Editor’s note: Bonnie Lyn Smith contacted us for assistance in starting a once-monthly FOCUS group at her church for parents of children with special education needs, mental health issues, and physical disabilities. In Bonnie’s words, “the main idea is to have parents connect and inform them of resources (keeping a notebook) in the community from everything from therapies to good books and online sites (yours!) to good talks in our area (Boston). We will have speakers 3-4 times a year from within our church in various specialties around these needs. And it’s a place to network so parents with similar struggles can both meet up outside the church, and we can brainstorm ideas of how to best support their children within the church. We will also have some time set aside for prayer support.”
Bonnie asked us what our experience was with groups like hers and I had to acknowledge that we didn’t really have any and the culture she and the leadership of her church are seeking to create is very unique. I invited Bonnie to share her church’s story, and invite our readers to share their comments and experiences with the team at her church, as their support community is definitely a “work in process.” Here’s Bonnie…
When my youngest son was three years old, we were told that fine motor coordination was an area of weakness for him and focus was difficult. Depression and anxiety showed tiny pieces of themselves, but we didn’t really recognize them at the time. Through a process many years long, we added several specialists to our intervention and slowly put together the pieces of the complex puzzle of disability within my son. We began to recognize the presence of sensory integration issues, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, as well as other hidden disabilities.
As a Christian family, we found it difficult to find a church home that would provide the extra support we needed to participate in worship. Our value was to worship together and find ways to communicate love and God’s truth to our own children and to the others we had been meeting through community-based support groups. We searched and found a church, Calvary Chapel Chelmsford, whose leadership was proactive in meeting the needs of families like my own.
As my husband and I started teaching junior high Sunday School, we discovered an increasing number of parents with children with various disabilities (physical, social-emotional, mental, and educational) within our congregation. As a church body, we were clearly doing something to create an environment of compassion because these families would stay! A few of them had run through several churches before they came to us, having had negative, hurtful experiences and feeling great shame and embarrassment about how their children were handled. Some had to stay with their children almost every week in those churches because nobody was equipped to manage children with disabilities. Church became another place where they could not count on rest, relief or spiritual nourishment; they felt they needed to be their child’s aide during the Sunday School hour because nobody else was doing it.
Seeing the great need as well as the positive experience these families were having in our church, I started to consider starting a focus/support group but wondered what it might look like?
How on earth would we do this? Would anyone come? Are the needs so great we can’t meet them? Can we be honest about what we are/are not offering? How do we nurture and minister while acknowledging our own limitations? Where should we stretch ourselves? What is reasonable to offer, and how do we protect hearts from more disappointment?
I felt strongly that, whatever we did, we needed to clearly define our offering from the very beginning. These families had already absorbed plenty of hurt and I didn’t want to promise anything that wasn’t within the scope of what we were able to do.
In the meantime, I attended a monthly support group in my town for parents of children with mental health challenges. I observed the way it was run: part speaker/topic and sometimes just a question-and-answer, support group-style. Parents could come unburden themselves and receive not only a listening ear and a hug, but other parents walking similar paths could encourage each other, share resources, and network outside the group.
When I discovered Key Ministry and Church4EveryChild, I read every article I could. The mission here coincided beautifully with all of the questions inside my head. I prayed for close to a year and approached my children’s ministry team and pastor. Not only were they supportive, but they expressed they had long been sensing this need but weren’t sure where to go with it. The heart was already there.
In August of this year, our church started announcing the new focus group, and in September we met for the first time. We call ourselves: “Supporting Parents with Special Needs Children”—A networking and support group for parents of students with educational needs, physical disabilities, and/or mental health challenges.
We meet once a month on a Sunday night to accomplish the following:
- Network with other parents on similar journeys, with the potential to continue in supportive relationships outside the group
- Share resources and specialists
- Receive printouts and web site links for helpful resources (and book references)
- Brief prayer time to cover the overall concerns in the group (and keep a group prayer journal going to pray on our own)
- (As needed) discuss any ways children’s ministry could better serve children in these categories
Our families represent public education, charter schools, and homeschooling.
One of the biggest hurdles was the understandable concern for privacy. Every time we meet, I briefly review how important confidentiality is. We reassure parents that their child’s name and disability will not be on any papers or electronic messages coming from us.
Some parents are not on Facebook or other social media, so they elected for a private Google group email where outside the meeting times, parents can send questions to the group about anything from special education law to the best place to pursue a neuropsychological evaluation or social skills coaching.
After consulting with Key Ministry, our church is now taking steps to put a tab on our website to communicate that we are a church that cares about families with special needs and disabilities.
We plan to bring in people from our church in fields such as occupational therapy, family therapy and developmental disabilities along with local agencies, sports therapy, and home health aides with the idea that every third time we meet, we will have a specialist (or a fellow parent who has walked ahead of us) field a few questions they were given in advance. We voted to function as an open-forum support group on the other occasions we meet.
While I am also a parent in the group, my role is mostly facilitator and administrator. My hope is that as we offer a place where families can experience more dialogue, they will feel more comfortable within the church for worship services, family Bible studies, and special events, include their kids in children’s ministry, and feel more free to share how we can better accommodate their children. We also intend for the group to create a more understanding culture within the church, gradually educating other parents without children with special needs as well as volunteers within the children’s ministry department.
We currently have a buddy system in place where mature teens and/or adults float to assist in classes where children need to have a power walk or sensory break. This enables the teacher to continue the lesson, is less disruptive, and offers the child an understanding buddy to bring them out of the classroom when they are dysregulated. These “floaters” participate with all children in class so those with needs do not feel singled out.
We are in the beginning stages, but perhaps the most beautiful firstfruits have been watching the healing that goes both ways when parents who have been on the journey longer come alongside those who are just beginning to deal with these struggles. The support brings a sense of greater purpose to parents sharing what they have learned with others.
Our driving verses are from Hebrews and 1 Thessalonians. It’s not about solving everyone’s problems. It’s about coming alongside as a church, encouraging, keeping the hope of Christ ever before us, being prayerful, strengthening each other, letting the Body use its different giftings, and watching the faithfulness of God in the deepest places of our hearts for our children.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV)
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11,16-17 (ESV)
Author and Columnist Bonnie Lyn Smith writes about parenting, marriage, mental health advocacy, special education, faith in the valleys of life, the healing cloak of Jesus, drawing healthy boundaries, relational healing, renewing our minds, walking with a Holy God, and much ado about grace at Espressos of Faith and Your Tewksbury Today. Her book, Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day, offers anecdotes on all of these subjects and Scripture for each situation as well as Book Discussion Questions for deeper exploration. Bonnie’s book is available at Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble.