by Brad Thompson
It’s fairly early Christmas Eve morning, and I thought I had this almost finished. But as I was making some final edits, our daughter Hali came in to get the update from Santa’s shop on how things are progressing at the North Pole. Hali is 26. I hope you can see the “bitter sweetness” of that.
It seems to be our nature to look around us and see what makes us different, creating an “us and them” mindset. I believe one of the most damaging outcomes of this mindset is that we as churches start to see people that are different from us as “ministry opportunities” rather than what Jesus desired—that we’d all be one, or as Paul reminds us, that we are all part of one body.
One of those “them” groups is individuals with special needs and their families. As we work with families and churches around the country, the two most common challenges seem to be fear and lack of understanding. Those two things make it difficult to create a welcoming environment for any family that looks a little different than us.
I asked a fellow coworker at Southwest Church of Christ, Adrian Morgan, to share his thoughts on this us-and-them mentality:
“It is so easy, and only natural, to categorize others into an ‘us’ or ‘them’ paradigm, and this is so easy to do when it comes to those with special needs. And this temptation is deadly. It prevents the Church from viewing the “them” as fellow humans, full of the image of God and therefore possessing the worth and value that comes with being a child of God. The reality is that when we put people into a “them” group we see them as less. They get less of our time. Less of our attention. Less value. And this is the opposite of the call of Christ, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. There is no ‘them.’ There is only ‘us.’
“One of the things that I am convicted of is that our worldviews will not change through information only. Simply hearing the right ideas or theories is a good start, but it is only a start. When this information becomes embodied and has a name or a face, that is when change happens. So, if I desire for my students to see those with special needs as full members of the body of Christ, who have just as much value as anyone else, they have to experience this. That means creating opportunities where we all worship together, break bread together, play games together. This is why we occasionally join the special needs class for worship on Wednesday nights. This is why we join the Youth Encountering Success program for a day of activity and pizza. My hope is that through these experiences, the messages that we are teaching—that all have value, that there is no ‘them,’—would become crystallized and take shape in their lives.
“David M. Csinos and Ivy Beckwith write that: ‘”when we focus too much on the labels we apply to children, we can miss the uniqueness of each child, instead boiling them down to one or two ways that a particular theory or category tells us to see them.”‘ Can these labels or categories be helpful at times? Certainly. Can these labels and categories also cause us to create a ‘them’ category? No doubt. As Christians, the overriding theory and category that shapes our lives and ministries is that of the Greatest Commandment. We are called to love all and see all just like we love and see ourselves. May this be the theory that shapes how we love and serve our neighbors with special needs.”
With that being said, I hope you find these thoughts practical and helpful as you try to bring families like ours into your church family.
Before we even think about starting a ministry, these two things must be present:
A passionate, called ministry leader. We are firm believers that we can’t have a ministry without a passionate, convicted, and gifted ministry leader. This person doesn’t have to be on staff, but he/she does need a voice in church planning.
Unwavering support of senior leadership. Our preaching minister may have said it best when he said, “I am blessed that some of these guys (from Karen’s Wednesday night special needs adult class) call me ‘friend.’” That’s the type of support these ministries need in order to thrive. Individuals with special needs will be in our children’s ministry, student ministry, and even some of our adult classes, as will their siblings. These ministry leaders must want them there, and we have to be committed to helping everyone be successful once they are there.
Here’s what you’ll need:
“The greatest of these is love; perfect love drives out fear.” (I know those are two different pieces of text.) We believe that most churches fail to reach out to families like ours because of fear, and we understand the source of that. If you don’t live this life, the perceived needs can be paralyzing. What if we do or say the wrong thing? What if . . . ? The truth is that you will do it wrong, you won’t be able to meet every need, and you won’t always get the words right. But we know when we are loved, accepted, and cared for. When we see you trying, we will work with you to fix those things.
The other fear that we need to address comes as our folks with special needs start getting older. What if they do or say inappropriate things? Sadly, more than one member of Karen’s Wednesday night adult group has been asked to leave another church for inappropriate behavior. Her question is always, “Rather than asking them to leave, how about taking the time to teach them?” No one has higher expectations of her students than Karen. Because they know she loves them, they will repent of inappropriate behavior, and accept teaching. Some of them have challenges that make it difficult to retain some of these lessons. But let’s be honest: Anybody else in your church struggle with that?
Practice Inclusion. Our kids and families need your kids and families, and you need us. It will take some extra effort and a team of volunteers, but the blessings will be incredible for everyone involved. What we’ve found in every church we’ve worked with is that when we ask for help, God has people waiting with hearts for our families waiting to love them. This not only allows the person with special needs to participate with his/her peers, it also allows mom and dad to participate with their peers in classes and worship. A future blessing in this will be that as we practice inclusion, we are training future leaders of churches and communities to look for abilities, not disabilities.
Last Word: Karen and I want to thank the elders, ministry team, and the family that worships at the Southwest Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas. They had the courage to say “yes” to this work before we even knew what it might look like. Because of their love, vision, and commitment to us and the families we serve, we have this story to tell.
Brad and Karen Thompson are the founders of The HALI Project, a non-profit organization that provides counseling and education services for families who have children with special needs. Brad is also the counselor on staff at the Southwest Church of Christ while Karen leads a ministry to adults with special needs at Southwest. Their passion is to help couples who have children with special needs find the hope, peace, and joy that God has for them, even in the midst of the storms that come their way.
Brad and Karen have been married for 29 years and have two children, Justin (27) and Hali (26). Hali deals with the challenges of multiple special needs, both physical and cognitive, and is the inspiration for their work.
Brad and Karen have been working with families since 1989, and since 2009 have been offering marriage weekend retreats specifically designed for couples who have children with special needs. Brad has a Masters Degree in Counseling from West Texas A&M University and is a Licensed Professional Counselor – Supervisor (LPC-S). Karen completed all of her classroom work for a Master’s degree in Psychology, and says that raising Hali and working with Brad should count as her thesis!
Adrian Morgan has been the student minister at the Southwest Church of Christ since 2007. He graduated from Harding University and received his Master’s from Abilene Christian University. He is married to Kinsey and they have two sons, Tripp and Graeme.