Josie called me ten years ago, literally, about five minutes after I started my new job as the Director of Children’s Ministry in a large congregation. She was a freshly minted college graduate with a degree in special education and wanted to spearhead an inclusion ministry for kids with special needs at the church. I welcomed her expertise, leadership, and energy. Because of that one phone call and the intentional inclusive ministry that emerged over 8 years, I have these stories to share with you. Each story is about a child with special needs and their call to ministry, or an adult called by God to amplify the childrens’ voices. (I have changed all names to protect identities.)
Claire – Teacher
Claire was 12 years old, and already an expert teacher. She asked to lead her 6th grade Sunday school class so she could share her life story. Claire told the kids about her medical challenges, her fifteen surgeries with more on the horizon, and showed them the hands surgeons had made for her. Then – she challenged the group to a game of Jenga where everyone had to wear an oven mitt so they could start to understand what it was like to have hands like hers. The kids were full of questions for Claire after the game. How could she do this all the time? How did she eat? How did she write? Claire responded to every question with kindness and grace – and invited the kids to see her as a friend, and not only as someone with multiple medical challenges. It was a transformative Sunday morning for Claire, the group, and me – because Claire shared her authentic humanity and gifts.
Lucas – Bringer of Joy
Lucas LOVES music. And dancing. And moving. And his younger brothers. And sometimes, hugging. So – every Sunday morning Lucas sat in the front and danced during the Sunday school opening and then ran to the sanctuary to dance along with the music in worship. During the sermon he walked and sought out more music – or his brothers. Lucas is non-verbal. He uses sign language, smiles, and hugs to communicate with us. Everyone knows Lucas and welcomes his ever-positive presence. He fills the room with love and joy and is a tremendous gift to everyone he meets.
Lily and Taylor – VBS Leaders, and Lois – Lover of All
When it was time to invite people to lead VBS, one of my first calls was to Lois. Lois is a retired first grade teacher who continues to work with kids of all ages – and in particular – kids with special needs. Lois knows how important all people are in the kingdom of God – and lives her life providing safe spaces for everyone to participate fully. Lily and Taylor are teenage girls with special needs who love working at VBS. Lily loves leading the dancing during VBS opening worship, reading Bible stories to kids during preschool music time, and providing the muscle for packing food donations for the local food shelf. Taylor loves helping out wherever she is needed – especially in the snack and art rooms. Taylor’s ready smile, words of encouragement, big hugs, and can-do attitude help the little ones feel comfortable and welcome. Lois sets Taylor and Lily up for success by providing encouragement and direction when needed, allowing the girls to work independently, and celebrating their daily successes. Taylor and Lily know they are valued by the VBS community because they tell their families they are “going to work” each day of VBS week. Both of these young women have significant gifts to share with young children and the broader community and Lois makes sure they can – every single summer.
Danny – Comforter
Danny came racing to Sunday school each week, ready for anything. He was a great pantomimer for impromptu Bible story skits, sang all the songs with energy, always had a question or comment about whatever was going on, and was an exceptional escape artist. He is also one of the most compassionate kids I have encountered. One Sunday, there was an inconsolable 3 year-old boy in Sunday school. I was walking around with this little one when Danny (who had escaped his Sunday school group) came bouncing down the hallway. He stopped, looked the crying child in the eye and gently stroked his arm telling him everything would be okay. The little boy stopped crying, and Danny stayed with us until the little boy was reunited with his parents.
Angie – Advocate
Each year I worked with my leadership team to evaluate children’s ministry programs and looked for ways to make them better. Angie, a mom of three, and advocate for neurodivergent kids, wondered if there might be a better way to structure the Sunday morning experience for all kids to help them feel fully welcome at church in their own bodies. Because of her experience with neurodiversity, we began offering activity choices each week so kids could participate in ways appropriate for the particular day and how they were feeling. Kids who needed to run around could play games in the gym, kids who needed quiet could do an art project, and kids wanting to talk could do a service or drama or science activity together. Angie’s advocacy for all kids and their ability to be fully themselves at church was key to providing an atmosphere and experience appropriate for all neurodivergent and neurotypical kids.
I’m quite certain God was present and working through that first phone call with Josie. It changed everything for me and the people I worked with. New life was ushered in, and all people were welcome to bring themselves – their full child-of-God humanity. It is our responsibility as church leaders to figure out how to steward everyone’s gifts in our contexts. Are people invited to bring their full humanity to church? If not – how might you adjust your spaces or programs? Who can help you figure out what to change and how to change it? For inspiration, read “Amplifying Our Witness,” by Benjamin Conner – a book encouraging congregations to adopt a new, practice-centered approach to ministry that includes and amplifies the witness of adolescents with developmental disabilities. If movies are more your jam, watch “Certain Proof,” a documentary about three kids with cerebral palsy who, along with their fierce mamas, struggle to prove their worth in public school systems.
As church leaders, we are called to carefully steward the gifts and talents of all people in our congregations – because all people carry Christ’s light inside of them.
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