4 ways the church can support families with special needs

Steve and Martha have been attending Peace Church for 15 years. Their children are young adults and work. Their family is active in the church and the small groups ministry. Seth and Sharon are in the same small group. They have three children. Their two daughters are in the honors tracks at school, and they have an 8-year-old son with disabilities. He is presently labeled with developmental disabilities but will go through evaluation for one of the high-incidence disabilities. 

Both couples seem to bond. Steve and Martha want to be helpful to Seth and Sharon, but they find themselves asking questions like, “What can we do to be a support and listen to them? Where do we even start when our lives seem so different? Is there any way we could help bear their burdens and show the love of Christ?”

As the above example shows, parents of kids with disabilities have both similar and unique needs in comparison to other parents. Brothers and sisters in Christ want to help each other but may struggle to know the best path. Researchers have shows that families with disabilities need emotional support, navigational support, and informational support. Most importantly, they desire spiritual support. They need to be reminded of God’s love and his good purpose for them in this season of their life. As their friends and church members, we can be an asset to them and help bring them hope. But how can we do that wisely and not be harmful in how we help? 

Emotional support 

All parents need emotional support and understanding from their friends and church family. The Bible tells us that we are members of one body (Rom. 12). That means that when one part of the body is suffering, the whole body is suffering. And when one member is rejoicing, the whole body is rejoicing. As these families look to us, we might point them to scriptures that emphasize the promises of God, give wisdom, and bring hope. We can also acknowledge their suffering and challenges while listening and not giving advice. We shouldn’t immediately share our experiences, but instead demonstrate empathy. Looking at the Gospels, we see Jesus doing this again and again. He listened to those who came to him.  

Emotional support might also come by setting up peer-to-peer support groups through the church or offering respite nights for families such as the model seen in Jill’s House. Just as it is challenging for parents of any child to have time alone and ensure that their marriage is healthy and strong, it can be even more so for parents of children with special needs. As their brothers and sisters in Christ, we should be proactive in seeking out ways to provide that emotional support. And for parents who are just beginning to navigate life with disabilities, a “small cup of cold water” in the midst of much confusion will go a long way. 

Navigational support

Parents need help to know how and where to get the information, support, and therapies they require. In the story above, Seth and Sharon are going to be part of an “evaluation for disability,” and they may be intimidated or unclear about what that means. This is where the church can step in with practical assistance. We can help take some of the burden off of them by investigating different options. Or, we might listen and ask helpful questions as they talk about what they are learning. 

Another way that churches can assist is by seeking to know what tools are available in their area. Are there ministries in your city that help? What about health services? Having answers to these types of questions, or even thinking through what the questions might be, can help parents who are unsure of what comes next or where to turn. For parents who are on a steep learning curve, any assistance that the church can provide to help orient them and provide grounding is helpful. It can often feel as if there’s no time to learn or even reflect on what has happened, especially right after a diagnosis or during major changes in the life of their child, whether emotional, physical, or spiritual.

Informational support 

For parents and families, the first people they often go to for understanding and support are their close friends and church family. That means you. They may ask if you know anything about the websites and suggestions that are constantly being thrown at them. Do you know teachers, specialists, doctors, or nurses? While you don’t have to (and won’t) have all the answers, you can be a willing resource and connector as they are trying to find those answers. 

The internet has provided a plethora of information for parents of children with special needs. Though it should always be checked to ensure it is reputable, organizations and support groups online offer parents answers to questions that they either have now or likely will in the future. While each child and situation is unique, these can be good places for parents, and churches seeking to minister to parents, to start. Engaging Disabilities with the Gospel is an organization that exists to equip churches and families to serve members and friends. Similarly, Joni Eareckson Tada and her ministry, Joni and Friends, has done excellent work in this area. 

Additionally, books such as Stephanie Hubach’s Same Lake, Different Boat or Greg Lucas’ Wrestling an Angel can be helpful tools. 

Finally, realize that parents of children with special needs will have two types of questions: micro and macro levels. At the micro level, they may wonder what to do for a specific situation: How do I navigate the dentist? How do I handle discipline? What if he doesn’t play well with others? At the macro level, they are likely to face questions that tap into those deeper concerns and worries of being a parent: How can I trust God in this? What does God’s sovereignty mean in my situation? Depending on your specific context or experience, you may be able to answer some of these questions or know where your friends can turn. 

Spiritual support

The most important thing that churches can do is provide spiritual support to parents of children with special needs. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and these parents will need assistance for the long haul. Child rearing is tough in the best of circumstances because every child and situation is different. But parents of children with special needs face additional struggles whether of inadequacy, stress, anxiety, or even just wondering what life will be like for their child. 

The church is uniquely equipped to answer those questions because we have a God who has spoken through his living and active Word. And he sent his Son, who is familiar with our sufferings and gives us his Spirit to guide us into all truth. God is faithful and provides grace and strength for each moment, even when we don’t know what to do. And we serve a God who has, in his wisdom, seen fit to bring together different members of the body to serve and care for one another. 

Getting back to our example at the beginning, Steve and Martha can listen and provide spiritual support to Seth and Sharon. As older parents, they will have important insights to share of the faithfulness of God. They can tell about how they have seen the Lord work through prayer, the Word, and faithful training in the lives of their children. Fundamentally, they can come alongside them as friends and provide a listening ear. They can pray for and with their friends and seek to encourage them with scriptures that God has used in their own lives.

We, as fellow believers in Christ Jesus, have a unique and wonderful opportunity to listen and support families who have children with disabilities in our churches. We can create a welcoming community where, if they are weary and confused, we can bring hope — a place where we are not trying to fix things but listen, empathize, support, and speak the truth in love as brothers and sisters in Christ.  As we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Gal. 6) we can help families with disabilities truly flourish as they are figuring out how to be faithful in the midst of God’s work in their lives. 

This article was written by Stephen Byrd, associate professor of education at Elon University. He also serves as the program coordinator for special education. It was published at erlc.com.

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