In this post from our blog series: Applying “Orange” Principles in Ministry to Families of Kids With Disabilities we’ll to explore the role of the family in the spiritual development of kids with disabilities…and how churches can be most helpful in supporting families in helping their kids to grow in faith…
This discussion covers pages 42-77 in Think Orange.
If I could take what I’ve learned from my day job and share it with leaders in the church, the most important insights would echo the content Reggie included in this chapter. If there were one “takeaway” for leaders in children’s or family ministry serving the folks we see in our practice, it would be this:
“You can choose to believe that most parents, regardless of their baggage, have the desire and capacity to improve…Your perception of parents’ potential to change can drive how you respond to them.” (Think Orange, Page 47)
Parents of kids with disabilities are often dragging along quite a bit of baggage. Many of them have their own struggles and limitations that undermine the best of intentions when it comes to their personal spiritual development and the spiritual development of their kids. Follow-through may be difficult for many parents, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. The church plays an invaluable role by walking with them, encouraging them and helping them to take the next step.
Reggie outlined five “family values” that form the foundation of the role of the home in the “Orange” philosophy. Each provides unique challenges to families of kids with disabilities.
Value#1: Imagine the end: Reggie challenges parents to contemplate the question: Who do I really want them (my children) to become?
Having served in the leadership of two churches in addition to my role with Key Ministry, I’m surprised at how many highly committed Christian parents have never asked themselves that question or contemplated how the choices we make for our kids on a daily basis help support our desires for their spiritual development. That issue aside, one of the challenges the parent of a child with a disability faces is the inability to foresee their child’s future in the same way as other parents.
When I’m meeting with parents to share the results of a psychiatric assessment, the most common questions (aside from questions about the advantages and disadvantages of specific treatments) usually relate to what they can expect for their child’s future. How long will they need treatment? How will this condition affect their education? Will they be successful? Will they be popular? Will they develop a substance use problem or land in jail? Will they be able to support themselves? Will they be happy?
The church can help by providing kids with and without disabilities opportunities for meaningful service that takes advantage of their unique gifts and talents…according to Paul, we all have gifts to contribute to the church. I’m aware of a number of kids with disabilities in churches we’ve served who have developed ministries serving younger children with similar conditions. The church is a perfect place for kids of all abilities to discover opportunities for important service in God’s Kingdom.
Value#2: Fight for the heart: Reggie accurately described a majority of kids in my community when he described them as “experience-rich and relationship-poor.” The nature of the disabilities we see in the kids passing through our office is such that parents often take a more active role in monitoring academic progress and encouraging social activity, resulting in ample opportunity for conflict. Just today, I had a parent making reference to the “homework wars” with her high-school age son. I see situations on a weekly basis in which the parent has torched their relationship with their child in order to get them through the seventh grade or engaged in physical confrontations over the use of a computer or game system. It’s hard for parents to reflect the value they place on the relationship with their child in the midst of the daily struggles.
The church can help by providing the parents with opportunities for a little rest and respite to allow them to regain perspective on how they can best build relationships with their kids based upon trust. The church can also be a place where parents can build relationships with leaders and other parents who can help provide wise counsel in the midst of chaos.
Value #3: Make it personal. Parents can’t pass on to their kids faith that they themselves don’t possess. Kids need to see their parents living out their faith on a daily basis, in both words and actions.
I’ve found many church leaders to be very short-sighted in their conceptualization of disability ministry, resulting in the need for more family-centered approaches. How are the kids in the family supposed to come to know and love Jesus if we’re not prepared to welcome the parents to church…and all the other activities at church we’ve found to be helpful in facilitating spiritual growth?
I had a conversation in my office last week with a parent who started a small group in their home for couples with kids with autism spectrum disorders. The group members pay for specialized child care so they can enjoy their fellowship and study time with minimal interruption. This person wanted to offer the small group to other families attending their church (where small groups are integral to the church’s strategy), but was refused because their group didn’t meet frequently enough (because of the need for child care). The bottom line…If you’re a church leader, we’re happy to help you do what you need to do to get the parents into whatever environment you think helps them to grow spiritually. If they grow in small groups, make sure someone can care for their child while they’re in small group. If parents grow in your worship services, let’s figure out something for the kids while the parents are in worship. The win occurs every time a child with a disability or their family has a meaningful contact with a local church.
Value #4: Create a Rhythm. Families of kids with disabilities are more likely to experience disruptions in the normal rhythms of life. Here’s an example…Mornings are often the time greatest stress in families of kids with ADHD. Kids with ADHD often need constant redirection while getting ready for school and much time and frustration is spent organizing what’s needed for the day before prescription medication has fully kicked in. Dinner is often brief…Ever seen a kid with ADHD try to sit at the table for conversation after they’re done eating? Bedtime often involves considerable yelling and duress because kids aren’t sleepy, haven’t finished homework or are enthralled with their game system of choice.
Churches can help by providing parents of kids with disabilities with the resources to initiate spiritual discussions and support the practice of spiritual disciplines within the rhythms that work best for the family. The folks we see in our office spend a fair amount of time driving to therapy appointments, social skills groups and tutors. Many kids with hidden disabilities will process discussions more effectively one on one in a car with their parent than they will across the dinner table or at bedtime. While many of our leaders in children’s ministry are gifted communicators, most of the time, parents of kids with a disability will often be more effective at communicating important truths with their child affected by a disability than the most talented children’s pastor.
Technology may become a valuable resource to churches seeking to resource parents. What if parents got a reminder pushed to them through their i-Phones while sitting at a traffic light after school of the main theme discussed at children’s worship two days before? Or questions suitable for either 1:1 or family discussions? Matt McKee is a children’s pastor connected with Think Orange who leads a company (R04R) that helps churches develop apps that can be easily adapted to help serve families of kids with disabilities.
Value #5: Widen the Circle. The families we serve in our practice frequently experience great social isolation. The parents don’t regularly get out with other couples. Kids with disabilities (and their siblings) are less likely to be involved in the extracurricular activities that lead to social networks among families. Kids with disabilities are less likely to have friends who invite them to church activities. These families are often most in need of what the church is uniquely positioned to provide…an extended network of adult role models who can demonstrate what it means to be a follower of Christ and reinforce the lessons parents model at home as to who God is and why He can be trusted.
Churches simply need to be intentional in their implementation of strategies that encourage the development of relationships between kids with and without disabilities with adults who model what it means to be a follower of Christ. One strategy involves providing opportunities for kids and youth to serve in meaningful ways with adults from the church, which also gives parents the opportunity to identify and cultivate their children’s spiritual gifts. Another strategy involves “relational respite”…churches are intentional about connecting families making use of respite events with small groups within the church who then provide ongoing respite care along with opportunities for relationships with families in the church who may or may not have children with disabilities.
Photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.
Ever wonder if the often-quoted statistics about divorce rates in families impacted by disability are true? Check out Key Ministry’s resource: Special Needs and Divorce…What Does the Data Say? In this article, Dr. Steve Grcevich reviews the available research literature on the topic of disability and divorce…and draws some surprising conclusions! Check it out…and share with your friends!