If your youth ministry doesn’t have kids with special needs, you’re among the rare exception. The bigger question usually isn’t whether they are among our group, but what we are going to do in response to their particular needs as we lead.
In our first article in this series, “Refusing to Ignore Teenagers with Special Needs,” we looked at the landscape of disability among young people in our culture, and shared five ideas for working toward inclusion in youth ministry.
In this article we look to a seasoned practitioner who cares deeply about kids with special needs, and who has been working to integrate the principles of Sticky Faith in her ministry.
Until this past August, Katie Garvert was the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Katie led the church’s special needs ministry for 9 years before returning to teach special education in the public school system. Under Katie’s leadership, Access Ministries served more than 100 families through respite events, sibling retreats, overnight camp for students with special needs, and parent support groups. Katie also directed the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry. You can read more about Katie’s work on The Inclusive Church website.
I visited Katie recently to hear more about her work and how it might help each of us in our own contexts.
Tell us a little about how your church included students with special needs, and your role in that process.
Katie Garvert: Our church adopted the view that there is no single way to do special needs ministry. Every person with special needs is different, and how the church defines inclusion for each of them may be different. It’s all about figuring out what works for the student, their family, and the church. Our big-picture goal was to provide a sense of belonging inside the bigger Body of Christ.
My job as the special needs ministry leader was to make sure each child, student, or adult with special needs had the support they needed to experience success at church. The resulting accommodation plan could look different for each person. Nearly always we would meet with the individual and their family to learn about and observe their abilities and needs. In many cases I would take what I learned about the student and then work behind the scenes to equip and encourage their respective ministry leaders.
Sometimes we would determine that the individual with special needs and/or the ministry leaders could benefit from dedicated assistance. In those cases, it was our ministry that trained a buddy to shadow the student during their participation in the children’s ministry, youth group, or wherever. And then for a number of students with more complex needs, our ministry offered an alternative environment with sensory activities and sensory-friendly Bible teaching. Some of our ministry participants thrived in our ministry’s sensory room every week while others only needed it for a few weeks. The sensory room also offered a landing spot for students who needed short breaks from their regular ministry environment. Many kids need access to a place they can recollect for a few minutes if they become over-stimulated.
How were you first exposed to the Sticky Faith idea?
A couple of years ago, our family ministry team was reading Sticky Faith at the same time my small group was using the book as a parenting study. So I had the opportunity to process the ideas in the book from the perspective of both a ministry leader and a parent. Like others reading the book, my husband and I could relate to the stories and statistics of students who veered off the path and experienced life pain through the early adult years. Our staff and the other parents all loved the idea of creating a “sticky web” of relationships for the kids in our respective ministries and our own home.
How can a Sticky Faith philosophy apply to students with special needs?
In special education, we often use the term “delayed” to describe a student’s development pace. While it may take longer, the individual with a learning or developmental delay can make progress and often catch up to their peers.
The same may be true for the spiritual development of someone with a disability. Just because a child or teen doesn’t grasp all the concepts their peers do at age 9 or age 19 doesn’t mean they won’t eventually get there. And as church leaders, we often forget about the student who is delayed yet very capable of spiritual growth. Just like you and me, people with disability are hardwired to have a relationship with our Creator. They too yearn for God’s grace and love. Many of these same individuals will wrestle, some profoundly, with God’s purpose for their life. I’ve seen this firsthand working alongside kids and adults with a wide range of disabilities. So the Sticky Faith concepts are still relevant to students with special needs, sometimes just a little later in their life or after repeat exposure.
After reading Sticky Faith, our church began placing a higher value on intergenerational relationships. We wanted to make sure our kids had the opportunity to interact with believers across different ages, life stages, and interests. And with the Sticky Faith 5:1 adult-to-kid ratio in mind, we started asking the following question for each of our teens: “Who are the five people speaking into this student?” This exercise provided a huge “aha moment” for our disability ministry when we realized that virtually none of our students had one, let alone five, meaningful relationships.
The reality was that our kids with special needs only had one significant relationship outside of their parents: a teacher or educator. It became very obvious that these students were even more isolated than typically developing youth. Immediately I started working to create a relational net for our teens with special needs. Like every youth, these students needed a “sticky web” in order to grow into their faith.
My job did change as I dedicated more time and energy searching for the right people to become what we called Sticky Faith “investors.” It was a process, and it didn’t happen overnight. I also began to see the value of facilitating relationships before our students hit middle school and high school. In many cases it takes months, if not years, to identify and “grow” people who can influence and work alongside students with special needs. As a result, I found myself taking every opportunity to dialogue with virtually everyone I encountered inside our church. I was always asking questions and listening for life experiences that could match the needs and interests of individuals in my ministry.
The Sticky Faith initiative also changed my focus as I shifted away from an administrative mindset and adopted the approach of a people-leader and relationship builder. At times this created more work, but it gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my job. And it was especially fulfilling when I began to see our students reap the fruits of their growing number of relationships within our church. I had a front row seat to meaningful life change.
Let me share four ways and four stories that illustrate how we experienced God’s blessings through this shift:
1. We intentionally involved our students in the broader work of the church.
Each week we made the church’s master prayer list a key part of our ministry. In our learning environment for older students with disability, we would take the updated list and divide prayer requests among our participants. After a devoted time of prayer, students volunteered to write notes to the people they prayed for. As more church members began receiving notes and learning they had been prayed for by someone inside our ministry, we saw the church’s view of our ministry change. Suddenly, people began to see our students’ value inside the Body of Christ. Church members who were hurting deeply appreciated the prayers of our ministry participants. And suddenly these same people had something to talk about with our students when seeing them on campus. Some prayer recipients even sought out our students to say thanks. This interaction was often significant for our participants with special needs, and it provided an easy entry into relationship.
2. We found unconventional places to create meaningful relationships.
The adult volunteer running our church’s technology booth agreed to allow several students to help him with sound and lights. This church member quickly recognized the opportunity to make a real difference in these kids’ lives when he adapted his technical service to include relational leadership. Today, this guy has untold influence over a number of kids who were quirky and struggling to fit in in our youth group. Some of these kids have identified special needs. And they now have a connection to other students and to a leader who shares their same spark for technology. This normal volunteer has created an accidental discipleship group, where he leads the students serving under him in a time of discussion and prayer after each media event. As a result of this older believer’s investment, we have several vulnerable teens making huge strides in their own faith journeys.
3. We learned to network outside our own ministry circle.
One Sunday a visiting mother dropped off her young daughter in our church nursery before heading to worship. No special instructions were left, and our volunteers assumed the new child was just like every other busy preschooler. But the childcare workers soon noticed differences and pulled me in for advisement. After several weeks and a delicate conversation with the mother, we discovered the child was blind. This single mother was in need of help and her daughter, who was the age children begin to learn to read, needed to learn Braille. As we were brainstorming ideas, I recalled a past conversation with a church member who talked about working with a little girl who was blind on a mission trip. Remembering this church friend’s heart for a child in South America, I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to reach out. A relationship began after this church member, who wasn’t involved in our special needs ministry, sent an email to the struggling mother. Today, nearly three years later, this church member is the single strongest influence in that family. As the girl with special needs ages into our middle school ministry, we already have one Sticky Faith investor who can help us identify and recruit others.
4. We saw God provide purpose and redemption for Sticky Faith investors.
Several years ago a family in our church adopted three children internationally. One of the children began exhibiting signs of special needs, including Reactive Attachment Disorder. (RAD is a syndrome where children have trouble attaching to their adoptive parents due to earlier trauma or neglect.). As this adopted daughter aged, her challenges escalated, sending the entire family into turmoil.
Our ministry team connected this family to another church member, who years earlier had adopted a son internationally and had walked a similar path. This more experienced adoptive father stepped in, investing hours in the family and particularly the struggling daughter who was approaching middle school. Because he could understand the family’s pain, he earned the right to influence all of them. Our ministry team watched God use this man profoundly in the life of a hurting child whose early life experiences had left deep scars. And his help improved the trajectory of the entire family. At the same time we witnessed God using the Sticky Faith investor, we saw God blessing him as well. This man was still grieving the pain of his own adoption experience. It was through his work with the other family that he was able to catch glimpses of God’s eternal plan for his own pain.
- As you read this interview, did you think of a student with special needs who before now has been relatively unnoticed by your ministry team? Do you know much about this student’s capability for spiritual growth? Identify one action step to help you understand and aid this student in their faith formation.
- Make a list of good networkers inside your church. Schedule a time to meet with them individually. Share your vision to find Sticky Faith investors for each student with special needs. Ask the networkers to brainstorm ideas and to identify contacts across the church. Go to these meetings prepared with a mental inventory of the students’ needs and interests. (Be careful to respect students’ privacy and to share information in a manner that protects each person’s dignity.)
- Begin identifying and building a relationship with potential Sticky Faith investors. It may take time to determine and develop the right people across the church. Be mindful of selecting and equipping people who have the emotional capacity and appropriate level of spiritual maturity. (Hint: Look for people who take a marathon approach to relationships. Sprinters will often fizzle in special needs situations where an abundance of patience is required.)
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