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.