by Elrena Evans
When I was a teenager, I was often told that following Jesus is not about a list of rules, it’s about a relationship. I didn’t particularly like hearing that, when I was young—I wanted a list of rules, so I could cross them off as I followed them and get everything right!
I’d love to say I’ve matured beyond that place, in the intervening years… but I will confess to still holding a secret love for rules, and wanting to get everything right. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to prioritize the relationship.
When we welcome families with special needs into our church communities, I think this same guideline applies. It’s not about a list of rules, it’s about our relationships. The internet can offer us wonderful resources on the how-tos of setting up a special needs ministry (Joni & Friends is always where I point people first) but I think families with special needs flourish best when the relationship is the most important thing.
Starting with the relationship might mean that our special needs ministry isn’t something “We provide for them,” where “we” are the ones running a ministry for “them,” those with special needs. Starting with the relationship might mean, instead, that our special needs ministry is something “We create together,” where “we” becomes the whole church community, including those of all abilities, creating something beautiful together.
When my son, who has special needs and behavior challenges, announced he wanted to start going to Sunday School again after a multi-year hiatus, I panicked. Sunday School, despite all our attempts, had never worked for us. I quickly set up a meeting with the Sunday School coordinator, who told me she’d met my son recently at the church picnic.
“I asked him not to stand in the path of the flying bean bags where we were playing cornhole,” she told me. “His response was to plant himself directly in our way.”
My heart sank at this all-too-familiar sounding anecdote, but then, she said, “I realized I was going to have to find a different way to relate to him.”
Instead of asking my son to change, she was willing to be the one to change—prioritizing the relationship, and showing my son (and, by extension, our entire family) mercy. And once she had his buy-in, we were able to create a plan with him, together.
When we start with the relationship and we create something together, we also honor the gifts and talents that God has given each of us: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all members have the same function, so in Christ we who are many are one body, and each member belongs to one another.” (Romans 12:4-5).
How would families with special needs like to offer their own gifts, to serve the church? My son couldn’t sit still in Sunday School, but he loved handing out bulletins before the Christmas Eve service. Prioritizing the relationship allowed him to share his gifts, too.
Start with a smile. Start with hello. Start by asking, What do you need? And then, How do you want to serve? What can we create, together?
And see what God can do.
Elrena Evans (MFA, Penn State) is an author, an editor, a mother, a wife, a dancer, and a stand-up comedian. Her books When I Go to Church, I Belong and Special Grace: Prayers and Reflections for Families with Special Needs are both inspired by her experience as a mom of children with special needs. Elrena lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and their five children. She doesn't have a favorite ice cream flavor because she loves (almost) all of them.