The Christmas season is upon us! It’s the time of year that you can catch Elf on TV at least 20 times and it’s socially acceptable to quote it often (I quote it year around!). It’s also an opportunity for your church to be intentional about connecting with families in your community. As you consider all families that might come through your church’s doors this season, it’s understandable to sometimes feel ill-equipped to minister to families with children and students with special needs who may visit your church. This feeling can be amplified if your church doesn’t have a formal special needs ministry. However, there are small things you can do to create a more welcoming environment this Christmas season. For families on the special needs journey, small efforts can pave the way for relationships to be formed. Here are a few ideas to jumpstart the conversation over the coming weeks.
Lean on the Real Experts
Be intentional about reaching out to a family with a child or student with special needs in your congregation or community. The church is a place where we can encourage special needs families to dream again, so be willing to ask parents and caregivers—the real experts—to envision what Christmas at your church could look like for their family. We can assume what families need all day, but it’s always better to just ask. Allowing these families to have a voice in how you tailor those Christmas moments for families like theirs will constructively shape what you do during the holiday season.
Take Steps to Anticipate the Needs
Engage your church staff about how you might anticipate the needs of special needs families who visit this Christmas. A few ways might be to:
- Walk through your building and identify any areas that could be problematic for special needs families visiting. Invite a parent or caregiver of a child or student with special needs to join you and to provide a fresh perspective.
- Consider creating special parking spaces available for special needs families at crowded Christmas Eve services. Many families will not have a handicap parking placard, but would benefit from a closer parking spot to navigate the crowds.
- Take time to create some “go” bags for families who might be attending your Christmas services. You can include things like noise reducing headphones, fidget toys, a visual schedule of your service order, and as well as some activities to do.
These ideas help families know that you see some of their needs and have anticipated their visit. Please know that even the best plans may not meet the needs of the families who show up. In that case, take some time to identify some creative and compassionate leaders who can be present for special needs families during your church’s Christmas Eve services. Encourage them to go the second mile for families and to think outside the box when an unexpected need may arise.
Include Special Needs Families in Your Traditions
As a ministry team, identify the important traditions and moments that happen during the Christmas season at your church. Figure out how to include individuals with special needs into those Christmas moments. If families serve as greeters during your services, invite a family with a child with special needs to be a part of welcoming people into your church. If your church lights an Advent wreath, encourage a family with a student with special needs to help be a part of that moment. When you invite families with children and students with special needs to participate in those traditions and moments, those special needs families who visit your church during the holidays are able to envision that they could also have a place in your church family as well.
Acknowledge the Effort
Be mindful that families with children or students with special needs may have had negative experiences at churches. Families may have felt excluded or judged. While those experiences are not your fault, it is our fight as leaders in our communities to clear a place at the table for children and students with special needs and their families. Stepping back into church after a disappointing experience is a huge leap of trust and faith. Acknowledge that leap if you get to have a conversation with the family before, during, or after the Christmas season. Saying something like, “Thanks for allowing us to come alongside your family this Christmas season. We don’t take that lightly,” will speak volumes to your willingness to recognize the effort it took to come to church.
Offer Opportunities to Recharge and Celebrate the Season
Special needs parents and caregivers are often operating far above their capacity and the Church is uniquely positioned to provide moments of love and grace that replenish the soul. Your church might consider providing a night of respite for a few hours. This will give those families with a break to finish up some shopping or to simply rest. Another tangible outreach is to provide free Christmas pictures for special needs families in the community. Many special needs families struggle to get pictures taken. Finding a patient photographer to shoot short, mini sessions with each family can be a huge blessing. Have the photos developed and give them as a gift from your church.
Share What You’re Doing
Families will be looking for places to worship during the holidays, but if they are unaware of the accommodations your church has made, they may miss a great opportunity to worship with you. Post on social media about some of the things your church is doing to be intentional to meet the needs of families with children and students with special needs this Christmas. Share this with community partners who are already serving in the special needs community and encourage them to help spread the word.
Don’t miss the opportunity to follow up with these families after the holidays. We will miss the mark if we decide to make accommodations during the Christmas season and then subtly dismiss those same needs during the rest of the year. Follow up and plan ahead for what your next step might be in ministering to children and students with special needs.
Take these ideas to your next staff or ministry meeting and start discussing what your church can do to welcome special needs families this Christmas!