There is an interesting story in the gospels that I love because I am highly invested in children. I am a former children’s minister, as well as the mother of five children, two of which have special needs. This passage shows us that Jesus was highly invested in children too.
Mark 10:13-16: “One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, ‘Let the children come to me. Do not stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.’ Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.”
In this passage parents are bringing their children to Jesus and the disciples are scolding them for doing so. We need to be reminded at this point that children were not regarded in the ancient culture of the Bible as they are today. Children did not have a high place in society. Additionally, Jesus was a rabbi and they were held in highest esteem. Perhaps the disciples were sending the children away out of respect for Jesus’ position, but Jesus’ response is beautiful. He was not letting the children leave! He WANTED the children to come to him and He quickly corrected the disciples and took the children into His arms and blessed them. I love that!
Working with special needs children is challenging. It can even be daunting. The logistics are different, the dynamics are different, and the needs can be quite different depending on the diagnosis of the child. But I believe this story in Mark 10 gives us some great insight into the heart of the matter.
- The Parents Are Crucial to the Children Being Blessed
We see these parents in the story willing to break the social norms to get their children to Jesus. They recognize who Jesus is and want him to see, touch and bless their children. Special needs parents are no different. As a minister to special needs children, you must see the significance of the role of the parent. We so often minister to children outside of the realm of their parents. Children go to children’s church or Sunday school separate from parents. The parents may ask the children what they learned, and they can hear for themselves, from the children, the stories, and lessons they were taught. Often, with special needs children, the children are unable to communicate or articulate those things to the parents.
The parents are often the voice, protector, sometimes hands and feet and always the advocate, for their special needs child. Paramount for any parent, but especially a parent whose child is non-verbal or medically fragile, etc., is safety. If you want to bless the special needs children in your care, then safety should be your number one goal. The parents of special needs children must know that their children are safe. (I will refrain at this point from telling the full story of my 3-year-old daughter with Autism escaping from the children’s ministry. I’m so thankful God was watching her, because the children’s ministry workers were not!)
The parents must be heard when they express concerns or ask questions. They must be assured that you are aware of their child’s need. Partner with the parents. If you cannot put the parents at ease, then you will not have the opportunity to minister to the child. Do not be surprised if a family with a special needs child visits for the first time and do not bring the child to the children’s program. They do not know you. Get to know them, so you can bless their child (and the parents in the process). The special needs child and his or her parents are a package deal. Even if you have special needs teachers, therapists, or other professionals helping in your special need’s ministry, remember that the parent is the expert on THEIR child. Welcome their input.
2. Expect Opposition
In our gospel story the disciples were not necessarily being unkind. They were just doing what they knew to do. What was typical for their time and experience. If you tackle the challenge of special needs ministry there will be people that will not support you. Fortunately, we live in a world where special needs children are not marginalized as they were in the past, but unfortunately, they still can be at times.
After almost 20 years of parenting special needs children and being in church ministry for 30+ years I can honestly say that most of the opposition to special needs ministry is not because church folks feel as though the children are less than. They feel very deep concern for them; however, they are afraid. They are worried they will not care for the children as needed. If the child is medically fragile, workers may feel that something could happen to the child in their care. They only know what they have experienced, and special needs is new to them, making them feel unsettled and unsure. If you are struggling to get volunteers, then this may be the main cause. The training you provide for your volunteers and staff is the chief preventative of opposition to special needs ministry or a lack of volunteers. The ministry staff and workers must feel confident.
3. Meet Them Where They Are
Jesus gave the children (and parents) what they needed. Jesus’s love for the children in the story trumped everything else. The disciple’s opposition was won over by Jesus’ devotion to the children. The parents were completely won over by Jesus’ kindness and care or they would not have brought the children to Jesus in the first place. Jesus saw their human need for comfort and attention, and he met it. Special needs ministry does not have to have lots of fancy bells and whistles. It just needs genuine Jesus people who show genuine Jesus care, kindness, and love. Keep it simple. Many of these children may not be able to handle the sensory input of loud music or the mobility to play games or the attention span to make it through a full lesson. That is ok. Meet them where they are. Keep them safe. Keep them comfortable. Keep in touch with the parents. Keep the classes for special needs small and the ratio of children to adults low. In this way you can see the children’s needs, touch their lives, and bless them as Jesus blessed the children in Mark 10.
Special needs ministry requires much prayer for direction, wisdom, and insight. It is not easy, but it is worth it. As a minister to special needs children you have the opportunity to provide hope to an often-overlooked people group (both the children and parents) who are desperate for a blessing from Jesus. Let the special needs children come and be that blessing.