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Ways to support special-needs members and their families

“Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me — you did it to me.’”
–Matthew 25:40, The Message

It is easy to say your church welcomes people with special needs, but creating a welcoming environment takes proactive action.

Sometimes church members with special needs – such as those with limited mobility – live independently. Often, though, family members assist in their care. It is important to address the needs of both.

Similarly, be aware that some people will require individualized accommodations. However, because you may not know these in advance, lay the groundwork that will address special needs of members – both adults and children – generally, and be open to making adjustments as needed.

Review physical accessibility.
Watch for the less-obvious ways members struggle physically and take actions to make them more comfortable.

  • Reserve pews for those who have difficulty walking. Don't assume that people who struggle with mobility want to sit in the back next to an exit. Designate a few comfortable spots in different locations for people to park their wheelchairs.
  • Provide large-print worship bulletins and other materials.
  • If possible, provide appropriate transportation to and from church events for those who do not drive. If your church does not own a vehicle, consider developing a cadre of volunteers to make sure everyone who wants a ride has one.

Use technology.
Technology can bring the church to those with special needs, especially older members who are not as active as they once were. Use simple digital-recording tools, such as Audacity or Power Sound Editor, to stream services live over the Internet or to archive them for later use. Do the same for church council meetings, charge conference and other congregationwide gatherings. Make sure your DVD/CD library includes support materials for people with special needs and their families/caregivers. (Remember, though, in-person visits are still integral to addressing spiritual needs and are much appreciated. This excerpt from a letter written after a United Methodist pastoral visit tells how one woman responded: “Thank you for coming — it’s nice to see someone who remembers when things were normal.”

Offer an accommodating service.
Diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders are on the rise, which means more families need help. Adults and children with disabilities sometimes express themselves and interact in ways that may be unexpected. A United Methodist church in central Tennessee has become more welcoming to these members and their families with a weekly “no shush” service.

Give caregivers a break.
Follow the example of this Tampa congregation, and ask volunteers to be “buddies” for children or adults with special needs during worship services. This gives caregivers time to fulfill their spiritual needs. For more ideas on how to aid caregivers, view this MyCom article.

For more ideas on developing your special-needs ministry, look at this resource guide offered by the North Texas Annual Conference.