Developing every child’s gift
The minivans and SUVs slowed as they approached the church driveway. Drivers were greeted by the parking lot team. These men, wearing bright orange vests, managed the traffic flow, ensuring safety and efficiency. All of them showed the seriousness of their job, their brows furrowed in concentration. All of them, that is, except for Jacob.*
Dwarfed by the men surrounding him, 8-year-old Jacob gleefully waved to each car. His smile permeated the tinted car windows, infusing warmth into each vehicle. While other attendants were silent, except for blasts on their whistles, Jacob, proudly wearing his very own orange vest, shouted “Good morning!” to all.
One delighted attender stopped Jacob’s mother in the church hallway. “I always try to get into Jacob’s lane in the parking lot,” she enthusiastically commented. “He just starts my worship out in such a wonderful way!”
Jacob’s mother grinned. “Well,” she said, “That is his ministry.” She then explained that Jacob had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Maintaining attention for the entire 75-minute Sunday school class was simply exhausting for him. As a solution, a pastor suggested that Jacob might like to serve on the church’s welcome team … in the parking lot. Every week he attended Sunday school for 45 minutes. He then donned his orange vest and joined his team. The opportunity to move was a relief to him after sitting for such a long time. But it was also a phenomenal use of his gifts! People entering the lot felt welcomed by his exuberant spirit and contagious joy!
Often, when we think about planning for children with disabilities, we focus on their needs so that we can effectively teach and include them. While our intentions are good, we sometimes fail to seek and use the unique gifts of children with special needs. We cannot lose sight of this truth from 1 Corinthians 12:
“For the body is not one member, but many. But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.”
That last verse sets the tone for service in the church! With this in mind, ministry leaders should actively identify and nurture the gifts of all children, including those with disabilities. Here’s how.
Seek and Find
Scripture tells us that everyone has at least one gift. Therefore, volunteers and leaders should take time to observe students and discern their strengths. For example, Andrew, a third grader with autism, possesses a superior interest in clocks. Shannon Dingle, Access Ministry Coordinator at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, reflects on several children in her program: “One of our kids who is a sensory seeker with autism likes to dump things out. Her role during the story time, in which her teachers use manipulatives, is to dump out the bin of characters for them. Another child—this one with autism—loves to blow up balloons and let them fly around the room; this is now the signal teachers use to alert the class that it’s time to move from the opening activity time to the Bible story. These inclusive acts required much from the teachers, but each taught the child that he/she was valuable and, at the same time, demonstrated their value to the rest of the class.”
Make Meaningful Modifications
Children with disabilities may need accommodations when participating in service opportunities. For example, a child who struggles with sensory sensitivities may have difficulty shaking hands when serving as a greeter. Although other greeters may shake hands or hug as people enter the church, allowing a child to simply smile and offer a warm “hello” can be perfectly appropriate. This simple accommodation creates a comfortable opportunity for service. Other accommodations might include serving for a shorter length of time to accommodate attention spans, or providing extra supervision or assistance with tasks. Finally, children with disabilities might need an opportunity to practice. Maggie, a fourth grader, benefitted from rehearsing altar-server responsibilities several times before doing it for a church service.
Service opportunities outside of the church may require more in-depth planning. One student with autism expressed an intense desire to accompany his small group on an overnight mission project. Leaders were concerned that the crowded sleeping quarters would create frustration for this student; he needed a quiet break from others at night. With careful communication and deliberate planning, a separate, but supervised sleeping area was created. The leaders reflected that this small effort resulted in opportunities for this student to share his heart for service with peers and the community.
We sometimes focus so heavily on meeting kids’ needs that we forget they are co-laborers in the Kingdom! “Attitude matters as much as action,” Dingle asserts. “In helping children identify their gifts, we are communing with them as fellow members of the body of Christ. In true community, there’s no room for condescension. The world values some gifts as more important than others; God’s Word declares that each of His children is perfectly gifted according to His plan and for His purposes.” Barbara Newman, Director of Church Services for CLC Network, agrees. In her devotional book Body Building, she describes the profoundly positive impact a young adult with Down Syndrome had on parents coping with their own child’s diagnosis. By using his outstanding memory and friendly demeanor to serve as a greeter, he allayed the family’s fears and gave them hope. “Could any worship planning committee come up with that idea?” Newman wonders. “Doubt it. But, when churches utilize the gifts of each person in God’s service, it allows God to use each one in ways we can’t even hope to imagine.”
*names have been changed