Recently, the nation’s autism community was all abuzz about the fact that no one who had actually been diagnosed with the disorder had been listed amongst those invited to testify at a Congressional hearing on autism. With 1 in 88 children diagnosed with some sort of disorder on the spectrum, it didn’t take much time for the community to mobilize, which resulted in the invitation of two self-advocates to ultimately testify at the hearing.
This led me to ruminate about how this translates to the church community. Are the disabled required in initiating disability ministry? Is self-advocacy necessary in the formation and/or vision-casting of special needs ministry within the church? While it is true that many ministries are begun by someone living with a disability (either self, sibling, parent or the like), many others can be initiated simply by trying to accommodate a need expressed by a congregant. But aren’t we as insensitive as those who overlooked self-advocates when inviting Congressional testimony, if we fail to bring the eventual end-users to the table in developing ministry and services for them?
In the business community, that might be known as poor market research. Gathering initial information followed by test-marketing is the abbreviated description of how new products or initiatives are typically analyzed. Aren’t we foolish, and even arrogant, to do anything less?
A thorough church survey is a good place to start. If your work is wider than one congregation or more of a para-church initiative in nature, a different test sample might need to be taken. Use of internet tools including things like a simple e-mail or even Survey Monkey are wise. Once the information is gathered, prioritizing what your target population desires should be the next step. While people may have many good ideas of what they might like to see, focusing on the one or two most critical to begin with will make you most effective. Also, considering feasibility is key. If your group most desires something you cannot accomplish (for example, a staffed sensory room for a small church), then you are wise to focus first on the priorities that you can reasonably address.
Once steps are taken to tackle those initial top priorities, examining their effectiveness is necessary. While it is true that even reaching one individual for Christ is worthy, it is unwise to move in such a way where we don’t take a look at our resources and approach to see if we could be reaching more people with some adjustments to our plan. It is important to be mindful not only of whether your program or approach is working for your target audience, but also whether it is working for the staff or volunteers involved. For example, parents may find themselves thrilled with your initiative, but you discover that you’re burning out your volunteers in the process. That definitely would require some serious adjustments to be made.
You may also find yourself surprised in developing ministry that what you thought was important to people wasn’t important at all to those participating in the ministry. Sometimes we look at what’s working for a similar ministry in a different location and think we have to be doing exactly what they are doing to succeed. Only later we might find that the people in our particular location had no interest in that type of thing at all. Again, this means we need to build relationship with those we intend to serve by asking them what they are truly in need of or desiring from the church.
After we begin getting the hang of asking and serving, asking and serving, asking and serving, might we be ready to add on some additional ideas that those with special needs have expressed interest in. I have sadly learned the hard way that scatter-shooting is no way to do ministry. Developing ideas and executing them with excellence is the key. And putting aside our arrogance in thinking we know best what our core audience needs is essential. Those who are living daily life with these unique challenges tend to be the best equipped to recognize where the needs lay. As the autism community boldly proclaimed before the Congressional hearing, “Nothing About Us Without Us!”