Tag Archives: Amy Fenton Lee

Welcoming the Whole Family

Green Door Mat Image courtesy of Stoonn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.(Romans 15:7 NRSV)

“There is this family that attends my church and they have a little boy with autism.  I can tell that mom and dad feel really frustrated during worship because he has a hard time sitting still.  We are a really small church, only fifty members. There are no other children there and it’s so nice to see this family in worship. How can we be welcoming to them and make them feel more comfortable?”

As a pastor who has done welcoming ministries for fifteen years, focusing in caring for special needs families in particular over the last five, this question was music to my ears.  I explained to the woman that children with autism are going to have a really hard time understanding social boundaries about sitting quietly.  I suggested that they could work with the parents to have an activity bag for the child at church with things of interest to him. It would be something special that he would enjoy having when he is at worship.  When it got to the “boring part” (i.e. The Message) that is not going to be of interest, the boy could leave the sanctuary with a two buddies who would could lead an alternate Bible activity geared toward his age and abilities. The buddies would be nurturing adults or teens in the child’s life and the parents could enjoy that rare gift called “sanctuary.” They could have the parent’s cell number and send mom or dad a text if there is a problem and they need help.

The congregation member was nodding all along and agreeing these were great ideas. But then she asked, “Well, who is going to do all that?”

“I believe you mentioned that you have 50 members at your church.”

Blank stare.

I let it hang there. Still just a blank stare.

“Well, I’ll just show the mom where the cry room is located. She’d probably prefer to leave.”

I think we have the answer about why this is a small church and there are no children.  Sorry. I don’t mean to be harsh, but welcoming families means you are excited they are there. Excited enough to make an effort to include them as part of your church family. Rather than deciding for them what they would prefer, ask them. Rather than leaving them floundering in worship and frustrated, help them.

How do we create a church environment that is welcoming?  It’s simple really.  How do we welcome guests in our homes?  When we know someone is coming for a visit we get ready ahead of time.  We prepare the house, find out what folks like to eat and drink, plan things our guests will enjoy doing. We greet them with eager anticipation, “I’m so glad you are here! I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.” Then we show love and hospitality for our guests by trying to make sure they have a good time.

Church isn’t any different. Welcoming takes an intentional effort to be ready for the ones who are coming.

  • Prepare the house. Back to basics time. Is the church building accessible?  Is there a wheelchair ramp? Elevator? Accessible restrooms? Can people get into the building and navigate the hallways easily? If your congregation wants families with young children to be part of the body of Christ, anticipate their needs and prepare for them.  Children of all ages get bored in worship. Activity bags with scripture lessons, crayons, magnetic erase sheets, pipe-cleaners, and other quiet activities are great ways to keep kids engaged in worship at their own level.  Children with special needs are no different.  They want something to do. Modify as appropriate for their particular developmental capabilities.
  • Prepare the congregation. Often children with special needs do not understand boundaries and they make noise. Church leadership needs to model that is okay. I recall one sermon in which a young man was becoming agitated. Though non-verbal, he was loud at times.  Heads were turning. The pastor saw the parents were distressed and said, “That’s okay Cameron. This passage gets me upset too. I feel you buddy. You aren’t bothering me.”  The whole room was put at ease. Years later I cannot recall the sermon at all (nor any other sermon preached years ago!), but I can recall the radical hospitality of offering grace for a bit of disruption.  The Holy Spirit on Pentecost was pretty disruptive too, with the tongues of fire and all that.  I think church services can use more disruption.  A fine prayer, “Please God, let something happen today that isn’t printed in the bulletin.”
  • Learn from your guests. Have conversations with the parents and ask them what their children like to do and what is appropriate for them. For some parents, inclusion means finding a way for their child to be in worship with them. Perhaps they would like to be partnered with a buddy in worship who will keep their child engaged so parents can be more fully present to the sermon, etc. For some families, what feels inclusive is having a place that is geared to their child’s particular needs and is apart from the sanctuary. Either way, intentional conversation and a volunteer to work with the family says to them, “We are glad you are here and want you to be comfortable.”
  • It takes heart. There are plenty of resources for developing comprehensive special need ministries. Books by Erik Carter and Amy Fenton Lee are great starting points for practical ideas to get a ministry up and running.  The main ingredient is heart. It takes people who love families and want to be offer a welcoming place for them.  That’s it.  If you care, they will come. The biggest stumbling block to starting special needs ministries is fear. Congregations can “what if” themselves into a corner, frozen by concern of not being ready for every single possibility that may come their way. Having a heart for welcoming wins out over fear every time. Families that come don’t expect everything to be perfect.  We understand plenty about “not perfect.” We live it every day. What we want is a congregation that cares that we have come to church and wants us to be there even though we don’t fit the mold of the typical family.

I’d love to hear from parents about what works for you and makes you feel welcome at church.  Please post in the comments about your favorite experiences.

Welcoming God, we thank you that you call each of us to be in relationship with you.  A times it is hard to find a place that understands and prepares for the unique needs of our families.  Yet we know that what you call us to do you also equip us to do.  Open the hearts and minds of yet more congregations about ways they can welcome everyone who comes to worship you.  Amen.

“Green Door Mat” Image courtesy of Stoonn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rhymes with Orange

I recently traveled to the Orange Conference in Duluth, Georgia.  This was my first experience with Orange, a publisher of church curriculum and books on leadership, etc. Picture 6,000 of your closest friends in church leadership who are excited about the future of the church and passionate about doing their best in extending God’s table to all. Reggie Joiner, the head of Orange, talked about his goal being to serve in the church, leaving it in better condition than how it was given to our generation, and raise up the next generation with the same passion for God so that they leave the church in even better condition than how it is received from our generation. It was a high-octane three days of powerful worship, thought-provoking speakers, great entertainment, and informative break-out sessions with practical tools to equip leaders.

I was invited to the Orange Conference by Amy Fenton Lee of The Inclusive Church, and the leader/organizer/author/tornado of terrific responsible for the development of their special needs track. As a parent of a child with special needs and pastor in the United Methodist Church, I can’t begin to describe how exciting it was to see so many church leaders who were passionate about embracing families with special needs.  Picture a break-out session with space for 460 people and folks having to be turned away at the door because the session was full. Fire Marshall’s rules.  There was no other option.

The church has come so far from when my son was young.  Not only are there great resources available now, but there is increased awareness of the needs of families and church leaders are eager for the tools to be in ministry with these families.  Katie Garvert of Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs shared her church’s family approach to special needs, pairing with Ted Lowe who offered tools for how churches can help strengthen marriages.  Meaghan Wall, Pastoral Leader for Special Needs at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas shared practical ideas for leading teen volunteers, as well as how volunteers can work with children and students with challenging behaviors. This was a great companion piece to Dr. Stephen Hunsley’s session about training volunteers in how to include students with autism. Connie Hutchinson from First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton shared her 23 year journey on staff leading special needs ministry.

Of course, connecting with other participants was just as energizing and inspiring.  I traveled with Dena and Linda from a church in my area, Sugar Land First United Methodist, who are actively training and recruiting to start a special needs ministry.  At one session I met Amanda from Texas and J.D. from Colorado who both lead parent support groups.  Having led a support group for four years myself, I am excited about exchanging ideas and experiences. I shared several meals with Jennifer Ross, Special Needs Director from Church of the Resurrection. She shared the story of how they created a ministry to include adults with special needs in a day program that provides outreach to the community through student backpacks and a baking ministry.

I mention all of these great leaders because they may have tools that your church needs to help welcome families with special needs.  They are an easy google search away and I know every one of them has a heart for adding another leaf to God’s table so that there is room for everyone.

I know the church doesn’t always get it right.  After all, it’s made up of people! We all make mistakes. At times, pretty big ones.  I wish every parent always had positive experiences when attending church as a special needs family. Sadly, I know that is not the case. Folks have stories to tell about real ways they have been hurt when the church doesn’t get it right. I have those experiences within my own family of three. It hits close to home.  It’s good to process those experiences and learn from them, releasing our woundedness, and helping those in ministry understand the needs of our families.

What is exciting to me is seeing this tide of rising support and understanding, new leadership that is, per Reggie, taking the church as passed on to them, making it better,and passing it on to the next generation, a generation that is so much more inclusive of all families.  The broad giftedness of the speakers reminded me of Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus:

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NRSV).

Some in special needs are gifted in creativity for inclusion, others are gifted in understanding and working with challenging behaviors, others are good at strengthening marriages and family unity, others are good at providing emotional and spiritual support, others are good at being advocates in the church for those who have not been seen or heard at times.  It takes all of these gifts of all of these leaders, and many more besides, to equip the church to be what God calls us to be as the body of the church and followers of Christ.