If Not Special Needs Ministry, What Should We Call It?

We’re concluding a miniseries begun a week ago Tuesday on the question of whether we should abandon use of the term “Special Needs Ministry.” Thus far, we’ve made the argument that most kids with disabilities resulting in impediments to church participation and spiritual growth would not view themselves (or be viewed by their parents) as having “special needs.” We’ve pointed out the absence of any mutually agreed upon definition of the term “special needs.” We’ve discussed the importance of “people first” language and the risk that kids and families might be hurt or offended at the notion of being served by a “special needs ministry.” We’ll wrap up today by considering the pros and cons of alternative language to describe the ministry we help churches to offer.

When I consider alternatives to the use of the term “Special Needs Ministry,” two specific words come to mind…disability and inclusion. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of both terms.

The definition of an individual with a disability is a person who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having such impairment. So far, so good. I have NO problem making the argument that a kid with a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits their ability to pursue spiritual growth and fully participate in the ministry of a local church qualifies for having a disability.

Parents of kids who need support or assistance in school will also have an easier time seeing how their child might benefit from a “disability ministry” as opposed to a special needs ministry…kids are identified with learning disabilities in school. They need a qualifying diagnosis to receive a formal 504 (accommodation) plan. This terminology helps us to capture the broadest possible group of kids with emotional, behavioral or learning difficulties who might struggle in the types of environments they’re likely to encounter at church.

One downside to the term “disability ministry” is that we’re putting kids into a category of service based upon their weaknesses as opposed to their strengths. As Christians, we want to reinforce the concept to our kids that their identity is based upon who they are in Christ and not some internal or external characteristic that poses an impediment to their ability to become who they were created to be. Another downside is that many kids who need extra assistance at church have never actually been identified with a disability and have parents who would experience great hurt if someone from church suggested that their child had a condition qualifying as a disability.

In an earlier series, we discussed the importance of avoiding the use of diagnostic labels at church. If we use the term “disability ministry” we need to be very intentional in building flexibility into the ministry offered through churches so that kids who have difficulty functioning in age-appropriate church programming are able to get the assistance they need in the absence of any recognized disability. We also need to have the capacity to serve kids when necessary without their parents being aware that their child’s needs are being met through a “disability ministry.”

I also see advantages to the term “inclusion ministry.” Parents of kids with conditions that pose barriers to church participation and spiritual growth will identify with the term “inclusion” from school. Inclusion speaks to the desire common to parents of kids with disabilities for their children to have as many of the experiences that “typical” kids enjoy and, to as great a degree as possible, receive the same treatment as other kids. Many kids are exquisitely sensitive (especially during early adolescence) to being seen as “different” from their peers. Inclusion captures the sense that their needs will be met in the “least restrictive” approach possible. An additional advantage I see to “inclusion ministry” is that the concept might be an easier “sell” to senior leadership in churches that are reluctant from an operational standpoint to launch new “programs.” A strategy that is centered around “including” kids and families into the experiences and environments deemed essential to spiritual growth by church leadership is likely to be viewed more favorably than one that is seen as having the potential to competing with other initiatives for volunteers and financial resources.

So…what’s the downside to the term “inclusion ministry?” Do a Google search using the phrase “inclusion in the church” and you’ll find two primary alternative uses for the term altogether different in  meaning from welcoming persons with disabilities. “Inclusion” has been used to refer to a doctrine that teaches all men and women are saved regardless of faith or the lives they’ve led. The other alternative use applies to the practice in many mainline and Episcopal churches of welcoming and affirming individuals practicing an openly lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender lifestyle into all aspects of the life of the church, including leadership positions.

All things considered, I would favor the terms disability ministry or disability inclusion to describe the ministry our team resources and supports in churches. My hope in initiating this discussion is to spark leaders in the church to see a bigger game. The population of families who have children with what we’ve traditionally referred to as “hidden disabilities” is enormously larger than the population who have children with the physical or intellectual disabilities that come to mind in association with the term special needs. Most children’s pastors have all they can handle to serve families of kids with special needs and our team makes a practice of meeting churches wherever they’re at. But I’ll continue to communicate in a manner that constantly reminds us of the need to address the obstacles that prevent kids with less visible disabilities and their families from fully participating in the life of the church.

Key Ministry’s mission is to help churches reach families affected by disability by providing FREE resources to pastors, volunteers, and individuals who wish to create an inclusive ministry environment.  We invite you to partner with us as we advance the Kingdom through our collaboration with the local and global church.  We have designed our Key Catalog to create fun opportunities for our ministry supporters to join in our mission.  The Key Catalog includes a variety of gift options for every budget.  A gift from the Key Catalog also makes for an amazing gift for a friend or loved one who is passionate about seeing the Body of Christ become more inclusive of people with disabilities.  Click here to check it out!

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.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Controversies, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Strategies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to If Not Special Needs Ministry, What Should We Call It?

  1. Sugel says:

    In addition, churches should move forward with some sense of urgency to accommodate children with special needs already participating in their congregation. While it may not be possible to meet each immediate need for every hour of programming, the church staff and children’s ministry team will at some point proceed (and accommodate) purely on faith. Every church already engaged in successful disability ministry has stories of accepting a child while silently praying God would work out the details and provide protection and sustainment for everyone involved.


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