LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (ABP) — Though often started with the best of intentions, special-needs ministries don't always live up to their mission, says one father of a developmentally disabled child.
Charlie Warren, editor of the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine in Little Rock, Ark., said if it weren't for his family's deep commitment to Christ and the church, they would have stopped attending church long ago because of the frustrations they encountered with special-needs ministries in churches where they belonged.
Warren has a 20-year-old daughter, Jan, who is autistic, legally blind, hearing impaired and non-verbal. Attempts through the years to keep her involved in church life often proved frustrating and even hurtful.
When the Warrens adopted Jan at four months, their church did not have a special-needs ministry. That didn't present a problem until Jan grew past the toddler stage and was held back from promotion because she was unable to learn as quickly as the other children.
“Soon, she grew too big and her strange behaviors began to scare other children,” said Warren. So the church's children's minister began to develop a special-needs program.
The program provided excellent training for potential volunteers, and for a while volunteers worked with Jan one on one. But each time a volunteer quit, it was “like pulling eye teeth” to find someone else willing to take up the mantle, recalled Warren.
Finally, the church began to hire special-education majors from a local university to work with Jan. The Warrens were grateful the church was willing to pay for care of their daughter, but they were also disappointed that volunteers didn't “step up to the plate.”
“It was a large church,” said Warren. “We were disappointed that no one was willing to make the effort to work with our daughter.”
Making matters worse, the room assigned for Jan was a closet at the end of a long hall that got little traffic. At first they cleaned out the closet and put a small table and chairs in it. But soon people began to store other things in the tiny room, leaving less and less space for Jan and the university student.
Two things became obvious to the Warrens — the church was trying to keep Jan out of sight and she was a low priority. Finally the Warrens became so frustrated they changed churches.
Harpeth Heights Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn — where the family lived at the time — was just beginning a special-needs ministry and had about 10 trained workers. Church leaders seemed more than willing to allocate resources to the new ministry.
“On the Sunday we walked the aisle to join,” said Warren, “church leaders were disappointed we didn't get Jan out of the special-needs department first so the whole church could see her.”
“Harpeth Heights made special needs a priority and Jan was never hidden away somewhere,” he said. And there was always someone to work with Jan any time they attended — Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings and Sunday nights.
The family knows how exceptional this is, since the three churches they have joined since have provided care only on Sunday mornings.
“There have been many times when we have arrived at one of these churches only to discover there was no one to work with Jan,” said Warren “We've had to get back in the car and drive home, which frustrates us, but also frustrates Jan, who likes to go to church.”
But probably more damaging than the lack of resources is the attitudes of some church members toward the developmentally disabled.
“I still recall the anger I felt at a church one night when Jan was about six,” said Warren. Arriving a few minutes early with Jan one Wednesday night, he found that Jan's worker had not yet arrived.
“In the room were two teachers and one child. Both teachers looked up with the kind of smiles teachers are supposed to have as they greet children. But when they saw it was Jan, their expressions changed drastically.”
When neither teacher was willing to care for Jan until her teacher could get there, he said, the family left confused and angry.
“Incidents like that are why many parents of special-needs children drop out of church,” said Warren.
Today the family attends a church that pays two deaf-education students to work with Jan. But the church is making an effort to develop a special-needs ministry.
“When it works well, we can know that Jan will be well cared for and we can depend on someone being there for her,” said Warren. “We also know that Jan is loved despite her uniqueness and occasional bad behavior.”