How Churches Can Support Children from Hard Places and their Families

When my husband and I began our adoption journey, the first place that we shared our decision to adopt was with our church family.  During the entire stressful journey they walked beside us.  Encouraging and praying, financially supporting us and listening to our regular updates.  After a sufficient cocooning period we were ready to introduce our daughter to the church family that had been so anxiously awaiting her arrival.  Initially everyone was welcoming and she did okay.  She stayed with us through the service and we left when we saw she needed to go, despite others’ assertions that she was fine.  We knew better.

Tensions began to rise when kind hearted people would ask us how we were doing.  We would say it’s so much harder than we expected.  Their response was all too often, she’ll outgrow it or some other well-intended, but off base answer.  If we took the time to attempt to explain that our child was traumatized, we saw the faraway look in their eyes and made our exit.

Eventually, we were just tiring out and the effort that it took to get everyone to church on  a Sunday morning became too much.  Was it worth all that stress and energy to get there only to spend the next hour and a half trying to keep our child still and quiet?  If we took her to the children’s ministry we had to stay with her, not just for attachment issues, but because she is legally blind and none of the Sunday School teachers could adapt for her needs.  It definitely wasn’t worth it for us to get out of our pajamas to sit in a children’s Sunday School room.

From there it just spiraled.  Our own spiritual walk became deeply impacted.  The day that I read these words from Sheri Dacon’s blog post,

Dealing with special needs is extremely stressful and challenging.                                            Making it to church on a Sunday morning is exponentially more                                              difficult than what other families go through.

                   The stress level of mothers of special needs kids has been                                                  compared to that of combat soldiers!

Church is a burden for special needs parents. They NEED a                                                       break. Church on Sunday morning needs to be, if nothing else, a                                             respite. A time when they can have an hour — just one hour! — to                                         fellowship with other adults; to relax and drink a cup of coffee; to                                          focus on their own spiritual walk; to get away from the constant                                          state of alertness that accompanies raising a special                                                              needs child. 

I wept.  I was not alone.  I wasn’t an inadequate parent or a bad christian. Shari had so wonderfully expressed my own unmet need.

Yes my child had a “special need” but every child from a hard place has a special need.  They need unconditional love.  They need the patience, understanding, and calm, welcoming environment of a church family.  Their foster or adoptive parents need to know that their child is safe in that Sunday School room.  This goes beyond a safety plan of signing the child in and ensuring the outside doors are locked.  This means knowing that if their child dys-regulates because they are thirsty, hungry, hot, cold, afraid, or experiencing a sensory need that the worker will not yell at or punish them, but will instead, meet their need.

As Dr. Karyn Purvis said, “these children have bled enough, they cannot bleed in our care.”

So, here are my top 5 modifications that any church family can implement to welcome these families back into fellowship.

  1. Find a TBRI Practitioner to train your childcare workers, teachers, ministry leaders, and staff.  Offer the training to parents as well.  Many parents want to implement TBRI and to have more information, but they can’t afford the cost of registration, childcare, travel, etc.  Why not take that burden away?  This brings continuity to the child’s previously unpredictable life and allows them to feel safe at church.  It also shows a respect for that child’s hard place.  It tells them we will not harm you.  It also shows the parents that it is okay to expect love from their church family and neither they, nor their child, should be ashamed of expecting that love.
  2. Create a climate of hospitality that ministers to every member of the family.  Many churches work to create a warm, welcoming environment for those attending their services.  But who will be responsible to welcome the family?  Who will engage the parents in conversation to determine their needs and then create a suitable plan for all members of the family to partake of the service?  This might mean a volunteer “buddy” taking a child for a walk or designating a “dancing” space where a child is not expected to stand in one place during a worship service.  It may mean that a Sunday School teacher needs that buddy in class too.  A simple way to welcome these families is to have a basket of fidgets ready for them to use.  What about the other siblings?  Are they getting the attention that they so desperately crave instead of being the designated caregiver of their sibling?  Who is wrapping them in a hug and asking them about their week at school?  Introduce that typically developing child to a peer or family that will build a friendship with them.
  3. Don’t wait for an explanation or to be asked.  Offer support.  The moment someone notices that this family may need a tender touch, be ready to go to them.  Families are expending all of their energy on surviving.  They don’t have anything left to devote to developing a friendship.  Remember that shame I mentioned earlier?  Families are often afraid of rejection.  They don’t want to be a burden, but they sure need someone to help carry their burden.  Too often I hear stories from parents of them yearning for someone to step in, and I hear ministry leaders say they would help if they knew how or if they were asked.  Be prepared and ready to respond without being asked.
  4. Remove the fear of approach.  Cultivate a culture of inclusion within your congregation.  In small groups and Bible studies, talk about how to start the conversation.  I hear time and time again, “I don’t know what to say so I avoid the topic.”  This leads to that mother with a special need feeling neglected and disappointed that once again, her child is unloved and unwanted.
  5. Incorporate that family into the congregation.  This family probably doesn’t have a lot of time or financial resource.  Every member of the family is impacted.  But they still long to belong.  Are all ministry leaders aware of families with special needs?  Remember, it’s not just for children’s ministries because every member of the family is impacted.  How can they serve within the congregation or an outreach ministry in their current circumstance?

I hope this gives you some insight into the needs of some families that may be longing for integration and sets you on the path to ministering to them.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”    John 9:1-3

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”              Luke 14:12-14

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