Navigating Church Policies For Special Needs Ministries

by Denise Briley

To tell you the truth, I haven’t always been a rule follower. I always thought it was my personality, however recently by seeking wise council from a life coach, I learned that I rebelled because people expected me too! Thus the lessons learned over the past 33-plus years of working, caring and raising kids with disabilities has taught me a lot . . . a lot of life lessons that might not have been so hard had I followed some rules.

However, we serve a God of mercy and grace. Thank you, Lord, for your protection over me, my family, and the flock that I led in the past and lead now in my position as director of special needs ministry at Houston’s First Baptist Church. Thank you for showing me your wisdom, God, and the wisdom of the ones who have written policies for me and others to follow.

Policy is written not only for your benefit and mine, but for the benefit of the church you are serving, the families you lead, and also THE CHURCH . . . you know, the BIG PICTURE! The church that could come crashing down if we as leaders were rebellious, and chose to let policy and procedures go by the wayside.

Special needs ministries, as well as those that are exploding and expanding across the nation, could all of a sudden come to a screeching halt! All it would take are one or two mess-ups, and everything many of us have worked for, could come crashing down around us. Leaving us with broken hearts, wounded families and broken trust, resulting in ground that had been broken up by tilling up concrete to open THE CHURCH up to families like mine and others like mine . . . well it would just be a BIG HOT MESS (As we say in Texas)!

So you may ask: “Denise, how do we do it? How do we serve these families that don’t fit the typical ‘church policy’ rules?” I get it! I mean, how do you tell a child running down the children’s ministry wing on a Sunday morning—the eight-year-old with Autism—how do you tell him nicely, “We don’t run down the hallway at church.” He gives you that blank stare and then you quickly see his mom glaring at you out of the corner of your eye. Yet, out of the other eye, you notice your children’s pastor glaring at you to see if you are going to follow policy for NOT running down the hallway in the children’s wing that is stated on page four, paragraph three! Oh and yes, the little guy then runs faster out into the church parking lot with you chasing him, in your skirt and heels! How do we follow policy that doesn’t cover that?

That’s when you sit down and have a personal retreat with your church’s policy and procedure manual and read it cover to cover, and cover to cover again, looking for where your ministry fits, or if it fits at all. Often it will seem that it doesn’t, and that’s okay. In reality, special needs ministry is still new to the scene at most churches. We are actually just thankful at times to have a couple of classrooms that aren’t near the back doors or up on the second floor with no elevator. But I know none of you are experiencing any of that!

Here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Sit down and draft out some scenarios of how the written policy does or does not recognize your ministry.
  • Write certain protocol to work alongside the policy written. For example, at our church we have a policy for typical restrooms. However, in our special needs ministry, we toilet and diaper children and adults because, well, they need it, and it’s part of the ministry care that we provide. However, after years of learning, it’s best that only paid staff within our special needs ministry be allowed to take children and adults who may need assistance in the restroom. Then, at times, only our nurse that is contracted by the church from an agency, may change diapers.
  • Share your concerns with your supervisor, they may have not even thought there was a difference; it can be worked out.
  • Host a volunteer/buddy boot camp to go over all the policies and why we have them.
  • Always realize you may be the leader who will make the “best difference” for families if your gut is telling you to continue to push the envelope, then push it through—just don’t be rebellious.
  • Oh, and DON’T WEAR your Skirt and Heels . . . it’s just not reality when working in special needs ministry. Dress for comfort!

Denise is the director of Thru the Roof—the special needs ministry at Houston’s First Baptist Church. Her passion for serving families with special needs children grew out of her own experience as the parent of a son with disabilities and medical needs. Denise is the author of Feathers from Heaven, the story of her son Clayton and how God used him to begin one of the first special needs ministries in the country. It’s also her journey though loss and grief after Clayton’s passing. Denise lives in Tomball, Texas, with her husband Thad and has two grown children, Lauren and Dillon. You can connect with Denise on Twitter , Pinterest or Facebook.

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