Is it ever okay to exclude a child at church? The question seems simple, but it isn’t. A blanket no without any more discussion isn’t enough. Complexities come out in more specific situational questions, so let’s walk through a few together that have landed in my inbox lately…
- One of our kids has cochlear implants to hear, and they can’t get wet. We’re having a water day at Vacation Bible School. Do I come up with something different for him?
Ask the parents what they do in water play situations. They’ll probably have a good answer for you. If they’d prefer he sit out, then go ahead and plan an activity that can include him too (perhaps with at least one of the full group activities being dry enough for him to fully join in). But my guess is that an effective solution is waiting for you if you ask his caregivers. Sometimes we see a problem when all we need to do is have a conversation.
- Our church meets in small groups in homes around the area. The kids play off to the side or sit with their parents during the discussion time. One of our kids – I don’t know his diagnosis – doesn’t handle that well and acts out, and the family says they’re just going to stop coming because that’s easier. What should I do?
Come alongside the family to create a better option! Maybe one group can have a paid or volunteer childcare worker with the kids in another room? Or possibly a different small group might offer a better dynamic for all of them? Or maybe the current group would work just fine if you’d be willing to humbly ask, “I feel like this isn’t working for you, and we’d like to help make it better. What things does he like to do? In what environments does your son thrive? How can we make our small group environment one of those places?”
On the other hand, if you say “this is just how we’ve always done small groups and we’re not changing it,” then you’re saying you value your small group structure more than you value this child and his family.
- Our Sunday night kids’ program is loud and active, and some of our kids with autism or sensory issues don’t do well in that environment. We don’t have the volunteers to do something separate for them, and I’m not in the position of leadership to change the program yet to be more accommodating. Is it okay to tell parents this program might not be ideal for their child?
Ideally, you’d modify the environment for all kids so these children can join in. If that’s not possible, you’d create something separate. Even though a separate program might feel exclusionary, it can be the best way to meaningfully include the child in church.
It sounds like you’ve considered both of those options, though. Could I gently suggest that you reconsider them? Maybe there’s someone who can help be a change-maker with you.
If not, though, make sure you are saying yes to these families in as many other ways as possible. If you have to extend a no for one program but are including the child at every other turn, then the rejection doesn’t sting so much. Also, make sure you communicate your desire for the child’s best when you discuss this with the parents, saying something like, “I love John! He’s doing great on Sunday morning and has started joining the group during storytime then. We’re so glad he’s there! But I know our Sunday evening program is overwhelming to kids who aren’t sensory sensitive, because [describe your program], so I’m not sure he’ll be happy there. What do you think?” This invites the parents into the decision making process instead of just saying no, and the wording communicates the child’s needs as the driving factor for the concern.
- A child consistently injures or bullies other children so the environment isn’t safe for them. Is it wrong to ban the child from coming?
Every child should be safe at church. Before we jump to banning the child, though, consider strategies for including her instead. Are you viewing this as a disability or as behavioral choices? I define a disability as anything that hinders a child from full inclusion in the church, and that seems to be the reality here. In this case, an emotional or behavioral issue is creating a social problem in the classroom. What would you do for a child with a physical or developmental disability? The same solutions – one-on-one support or a smaller classroom or trained teachers or parent help – can apply here.
In some rare cases, though, a child is reactive and dangerous to himself or others to such a degree that inclusion with other children is not wise, at least for some period of time. (Please, though, practice two cautions here: 1. Don’t make that decision without involving a behavioral specialist or mental health professional, because they may be able to train you in such a way that the issue becomes manageable with new tools they provide. Spending the money to pay someone for their time to help in these situations is worth the investment, and 2. Communicate with parents on an ongoing basis about behavioral concerns so that once you reach this point, no one is surprised or caught off guard.) If a break in attendance is needed, though, define the time period. Saying “we want and need your child here, but we need time to work on a plan to include your child safely, so we’re going to take the next month to work on this and check in with you weekly to keep you involved in the process” is far more loving than “no, you’re not welcome.” Then, get creative about how to continue including the child in church without being in class. Maybe someone visits once a week or so with the lessons he’s missed. Perhaps you budget some funds for a paid caregiver for the child at home so that his parents can come to church. No matter what you do, though, I urge you to help the family connect with mental health professionals who can help the child in ways in which the church is not equipped.
- Our high school group takes a ski trip each year. One of our students uses a wheelchair and needs assistance for basic skills, including sitting up. Is it fair to exclude her from the trip?
Talk to her parents. They may have already decided it’s a no go for them, just as other families decide not to go for their own personal reasons. If she does want to come, though, consider what she can do (maybe hang out in the ski lodge with those who are taking a break?) and how she can have her needs met (what’s involved in her feeding? toileting? clothing? sleeping?). If you have to say no, explain why with compassion, and remember that excluding a child from one trip isn’t excluding a child from church altogether.
In short, no, it’s not okay to exclude a child at church, but sometimes including them in the same way as every other child isn’t a common sense approach either.
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
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Thank you so much for writing this! It includes so much practical wisdom and covers some very typical examples. Most of all, it displays the heart of Christ as we work through challenging situations and it holds us accountable to responding with persevering, creative, compassionate ministry even when it’s hard (which is what Jesus always did). One of my favorite books about leading disability ministry falls very short in responding to this question and that made me so sad. Everything else about the book is fantastic except when it came to a discussion about how to deal with difficult behaviors/situations. I’m so relieved to read this very thoughtful response to the issue and see that other leaders agree we need to do better than just “release” a student/family from a program because things are rough. I hope and pray this way of thinking and responding will increasingly become the manner or typical response in church culture.