Making church work for families with special needs

Finding a place of worship to call home can be a challenging process. Even within one specific religion, faith communities vary widely by belief, style, size, and available resources. When a family includes a child with special needs, the process of finding a new church home can seem impossible. It is not.

Over the last five years, my family has worked with our home church to make it a place where our son with cerebral palsy thrives. We know the anxiety of leaving your little one in a children’s program for the first time, and the long journey of making that program a home. We believe that when the family and the leader of the children’s program work together as a team, it is possible for a child with special needs to become a welcome and celebrated part of a faith community.


Call Ahead

For many families, the first step in visiting a new house of worship is checking the organization’s website for service times. For all of those families, but particularly those with a child with special needs, that initial research should include a phone call or email.

Maria Franchina, Director of Children’s Programming at Encounter Church in Palmyra advises, “When attending for the first time it is extremely helpful to speak directly with the person in charge about what your child needs to feel comfortable in an environment.  It is also helpful to know any triggers that the child might have (large crowds, loud noise etc.).”

A phone call in advance allows the staff and volunteers to prepare for a plan and advise the parents of any way they can assist in the process. On the first visit, it is also a good idea to arrive early, touch base with the leader of the children’s program, and review what was discussed in advance.

Communicate Specific Needs

While the details of any congregation can be diverse, so are the needs of each individual child. The burden for communicating those needs falls on the child’s caregivers. Our son requires special equipment to walk on his own. He can also struggle with loud and unexpected noises. Our first concern when attending a new church is the physical location of the children’s program. We want to know if our son will be able to access facilities on his own, and if someone is available to assist him. Along those lines, we are interested in evacuation plans. Is there an adult capable of carrying our son if there is an emergency?

Our second concern is the use of technology during the children’s program. Many places of worship incorporate music or videos in the children’s programming. Without proper warning, that can be a trigger which sends our son into tantrums. However, when communicated in advance, teachers can warn him, or allow him to observe from a distance, even just outside the doorway, until that time is over. Maria Franchina loves for parents to share strategies which have and haven’t worked at home, so that the children in her ministry are in a position to enjoy their time.

Be Patient and Flexible

Unlike a school program, children’s ministries only meet for an hour or two each week, and are largely operated by volunteers. Finding a solution that works for an individual child can take time. Parents need to provide feedback, but also be patient as the ministry responds.

Our home church occasionally uses video lessons as part of the programming. One week, the television was on when our son arrived in his classroom. This was an immediate trigger, and the morning began with a tantrum. We had a conversation with his teacher, who was very understanding and assured us that there was no problem with the television remaining off until needed. The next week the same problem occurred. Our church rotates volunteer teachers weekly. The teacher we spoke with went home to her own family and responsibilities, and our issue didn’t get passed along. We had to repeat the conversation several times, but the problem was resolved eventually.

A strategy which has worked well at Encounter and other churches is to find a one-on-one volunteer to work directly with a child. Encounter had great success with a special needs teacher who volunteered to work directly with a non-verbal child with autism. However, not every church is blessed with such a volunteer. Franchina reminds us that volunteers in a children’s ministry walk through the door with a wide range of education and experience. It can take some time to find the right fit, and that “fit” may be unexpected.

Our son has had wonderful experiences when older children assist him in the classroom. Even when a child is paired with a one-on-one helper, there is no guarantee that the person will be available every week. Especially in the beginning, but helpful at all times, parents should be open to a variety of solutions, which may include a parent or older sibling attending class with a child if necessary. Franchina asks, “Give us time.  Be patient with us as we work to make the perfect environment for your child to be successful.  Communicate with us about what is working and what isn’t working and be ready to listen to us if we have different ideas.  We want this to be an environment that is teaching [your] child about Jesus and not just ‘babysitting.’”

Be Firm

Children adapt best to a worship culture when parents and ministry leaders work together as a team, but this does not mean that parents always need to be flexible. Child abuse in church frequently makes headlines. Most churches have policies requiring background clearances for staff and volunteers, and clear guidelines regarding how these workers are to interact with children. If a house of worship cannot clearly articulate what their child protection policies are, families should not trust them with their children. When a parent observes a violation of child protection policies, that behavior should be addressed directly with the person involved and the ministry leader, insisting that the behavior stop.

While families should give a new faith community time to adapt to the special needs of their child, they should also feel free to say a situation is not working. The reasons can vary. A small community of a few dozen may not be able to provide the assistance a child needs. A large community may not be willing to inconvenience many for the needs of one. An older facility may be limited by physical space and unable to accommodate equipment. Individuals leave churches for differences as trivial as the style of music or a poorly worded comment from a leader. Parents should not feel guilty if they need to find a new faith home that will function for their child.

Get Involved

Maria Franchina makes a point of emphasizing that while the ministry she leads is about caring for children so that their parents are free to worship, it fails if it does not move beyond simple childcare. A community of faith is about the spiritual growth and development of all members — including children with special needs. Parents should seek out a church, mosque or temple which is interested in doing more than just keeping their child occupied for one hour a week. It should be striving for the goal of integrating the entire family, including children with special needs, into the spiritual life of the community. A church family that works for a child with special needs is one that not only cares for them, but opens the door for them to also care for others. It is a place where parents can feel blessed by what their child has received, and respond to that blessing by giving and serving as well.


Nathan Hackman is a stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy. 


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