Jolene Philo and Katie Wetherbee have created a fabulous resource for churches that are interested in starting or improving their ministry to families with special needs. Written with as a metaphor of preparing for guests comign to a dinner party, Every Child Welcome guides the reader through the process of planing, preparing and implementing a ministry that is flexible and intentionally welcoming.
I had the opportunity to ask Jolene Philo for insights about the creative process and advice for churches seeking to offer a more inclusive welcome to families.
What inspired you to write “Every Child Welcome? How did you come to partner with Katie Wetherbee in the creative process?
Katie and I met at a special needs ministry conference in Des Moines, Iowa the fall of 2010. My first book, A Different Dream for My Child, had been out for about a year, and I was selling it at a book table. Katie was presenting several special needs ministry workshops for Key Ministry. She came up to my book table and said, “I’m Katie Wetherbee. I love your book!” I realized her workshops were the sessions I’d highlighted to attend. I went to them and realized our styles of teaching were very similar. Plus we had so much in common. We were both former public school teachers who’d worked a lot with kids in special education. We were both moms of kids with special needs. And we both blogged about special needs issues.
After the conference, we began to follow one another’s blog and corresponded by email. In one email, she asked if she could call with questions about a book she had in mind. After she explained her idea, I said, “I assumed you wanted to write a book that compiled the great teaching ideas and strategies you’ve posted on your blog.”
“Oh,” she said, “I don’t have a clue about how to write that book.”
I said, “Then let’s write it together.” And so we did.
We had a wonderful time working together. By the time the book was written, revised, and the publisher sent the final proofs, we couldn’t remember who had written what because our writing styles meshed so well.
What changes have you seen over the years in welcoming children with special needs?
When I first started writing about special needs parenting, the topic wasn’t on the radar screen of most Christian publishers, churches and program leaders. That has changed. Special needs ministry is now one of the hot topics in church and ministry circles. The number of formal special needs ministry programs has mushroomed in the past decade, especially in larger churches. Those churches attract a lot of families of kids with special needs, and that is wonderful.
But smaller churches still struggle to raise awareness and to become equipped to welcome kids with special needs. Katie and I wrote Every Child Welcome with those churches and their children’s ministry workers in mind. We hope the book can equip Sunday school teachers and mid-week children’s ministry volunteers to welcome kids even if their church doesn’t have a formal special needs ministry.
What strategies do you suggest for maintaining an inclusive ministry as children become teens?
Basically, when a church begins thinking about special needs ministry, they need to think of it as a whole church ministry, not as just a children’s ministry. They need to create a
welcoming climate for people with disabilities and special needs across church ministries and age groups. Church leaders need to consider special needs ministry a high priority by making regular worship services inclusive. Greeters, ushers, and parking lot attendants need to be trained to welcome those with special needs. Children’s ministry leaders, youth leaders, and adult program leaders need to seek training to learn how to become more inclusive. Churches that create an inclusive culture throughout the church will find that moving kids from children’s programs to youth programs is easier because the culture is already in place.
What key advice can you offer to a church looking to begin an inclusive ministry for children with special needs?
First, start small by meeting the needs of families already attending your church. If a family has a child with Down syndrome, ask what the child needs to be able to fully participate and work together to make that happen.
Second, educate your church leadership and ministry about the importance of special needs ministry. Read books, attend special needs ministry conferences, or host a special needs ministry training at your church. Create a special needs ministry plan based on what you’ve learned and what your child needs.
Third, educate everyone at your church about the importance of welcoming people with special needs and disabilities. Start creating a church culture, using ideas you’ll find in Every Child Welcome, so your church becomes a place where people with special needs are welcome rather than a church with programs for people who have special needs.
About the Authors:
Jolene taught elementary school for 25 years. She’s author of the Different Dream Parenting series and blogs at her special needs website, DifferentDream.com. She speaks at special needs conferences around the country. Jolene and her husband enjoy their empty nest in Boone, Iowa.
Katie is a former special education teacher. Her educational consulting firm serves families by providing solution-oriented advocacy. She pens the special needs column for Children’s Ministry magazine and blogs at katiewetherbee.wordpress.com. Katie & her husband live in Chagrin Falls, Ohio with their 2 children and their dog, Mitzie.
Jolene and Katie are both parents of kids with special needs.
Gracious God, Thank you for the vision and passion and that Jolene and Katie share for helping congregations welcome all of God’s children. Bless their efforts to help connect families into churches so that all may be nurtured and grow in their love of and knowledge of you. Amen