Starting a Special Needs Ministry

Special Kids

Around the country, Calvary Chapels are welcoming special-needs families, who are often spiritually isolated, into church life

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Mike Thompson & Micah Martin

Steve Bradshaw, 27, with Asperger’s syndrome, has faced repeated rejection—even at previous churches. “Wherever kids gathered, he was isolated and went off by himself,” recounted his father Jim. At 14, he developed severe clinical depression. “The isolation hurt him so badly.”

Steve and his parents now attend Calvary Chapel Gloucester County, NJ. “Changing churches was huge for us,” Jim related. Several men in the church reached out to Steve in genuine friendship. “That made all the difference in the world. Steve knows when somebody is being real, wants to spend time with him, or is just doing time with him,” he said. “It makes a much better church experience for the entire family when your son is valued.” Steve now serves as a volunteer in the 4th-6th grade Sunday school class and takes the offering at church.

Welcoming All

Pastor Gary and Valerie Clark of CC Gloucester County, NJ, have a 14-year-old daughter, Alethea, with Down syndrome; their church has welcomed families with special needs since it began seven years ago. Valerie explained, “We believe that God has given our special-needs individuals such unique purposes and that they can touch the world in ways we can’t. We want them to feel they’re part of the congregation.”

lady holds boyShe recounted her husband’s words to the church several years ago: “It may get loud during a service while I’m preaching. We may have somebody who has communication issues and just verbalizes it that way. It’s okay. We’re going to learn to walk through this.”

Karen Offenbacker’s son Nathan, 32, has Down syndrome. She stated, “God loves each of us just as we’re made, including severely handicapped children. We can show them who He is by our love for them. If we say to a family, ‘You can’t come to our church because your child has outbursts,’ we’re saying we don’t value who they are. That translates into: ‘God doesn’t value who you are.’ I never want to see that.”

Special-needs children, teens, and adults are fed spiritually at their individual learning levels, said member Susan Hickman. Children are integrated into typical Sunday school classrooms, often with aides. Teens are welcomed into the youth group, participate on the worship team, help in Sunday school, or take the offering. Adults have their own Sunday morning class. “To see Alethea Clark on the worship team praising God with such pure delight is just beautiful,” Susan related.

Karen’s son Nathan often asks people how their week was, offering a hug and a prayer. Karen related, “I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘He brightens my day.’”

“Assuredly, I [Jesus] say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them [the children] up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them. Mark 10:15-16

getting attention

Starting in September, CC Gloucester County will partner with Young Life to provide discipleship and fellowship for special-needs graduates aged 22 and older. Co-director of the church’s Friends for Life ministry, Andrew Davis asserted, “I was always taught that we don’t stare at anyone who is different, which meant you ignored them. We don’t want to ignore our special needs friends. We want to include them in our church, and we want our volunteers to feel comfortable greeting them, touching them, and loving them as we’re called to do.”

bowlingAndrew’s wife Jennifer added, “The goal is ultimately to bring them to a loving relationship with Christ. And if they are believers, that their relationship with Christ would mature. They may come to Him in a different way, but they hear the message and accept it in their heart with a childlike faith, as we all should.”

In His Image

When 23-year-old Joey Sandoval goes to CC Oxnard, CA, on Sunday, he is greeted by his good friend Scott Hewer. Scott brings him a wheelchair; they sit together as Joey’s parents, Jack and Natalie Sandoval, go to their own seats. Then Joey, who has cerebral palsy and can’t speak, begins to worship. His eyes light up; he laughs, claps, and roars loudly. Senior Pastor Lance Ralston said, smiling, “If you hear a grunt, that’s our brother Joey worshipping God. He’s part of our body.” After worship, Scott and Joey often patrol the parking lot or assist with children’s ministry.

Natalie remembered their first time at CC Oxnard in 2008. “Someone offered to take care of Joey. That alone was a huge blessing.” Jack accepted Christ as his Savior within the month, and the couple now actively serves in Spanish ministry.

helping with papersThey were drawn to the church’s special-needs ministry, In His Image. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God … He created them (Genesis 1:27). Scott and Susan Hewer, retired special education teachers, started the ministry in 2007 to disciple the disabled community in fellowship, worship, and service. More than 30 volunteers serve children, adults, and their families. Children and teens are integrated into the Sunday school and youth programs; they are provided with one-on-one mentoring as needed.

In 2009, the Friendship Club was formed when adults with disabilities asked for a program especially for them. These adults, affectionately called “Friends” by fellow churchgoers at CC Oxnard, meet for Bible study two Tuesdays a month during the school year for their own worship service. “We started with 9 adults and now have 44. The need has just been tremendous and embraced by our church,” Susan explained.

“[The Friends] just want to serve and pray,” Scott shared. “We’ve had missionaries who are going out on the field come to our group, and our Friends lay hands on them [and pray].” They also support a Compassion International child, send out Operation Christmas Child boxes, greet newcomers at church, usher, and help in the parking lot. Each Friend has a mentor. Susan commented, “Mentors take their Friends for coffee, drive them to church, invite them to movies, and bring them gifts. Some long, close relationships have been created.”

At Christmas and Easter, special-needs members participate in CC Oxnard’s holiday choir. “God’s heart is to include all people in His plan and kingdom, whoever comes to Him,” Worship Pastor Rob Branchflower declared.

reading a bookSusan described one performance: “Gerri—who cannot read, uses a wheelchair, and has a little trouble with breath control due to cerebral palsy—sang with strength and joy. Caitie, with a limited vocabulary, sang her heart out and lifted her hands to worship the Lord. In the congregation, there were few dry eyes.”

Abundant Life

The pastor’s wife at CC Anne Arundel County, MD, Renee Bollas hosts a small group of special needs children, mothers, and siblings for Bible study, pizza, and fellowship every Monday. “The God who created us knew exactly who we would be before we were born, and He has a purpose for us,” Renee assured. She has taught children of all ages with a range of disabilities and challenges: autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and one girl missing part of her brain.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born, I sanctified you.” Jeremiah 1:5a

Renee formed Zoe Life in 2008 as a social/communications group for children with special needs after her son Camden, now 11, was diagnosed with autism. “Zoe Life enables children with disabilities and challenges to make friendships at their level,” Renee said. It “plants the seeds of God’s Word into their hearts” and provides refuge and encouragement for their mothers, who often feel shunned or less valuable, Renee explained.

Cindy Fischer came to the church 7 years ago after discovering Zoe Life. Her son Eric, who has autism, now 15, met other children with special needs for the first time. She recalled an experience at her previous church: “They had typical lives; I didn’t. They were afraid my kid would hurt their kid,” she stated. Although the church was godly, “None of my family was invited anywhere, and I felt isolated and sad. My life would be drastically different if I didn’t have Zoe Life. Now I’ve got a few friends who understand me.”

How to Start a Special Needs Ministry at Your Fellowship

Step 1: Make Special Needs Families Feel Welcome

Engage families as soon as they arrive

Show God’s love with sensitivity

Pray with parents, offer help

Step 2: Starting a Ministry

Church resources are available at

Educate congregation with biblically-based awareness

Involve special-needs youth/adults in Sunday school/church

Step 3: In the Sunday School Classroom

Use auditory, visual, and hands-on learning tools

Focus on the child’s ability; celebrate successes

Make needed adaptations whenever possible

Provide a one-on-one aide in the classroom (maybe a teen)

Communicate often with parents:
How can we best help your child?
What behaviors do we need to know about (biting, for example)?
At what point do you want us to call you?

Provide a safe place for parents/children to listen to the service

Provide teacher training: What can we do for a struggling child?

CC Oxnard & CC Anne Arundel County Recommend:  

I Will Rise by Renee Bollas, CC Anne Arundel County

Leading A Special Needs Ministry by Amy Fenton Lee

Start with Hello (free 70-page booklet) by Joni & Friends

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