Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When God’s gifts look like limitations: My plea to “The Church”

Yesterday the title of this post hit me smack in the face.  I posted on FaceBook and said "I want to do a Bible study about When God's gifts look like limitations: Exploring the Church, God's Word, and where I fit in as a parent of a child with special needs.  Now someone needs to WRITE it!"  Since writing that post, it was suggested that I need to do just that and write a Bible study.

Although I appreciate the vigor and excitement that others have over the prospect of something like that being written, I recognize and greatly respect the process that a Bible study is written with, and I don't feel called nor equipped to be the author of any study right now.  More than anything, right now I NEED a study.  I need to be fed and I'm not in a place to be of spiritual leadership to others that are in the same boat as I am and who have been floating out here even longer than I have as a parent of a child with special needs.

In the last 6 months I've asked a lot of people a lot of tough questions.  I've drawn some difficult conclusions, made up plans of action, and set up meetings within my own community of faith to see what our answer is to this very post.

I am writing this to "the church," an ambiguous body that I've addressed publicly several times over the past months.  "The church" isn't my own church or believers in our denomination.  It isn't people in our town or even our own state.  "The church" is every organized body of believers in Jesus that consider themselves a part of the greater Body of Christ.  If that includes you and your own community of believers, then this plea is for you as well.

When God’s gifts look like limitations: My plea to “The Church”

This is from Me.  Me, is a parent of children.  Blessings.  Children with special needs.  "Me" may be You, if you fit in that category.  This is to The Church.  The Church is a body of believers.  Christians.  People of like faith.  "The Church" may be You, if you fit in that category.

A child is a blessing.  A gift from God.  There’s never any question that every child is a gift, even when the child has special needs.  Whether it’s a developmental delay, a physical difference, blindness or deafness, or a sensory integration issue, the child is still a special blessing from God.

When you parent a child with special needs, the special gift that they are can also feel like a limitation.  There can be differences in how a parent deals with their day to day routines, schooling, and even trips to the grocery store or planning family days together. 

The uniqueness of raising a child with special needs has been described by many as “normal to me” therefore not so different from what someone else may experience.  By some, however, it is described as “a difference that limits my everyday interactions,” “a daily struggle,” or “a reminder that my family is a ministry within my own home.”   Tough revelations, but most parents can relate to those struggles regardless of whether their child has extra challenges presented by special needs or not.

Where the church is concerned, however, there is a different dynamic among families with members with special needs.  There are a few who are part of churches with successfully implemented programs designed to integrate, accept, and educate among the special needs population.  Unfortunately, churches implementing these types of programs are not very easy to come by.  A majority of parents with children with special needs fall in to one of two other camps.  Either they struggle week by week to “make things work” for their child with special needs, or they have stopped going to church altogether because they cannot attend as a family and do not feel accepted because of their special needs child.

There are churches on every corner in my hometown.  Yet there isn’t a single ministry that our community would point to as a church with a special needs program for children.  In speaking with parents of children with special needs in our town, most just don’t attend.  The few that attend a church have usually found their own solutions such as asking a friend of the family or a teen that they know and trust to stay with their child in the children’s program during church.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Others have their child sit with them in the adult service and leave if they are being disruptive, or they try to leave their child without support in the children’s programming but are frequently called out of the service to come and get them.  A few leave their child at home with one parent or a sibling and the family doesn’t attempt to worship all together.

Our town is not a unique in its lack of special needs support.  Most communities face the same challenges, and special needs church support is often only found in larger cities even though smaller towns have large populations of children with special needs. 

In 2008 a US survey* found that 20% of families with children have a child with some sort of special needs.  The increased rate of autism diagnosis may have heightened that percentage even since that survey was done.  If at least one out of every five families has a child with diagnosed special needs, then is the church truly at risk of losing twenty percent of the population from being able to attend services effectively by not providing for the needs of those families?

If ministry begins at home, and families that have been in the church for years suddenly find their first ministry- their family- is unable to participate in church, then has the church lost even those who were believers before their child outgrew what the church could offer in terms of their child with special needs? 

Has the church, without intending to, said to these families “you are answering God’s call on your life by raising your child with special needs, so good luck with that, because you can no longer attend our church.”

I know that the pastoral and executive leaders that are known to me personally wouldn’t dream of actually saying that, but by their inaction, they say just that to the community of families affected by a person with special needs.  There is not an intentional discouragement from including these families in the fellowship of believers by pastors and congregations, however the lack of intentional inclusion doesn’t leave these families with many options for participation.

My cry to the church is this: SEE the people with disabilities.  ASK yourself whether they can comfortably attend your worship service.  RECOGNIZE that their needs may differ from other families.  TALK to them about how you can serve their entire family.  PLAN programming that can accommodate children of varying needs so their family can join in the church worship and community.  ACCEPT them in to fellowship.  EDUCATE the church body to bring awareness as well as comfort to the congregation.  WELCOME new families in to the church!

There’s an unreached population.  One that quietly slips away from church at a time when they need the church body the most.  Those are the families including people with special needs.  They find themselves unable to attend worship services, feeling rejected by the church, and at a time in their own lives when they often need the community of the church the most.

That is my plea to the church.  Will the church hear the call?  Will they answer?

READ Part TWO: When God's Gifts look like limitations: My plea to Families of children with special needs

Written by Meredith Cornish

* "The survey by the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found 10.2 million U.S. children in the have special healthcare needs, or 14 percent of all U.S. children. More than one-fifth of U.S. households with children have at least one child with special needs."  Published March 2008.

This post may be copied in its entirety.  Please do not edit the content if copying this post.   Please e-mail Meredith before publishing in any format other than social media, FaceBook, blogs.  Thank you.


  1. We left our last church because we were told our children were a distraction and they wanted to know what it would take for us to be comfortable nothing having them with us. All children are gifts from God and He is very clear that we should not hender them from coming to Him.

  2. So well put Meredith! Planning to share this with many others. Thanks for putting into words what we've all wanted to say for a long time.

  3. Meredith, Nicely said. I will be sending this link to my church leaders with a thank you for making our church so accessible. But I too stayed in isolation from the body of Christ for years because there wasn't a place for my family at the table. Thank you for writing this. As always your faith and wisdom far exceeds your years and you are a blessing to me.

  4. Thank you for summarizing a need that is felt in so many places.

  5. Both our church and Dayspring Christian Church in South Texas area will accommodate special needs children. Email me at if you would like more information.

  6. As a mother of a child with Sensory Processing Dysfunction, I just want to say thank you for putting into words, what I have often felt. My husband does not attend church and sometimes keep her with him, but I still feel guilty for not having her involved in church as much as possible. The fact that she looks completely normal from the outside, allows judgement or rude remarks at times. Some days I leave church feeling like all I did was babysit in the back, and I feel exhausted and defeated. I often skip church just because it is so much of a struggle, but then I feel like I am robbing my older children of their ability to attend. I am not sure there are any easy answers in this, but there definitely needs to be some exploration happening.

  7. Excellent and felt by all of us who have the challenge of educating others about our children! LOVE what you wrote!

  8. Great post, Meredith. I blogged about this a few years ago:
    Our church in Minnesota does it well. They have a Barnabas ministry for individuals with special needs, including respite nights, buddies for kids to be with their typically-developing peers, special Sunday school opportunities for kids who need to be in smaller classes with less noise, adult Sunday school classes, etc.
    We moved away and are missing it. But we have a few good options here in middle Tennessee too.
    Thanks for blogging about this, Meredith. Keep up the good fight!

  9. I found your post through a friend, Elisabeth Westbrook. I just want to say, as you probably know, there are churches you welcome and imbrace families with special needs children. Mine is one of them. (Greater Heights in Cumming, GA). We have several special needs children in our teen group, special needs adult and a child. we love them and their families dearly and it would be a huge loss were those families to leave. Now, you may say, that's such a small handful, but I guarantee you that our church family would imbrace any new family with children with special needs. Do we need to advertise this fact? I don't think that should be necessary. If any church body is not willing to love and cherish a family such as yours, I honestly think they are the ones that need to check up. a church following after my Savior recognizes every adults/child's place in the body. I am certain there must be other churches out there with a heart like ours. if your local, please give us a try. If not, I pray God leads you to a church home where you feel loved, accepted, and irreplaceable.

  10. Wow. Incredible post, Meredith! I shared on FB. Such an enormous need and one that we are failing miserably. Praying God will use me, change hearts and encourage ministry for so many families in desperate need! Thank you for opening eyes!
    In Him,

  11. I was out of Church for a decade because I couldn't find one that would accept my autistic son. I STILL have the same issue only with multiple special needs kids. Thanks for writing this.