Archive for category Special Needs Ministry

The Advantages of the Suffering Servant

Psalm 133 1

If there’s anything that has made me crazy over the years of leading a “disability” ministry, it has been hearing time and time again, “Oh, I would help, but I’m just so busy.”  There’s no way to say this without seeming like a total jerk, so here goes.  Find someone in this day and age who isn’t busy!  Try to hold down the average responsibilities of a life with the added challenges of special needs piled on top of them!  If anyone would have an excuse to opt out, it would be the person who is always at doctor or therapy appointments, the one whose hands, feet or voice may not work properly, or the one who faces serious financial difficulties.  Yet, we all seem to find time for that which we deem a priority.  The excuse-maker’s “I’m too busy,” comes across to me as, “Your mission is not important to me.”  As I am crying out, “Lord of the harvest, send more workers,” these types of individuals are on yet another fluffy retreat, or at another relaxing party, or playing Candy Crush Saga online.

Whew!  Now that my nasty rant is over with, let me share with you what it looks like as I watch those families who are suffering, yet still serve.  Let me explain how God is using them powerfully as they make time for His priorities, rather than their own.  Allow me to describe for you how their service actually is a blessing to them, rather than an increased burden:

  • Suffering servants are on the cutting edge of current issues because they are in the thick of it.  Nothing can match the intense relief that comes from one who is walking the same journey as you are.  When people are willing to volunteer their time as they are going through intense situations in their own life, they know what current treatments are for different health issues, what the latest challenges are in the schools, how insurance companies are currently treating payment for given therapies, and so forth.  While there is definitely great value to having some space between our time of deepest suffering and our service to those undergoing the same, the further we move away from it, the more we seem to forget what that suffering was like.
  • Suffering servants find purpose in their pain by offering compassion to others.  If there’s one question we all tend to ask when we suffer, it is the circular question “Why?”.  As we reach out to another, despite our challenges, we discover the real-life, here-and-now truth of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (NIV)  We are blessed to be a blessing to another.
  • Suffering servants shrink their own problems by focusing on the troubles of another.  We have all heard the phrase, “It could always be worse.”  That truth becomes reality when we reach out to another person in trouble while we are in the midst of our own storms.  While we can get a chip on our shoulder sometimes, thinking, “I wish I had it as easy as them!”, the truth remains that few of us would exchange our crises or trials for our neighbor’s.  The size of our own troubles can suddenly diminish in size when we hold them up against the challenges of those who need our help.
  • Suffering servants live out the Christ-life as an example to all those around them.  When others see those who have a disability, illness or difficulty serving in spite of those things, they suddenly are without excuse.  Not that the goal is to shame others, but rather to show them what practical, relentless, Christ-like love looks like.  Our children learn the beauty of volunteerism when they watch us serve in spite of our own issues.  Neighbors, fellow church members, friends and others around us are inspired by watching our simple acts of kindness.  The ripple effect is quite transformational, especially in today’s self-absorbed culture.

Who wouldn’t want to be used by God in such ways!  I am so very grateful to say that the majority of our ministry’s most effective volunteers are those who are undergoing all sorts of challenges.  When we started this organization, I lived under the false impression that those were the ones that should only be served and not allowed to serve.  Over a decade of transformation, I incrementally learned how erroneous that thinking can be.  These volunteers inspire me, and are my encouragement to press on in faith every single day.


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Church Absence In The Darkest Hours


I spoke with my sister, a Catholic grade school principal in California, and a former assistant Archdiocese superintendent.

“Is this just something that evangelical churches are really bad at?”, I queried.

I was sharing with her the story of one of the families we serve who had a child hospitalized, yet again.  This family had had contact with 3 people from their church, 2 of whom were on staff, as they rushed their daughter for another serious inpatient stay.  Despite these key people knowing of their dilemma, no one from their congregation came to be with them in the hospital or pray with them.  The family never made the church prayer chain or even received a card from their church home.  The family was understandably upset, feeling abandoned in one of their darkest hours.

“No,” my sister assured me, “It’s NOT just an evangelical church problem.  It really depends on the pastor.  Some pastors are great at remembering to make hospital visits, and some avoid it at all costs.  I worked with a pastor who saw the serious need, and was dedicated to making sure his parishioners were seen, but that came to a halt when he retired.  His replacement, who worked side-by-side with him in the years he was there, was horrible.  I often had to do visits or people would be neglected.”
We wrestled with why such an obvious, basic need of the local church would be so recklessly abandoned by Christian churches of every denomination.  After all, Jesus made this one of his main ministries.  Here is what we came up with:

  • When a family has a member with a disability or special need, their hospitalization and medical crises are chronic.  They face challenges over a long period of time.  Pastors can develop “compassion fatigue” like any other human.  In other words, every human, even those in typical ministry, can tire of dealing with another person’s endless health issues.
  • People assume the hospital chaplain will handle ministering to the family.  What local churches may not realize is that there has been a movement away from faith intimacy in hospital chaplains, instead emphasizing a “ministry of presence” with families.  This is done so that a Christian chaplain can minister to a Muslim family or a Jewish rabbi can serve a Christian patient.  While the “ministry of presence” is vitally important, these types of visits from strangers are not as faithfully intimate as those from our own church family.
  • Sick people scare others, including pastors.  People who don’t have the stomach for needles, blood or other bodily fluids, hospital smells, or even psychological institutions have an extremely hard time overcoming those aversions.  They may never be able to handle such things.  This amounts to rendering these particular individuals unavailable for meeting this critical need.
  • Attempts at educating pastors in this area of service are rare and moving at a painfully slow rate.  We, leading in special needs ministry, know of the great void in seminary training for pastoral care.  Yet, there are simply not enough of us to ramp up or execute this part of these would-be church leaders’ education at this time.  This leaves the void unfilled while the need continues to grow.

These are likely only a few of the main reasons this type of neglect occurs in the darkest hours of those living with disability or special needs.  Nevertheless, with what we have identified here as obstacles, we can create an action plan to deal with this deficit in pastoral care.  See if you might add to these suggestions:

  1. Put a recommended protocol in place for churches of every kind to replicate when a member is hospitalized.  This should include having a pastoral care team, not just dumping the task on one pastor or staff member.  It should also include the practice of having people contact the church office if they know of a member or attendee who is hospitalized.  It should not be assumed that a family member has called, because they may likely be too taxed with dealing with the family member in need to make such a call.  Training church members to merely ask, “Can I contact the church for you?”, can be such a tender act of kindness.
  2. Identify church members who have that gift of tenderness, empathy, caring and prayer, who might be willing to make such visits.  A congregation should never stop recruiting or training in this area.  The American Association of Christian Counselors is just one source for solid training of lay leaders in pastoral care.  Many denominations also have their own training programs in place.  These classes are something that should routinely be on the calendar of local congregations, so that pastoral care is never neglected, regardless of who is moving in or out of leadership.
  3. Teach pastors and staff to regularly ask families with a member who has special needs, “How are you all doing?” or “Is there anything we can be doing for you?”.  This acknowledges the chronic struggle of dealing with disability, and renders a great sense of caring to those who are living with such challenges.  While many pastors may not be inclined to ask such questions for fear that they may not be able to meet such needs, they should rest assured that it is not nearly as complicated or demanding as they might think.
  4. Pray.  This work can seem futile if we rely on our own power to accomplish it.  But when we pray, God works.  Ask the Lord of the harvest to send more workers.  Implore the Holy Spirit to soften hearts, open minds, and impart wisdom to local churches.  Pray that no family would feel abandoned or walk away from the church because they were not ministered to in their time of greatest need.  Cry out for a Body of Christ that would be motivated to face their fears head on, get dirty doing the difficult work that Jesus did, and make lasting change in His name.

What would you add to this list?  Please add to this discussion, because families in need of pastoral care amidst a life of unique challenges are desperate for this to change.  Their hope is hanging on evidence that Someone truly cares!

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When Our Volunteers’ Faith Becomes Sight


Anonymity can be the fierce enemy of Christian service.  Being made visual creatures, people often struggle to find motivation to activate unless they are able to see the impact of their volunteerism.  It can be such a blessing for those who give of their time on our teams to see the end result their work produces.  Real people with real challenges, can be transformed by the love of Jesus administered in simple, practical ways by someone who cares enough to give.

This past weekend, one of our teams had that opportunity.  Our organization ships our signature “TLC baskets” all over the country to parents of children with special needs.  These baskets go to mothers and fathers who are in need of some tangible encouragement in their lives.  It could be a job loss, a child who is hospitalized, difficulties with the school or other situation where a caregiver is facing discouragement or extra stress.  We package these TLC baskets in bulk quantities through the help of faithful volunteers.  Some are repeat packers.  Some are serving with our ministry for the first time.

When I arrived this past Saturday to unload the supplies, one of the early arrivals helping me began to ask more about what our ministry does.  As we chatted, she came to share her story with me.  Abandoned by his birthmother, this woman’s stepson had suffered trauma in birth, causing severe CP.  Now age 9, he was cognitively at the age of an 18 month old child.  With great affection, this volunteer shared how she would soon adopt this stepson she was raising with her husband.  This precious family had just return to our area after a brief 114 mile move away that ended up being a difficult one for them.

After the 8 other volunteers showed up to help us, the packing began in earnest.  These men and women rolled up their sleeves, took charge and lovingly filled each basket with attention to detail.  First we assembled all of the baskets we could for special needs fathers, and then we did the same for mothers.  Cases were broken down and hauled out to the dumpster once emptied, and totes were filled with the finished product.  The team made light work of an otherwise involved job.

While they served with joy, I thought I would allow them a privilege that volunteers on this particular team never get to see — the people they bless.  So I told these people who so generously donated their time the story of a little 9 year old boy with CP who just went through a rough time with his family, moving away and having to move back to our area because of their inhospitable new home.  I told them that this sweet boy’s stepmom, who was just about to adopt him, had come to help with our project that morning expecting nothing and knowing little about what we do.  And in front of them all, I handed this dear woman a “mom basket” and “dad basket” that we had packed that morning with the signature tag on it, “Loving you in the name of Jesus…  Just a little TLC from us to you!”.

Tears flowed as she accepted these simple gifts.  Those tears were powerful because the volunteers gathered around her, comforting her and learning more about her precious family.  We were all impacted by seeing the simple work of that morning come full circle.

Friends, I know that we can all get so waste deep in the planning and executing of our loving care for those with special needs.  Yet, we need to remember that we not only transform the lives of our participants, but also our volunteers when we allow them to more deeply encounter those they serve.  This means different things for the different areas of work we do.  It might mean having a social event where Sunday School or respite volunteers get to spend more time just chatting with the parents of the kids they shepherd.  It might mean a note or a year-end report with photos, personal stories, and details of how their work created meaningful impact at a time where it was needed.  Whatever that positive feedback is, let’s not forget to pour it out on those who volunteer, because that is how we create a ripple effect in the world, sending loving inclusiveness far beyond the doors of our churches.

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Should Their Be a Standard Church Practice for Service Dogs?

Service Dog

I read the story back in early August of a veteran being asked to leave his service dog outside a church by a deacon.  Spc. Kristopher Magstadt had just delivered his daughter to the children’s area when the deacon confronted him.  Sadly, this faithful veteran and his family were needlessly driven out of the church that day.

This is certainly not the first time a challenge of this nature has taken place in a church.  Mother, Johnna Wheeler wrote in April, 2013 of her sudden need to find a new church home because of her service dog.  She makes note of the fact that Jesus served the least and the lost, and wonders why those turning her away have lost sight of that.  Rather than worrying about extending the compassion of Christ, churches like Magstadt’s and Wheeler’s worry about whether an assistive animal will distract the average attendee or block the flow of foot traffic in the building.

Hearing stories like these made me concerned about having a guest with a service dog come to my own church.  This prompted me to ask the assistant lead pastor ahead of their arrival, if it would be a problem.  He assured me it would be fine, but I still found myself looking over my shoulder as I welcomed my friends.  It worked out fine as wonderful Rusty was a complete gentleman in the 3rd row during the service, and everyone in the church was more than kind.  It really was not a big deal.  If only more churches knew what a simple, easy accommodation this is!

It may surprise you to learn that churches are not subject to the rules of the ADA.  Nevertheless, if the Body of Christ is truly to be the hands and feet of Jesus, then churches should go above and beyond the ADA.  This begs the question, Should Their Be a Standard Church Practice for Service Dogs?  How can we welcome our friends with working animals into our congregations with excellence?  What would best practices look like for welcoming those with assistive animals?  Your input and feedback are most welcome.  Please leave us a response in the comments section below.

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How Do You Deal With Viral Stories?

They seem to be out there with increasing frequency.  I have one author friend, the sibling of an adult with challenges, who calls such features “Super Crip” stories.  I just about choked when I heard her say it to me on the phone, but she was right.  In our human desire to root for the underdog and see them win, we seem to encounter more videos of individuals with special needs in heroic situations.  It may have started  with the likes of Dick Hoyt:

Since such stories started being shared by so many on the web, hometown victories like this have been shown time and time again:

And most recently, as reality TV takes evening viewing by a storm, we see viral stories like this:

While inspiration has value, I wonder, how many of these stories do you share?  Do you think they are a good representation on the population we serve?  What do you think these types of stories do as far as the expectations of the “typical” world go?  I would LOVE to hear your feedback!

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If We Could Build a Bridge


On a daily basis, I cull voluminous amounts of information on special needs for the families we serve.  This past weekend, as I was going through articles filtered by my Google screen, I ran across this:  Why are special needs kids allowed in public schools?  Now, for those who are not necessarily techno-savvy, you should know that these Yahoo forums allow for people to ask pretty much of anything unless or until someone flags it as inappropriate.  The student posing this question goes on to express frustration with kids whom he feels are not “tolerable” because they “disrupt the class and need constant attention”.  My stomach turned as I read him going on to explain that he cannot concentrate on his work when he hears other kids making guttural sounds, and gets annoyed when the teacher has to slow down the pace of the class to accommodate these kids.

My indigestion didn’t just rise up because of how hurtful this student’s remarks would be to those I serve, but also because I have long assumed that there are many students who feel the same way in inclusive classrooms across this nation.  The sad thing is that we can change protocols in public schools, but that doesn’t necessarily change hearts.  Additionally, one size does not fit all.  We know that there are many kids in America who are “mainstreamed” when they truly do need the help of a separate class.

Shortly after running across this post, I ran across another that was at the opposite end of the spectrum:  Why do people treat special needs kids different?  In this Yahoo question, an individual with special needs talks about being taken advantage of financially.  It is clear in this brief posting that this child just wants to be treated with acceptance and friendliness like their peers.

After reading these 2 posts, my mind suddenly wandered, thinking, What if we could bring both these kids in the same room together to talk?  What would they say to each other?  Would both their needs be met?  Would they grow in acceptance of one another?  Could both of their questions be answered simply by spending some time together?

While these challenges are social-cultural, it seems to me that the church is uniquely positioned to help people on both ends of this spectrum.  Society may not be able to bring individuals to a place of heart change, but the Body of Christ surely can.  Providing simple social opportunities for people of all abilities to come together and dialogue about a variety of issues certainly offers opportunity for transformation.  And the presence of the One and only transformational God grants our ministry the ability to achieve what the secular world cannot.

What are YOU doing to build a bridge between “typical” and “disabled” individuals?  How would you use your ministry to address irritations, lack of acceptance and even intolerance?  What are some transformational measures you can think of to help reshape hearts?

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The Learner as a Leader


I tell people now, and I will til I’m dead, I am just a dumb, obedient servant of God.  When the Lord tapped on my shoulder and called me to serve parents raising children with special needs a decade ago, I felt like more of a follower than a leader.  But, I will maintain, I think He chose me so that He wouldn’t have a leader that would get in the way.  In other words, I am a leader that is perpetually aware that I cannot direct, guide, develop, envision and inspire of my own ability, but only by God’s.

The past 10 years clinging to Christ, I have found my way as a leader by being a learner.  There are 2 main ways this has been effective for me:

  1. The Listening Leader — My hope is that I always come across to others as a leader who listens.  Since I know I have much to learn, I always want to hear and weigh the viewpoints of other people.  That means that I listen to those who are on my teams doing the work, esteemed colleagues, and supportive outsiders who have something to contribute to our ministry.  Because I am ready to hear what others have to share, I have quickly picked up critical information on how to locate grants, ascertained who the best local vendors are for events, discovered how to fashion and execute a vision, identified where our teams need shoring up, and determined what we are doing that is most impactful with the parents we serve.  The high yield of listening in leadership cannot be overstated.
  2. The Discovering Leader — Like a ravenous child, I have devoured a wide variety of information on leadership over the years.  Reading books and attending conferences are part of my repertoire.  But daily beefing up of skills has been crucial to me as well, using videos, articles, and blogs to grow my skills.  Eventually, I have discovered which resources I find most helpful, and have left by the wayside those that aren’t worth my time.  Of note is the fact that while there are copious amounts of wonderful resources available on Christian leadership, there is little information by Christian thought leaders on special needs ministry leadership.

I am grateful that when God calls, He equips.  Not having the organizational, planning, technical, seminary, medical, or management skills of many other special needs ministry leaders, my experience has proven to demonstrate that the Lord can still do the extraordinary with ordinary hearts who are willing.

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