not serve in a room with that child ever again.”
These are actual words spoken by a children’s ministry volunteer to their pastor. Have you ever heard something similar in your church?
Overwhelmed NextGen volunteers are not as rare as you may think.
To help equip them to thrive, we need to give them a better understanding of how to support every child or teen who comes to our churches.
While it’s not common, some churches will simply ask a family to leave if their child is deemed too difficult.
Once a family is asked to leave a church, they seldom venture out to find a new one.
They might never enter a church again!
This not only leads to a devastating sense of loss and disenfranchisement for a family who desperately needs support, but it also leads to feelings of failure for the pastor who wasn’t able to find a place for a family who wanted to belong.
So why don’t more churches have extra support strategies for families of kids with disabilities? Over the years, I’ve seen three common misconceptions keep churches from fully serving those in their ministry who need support. I know, because I’ve heard these stories firsthand, and it could have easily been mine.
The top three myths that hold churches back from having extra support for their kids and teens
Ministry Myth 1: We need an expert to run the program.
When my son was in his early childhood years, he was a handful.
He would run out of the room any chance he got. He threw toys constantly. He couldn’t tolerate other children in his space. He didn’t have any verbal abilities yet. He routinely made the adult leaders in the room cry because they had no idea why they just couldn’t break through to this strong-minded little toddler.
But they couldn’t ask us to leave because my husband was the senior pastor!
Do you know what helped him get comfortable at church? A child psychologist? A developmental pediatrician? A special educator? Not even close.
A 13-year-old volunteered to offer him one-on-one support. She played LEGOs with him when he wasn’t able to join group activities. She had the energy and patience needed to keep my son safe, calm, and happy.
It was right around this time that we discovered that my son is autistic. That helped us understand the discomforts he was living with and find all sorts of new ways to support him.
Years later, he shared in his own words that our children’s ministry went from being what he viewed as “a prison for kids” to a place he enjoys so much that he actually serves there himself now!
You have volunteer leaders like that 13-year-old who are energetic and patient, too. They don’t need an advanced degree from a fancy university to be a friendly support. Tell them the qualities you see in them! Ask if they’d be willing to serve any kids who may need extra support at your church. Watch how the Holy Spirit moves.
Remember: You’re not expected to provide therapeutic intervention. You’re a church. You’re providing a loving environment so every child and family can take their place in the body of Christ.
Ministry Myth 2: We don’t have any kids who need extra support at our church.
Whenever I hear someone say this, I want to ask, “Have you double-checked with your ministry volunteers?”
Those volunteers may be quite ready to share with you about how frustrated they are by a particular child—or even a few children—in their rooms each week.
What’s worse, is that they may not tell you at all. They may simply step down from serving because they didn’t realize how difficult it would be.
It’s been widely reported in the United States, where I live, that one in six people will be diagnosed with a developmental disability by the time they’re 18 years old.
So, if you have more than six children in your ministry, it’s quite possible you’re already doing ministry with children who have clinically significant reasons they need extra support.
Some of the behaviors your leaders may find puzzling or exhausting are simply a child’s only way of communicating their needs in the moment.
A supportive ministry mindset can take your volunteers from thinking, “What’s this kid’s problem?!” to a more compassionate, “How can I help this kid?”
Even if it were true that you have no children or teens in your church who need additional support—you can’t …
- Know who will attend your church for the first time any given weekend.
- Know which of your regular attenders may face a devastating life situation that causes their child to become thrown off their developmental track for a while.
- Know which family may choose to foster a child whose trauma will almost certainly cause them to need additional support from their church family.
For these reasons, I’d heavily recommend you have a support plan in place.
Ministry Myth 3: We have to start a building campaign first.
It’s common to think you need a specialized room or sensory area to support certain children. You simply do not.
In fact, I strongly recommend you don’t start with a brick-and-mortar solution. Why? Because the first thing you need is to train your volunteers to support the children and teens in your ministry right now. Cross-train everyone! Identify the stand-outs who could train even more leaders for you.
Build up the people you have first. Then, if you feel called to build an actual wing of your church to support the needs of your disabled kids and teens, by all means do it!
A special room or wing may be a great value to your community in the future. But developing creative, patient, well-trained leaders who can support the needs of the current kids and teens in your church is your first step.
How can our church start offering extra support to the kids and teens who need it right away?
Start with what you have.
My pastor, Craig Groeschel, loves to remind us of this truth: “You have everything you need to do everything God’s calling you to do.”
Listen, God supplies all our needs according to His riches, right? And He is rich in love. He wants all His kids. And He will help you serve the sheep He brings to your flock. Full stop.
And now, as promised, here are three things to help you support all the kids and teens at your church—starting this very weekend!
- Gather some sensory support items and share this training with all your leaders.
Do you know what drives a host of behaviors that seem unusually difficult to support? Sensory discomfort and dysregulation.
Check out this article on sensory support today, and share it with every volunteer who serves in your NextGen ministry.
You’ll find a list of the types of sensory support items you can usually find at your local big-box store or order online.
Having trouble locating supplies in your area? Do a quick search like “homemade sensory toys” for a world of inspiration. Then, get a volunteer party to craft some together!
- Identify one person at every church experience who can be your on-call support person.
Start with one person. Pray for a moment, and ask God to bring to your mind someone who is reliable, patient, and flexible.
Contact them and tell them the qualities you see in them. Let them know you’d like them to use those gifts to provide extra support to any child or teen who needs it during your services.
If you already know a child or teen who could use some one-on-one support, perhaps this person could be the one to provide that support.
If you don’t have an existing need that you know of for one-on-one support, ask this person to start cross-training to be on-call for any child or teen who needs it at any moment.
Heads up: You should also train all your ministry volunteers! As you do, stand-outs will emerge.
When everyone understands the needs some of your kids and teens live with, your entire ministry will be strengthened.
- Speak with the parents or caregivers of any child or teen who you already know probably needs extra support.
If you have a few kiddos or teens who consistently need extra support, contact their parents or caregivers. They may have insight on supports that work well for them at daycare, school, or home that could be implemented at church.
Show them your heart to serve and make sure their child is having the best experience they can in your ministry. Show them how much you care for them and their family.
Maybe having a bag of LEGOs on hand would be incredibly delightful for their kiddo. Maybe their child calms down best when they can sit in a corner and use their tablet for a bit. Wouldn’t those tips be great to pass along to your leaders?
Even if the parent doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what would support their child in a church environment, they’ll know you care. They’ll know they’re wanted. They’ll know they’re viewed as a valuable member of your church community. And, my goodness, isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Check out this article before you reach out to a parent so you can lead with encouragement.
Then, check out this training to understand how to partner with parents well in situations like this!
Lastly, share any tips and tricks you learn from the family with the leaders who support their child.
Pastor, you’re doing a good work. Families like mine are so grateful for churches that embrace all the families in their community with an unflinching love.
Training resources for providing extra support to children:
Strategies for recruiting, training, and developing a support system for the children’s ministry at your church
Online training and enrichment to share with your children’s ministry volunteers
Training resources for providing extra support to teens:
Strategies for recruiting, training, and developing a support system for the teens/youth coministry at your church
Online training and enrichment to share with your teens/youth ministry volunteers
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