Tag Archives: welcome

Great, New Resource for Churches!

Philo Weatherbee

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.

Jolene-and-Katie-300x275

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

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There’s No Place Like Home, There’s No Place Like Home…

Rainbow_Gathering_welcome_home

Three times a year I get to go home and see my mom.  It’s hard living far away. Each time I start to get excited to see her as the date gets closer and I feel sad when I have to leave. Having my next trip already scheduled softens the blow.

There is nothing like going home. It is a welcome respite. I sleep better when I am there and the air in my hometown feels fresher, the colors are brighter, the songs of the birds are sweeter. Whether we are canning peach preserves or baking cookies or going for an adventure to the beach, the days are marked by laughter and new memories. It is true what they say. There is no place like home.

I hope whatever place is home for you is a place that you get to visit often and refresh your soul.

I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16 NRSV)

Renewing God, Thank you for my mom and a respite that renews the soul.  May all be so blessed. Amen.

Photo: Welcome Home with Rainbow Originally uploaded by Jaknouse (Transferred by Gobonobo) (Originally uploaded on en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boundary-Breaking Worship, REALLY!!!

Parables_April_Landing

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.   (Joel 2:28 NRSV)

Knowing about something and experiencing it, seeing it for yourself, are two entirely different things. Hospitality and welcoming in worship are things we all know about.  Hopefully we’ve all experienced both. Sadly, as parents of children with special needs that hospitality is often lacking, so when we truly receive it we know how precious a gift it is.

I recently attended worship at Parables, one of the worship services offered at Wayzata Community Church. I knew about the service.  I read about it, watched a video, and talked at length with the founding pastor, Leslie Neugent. KNOWING about Parables and EXPERIENCING Parables were different matters entirely.  It was boundary-breaking, joy-filled worship with surprises and the in-breaking of God at every turn.  If you live anywhere near Wayzata, MN you must experience this worship for yourself.  Even if you don’t live near, it’s worth the trip!  I flew all the way from Texas and know without a doubt it will not be my only experience of Parables. If your church could use an infusion of radical hospitality to the special needs community in worship, go to Parables!

What’s so different about this service?  It is worship created for and led by people with special needs.  I wrote in my blog recently a prayer, “Please God, let something happen in worship today that isn’t printed in the bulletin.” That prayer was answered.  Big time! Picture a parade of whoever cares to participate processing down the aisle, singing, shaking tambourines, hand in hand with the pastor.  A young man with sensory issues held his hands over his ears even as he marched in joyously, and then decided to go sit on the chancel steps for the rest of the service.  A fine plan! It has the best view!  And really, why should it matter?  During a break in the action a young lady who was late to church gave the pastor a seemingly never-ending hug, marching onto the stage to do so. Again, why should it matter? A young man who was until very recently non-verbal went around the room during the time of greeting saying, “Hello. How are you?” When was the last time you got truly excited about being greeted in worship? It made me cry tears of joy. I was seated by a young man who is learning to say hello by shaking hands.  We shook hands about 10 times during worship, including when I got up to talk about my upcoming book for special needs parent support groups.  He gave me the cue so I stepped out of the pulpit to shake hands.  I can walk and talk at the same time.  Why should it matter that he wanted to shake hands right then?

I saw the hands and feet of Jesus at work in the participants.  They know each other’s strengths and where they need a little help.  A young lady with challenged mobility had several of her peers help her up the steps to the altar to serve Communion. That’s right. Not just to receive, but to serve.  A request from the pulpit for a volunteer to lead the Lord’s Prayer received a round of applause as a teen stepped up to lead.  When was the last time the Lord’s Prayer brought you to tears? The same was true for a young lady who did a wonderful job reading the scripture of John 4, Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. How often are people with differences celebrated in worship?  How often do they get to offer their gifts and let them shine?

There was a purity and innocence to worship.  Parents were at ease.  They knew their whole family was welcome.  No one was shushed. No one was made to sit if they didn’t want to. Noises? Who cares!  Again, why should it matter?  The sermon challenged me to think about hard things as a special needs parent. Where is the line between advocating for my child’s future and giving over to God and accepting? Yet, simultaneously the message was at a child’s level so there was learning for everyone in the room. It was the most genuine, unscripted, open-hearted worship I’ve experienced in a long time, and I go to church a lot so that is saying something!

I met a church member who retired from teaching a few years ago.  “I go to the big service too, but this is really my service. I see God here.”  Well, I did too and I want more. I wonder if my husband would agree to move from Texas to Minnesota…

Prayer: Boundary-breaking God, Open our eyes to see those who feel excluded, open our hands to reach out to them, open our hearts to form us to better be your people. Amen.

Photo courtesy of Parables: Red Fish Theology

To learn more about Parables worship, click here:

http://www.wayzatacommunitychurch.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=229208

You can order a “how-to” guide here:

http://www.uccresources.com/products/red-fish-theology-parables-a-how-to-guide-for-offering-a-radically-inclusive-worship-service-with-the-special-needs-community

 

 

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