5 Ways Churches Can Support Families with Special Needs
I’ve spent the majority of my adult life mentally assessing how friendly a church is to those with disabilities. In my early and mid 20’s, I had a career as a direct support professional and house manager for a group home for adults who had developmental disabilities. The majority of the housemates under my care were Christians of various flavors, and so we would make the rounds from church to church every weekend. And every weekend, I found myself either delighted or disgusted with what I witnessed.
Some church leaders and members went above and beyond to love and include my friends. Others were merely apathetic, finding their presence an inconvenient thing to tolerate out of “Christian” charity. But worst of all were the churches who actually turned these individuals away from congregational worship, either subtly or not-so-subtly.
Co-workers knew which local churches fell into the latter category, and many of us had spent time consoling housemates when the people who were supposed to be their brothers and sisters in Christ rejected them due to their disabilities.
I eventually quit my job when my own child, Katherine, was born. Once again, I had to consider what it meant for a church to truly love someone with disabilities, because Katherine was born with several of them. Thankfully, the two churches we’ve been a part of since our daughter’s birth have done a tremendous job loving and serving our special needs daughter and her family.
Here are five ways they have shown their love for us and our daughter.
1. They are consistently praying for us and with us. This seems like an obvious answer, but it’s often the forgotten one. Our family needs prayer daily, and we want our friends to pray with us. We need them to hear us be vulnerable in front of God. We need them to hear us confess our fears and offer praise for Katherine’s milestones and successes. To pray for us and with us is a great way to develop understanding.
2. They are willing to consider their own mistakes and ignorance. I’ve sometimes had to confront my Christian friends on their prejudices. It’s as awkward as you might expect, but it’s something that has to be done if you want your church to embrace diversity and inclusiveness. But there is a lot of resistance to this sometimes.
Once or twice, I’ve asked people not to use “the R-word” in front of my kid, only to be met with rolling eyes and rants about political correctness. It can be disheartening to ask for kindness from other Christians, and receive callousness instead.
However, there have been more encouraging moments than discouraging ones. There have been many times when I’ve spoken to friends in the church about ignorant words or behavior, and witnessed genuine humility. There’s incredible power in the phrase “I didn’t realize how hurtful that was, will you please forgive me?” When our church friends are willing to seek reconciliation and understanding, it sends a message to our family that we are their family. And that it’s worth abandoning their pride for our daughter’s dignity.
3. They are patient with our family. We are not perfect people either. One day, I’m pridefully annoyed with offers of help. The next day, I might be frustrated because I feel like I don’t have enough help. Our daughter’s emotions can change suddenly, and she sometimes becomes frustrated because she can’t communicate well.
My family’s emotions, decisions, finances and schedules are often erratic. The exhaustion, frustration and anxiety we deal with as special needs parents sometimes leads us to lash out. Our church family understands that sometimes, my husband and I are the ones who need forgiveness. And they readily give it. No questions asked.
4. They help us in the practical things, so we can focus on the areas that require more experience. While it’s undoubtedly kind to offer help, there are just some areas where you aren’t going to be able to assist. You probably can’t sit through a two-hour neurology consult for us. You probably don’t have the experience to weigh in on her medication regimen. But you can do a lot of other things to care for us if you want to share the load.
We’ve had several friends from church do our laundry for us when Katherine was overbooked with appointments. Other church members have made us meals when she’s had procedures done. Our church elders have tried to ensure that our church building is physically accessible and safe for those who have disabilities. Helping with the seemingly simple stuff can give us some breathing room and renewed energy for all the things we have to tackle alone.
5. They love our daughter for who she is. My daughter’s identity is not her disability. She is more than cerebral palsy or blindness. And yet, her disabilities certainly affect her experiences, and shape the way she views and interacts with the world and our church.
So how does a church family respond to such nuanced identity politics? Well, our church doesn’t identify her as “other” and pull away out of fear. Nor does our church merely tolerate the presence of her unique perspective. In our church, our daughter is valued as an image-bearer of God and recognized as a part of the family. They understand that her experiences and points of view are beneficial to the church body, and embrace her fully.
Any church who manages to grasp this aspect of caring for special needs families will not struggle as much with the rest of the details.
Follow this journey on Each Passing Phase.