Welcome to Week Nine in our current series: Applying “Orange” Principles in Ministry to Families of Kids With Hidden Disabilities. Today, we’ll examine strategies for enhancing spiritual growth in kids with disabilities. This week’s discussion covers pages 184-203 in Think Orange.
This past Wednesday, we reviewed the available data on what helps kids to grow spiritually. I’m not aware of any research looking specifically at the topic of spiritual growth in kids with disabilities, but I am aware of MANY ways in which disabilities (more specifically, hidden disabilities) pose obstacles to spiritual growth. Today, we’ll look at the catalysts to spiritual growth discussed in Chapter Nine of Think Orange, and propose ten strategies that could be useful in ministry to kids with hidden disabilities and their families.
In the Orange model, five main avenues of spiritual growth are considered:
- Life-changing truth
- Spiritual disciplines
- Personal ministry
- Significant relationships
- Pivotal circumstances
A key component of the Orange strategy involves the intentional involvement of leaders into the lives of our children and teenagers who partner with their parents in the work that God is doing. Churches serve a valuable role by offering another trusted adult to help their sons and daughters interpret life situations. To quote Reggie Joiner,
“Children have a better chance of understanding and interpreting life-changing truth when multiple influencers in their lives are all saying the same thing.”
In the Orange strategy, provision of consistent leaders who walk with kids and parents for multiple years, staying connected through life transitions, is a high value.
Key faith skills taught in the context of these relationships with leaders include the ability to:
- Navigate the Bible
- Personalize Scripture
- Dialogue with God
- Articulate Your faith
- Worship with your life
So far, so good. All of these faith skills are consistent with what was found to be effective in our review of the research. But what if a kid has a significant emotional, behavioral or developmental disorder that makes it more difficult to participate in the program or stick with the program? Here are ten suggestions…some are demonstrably effective, some are still working hypotheses based upon 25 years of experience as a clinician and many years of active involvement in churches. All of these suggestions are applicable to any kid or family being served by your church, and are applicable to kids with and without identified disabilities:
- Churches can help kids and parents prioritize what to study in the Bible, using technology to push the content to the parents. Kids with conditions such as ADHD (and their parents with ADHD) have difficulty setting priorities. Because church is not a part of the daily routine and may be noisy and chaotic at transition times, kids have more trouble remembering to bring home content you want them to share with parents. You can’t depend upon kids to get the content home or to share it with parents. Instead, you need to have a system of getting parents the resources they need that doesn’t depend upon their child.
- Churches can help provide reminders to kids and parents to practice spiritual disciplines. Kids with many HDs need lots of reminders. So do their parents. My office might be empty if our support staff didn’t make reminder calls.
- Churches can help parents initiate spiritual conversations with their kids. One advantage of having a hidden disability is that kids with HDs may have more time available for conversations with parents. Difficulties with gross or fine motor coordination, self-regulation or social relationships are frequently impediments to participation in time-consuming extracurricular activities (sports, clubs at school) that compete for time with family.
- Churches can be intentional about building into relationships with parents of kids with HDs. One very large, multisite church where our Key Ministry team offered training had developed a working hypothesis that kids with hidden disabilities were more likely to be inconsistent attenders. Their hypothesis seems plausible…If divorce rates are higher in families of kids with disabilities, children may have an every other week visitation with the non-custodial parent. Because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, kids with disabilities that impact the capacity for self-discipline often have parents with difficulties maintaining consistency with spiritual practices. Do your leaders call parents if a child in their small group hasn’t come for two or three weeks in a row? If your church uses small groups as a strategy for helping parents to be accountable to one another, would a divorced parent feel welcome, or are your groups “couples only?”
- Kids with HD’s (especially anxiety) struggle with transitions from one age group to the next. They tend to fall away from the church during the transitions from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school ministry. Younger kids who are shy or anxious can feel intimidated moving to larger environments when they see older kids who have already formed relationships with one another. What if your small group leaders transition with the kids as they enter into new age-grouped ministry environments?
- Social media may be a tool to draw kids into relationships at church. Up to 10% of school age kids experience anxiety disorders. Getting kids with anxiety disorders together to do groups is like herding cats. My epiphany on this topic occurred when I saw that a high school kid I’d enrolled in a social anxiety study had 609 “friends” on Facebook. What if you streamed your middle school and high school ministry content and made available leaders to facilitate small group discussion online, with the ultimate goal of getting kids comfortable enough with one another to meet at church?
- Be intentional about helping parents, together with their kids with HDs to identify their gifts and talents and give them opportunities to use them. The focus in school with so many of our kids with disabilities is on weaknesses. Church can be a place where kids can feel good about participating in the expansion of God’s Kingdom.
- Create opportunities for families to serve together with their kids with HDs. Respite events serving as an outreach to families of kids in the surrounding community with disabilities are a great way for kids of middle or high school age to serve together with their parents.
- Give kids and youth opportunities for meaningful service at church. Many kids with HDs are “doers.” If you’re looking for a successful model of inclusion in meaningful service activities, look no further than Cincinnati Vineyard’s Summer of Service experience.
- Finally, develop inclusive environments for families of kids with HDs, and have supports in place that allow parents, siblings to fully participate. Make sure you have supports in place (access to appropriately trained child care) if you expect families to connect through your weekend worship, small group, large group, teaching and serving environments.
This coming week, our Key Ministry team is honored to participate in the first Annual Children’s Ministry Telesummit, sponsored by Pajama Conference. My presentation on The Impact of the Three A’s… ADHD, Anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on Spiritual Development in Kids will be available continuously throughout the day on Tuesday, April 5. Harmony’s discussion on Outward-Focused Inclusion Ministry will be available throughout the day on Thursday, April 7. Katie Wetherbee presents her workshop on All in the Family: Practical Strategies For Communicating With Parents of Children With Disabilities throughout the day on Friday, April 8. The entire Telesummit is available free of charge, and the sessions are available via phone, Skype or Web. Download the Telesummit program here, or register for the conference here.