Communication Breakdown…Doing Ministry Together Without Diagnostic Labels

This is the third post of a four part series: No Labels…Should Diagnosis Matter at Church? Today, we look at how church staff and volunteers in disability ministry can communicate with one another and effectively serve kids and families without depending upon diagnostic labels.

When we began this series of posts last Sunday, we examined the importance of diagnostic criteria for facilitating communication between clinicians and for helping them organize their thoughts in the service of developing a plan to “treat” the patient/client. This process is very necessary in treating diseases or disorders, but seems very much out of place when it comes to welcoming kids and families into communities of faith, sharing Christ’s love with them, and including them in activities and practices to help them grow to be more like Christ.

Using diagnostic language works in hospitals, clinics and physician offices, where nearly all the staff involved with direct service has been through rigorous professional training and a licensure process that ensures that everyone knows the common language. When professional people with experience in caring for persons with disabilities volunteer at church (this includes medical and mental health personnel, but also teachers with experience in special education) they can easily slip into the language they use at work. It’s easy to see the problem such language could create at church…everyone at work may know what they’re talking about when they use the words “bipolar disorder,” dyslexia or Tourette’s syndrome, but not everyone volunteering in a church will understand those terms.

If we decide not to use a medical-based model as a common language around which to serve kids and families in churches, we need a common language for communication with one another that can be readily understood by every staff person and every volunteer at church. I’ll argue that it’s best to to use everyday language while guided by a set of communication principles.

My Key Ministry colleague Katie Wetherbee (pictured with kids) is in the middle of an outstanding series on confidentiality and communication at church. I’m going to encourage you to check out her posts on a thought process to guide written and verbal communication at church, strategies for maintaining confidentiality, and describing behavior in a non-judgmental manner. In addition to Katie’s excellent resources, I’d encourage church staff and volunteers to be intentional in using “people-first language.

None of this is to say that there isn’t an incredibly vital role for trained clinicians in your church’s inclusion ministry. If you’re fortunate to have physicians, psychologists, speech and language pathologists or special education teachers available to you who can borrow from their training and experience in ways that inform the rest of the team how to more effectively administer to kids and families, by all means, take advantage of their expertise!

On several occasions, I’ve done observations and assessments of individual kids presenting challenges to churches served by Key Ministry. When I’ve been asked to do this, I’ve made it clear to parents that we’re not performing a clinical service, although I will call the child’s pediatrician or treating clinician at the parents’ request to share my observations. A consultation is unlikely to be effective if I’m unable to communicate my thoughts and ideas to the ministry team in clear and practical language.

Coming Sunday: Tying it All Together

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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