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Special Needs In Youth Ministry: Dealing With Special Needs Students In Your Youth Group | REyouthpastor.com | Home youth ministry, youth pastor
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Special Needs In Youth Ministry: Dealing With Special Needs Students In Your Youth Group

At some point in your youth ministry career, you will (if you haven’t already) bumped up against special needs students who want to grow in Jesus.

What do you do?  What kind of ministry do you have for youth with special needs?

My guess is — you don’t have much.  I think we are all still trying to figure out how to minister to special needs students and their families.

All I have done is just to love them for who they are and where they are at and try my best to make them feel included.  I always wanted to do more, but never took the time to figure out a plan nor I never had a burden to address this special needs in youth ministry issue.

Well there has been a shift in me in how I see ministering to youth with special needs.

I have had three groups of people really challenge me to consider how youth pastors deal with special needs students.

1.  Amy Fenton Lee.  Amy is super sharp, strategic and has a strong passion for special needs ministry.  Amy Fenton Lee is the Special Needs Consultant to Orange and is responsible for developing content and resources for special needs kids (check out her new training DVD here or book on how to lead a special needs ministry here) and has a blog (The Inclusive Church) devoted to helping churches successfully include children with special needs.  Amy has written extensively on the subject of special needs inclusion in children’s ministry and student ministry environments.  So seeing Amy train leaders on how to do deal with special needs kids has really given me a heighten awareness on how to deal with special needs.

2.  Luke.  Luke was a highly functioning autistic teen who was in my ministry 5 years ago.  Luke loved coming to youth group but at times it was really difficult having him there.  But Luke and his family taught me that if you keep including and inviting him to be an active youth group student, be super flexible and keep in constant communication with his parents — it is possible to effectively minister to special need students like Luke.

3.  A number of youth pastors who have a passion for ministering to special need students.  As of late, many youth pastors (Bekah Miller, CJ Barone, Jeremy Kirby, Rebecca Johnson) asked me:  What is there for special needs students in student ministry?  There are some great blog posts out there on Josh Griffin’s blog — More Than Dodgeball, but many are not sure what to do.

So I wanted to poll my readers.

–  What kind of ministry have you done for families who have youth with special needs?  What is your approach to including special needs in your ministry?

–  Do you have a passion/curiosity to figure out this special needs issue in youth ministry?  If you do, please tell me why in the comment section below and make sure to include your name and contact info.


About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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  1. While I haven’t had a great deal of experience having special needs students in our ministry, we are uniquely prepared for it in that my wife works with autistic children and their families. One of her passions to to make the church a welcoming environment for these families as so many stay away because of the perceived difficulty in dealing with their child. We have a few policies and ideas in place when this family does show up, hopefully soon!

    • Rebecca Jacobson

      Mike, What specific ideas and policies? Most of us don’t know where to start on this. I would love to hear what your wife has come up with– especially with her expertise!

  2. This is a great post. Thank you for taking on a topic that many churches, don’t talk about until they are forced to look it in the eyes.
    My wife and I have worked with a number of special needs students in our ministry over the years, but none so closely as the boys who live in our home. We have 2 sons who are on the autism spectrum and who are now in our youth ministry. Because students with disabilities, especially those who are on the autism spectrum, have very specific needs, it is difficult to formulate a cookie cutter plan for engaging them purposefully in your programs.
    There are some basic things that can be done, as you mentioned… simply loving them, including them and treating them as you would any other student, goes a long way in making them feel welcome and showing them they are valued.
    But beyond that, the approach we take is:
    – Mainstream the special needs students as much as possible. (many special needs kids already feel excluded in most social environments, so make church a safe place for them socially.)
    – Maintain open communication with the parents.
    – Compile a file that outlines any specific needs the student has, medical issues, behavioral issues, even psychological issues, and from there, you can create a plan that will help enhance their experience.
    – “Over Communicate” with your leaders… inform them, so they are equipped to help the special needs students should a “crisis” ensue. (when appropriate, share pertinent information with your regular ed. students. It just makes things more awkward if they aren’t sure what to do or how to react to the “special” kids.)
    – Again… love them as you would anyone else. They have the same basic desires, dreams, and needs as you and I. They too often get overlooked because people think they don’t feel or need in the same way that “normal” kids do…
    So, way too often, people don’t try because they aren’t sure how.
    Ministry to people with special needs can be an extremely rewarding experience for all involved, if we as leaders are willing to set the tone and give it a try.

    • Troy,
      I resonate so much with your comments. My biggest thing in this all is helping students feel a part of the group. They know they are different and they feel on the outside all of the time. While we may make special accommodation for them, I want them to be a part of the group as much as possible.

  3. At my former church, I went from being the youth ministry associate to being the special needs minister. Because of God’s call on my life, naturally, our church started our special needs ministry with teens and young adults. I tried a lot of different ideas/approaches; some were great, others ideas were DOA. It took a lot of trying and failing and trying and succeeding to figure out how the ministry needed to look for our church. (By the way, every church’s special needs ministry is different, and ministry to even one individual/family is a special needs ministry.) :-)

    We tried lots of ideas, from VBS for teens and adults to a Disciple Now Track specifically designed to where our teens of all abilities were able to participate in this life-changing teen weekend, on a level appropriate for them. We’ve done everything on the inclusion spectrum from buddy ministry to specific classes designed specifically for our teens/young adults that is taught with a curriculum that clearly explained the Gospel in a way they could understand. We did respite nights, inclusion on mission trips, art classes with a purpose…and the list goes on and on. The awesome thing about special needs ministry is that it’s always a new experience and you get to be creative and think outside the box of “normal” ministry, in order to minister to these families.

    Thank you for bringing light to this important subject. Thank you most of all for showing Christ to and loving these families that are so dear to my heart.

  4. This is something that seems to be heavier and heavier on my heart. I continually hear of and from families who have stopped going to church because the church doesn’t know how to handle their kids. This saddens me, as I feel like the church should be the one place where these families can be welcomed with open arms.

    For me, I have really tried to focus on communication and expectations. Communication is key with my leaders, families and with the students themselves. When we can have open and honest communication it helps everyone feel like they are a part of what is going on and can alleviate a lot of frustration. This needs to be a team process and communication needs to be at the core of that. I’ve also had to take a look at my expectations. I am a fixer and a doer, and I naturally want to do everything I can to meet everyone’s needs. Reality is, special needs or not, I can’t do everything. Taking a realistic look at my expectations for myself, my ministry/church and my students has been huge for me to not get overwhelmed by the task at hand.

    We’ve also been trying to implement what we call an Individualized Ministry Plan (a play off of the school’s IEP). It has been so helpful in creating conversation and gathering information. It allows us to set goals with the students and also continues to create that team aspect so that no one feels like they are trying to figure this out on their own.

  5. I am the mother of a 14 year old boy with autism and epilepsy. I am interested in learning how to accommodate his needs in a youth group setting, so that he is ministered to as well. I’ve read multiple articles , pages on this subject.. And it doesn’t seem to be that difficult if you can find a willing church.

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