This is our second week spotlighting special needs inclusion in student ministry environments. Today’s post is the second of three where Amy Fenton Lee (Director of Special Needs Initiatives for Orange and author of: Leading Special Needs Ministry interviews Katie Garvert an expert in the area of inclusion with special needs students.
Amy Fenton Lee: How has your church, Woodmen Valley Chapel, had success weaving individuals with disability into the church’s student ministry?
Katie Garvery: We take a two-pronged individualized approach requiring a partnership with the parents and a plan crafted around the abilities of each student. We’ll start with the parent piece.
First, our church sets up a meeting with the student and their parents. As described in last week’s post, we bring in the parents and student together to talk through their upcoming promotion into student ministry. Parents share their goals and the student tells us what they want (or don’t want) out of their experience. It’s important this is a safe space where any differences between the parents and their son or daughter naturally surface. Bridging the gap at this time isn’t the point. Instead, it’s important parents see their vision doesn’t match what their student envisions. Yes, this can be awkward, but knowing how necessary it is allows us to get through the discomfort. It’s a pivotal conversation because once the tension is recognized, we can immediately assure them this isn’t the first time we’ve worked through a similar challenge. Once the family knows we aren’t worried, it puts everyone at ease. We ask the family to trust us to work toward a solution that honors everyone. Before ending our time we schedule a follow-up time to talk with the parents alone, without the student.
In our second meeting, when only parents are present, we bring up their son or daughter’s apprehensions. We explain the student’s spiritual growth is our priority and we may address that a desire for social growth is secondary. This can be tricky, but we believe in order for the church to have influence in the life of their student, we’ve got to create a safe place for them—which means we’re not going to put their son or daughter somewhere they don’t feel they can succeed. We may remove the idea of small group participation, or ask parents to table their goals for a mission trip. We’ve got to get their student okay coming to church for a couple of hours before we start talking about overnight trips. We often tell families that this is not a forever “no,” it’s a “not now.” Parents are usually supportive when they recognize our desire to provide a positive church experience for their student, is the same for typically developing students. We help Mom and Dad understand connecting with someone spiritually means they must feel they’re succeeding in the environment.
Before leaving this meeting, we ask parents to partner with us, committing to the following for a period of time:
1. Students are required to attend our student ministry environment weekly.
If participation is optional, our best efforts are likely to fail. Due to understandable anxiety, the student may prefer to stay home. Without making church attendance mandatory, we’ll never get the chance for trial and error. The church can’t force the student to come. But the parents can require cooperation of their student.
2. Parents are asked to support/trust our ministry team.
We’re going to try some new things with their student. We need the freedom to have some misses before we find a hit.
3. Parents must commit to providing timely transportation for their student.
Arriving late may mean their students misses the one thing we had planned to be their “success.” And leaving early could cause the student to miss a key spiritual growth opportunity.
Next week we’ll address five strategies for helping students with special needs succeed in youth ministry settings.
Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves around 90 individuals affected by special needs. Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish special needs inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage of life for this multi-site church.
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