Courtney on prom night.

Courtney on prom night.

I loved how Kurt made the point in the video blog last week that all of his students have “special needs.”  However, the reality is that some of our students have a unique set of challenges that require forethought, perspective and creativity in running our youth programming.

How do we approach those labeled with “special needs?”

Every disability Is Different:

Working with a student who has mental, emotional or processing delays may require you think differently about teaching and interacting.  Just because a parent shows up an tells you it is “Autism”  or “Down’s Syndrome,” that could mean a variety of things.  A person in a wheel chair may need you to help with the dynamics of getting in and out of spaces.  The blind and hard of hearing need to make sure they are not left out of movie clips or object lessons. Think of each individual as an individual.


Build a relationship with the parents:

Kurt and AC touched on this, but IT IS VITAL. Meet with the parents to discuss the students’ needs. You want to know what  type of physical  care is required?  Are there elements of their personality you need to learn?   Let them tell you everything.  Is the student prone to angry out bursts? What works at school? Would it be best to find a one on one mentor that is with them?  Keep communication lines with the parents open.  What is and isn’t going well?  They will have some insight.  Let them know you are on their side and love their child.  Remember they have been in this for awhile.  Treat them with love and respect.

Be Inclusive & Creative:

Let’s be honest.  This is a difficult topic because fully including a student with physical and mental challenges into your group takes work.   You may need to think through scenarios before you act on them.  The kid in the wheel chair wants to go with you to the amusement park?  How do you make that happen?  How do you play music for someone who is hearing impaired.

Don’t treat the “differently abled” student like they are a “Special Project:”

Yes,  we need to think about how to include them.  Yes, we may need to be creative in approach.  HOWEVER, Most of the time they are fully aware that they stand out already.  Be aware of talking down to them and about them, or being patronizing, even when you don’t mean to.

Be prepared for hard conversations:

My sister was entirely aware of what she did and did not have in her body and in her mind.  She wanted to know why it had to be this way.  Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.  Just let them remember they didn’t sin.  Their parents didn’t sin.  (Remember the story of the blind man in John 9).  We live in a fallen world that isn’t always fair.  None of us get it. Higher functioning students often suffer from depression and can even become cutters.  They desperately want to be “normal.”  Cry with them and point them to the one who has a love that is high and wide and deep and wraps them with hope.


Get to know both the students.  Let the sibling be their own person here, and if at all possible create an environment where they are not a care taker.  Each of them are struggling with their own sets of “challenges.” Avoid making assumptions about their personalities, abilities and relationship.

My sister passed away at 32 years old, the oldest living survivor of her condition.  For the last four years of her life she belonged to a body of believers who just loved her.  They embraced her for who she was.  She went to Bible study and they loved her insight and laughed at her terrible quirky jokes.  It was all she had been looking for.  A group of people who called themselves Christians who just thought of her as Courtney.  A group of people who got what it meant to love their neighbor as themselves.

For more great information on specifics of including disabled students into your programming,  check out these articles at Conversations On the Fringe:   CLICK HERE!

How are you walking with the disabled students, their parents and siblings in YOUR ministry?


If every teen you ministered to were the same, life would be easy.  But, each person that walks in through the door is different.  They are different by things in and out of their control and when you can embrace what makes them unique it will lead to some dynamic and powerful ministry.

Chances are there is at least one family in your church with a child who has special needs.  It can be an intimidating situation to approach because it’s something you’ve never prepared for facing.  You are conflicted because you want people to know that you are loving and open; however, you also don’t want to disrupt the flow of how you do ministry.

I’ve been blessed to have ministers and a coworker with a special needs educational background who have shown and challenged me in creating capacity for special needs in ministry.  Three pieces of advice that they have shared with me is to:

Find People With Passion – You care for special needs teens just as you care for any teen that walks in through your door; however, there are people in your community who are passionate for them.  What you want to do is plug these adults into your ministry as small group leaders or mentors.  Have them bridge the gap and kill any stereotypes or suspicions that the teens or other adults might have.  Pick their brains and learn from them so that you can be more educated on the subject.

Be Inclusive – Certain special needs provide certain limits; however, that should not prevent you from inviting them to be a part of your ministry.  If they are high functioning you really won’t notice much of a difference.  If they do require assistance ask their parent or another minister to give them direct support.  Either way don’t close them out because it’s complicated, embrace the relationship and allow God to lead.

Communicate With Parents – Every parent (whether of special needs or not) wants their child to fit in.  When you talk to the parent of a special needs child, chances are they will want to work with you because they want what is best for their kid.  Allow them to give you wisdom on their situation and insight on how to handle other teens.  Learn what might trigger their teen to be more comfortable or distracted.  Get to know their individual child so that you know how to best serve and guide them.

How you minister to that child and their family will depend on what the need is, who the parents are and what resources you have available.  But, if you truly want to be a ministry for Christ you need to make sure it’s filled with God’s unconditional and accepting love.  It might be a challenge to have special needs in your ministry; however, it’ll only make you better.

How are you approaching special needs in your ministry?  If you aren’t why?

Chris Wesley is the Director of Student Ministry at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD. You can read more about his ministry and life on his excellent blog Marathon Youth Ministry.