Welcoming Special Needs Families

July 6th, 2011

What would you do if, while you were praying during a church service, somebody tapped your shoulder and you turn to see your special needs child being wheeled out of the sanctuary?

That’s exactly what Kelly Helms says happened to her at North Carolina’s Elevation Church on Easter Sunday.

We know Ms. Helms’s experience because she took her story to the media. Almost immediately, Mrs. Helms received a deluge of criticism. Many critics wondered why Helms ignored the “biblical way” to resolve conflict. Most critics speculated about her motivations. A columnist for Ministry Matters even wrote “In Elevation’s Defense.”

As the father of a child with autism, I have a good guess about why Ms. Helms took her story to the press.

The American church has a “dirty little secret”: thousands of special needs families have been made to feel like Old Testament lepers—forbidden from entering the temple to worship God with their brethren.

But the only way I could know for sure Ms. Helms’s motivations for going to the press was by speaking to her. So I tracked down her phone number and had a lengthy conversation with her—discovering that my guess was on the mark.

“I wanted them to change their policy or spread the word that special needs families would be treated this way at their church,” Mrs. Helms told me.

Or as she wrote John Bishop, Matthews Campus Pastor at Elevation Church, in an e-mail: “I expect action to avoid this kind of segregation in the church from ever causing another mother, or God forbid their child, from feeling the way Elevation made us feel on Easter Sunday.”

I reached out to Elevation Church for a response to Mrs. Helms’ claims but they did not respond prior to this article’s deadline.

However, in an e-mail to Mrs. Helms, Pastor Bishop wrote this about Elevation’s policy:

“We have talked at length about our practice of removing people from the auditorium on many occasions, and we are always figuring out ways to do so with grace. It is not a decision that we are planning on changing as we believe it is our responsibility to provide as close to a distraction-free environment as possible for people to hear the gospel message. However, I believe that we already have alternatives that could work.”

I cringed when I read the word “alternatives.” What that word says to me is this: “You’re not the kind of people we want seen inside our sanctuary.”

Why do I think this? Because that’s been my family’s experience at many of the churches that we’ve attended.

Now, I admit that I, too, am guilty of helping perpetuate the church’s “dirty little secret.” In the past, when churches treated my family like second-class citizens, I didn’t go to the press. On the occasions when pastors have told me that they didn’t believe that God wanted my family at their churches (usually right after my autistic son came for a visit) I didn’t speak out or name names on social media or at my blog. And when churches (yes, plural) told us that the only way we could continue attending their church was if we sat in the children’s church with our son, I remained quiet in public no matter how enraged I felt inside.

Why didn’t I speak out? I tried to follow the pattern of biblical conflict resolution that critics of Mrs. Helms say she ignored. I went to the people who wronged us. But when you follow that pattern, there’s nowhere to go above the elders and the pastor. When they’re the ones pushing the policy of discrimination against special needs families, all that’s left is to take it to God and leave the churches. And if you leave without saying a word, the next special needs family who walks through their doors will be treated the same way.

Mrs. Helms didn’t want to see another family wrongly treated. That’s why, after spending six weeks trying to get Elevation to clarify or change their policy, she contacted the press.

Mrs. Helms and my family are not alone. There are tens of thousands of special needs families across the country who have left churches feeling humiliated. Many stop attending church because they’re tired of being treated as a burden. (My family had decided to quit attending church until we discovered Crosspoint Church in Nashville. Our experience at Crosspoint affirmed our faith that there are churches that warmly welcome special needs families.)

There are a variety of valid reasons why churches aren’t prepared to handle special needs children and their families. These reasons range from a lack of staff to a lack of funding to simply never having had to face the situation.

But I can think of four easy things you could be which could help you avoid a situation like what happened at Elevation.

1. Be prepared.

It might sound simplistic but “being prepared” is not just a rule for Boy Scouts and Army Rangers. Many churches have never talked about what they would do if a special needs child walked through their door. Sure, they may have talked about how they handle a deliberate disruption in their service but a special needs child making a squeal or two during a service is no more distracting than the person whose cell phone rings, who isn’t escorted out of the sanctuary as a consequence.

Make a point to discuss in church staff meetings how you (or a volunteer) should handle a family that comes in with a special needs child. If you walk into the situation without a plan, you’re more likely to make a mistake that will hurt the family and could possibly end up a PR nightmare.

2. Be honest.

Of all the churches our family has had to leave because they weren’t ready for a special needs child, one has a pastor for whom I have great respect. Why? He sat down with me and simply said his children’s ministry team wasn’t prepared to handle a child like my son. He said we were welcome to attend but that we’d likely end up in the children’s area with our son and that’s not healthy for our family. He had a list of area churches ready for families like ours and offered to make an introduction.

Some may take issue with that response…but to me this pastor was showing the simple respect of honesty. If you’re not ready, we know it. He knew it as well, and wasn’t going to insult us by pretending somehow it was our fault they were not prepared.

So if you know you’re not ready, I promise there are neighboring churches that are ready. Find them. See if they’re willing to work with you to help these families.

Then don’t just hand out a sheet of paper with names on it. Offer to make the introduction. Call the other church and have someone on their team reach out to that family. That little bit of consideration will go a LONG way with most families of special needs children.

3. Be realistic.

Again, this seems simplistic but special needs children have special needs. Most will not act like a “normal child” in all situations.

They may have sensory issues and get upset at the sight of Jell-O because they’re afraid of things that are “wiggly.” They may fixate on a toy and get upset if someone takes it. They’re not being selfish; that toy makes them feel safe in an uncertain place. If they are unable to speak clearly, they’ll get frustrated because you don’t understand what they’re trying to tell you.

If you’re realistic enough to know these children may not react in a “normal” way, you’re more likely to show grace than to get angry. The last thing these kids need to see is you furious with them when they’re just trying to tell you they’re thirsty.

4. Be Jesus.

Jesus welcomed everyone seeking Him. These special needs families are looking for churches that will do the same. Don’t sound the alarm and kick in “Special Needs Family Operation Plan A” the moment you see them walk through the door. Talk to them. Offer them coffee if you have it. Treat them as a person first and THEN deal with the special needs of their family.

Disarming their fears at the beginning goes a long way to making someone feel welcome.

These four ideas are by no means an extensive list; rather a starting point for you to consider the ways your church would respond to a child with special needs.

By the way, I’m not excusing the parents of special needs children from any responsibility for their children in a church setting. They should be ready to answer questions or show staff how to care for their child. Most parents are more than willing to do that.

But your church needs to be ready when they do.

And there are thousands like the Helms family in North Carolina praying your church will step up and do it.

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