I kept the Autism Family event at the YMCA from my son for weeks. I have learned to do that with almost all events. You never know what a week will hold, a day will hold…(who am I kidding – sometimes it is minute by minute).
Arriving to the parking lot, my son made it impossible to go inside the building. After driving a while, we returned in time for a raging thunderstorm, making it impossible to do the one thing he would have wanted to do – swim. After an hour of trying to get to something we did not even spend one minute doing, we went home.
Months later, I was on the other end of a similar scenario helping our church do its first ever outreach to Special Needs Families. We planned, prepared, shopped, and prayed. On the day of the event, I waited for a large group of guests who never came. Trying not to think about all the money spent preparing for this event, I felt what many church members feel when they work hard towards something that fails to bear the fruit they anticipated – disappointed.
I reframed my thoughts to include the two families who attended, the 26 adults and youth who served, and the children who witnessed an example of their church coming together to show a community compassion. I rested in knowing God has a divine purpose in those two families and intends to continue teaching all of us Special Needs Ministry has a different way of measuring success than any other ministry.
Rather than throwing in the towel at what looks like failure, Church, be encouraged!! This is the one ministry I know of, where the struggle will teach us to more deeply identify with those we serve. So, here are some thoughts that have strengthened my perspective of Special Needs Ministry:
- Teaching someone with additional needs makes us more aware of the simplicity of the Gospel and the variety of ways we can communicate it. Consider a Sunday School classroom with 8-10 typical children. Plan a story, craft, song, worksheet, and maybe a reinforcing game and VOILA! …you have a one-size-fits-most ministry almost entirely out of the teacher’s guide.
Special Needs ministry is nothing like that. Individualizing reminds us ministry is personal. For us to serve well in this way, we must blaze new pathways to the heart, depending fully on the Holy Spirit to bring life from those seeds we plant. This is exciting work!
- Failure is never failure, unless you fail to try! Special needs ministry will often appear to be unsuccessful on paper if measured similarly to other ministries: budgets, attendance, and input vs output. Better assessments may include quality, connection opportunities, and community awareness.
More money and effort may be necessary for what seems like a “small yield”…BUT to a family who feels loved, included, and valued while finding meaningful community with other Christians – it means their whole world…and how do you measure that? Take heart – the only way to fail at this ministry is to never try!
- Being a constant learner reminds us to remain humble. We do not need to read every article out there on developmental delays or categories of Special Needs. We will never be fully informed about every therapy or educational method available. Although helpful, the greatest advice I have received on this subject (and any other subject for that matter) is to be a learner!
While parents do not have all the answers, they are the supreme example of creatively, resourcefully teaching their child, and are usually available and willing to show us how to reach their child. Even parents who work tremendously hard to reach their children in a way that is meaningful to them will admit that they are learning as they go. We will do well to embrace and cultivate this mindset alongside these experts.
The evening after the under-attended event, I looked at the list of 32 families who were connected through the Facebook event and prayed that they see how God loves them and that there is a church reaching out to them. On paper this would appear to be an unsuccessful attempt with only three families served by this event.
I choose, however, to see the church that came together for the 32 families who now know we love them, ministry partners praying these families will one day come, and the future families who will join with us so we can shake their hands (or hug their necks) and say, “We are so glad you are here.”
This to me looks like very successful ministry!