My day job is serving my state convention as their special needs ministry consultant. Every day I’m talking to churches about how to start or strengthen their disability ministries so every family has access to the gospel and a church home. In that role and at my own church where I serve as the Inclusion Coordinator for Special Needs Families, I think there are big changes coming to churches that will affect special needs families. There are also three opportunities that I’m excited about! Let’s talk through those today so we can better understand what’s happening in our churches and how our calling as missionaries to other caregivers has never been more important!

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Episode 60- Changes I See Happening in Churches in 2021 That Will Impact Special-Needs Families

Hi friends, this is Self-Care and Soul Care for the Caregiver, and I’m your host Sandra Peoples. To us, self-care isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. We need to take better care of ourselves so we can care for those God has entrusted to us.

This is episode 60, and today we’re talking about the changes I see happening in churches that will impact special-needs families. My day job is serving my state convention as their special needs ministry consultant. Every day I’m talking to churches about how to start or strengthen their disability ministries so every family has access to the gospel and a church home. Last week I co-hosted the All Access Disability Ministry Conference, so I talked to disability ministry leaders from around the country about what’s happening in their churches and the challenges they are facing. In my church, I’m the Inclusion Coordinator for Special Needs Families and I’m the pastor’s wife. Lee and I talk often about the families we haven’t seen come back to church yet and how we can reach out to them. I’m also dealing with challenges that keep me from serving those families when they do come back! But I see opportunities for the church to serve in new ways and for parents like us to fulfill our role as missionaries.

In this episode, we’ll talk through what I’m seeing in my church, my state, and in churches around the country. It matters to our self-care because church is where many of us build bonds and have our strongest relationships. It matters to our soul care because church is where we meet together to worship, learn, and serve. So let’s jump into why we are seeing so many changes, what those changes will be, and what opportunities we have to bless families like ours in 2021!

First, the why! Covid is what they call an accelerating event—the changes we are seeing now would have likely happened over the next 5-10 years, but covid sped up the timeline. For example, attendance in most of our churches would have likely gone down into the next decade, but instead churches saw a huge drop off in attendance that won’t rebound anytime soon. Every ministry area will be affected by these changes. Everyone in ministry will be affected.

And those of us in special-needs families will be affected in big ways by the change I see coming. Let’s talk through three of those changes:

  1. With attendance and giving down, special needs ministry budgets will get cut. 90% of churches in America run 350 people or less. Only a small percentage is big enough to have someone on staff either full or part time as a special needs ministry coordinator. But as churches have to cut budgets because giving is down, special needs ministry will likely be an area that experiences cuts. Especially because our families are some of the last who will return to regular worship.
  2. That leads to our second change, ministries will be led by volunteers but also lack the volunteers they need. I run our church’s ministry as a volunteer. I rely on teen buddies and adult volunteers each week, but none of my teen buddies have returned to help regularly and only a couple of my adult teachers have returned. This isn’t just happening in my rooms, it’s happening in all our preschool, kids, and youth classes. Since many of my families haven’t returned, it hasn’t been a huge issue, but the families are coming back faster than the teachers and volunteers are. And that’s causing some scheduling issues, and I’m afraid it will lead to burnout faster for those who have returned.
  3. Families with kids/teens with mental health issues and learning disabilities will return to church before families of kids with profound disabilities and those who are medically fragile. More buddies will be needed, and the typical class teachers will need more training. As I’ve said, the kids who are usually in our sensory rooms haven’t come back to church, but our kids who are primarily in our regular classes with extra support are back. And we’ve had an increase in new members and visiting families who have kids who need buddies. My biggest need right now is teen and adult buddies who can provide extra help to the regular teachers. And as I serve churches in my state, one of my focuses is on helping children’s ministers and youth pastors build more inclusive and accommodating ministries.

There are challenges for sure, but there are also opportunities. You know God does His best work when it looks like the odds are against Him. That’s when He gets the most glory—when we can look at our problems and then look to our God who has already overcome the challenges we face. I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life of His power and presence. 2021 certainly isn’t going to be the end of the gospel going out and special needs inclusion happening in churches around the world. Here are three opportunities I’m excited about for the church and for ourselves:

  1. We’ll see a rise in the need for respite care and parent support groups. Parents are worn out. Many of us are worn out to a level we didn’t know we could reach. Especially those who are still cyber or homeschooling their children. This is a huge opportunity for the church to provide real help and ways to build connections. After a year off from respite events, our church is planning to start up again soon! Respite ministry providers like 99 Balloons and Nathaniel’s Hope are seeing an increase in churches contacting them for help. There will also be an increase in online and in person parent support groups. Rising Above Ministries is seeing a big bump in the number of people signing up for their ongoing support groups and at their events like last week’s marriage conference. (I’ll link to all those ministries in the show notes if you want to check them out!)
  2. Online options will continue to be helpful for caregiving families. Last July I wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition on how church was more accessible than ever for caregiving families. But as we open back up and get out more, the response from some churches may be to stop online options so everyone has to return in person. I hope most will adopt a hybrid model going forward—online and in person options. This way families who have enjoyed the connection they’ve been able to have through online groups and services can still be involved. Even as a ministry leader and pastor’s wife, there are circumstances that can keep me home from church on any given week. Being able to watch online keeps me connected when I can’t be there in person.
  3. We—as in you and I—can all feel empowered and equipped to reach special-needs families. Our opportunities to reach parents like us have never been better! Many are even more aware of their isolation and lack of an anchor when life feels hard. We can reach them with the hope we have in the gospel and invite them into our church families. We are missionaries as we meet families like ours and build relationships with them. Even if our churches’ ministry budgets get cut and volunteer help is down, we can still serve the families. As Jesus showed us, the harvest is plentiful. But the workers don’t have to be few as we all fulfill our role as missionaries and servants. We can be the church, not just attend a church.

I have to say friends, I’m actually pretty pumped after talking through all this with you. When I got home from church yesterday and felt overwhelmed by the challenges, it turned my view around to think about how God is sovereign over the challenges and how He is giving us new opportunities to reach families, both as a church and as individuals.

Let’s pray now for churches in our cities and for ourselves as we face what’s ahead in 2021: God, we praise You for bringing us through a year like 2020. We can look back and see how you were working in our lives to bring about your purpose for us. And now in 2021, we face new challenges. But again, you are with us! You give us wisdom when we ask and you light our dark paths. We pray first for our churches—that you would provide when the numbers just don’t make sense from our perspective. Raise up volunteers, help us to find training, and help us to be able to welcome every family that walks through our doors when they are ready to return. And we pray for ourselves, that You would renew our passion for evangelism to families like ours. We have a hope that so many are still looking for—our hope in you and Jesus’s work on the cross on our behalf. Help us to be salt and light wherever we go, and a sweet aroma that draws other people to you. In Jesus’s name, amen.

Friends, I hope that was helpful and hopeful! I’m excited about the practical content I have coming your way through the month of March! It’s one of my favorite months of the year, and not just because it’s my birthday month. Make sure you’re a part of our Abiding Caregiver Facebook group so you can join in discussions like the one we started today. You’ll find the link in the shownotes at Know that I’m praying for you as you live out your calling as abiding caregivers!

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