How do you initiate a conversation with a parent about their child's special needs?

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April is Autism Awareness month. As a Family Pastor and father of a child with special needs, I want to address a question I often hear from children's ministry volunteers: "How do you start a conversation with parents about the possibility of their child having special needs?" This can be one of the most awkward situations in children's ministry. Often children's ministry volunteers have a background in education. They may have strong suspicions about a child's needs but the parent seems completely unaware. If you've found yourself in this situation, here are a few brief encouragements:

  • Evaluate your children's ministry registration process. At Sojourn, our intake form asks every family if they have any "allergies, medical issues, or special needs of which we need to be aware." We phrase the question in that open ended way to allow parents to opportunity to share any of their child's struggles. Often this gives us a window to offer help to the family. If a parent is open about special needs, we have a second more extensive form that collects more information. . You can download that form here. At this point, we ask if the child has an IEP (individual education plan) from their school and if they'd be willing to share a copy with our ministry.

  • Never diagnose a child. My middle daughter, Lucy, was diagnosed with severe Autism when she was age 3, but it would still be a bit jarring if someone began a conversation with me by saying, "I think your child has a developmental delay," or "I think your child has Autism."

  • Instead, report what you've noticed and ask questions. It's better to say, "I noticed that Lucy has trouble in settings where there is a lot of sensory input--like in the large group worship gathering," or "I noticed Johnny has more trouble sitting still through the story than other boys his age. Is that something you've noticed as well?" You'll be surprised how often a parent will report their own observations or even a diagnosis that they've never talked about with the church before. This is an entry point where you can begin to offer help.

  • Be sure to offer help and not advice. Never give advice--"Have you tried a gluten free diet?" or "Has he been on such and such medication?" Rather, offer practical ways you can help the child engage in the Sunday experience. "Do you think we could try having Lucy wear these sound deadening head phones during the worship gathering?" "Do you think having a fidget would help Johnny sit still and pay attention longer during the story?" When discussing any difficulties, be open to suggestions from the parents.

  • When a parent is genuinely asking for advice about a diagnosis for their child, I point them to the professionals in their lives (pediatricians and teachers) who are more equipped than me to make those calls. I just encourage the parents that there is no reason to have shame or fear when talking to their doctor or their child's educator. Asking for help is often the best path to receiving it.

Finally, there is one really important thing to see when working with kids who have special needs: God has given those who suffer as gifts to the church. As Colossians 1:24 says, "Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." When a member of our church body is suffering and we suffer with them (and for them) we have the opportunity to grow in our experience of what it meant for Christ to suffer for us. Having that mindset can make an amazing difference.

Welcoming New Families: An Interview with Danny Franks

As I began my new position as Pastor of Connection at the Journey--Tower Grove in January, I began looking for resources on how to do my new role. Jared encouraged me to check out a blog by Danny Franks. Danny had just opened an invitation to participate in a unique training opportunity called Confab. I signed up, and in February I had the opportunity to meet Danny and his amazing team. Over the next several months, 11 other people and I read books together and learned how to create a more welcoming experience at our churches. Danny is a great teacher and more importantly a godly man. So, I asked Danny if he would be willing to answer a few questions for the readers of Gospel Centered Family. Here's what we talked about:

Jeff: Tell me a little about your family. 

Danny: I'm just a few months shy of celebrating my 25 year anniversary with my high school sweetheart. Merriem is without a doubt my better half... the perfect complement in life, parenting, ministry, you name it. We have four kids: Jacob is 21 and Austin is 20... both are in leadership at a local Chick-fil-A. Jase is 15 and a high school sophomore. Haven is six and about to start second grade, which--to hear her tell it--is a Really Big Deal. 

Jeff: Would you mind describing your role and the context of your church?

Danny: I started at the Summit in 2003 with a one-sentence job description: I was to close the back door in a rapidly growing church. My first task was to develop our membership class and structure a few opportunities to plug in. Through the years I've held different roles from small groups guy to campus pastor, but my favorite (and current) role is that of guest services: I oversee those systems at all of our campuses and for any events. 

Jeff: Why do you have a passion for people connecting? 

Danny: When I was interviewing for my job - and questioning with whether this was even a role for me - I remember hearing the story of a fringe attendee who had taken her own life. I didn't know the full story, but couldn't shake the feeling that it might not have happened had she felt known and loved. That's what I want: for the church to be a place where people believe we knew they were coming, we had a plan for when they showed up, and we can't wait for them to return. I want to pave the road to Jesus with so many kind words and actions, that people won't be able to resist asking how they can be a part of it.  

Jeff: What is one of the most common mistakes churches make when seeking to help guests feel welcome?

Danny: I think it comes down to simply not being aware. It's not that we don't recognize that we have guests, it's more often that we assume someone else is taking care of them. As inorganic as it sounds, we must systematize hospitality so that there are no more assumptions of care. We have to form a team, a strategy, and a follow up plan to move people from first-time to second-time guests. 

If there's a close second, it's that we lose the guest mentality. We forget to view our parking lot, our signage, our building, our language, and our traditions through the eyes of guests. What confuses them? Frightens them? Causes anxiety? Makes them curious? Angry? Aggravated? If we can simply remember how we feel in a new situation - whether it's at a job, in a restaurant, in a new neighborhood, or at the mall - we can apply that to about 95% of church situations and make our guests' experience better.

Jeff: Elaborate on that. How can we cultivate greater awareness of guests in our churches? 

Danny: It goes back to thinking from the mindset of a guest, looking at the situation through their eyes, and simply remembering that the ultimate goal is not to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:31), but to "welcome others as Christ has welcomed you" (Romans 15:7). When we approach the guest experience from that perspective, it changes everything. 

It also helps us to not only form systematic approaches, but to have the impetus to live organic lives of hospitality. It allows us to lavish kindness and grace on people who are not like us, because we remember that we too were once outsiders. It gives us the chance to not just talk about the gospel with our words, but to demonstrate the gospel with our lives.

Jeff: How can churches help new families and kids feel welcome to a church? 

Danny: I'm convinced that if parents believe that their kids are safe, having fun, and (for parents who are already Christ followers) being exposed to the gospel, that is 90% of the battle. 

  • Safe: communicate your security procedures. Offer new parents a tour of your facility. Talk to them about drop off and pick up procedures, volunteer-to-kid ratios, etc.
  • Fun: is your kids' space colorful? Energetic? Are the leaders engaging? One of my favorite anecdotes from Disney history is that when the park in Anaheim was being constructed, Walt made his Imagineers strap on knee pads and "walk" the park from the perspective of a three year old. The effect - among others - was that windowsills were lowered so that kids could get in on the fun. Is your facility set up for kids or their parents?
  • Gospel: communicate the air war and ground war to parents. Air war is your overall strategy - the benchmarks that you will be hitting over the course of their child's life. Ground war is the takeaways that kids get each week: what is the one gospel truth you're instilling? 

Jeff: What are three books you would recommend for a church leader wanting to explore how to be more intentional in welcoming guests?

Danny: First Impressions by Mark WaltzBe Our Guest by Theodore Kinni,  and The Starbucks Experience by Joseph Michelli

Jeff: What other ways would you recommend to help indiviudals and churches grow in helping people feel welcome? 

Danny: Get out of your church. I think we overlook opportunities to learn from other organizations and companies that are doing guest services well (and poorly!). The next time you're in a fast food restaurant, the mall, or a vacation destination, take note of what made you feel included and what made you feel left out, and practice (or avoid!) those things accordingly.

For more formal training, my team offers Weekenders (behind the scenes look at our guest services training and weekend experience), One-Day Workshops (targeted, practical training on guest services and volunteer culture), and Confab (a small coaching network for ministry practitioners). Find out more at dfranks.com/speaking.  

I'm grateful for Danny's willingness to answer my questions about connecting new families. What questions do you have? Leave your questions in the comments below.

Children’s Ministry Environments: Children’s Hospital, Kids Museum, or Disney?

There is a lot of talk in the children’s ministry world about creating attractional environments for kids. This is for good reason. At the very least, “Let the children come…” means removing every hindrance that stands in the way of connecting kids to Jesus.

Fun and safe kids’ facilities, excellent hospitality, and exciting kids events are children’s ministry’s front door. But attractional environments for kids come in all shapes and sizes. Which one is most like children’s ministry? Here are three options:

  1. The Children’s Hospital. Once I had to take my daughter Elisabeth to Norton Children's Hospital for a procedure. I have a love/hate relationship with the place. I hate having to be there, because it means usually means that my child or someone else’s is sick or hurt. On the other hand, I’m always intrigued by the children’s hospital, because it is one of the most kid-friendly environments in our city. Waiting in the lobby for an hour before a test is more pleasant at the children’s hospital, because there is an interactive video projection game in the lobby. A painful procedure goes more smoothly there, because you can play games on an iPad and Frozen is showing on the ER television. The entire place is designed to build a child’s trust so that healers can provide care. Do you see the connection to children's ministry? Our environments are like the children’s hospital. Attractional environments build a relationship of trust so that kids can be led to the Healer.
     
  2. The Kids Museum. On another occasion, I was talking to a seminary class about how to create attractional environments. One of the students objected, “That sounds like Nickelodeon.” Without thinking, I answered, “No, it’s more like PBS Kids.” Sure. There is an entertainment factor, but there is an goal in mind that is larger than selling a product or a character. Like the interactive exhibits at the kids museum or the skits on Sesame Street, we have an educational goal in mind. My friend, Dave Ainsworth, put it this way: Attractional environments lead kids to hands-on, real-life, engaging discovery. Thinking through this has helped me to see why it’s important to do more than theme your environments in a kid-friendly way. You must also use the kid-friendliness to teach. We need environments that lead kids to engage with the Truth of the Bible. I wrote a bit about how we do this at Sojourn Kids in the December/January 2012 edition of K! Magazine in an article entitled, “God Has the Best Imagination” (pages 48-51).
     
  3. Disney. We've visited Disney World as a family a couple of times now with our children, and we love it! There are so many things to love about Disney’s attractions and amazing hospitality, but we fell in love with Disney for the way they took care of our Lucy. Lucy has special needs and a very unique diet. Disney asked about special needs before we arrived, and, when they discovered Lucy’s diet, they took care of her. Whenever we ate at a park restaurant, the chef met us at the front and showed us menu items that would work best. Their excellent hospitality allowed us rest and simply enjoy the theme park experience. After all, that’s part of their mission, right? They want you to lay down your worries and get lost in the Disney story–where dreams always come true. Tim Keller has written about how excellence and higher quality production communicates something about God’s transcendence. In other words, the excellence of an attractional environment can help lift eyes above temporary things to the bigger story God is telling. In another context, Paul Miller said it this way, “Disney is right. Because of the intrusion of a good God into an evil world, there are happy endings. Some of God’s last words in the Bible are, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5 KJV)

Do you think it is important to have an attractional environment for children’s ministry? Do you agree with these three analogies? What other analogies would you suggest?

Photos courtesy Jared Kennedy (at Louisville’s Norton Children’s Hospital), Art Sparks at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, and Amy Embry (at Walt Disney World). This post originally appeared at sojournkids.com in 2012.