‘Children With Additional Needs Are NOT Second Best To Jesus’

Jesus is surely the greatest story teller the world has ever known.  His stories, also known as parables, are lively, exciting, challenging and filled with teaching.  Every time we read one of Jesus’ parables, we learn something new through them… they speak into our lives like no other storyteller has.

We all have our favourite parables… the Parable of the Sower perhaps, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Mine is the Parable of the Lost Sons, sometimes called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but there were two sons in the story!  Jesus leaves us with a cliff-hanger ending as we don’t know what happens to the second, older, son!

But there is a parable that can be troubling, a parable that can be misunderstood, used negatively, used unhelpfully.  A parable that can be, and sometimes is, wrongly applied to suggest that people with additional needs or disabilities are second class, lower in importance, of lesser priority.  It is the Parable of the Great Feast.  Jesus himself is at a dinner and there is a fuss about who should sit in the seat of most honour (read the passage in Luke 14, after this blog post).  Jesus then tells a story about a great feast, alluding to the Great Feast of heaven.

First, invitations were sent out to many guests, but when the time for the banquet came, the guests all made excuses and said they couldn’t come.  This is where the parable gets tricky, because Jesus continues by saying that the host was furious at these snubs to his invitation and so ordered his servants to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” to the feast instead.

At first glance this might look like Jesus was saying that this second group of invitees were second best, only to be invited when no-one else was available…  This parable has certainly been interpreted as such by some…  I think this, however, would be a mistaken and inappropriate view of what Jesus was saying here.

I believe that Jesus is sharing two things with us.  Firstly, that if all we do is share what we have with our friends and family (or, dare I say, our ‘clique’ within our congregation!), are we just sharing with those who might then invite us back, or be useful to us in some way?  In Jesus’ time, those he described as “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” would usually have had very little social standing, and no wealth in monetary terms, so a return invitation, or influence gained through inviting them, would be unlikely.  Jesus himself does not have to defend his record here, with the Gospels packed full of his encounters with people that society at that time looked down on, although he never did.

Secondly, Jesus is hinting that change had come through him.  Until Jesus, God was the God only of the Jews; through Jesus he would become the God of the Gentiles too, of all peoples, of all of us who believe, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.”  John 3:16 (Good News)

I think Jesus, the ‘Son of David’ had a similar attitude to those he was speaking about to that of his great ancestor, King David himself.  In 2 Samuel 9 (see full passage after this post) David enquires if there are any surviving family members of his friend Jonathan (the son of King Saul).  He is informed that there is one, Mephibosheth, “…one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive.  He is crippled in both feet.”  David seemingly ignores Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant and invites him back into the royal court, to a place of honour, in memory of his friendship with his father, Jonathan.  Mephibosheth thereafter ate at the King’s table regularly.  He was welcomed because he was wanted, not because of any influence he had.

What Jesus is teaching us through his parable is that we shouldn’t just pick our favourites for the team, choose only our friends for a meal, or reach out in ministry only to those who the world views as having influence or who can help us financially; that all are equal, all can and must be invited to the ‘Great Banquet’ which is in heaven itself.

And that includes, that must include, children and young people with additional needs or disabilities…  Children who today, as in Jesus’ time, can often be on the margins of society, can be unwittingly or worse, deliberately, left out; can be viewed as too difficult to work with, or to have too challenging behaviour, or require too many changes to “how we do things here”Jesus does not see children with additional needs or disabilities as second best, he wants them included, welcomed, to belong, to have places of honour at the table of the Great Banquet.  And Jesus doesn’t want us to treat them as second best either, inviting anyone else, everyone else, first.

David dismissed Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant, as no barrier to inviting him in.  We could do worse than to follow his lead, and to follow Jesus teaching, when a child with additional needs or a disability arrives at our church… or better yet when we go out into our communities and find them and invite them to join us!  To welcome them into the Great Feast, and to enjoy the banquet with everyone together!

Mark
7th December 2017

Image rights: Header – ‘Banquet’ by Hyatt Moore – © Copyright 2017, Hyatt Moore

 Jesus Teaches about Humility

When Jesus noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honor near the head of the table, he gave them this advice: “When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table!

10 “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. 11 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then he turned to his host. “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. 13 Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”

Parable of the Great Feast

15 Hearing this, a man sitting at the table with Jesus exclaimed, “What a blessing it will be to attend a banquet[c] in the Kingdom of God!”

16 Jesus replied with this story: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. 17 When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ 18 But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’20 Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ 23 So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. 24 For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.’”

Luke 14:7-24 (NLT)

David’s Kindness to Mephibosheth

One day David asked, “Is anyone in Saul’s family still alive—anyone to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” He summoned a man named Ziba, who had been one of Saul’s servants. “Are you Ziba?” the king asked. “Yes sir, I am,” Ziba replied.

The king then asked him, “Is anyone still alive from Saul’s family? If so, I want to show God’s kindness to them.” Ziba replied, “Yes, one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive. He is crippled in both feet.” “Where is he?” the king asked. “In Lo-debar,” Ziba told him, “at the home of Makir son of Ammiel.”

So David sent for him and brought him from Makir’s home. His name was Mephibosheth[a]; he was Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson. When he came to David, he bowed low to the ground in deep respect. David said, “Greetings, Mephibosheth.” Mephibosheth replied, “I am your servant.” “Don’t be afraid!” David said. “I intend to show kindness to you because of my promise to your father, Jonathan. I will give you all the property that once belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will eat here with me at the king’s table!”

Mephibosheth bowed respectfully and exclaimed, “Who is your servant, that you should show such kindness to a dead dog like me?” Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba and said, “I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. 10 You and your sons and servants are to farm the land for him to produce food for your master’s household.[b] But Mephibosheth, your master’s grandson, will eat here at my table.” (Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.)

11 Ziba replied, “Yes, my lord the king; I am your servant, and I will do all that you have commanded.” And from that time on, Mephibosheth ate regularly at David’s table,[c] like one of the king’s own sons. 12 Mephibosheth had a young son named Mica. From then on, all the members of Ziba’s household were Mephibosheth’s servants. 13 And Mephibosheth, who was crippled in both feet, lived in Jerusalem and ate regularly at the king’s table.

2 Samuel 9 (NLT)

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‘What Part Of The Body Of The Church Is A Child With Additional Needs?’

The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, teaches us about how the body of Christ, the church, is made up of many parts.  Many parts that combine to make one body, baptized by one Holy Spirit…  He goes on to describe the various parts, firstly through metaphor (foot, hand, eye, ear, head etc.) and then by role (apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of miracles, healers etc.).  We might know what our role is, where we fit, what we are gifted in, how we can serve; or we might still be searching for our place in this body, unsure of what our role might be…

But what about children and young people with additional needs or disabilities?  Where do they fit in this picture?  What is their place in the body?  What could their role be?  Well, I believe that there are two ways to answer these questions, individually and collectively, so let’s give both a crack as we tackle this together…

Individually
Everybody has a role to play in the body of Christ’s church, regardless of their age, gender, whether they have a disability or not, whatever…  There are no exceptions, as Paul himself points out “You are the body of Christ.  Each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27 NIrV)  And note, Paul doesn’t say that those who are young, or have additional needs, are any less able to be part of this body.  There is no distinction…  If God has called a 10-year-old disabled child to lead, or to teach, then their calling should be tested, recognised and encouraged just as anyone else’s should be.  To suggest that somebody who uses a wheelchair, or is blind, or deaf, or has a learning disability, is unable to be used by God in this way, is unable to respond to God’s calling to serve in this way, is to not only grossly misunderstand disability but is to put human limitations on God!

Paul himself puts it well…  The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”  The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  In fact, it is just the opposite.  The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without.  The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honour.”  (1 Corinthians 12:21-23a NIrV)  Note the parts I’ve emphasised…  The parts that seem to be weaker, the parts we think are less important…  we can make the mistake of reducing the position of those we deem to be weaker, less important, with those with disabilities often being viewed in this way.  It’s a human response, not a heavenly one.  Paul shows us that God doesn’t think like this, and neither should we…  those we might overlook we can’t do without and should treat with special honour!

Paul tells us what happens when we get this wrong, and when we get this right… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.  If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.  You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”  If we treat those with additional needs or disabilities poorly, including children and young people, we all suffer as a result through missing out on all that they bring both individually and collectively to the church.  All parts of the body of Christ, his church, should be equally honoured, and all should share in its joy.

One body many parts

Collectively
As well as the individual roles that each of us, including children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, can play in the life of the church, there is a collective inspirational and informative role that those with additional needs and disabilities, including children, can play.  Let’s use some of the metaphorical ‘parts of the body’ that Paul mentions in order to expand on this some more:

Feet:  Feet are all about moving us forward, taking us to places…  By being inclusive, and being led forward in the best ways to achieve this by people of all ages with additional needs or disabilities, including children, the church can reach out more effectively, reach everyone, and be a church for all.

Hands:  Hands are used to greet others…  By greeting everyone into the body of the church, including children, young people and adults with additional needs or disabilities, helping everyone to belong, to identify their God given role, and to serve the rest of the body of Christ, we create an environment that is honouring, impactful and joyful for everyone.

Ears:  The church could do an awful lot worse than to listen to people of all ages who have additional needs or disabilities.  So often, generally unwittingly, churches decide what people need and go ahead with implementing it without once asking those they are trying to serve if it is what they want.  Inclusion is too often ‘done unto’ disabled people rather than ‘done with’ them.  Let’s use our ears more.

Eyes:  Too often I hear people say to me “But we don’t have anyone with additional needs in our church!”  Statistically, one in five children and young people have an additional need of some kind, but many are ‘hidden’ disabilities or differences, such as Autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia.  Churches with elderly members within their congregation are likely to have those who have become less able as they have got older.  I doubt that there is any church that has nobody who has an additional need or disability!  And, even if there is an exception out there somewhere, that church will be located in a community full of people with additional needs and disabilities of all ages…  we just need to look a bit harder!

Head:  Sometimes we just need to think about what we say…  The enthusiastic worship leader who excitedly shouts out “Let’s stand and worship!” could be a lot more inclusive by changing what they say to “Let’s stand and worship, if you are able”.  Sometimes we need to think about the effects of what we say and do…  The children’s work leader who told a mum of a boy with ADHD that her son would not be able to come to club as he would be “a health and safety risk” for example…  Sometimes we need to understand just a little of what it is like to live 24/7 with a disability, and to learn how to be better at making church the best place that a disabled person, or a family with a disabled child, can spend time, can belong.

We can, as the church, get this right… we must, as the church, work together, all of us, to get this right…  As Paul shows us, In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides.  All of them will take care of one another.”  (1 Corinthians 12:25)  There are no excuses…

Blessings,

Mark
24th October 2017

Image rights: Orchard Community Church (main header), Roosevelt Church (One Body Many Parts), vxvchurch.com (Bible passage header)

1Corinthians-12-12-31

Here is the passage that we’ve been dipping into in this blog post, using the accessible edition NIrV version:

1 Corinthians 12:12-31  New International Reader’s Version (NIrV)

 One Body but Many Parts

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.

26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it. 28 First, God has placed apostles in the church. Second, he has placed prophets in the church. Third, he has placed teachers in the church. Then he has given to the church miracles and gifts of healing. He also has given the gift of helping others and the gift of guiding the church. God also has given the gift of speaking in different kinds of languages. 29 Is everyone an apostle? Is everyone a prophet? Is everyone a teacher? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in languages they had not known before? Do all explain what is said in those languages? 31 But above all, you should want the more important gifts.

‘Washing My Autistic Son’s Feet’

James, my 15-year old autistic son, gets cold feet…  Sometimes this is because he often prefers to go barefoot, sometimes this is because his blood circulation isn’t as good as it might be, or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

He likes to have his feet rubbed, to warm them up, but recently he has also enjoyed having his feet immersed in a bowl of warm soapy water, and washed.  The sensory feeling of having his feet in the warm water is really enjoyable, and having us washing his feet with a flannel tickles and is fun…  the floor sometimes gets a wash too, as do we!

IMG_2274

As I wash James feet, there is another thing going on as well;  I am serving James as I wash his feet, being like a servant to him.  I might be his Dad, he might look up to me in many ways and (sometimes!) do what I ask him to, but in that moment I am on my knees washing his feet, serving his needs.

To me, it reminds me that a vitally important part of my role as James’ Dad is to meet his needs, to do whatever needs to be done to help him.  To be willing to put down whatever I think of as ‘important’ in that moment, whether that is work, church, whatever, and to wash his feet.

Some of you will be aware that my role at Urban Saints has changed recently; I used to be Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Urban Saints, with responsibility for the day-to-day operational running of this national children’s and youth ministry.  Alongside that, for several years, God led me and enabled me to build up the additional needs ministry area within the organisation, helping children’s, youth and families workers, among others, to reach out to, include, and create places of belonging for everyone.

This is now my full-time role; I put down my COO role in August and am fully focused on the additional needs ministry role…  and I’m loving it!  I feel like God has called me to be a servant to others in this area, to meet their needs, to do whatever I can to make a difference… metaphorically, I’ve been called to serve, to wash feet.

As I wash James’ feet I see the joy on his face through the connection we have; he chuckles and laughs, he delights in what we are doing and in the trust and relationship that we have.  When I spend time with others helping them to think about how to be more inclusive in their church or group, how to create places of belonging for all the children and young people they are working with, and how to disciple them in their faith, I see joy and delight in their eyes too… we build trust and relationship together, and we have a laugh as well!

jesus-washing-the-feet

In John 13:1-17, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet…  He serves them, he ministers to them, he guides them in their understanding.  He says to them “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet.  So you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have given you an example. You should do as I have done for you.  What I’m about to tell you is true.  A slave is not more important than his master.  And a messenger is not more important than the one who sends him.  Now you know these things.  So you will be blessed if you do them.”  (v14-17 NIrV)

As I wash James’ feet, God teaches me humility and servanthood;  as I spend time helping children’s, youth and families workers to be inclusive, that humility and servanthood is the attitude I try to adopt and encourage others to take.  We work together to see change happen… to serve, to wash feet.  Because when we’re on our knees washing feet it’s hard to feel self-important, it’s hard to feel superior, it’s hard to consider ourselves ‘better’ than the person we’re serving.  We put their needs first, they are the focus, this is the most important role for us in that moment, nothing else matters.  We meet their needs, we change, we don’t expect them to.

Whether as you read this you are a parent with a child with additional needs, or you work with children, young people or families where there are additional needs present, let us all metaphorically roll our sleeves up, get a bowl of warm soapy water, get down on our knees adopting an attitude of servanthood as Jesus himself showed us, and wash some feet together….

And as you do so, look up at the face of the child or young person you are serving, you might just catch a glimpse of Jesus smiling back at you…

Mark
27th September 2017

Image rights: Authors own and James Pruch

‘The Additional Needs Battle’

The word ‘Battle’ has been at the forefront of my mind this week;  it has been a key part of my week in several ways, through experiences and as a place.  The three reasons that this word has been key for me this week are linked, personal, ministry and place, and so come together into this week’s blog…

‘Battle’ (noun):  To struggle tenaciously to achieve or resist something

Personal:  This week has been tough, it’s been a struggle.  James (age 15, Autism Spectrum Condition and Learning Disability) has refused to return to school, and although he has made little steps in the right direction, and has made short evening trips out of the house, we are a long way (or a miracle) away from a return to school any time soon…  It feels like a constant battle at the moment to get James to cooperate with even the very basic things that he has been happy to do for years.  Sometimes we are able to celebrate the victories, seeing things moving in the right direction, but then sometimes we unexpectedly find ourselves in retreat, trying to hold hard fought ground but feeling like we’re losing.

Ministry:  This week has (finally!) seen me being able to fully focus on my new full-time role in Urban Saints as Additional Needs Ministry Director.  Having laid down my previous Chief Operating Officer role, handing it over to my newly recruited replacement, I am released to the calling I believe God has placed on my heart; to enable, equip, encourage and envision children’s, youth and families workers to reach out to, include, create belonging and faith development for all with additional needs or disabilities.  It’s taken a year to get here from the point when God spoke clearly to me that I needed to focus in this area.  It’s felt like a battle at times to work through the transition, both from a work and family perspective.  There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would ever get here…  When I doubted if I had heard correctly from God at all…  But then I continued to see God’s hand at work, and encouragement and affirmation kept coming through to support and lift me up.

DI4OLIXXgAARiUe

The doubts and feelings of defeat we have, either as parents or in ministry, are important to recognise and deal with.  They are one of the most effective tools of the enemy to attack us and pull us down, to turn us away from what we are called to, to convince us that it’s just all too hard and that giving up and walking away would be so much easier…  But, to do so would be to ignore a couple of very important things… 

Firstly…  the reason we are under attack is because we are dangerous to the enemy.  He wouldn’t be bothered with us unless we were a threat.  By the way we parent our child, showing unconditional love through all the struggles, we are modelling what Jesus taught us, to love each other as we love ourselves.  By the way we serve in ministry, reaching out to others in Jesus’ name, we are taking the Gospel to all peoples.  And the enemy hates us for that, and wants to bring us down, to stop us, to cause us to quit, to convince us that we can’t win this battle.  Maybe if we were alone, and he was just attacking us, he would be right, but that’s where the second important thing comes in…

We are not alone…  we are on God’s side, and he is on ours…  The victory has already been won, these battles we face are just skirmishes, but even as we struggle in these times we are not on our own…  remember the words of Elisha:

The servant of the man of God got up the next morning. He went out early. He saw that an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my master!” the servant said. “What can we do?”  “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

 Elisha prayed, “Lord, open my servant’s eyes so that he can see.” Then the Lord opened his eyes. Elisha’s servant looked up and saw the hills. He saw that Elisha was surrounded by horses and chariots made of fire.  (2 Kings 6:15-17)

thathemaysee

We are not alone, we do not battle alone, if we open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, our very souls, to the Lord, he will reveal to us that he is there for us, with us.  His army stands alongside us, and he gives us each other to support us too.  Which brings me to the final reason the word ‘Battle’ has been important to me this week…

Place:  The autumn tour of the Urban Saints ‘All Inclusive?’ training programme that I run, helping churches to be inclusive, create belonging and develop faith in all children and young people, particularly those with additional needs and disabilities, started this week in the town of Battle in East Sussex.  It seems apt that, with all that’s been going on, the first place for me to visit would have the name that best represents my struggles!  And it was a victorious evening, really great times sharing about inclusion, belonging and faith development with a positive and responsive group of children’s, youth and families workers.  A wonderful start to the autumn tour and a reminder that I’m doing what God has called me to do…  That feeling of being in exactly the right place is very special indeed!

So, when we feel that we are in a battle, whether personally or in ministry, let us remember that it means we’re doing something right, and that we’re not doing it on our own…  We’re doing what God has called us to, what pleases him…  Let’s keep bringing it back to God and recognising that he is with us, that his army stands alongside us, and that we stand alongside each other…

And with a mighty battle roar, let’s throw ourselves back into the fight!  Amen!

Mark
10th September 2017

Image rights: English Heritage (header), Urban Saints (banner), author (others)

‘The State Of The Nation – Additional Needs & Disability In The UK’

In a few weeks time for many, a new academic year will start; in some parts of the country, it starts this week.  The start of the new academic year is often the time that church children’s and youth clubs start up again, although of course some have continued during the summer, or have run holiday clubs or camps.  Sunday mornings become busier again as families return from holidays; the buzz of activity in weekly children’s and youth work across the UK builds up again… including those working with children or young people with additional needs or disabilities.

But what does the overall landscape look like?  What is the background narrative in the UK today to working with children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities?  What do we see if we lift our heads up from the great work which many are doing individually and locally for a moment, and take a long hard look at the big picture?

Well, here are three observations, drawn from published data (sources provided) that shed some interesting light on the state of the nation in the UK regarding children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities, and how the church can and must respond:

1.  This is a bigger ministry area than we might think

3% of children/young people have a Statement of Special Educational Needs (source: UK Gov.)[1]  The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ (SEN) has a legal definition: “Children who have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn or access education than most children of the same age.”  There are roughly 13 million under 18’s in the UK, so 3% is 390,000… a big number, and of course each individual is important, but that is only part of a much bigger picture…

copy-of-eecu-kids-colour-large 

20% of the 13 million children and young people in the UK have additional needs of some kind (source: UK Gov.)[2]  That’s 2.6 million children and young people across the country, a huge number!  Do we see one in five of the children or young people that we engage with in church, or care for in other settings, having additional needs of some kind?  Maybe in some settings we do, but in many we don’t, and there could be some important reasons for that…

2.  Additional needs ministry isn’t just for Sunday mornings

Up to 90% of families with children that have additional needs are un-churched (source: Baptist Press)[3]  Many of these families are outside of our immediate church congregation, we seldom see them at church events, but they live all around us in the local community, and they are in need of support and help.  It can be hard for them to find us, we need to make the effort to reach out to them, to welcome them, and to meet their needs.  And their needs will be many and various…

Siblings and parents often feel excluded from a wide range of social activities, including church (source: Mumsnet)[4]  Why is this? Because often these activities don’t cater for children or young people with additional needs, or require parents to continue caring for their child at the activity rather than being able to enjoy it for themselves.  Talking to parents about how they and their family can be supported at church events is a vital first step to enabling them to come.  And it is important to pick up on siblings here too… often junior carers, regularly missing out on typical family activities, generally overlooked by the church.

53% of families claim that having a disabled child causes some/major relationship difficulties or breakups (source: About Families)[5]  It is hard raising a child with additional needs or disability, and it has an impact on families…  It grieves me as a father of a child with additional needs myself to see that it is often the father who can’t cope and goes, leaving the mother with the additional challenge of being a single parent too.  How can the church reach out to families to either a) support them better to help them stay together, or where this is no longer possible b) support the remaining parent to help them cope?  Perhaps working with families to see where the key stress points are during the week, and looking to support them effectively at those times, might be a good place to start.  Offering marriage support such as that offered by Care for the Family might also be helpful.

3.  There are other things that the church can do

Poor communities are twice as likely to include families with children with additional needs (source: LKMCo/Joseph Rowntree Foundation.)[6]  This will be relevant to most churches, as every church will be near to more deprived areas.  The reasons for this statistic are many and various, but include that poorer communities will commonly have less access to the best specialist support and medical advice, and that poor nutrition can play a part in exacerbating some conditions.  How can churches step up to help?  Offering food banks, debt counselling such as CAP (Christians Against Poverty) and other services targeted at the poorest families in the community would be a good start.

 60% of children with additional needs are bullied (source: Ability Path)[7]  When we think of bullying, and the places it happens, we commonly think of school, the journey to and from school, in the local streets, and increasingly online.  But do we also consider the bullying that happens in our churches?  The ‘tuts’, the harsh stares, the gossiping, the unasked for ‘child rearing advice’, all can be just as bullying to a family of a child with additional needs?  A zero tolerance of such bullying behaviour, led from the top by the church leaders, is essential in bringing about a culture change so that everyone is welcome, included and cared for.

So, in conclusion, the state of the nation for children, young people and families where there are additional needs is often challenging and difficult, and this blog deliberately hasn’t touched on recent Government policy and its impact, but the church can, and must, engage and make a difference…   As Nick Knowles always says at the end of ‘DIY SOS’; “Do you know someone you can help?”

Mark
16th August 2017

Image rights: Committee for Economic Development (Header), Hampshire Childcare and Family Information

[1] ‘House of Commons Education and Skills Committee: Special Educational Needs – Third Report’ (2006) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmeduski/478/478i.pdf [accessed 2nd August 2017]

[2] ‘Reforms for children with SEN and disabilities come into effect’ (2014) http://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-for-children-with-sen-and-disabilities-come-into-effect [accessed 17th November 2016]

[3]Church’s outreach to families with special needs children: ‘a major need’ (2003) http://www.bpnews.net/16565 [accessed 2nd August 2017]

[4] ‘Mumsnet parents: negative attitudes are holding back our disabled children’ (2014) http://www.scope.org.uk/About-Us/Media/Press-releases/February-2014/Mumsnet-parents-negative-attitudes-are-holding-bac [accessed 17th November 2016]

[5] ‘Together and apart: supporting families through change’ (2011)
http://www.capability-scotland.org.uk/media/101061/about_families_report_2_change.pdf [accessed 1st August 2017]

[6] ‘Children from poor families ‘twice as likely’ to have special needs’ (2016) www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/children-poor-families-twice-likely-have-special-needs [accessed 1st August 2017]

[7] ‘Walk A Mile In Their Shoes – Bullying and the Child with Special Needs’ (2013) http://abilitypath.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes.pdf [accessed 1st August 2017]

 

‘Prayer – Essential In Inclusive Children’s & Youth Work’

Prayer is an essential element in inclusive children’s and youth work…  seems an obvious thing to say doesn’t it?  Yet it still surprises me how many times we overlook including God in what we are doing…

Take the ‘phone call I received once as an example of this…  In the role that I have, I tend to be the person that children’s and youth leaders get put through to in our office if they have any questions or queries about working with children with additional needs.  One call got put through to me that I will never forget!

“I’ve got this lad in my group, he’s got ADHD and is a complete nightmare, what can I do to exclude him?”  Quite an opening line, but that’s what I got from the youth worker in question…  I took a deep breath, and suggested that he told me what had happened.  There was quite a story, but many opportunities had been missed to help and support the lad in question…  You can read the full story of what happened and what we did to put things back on-track in my blog on ‘Lessons From Exclusion’  https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/lessons-from-exclusion/

There is much more to this story though, as when we had successfully got things back on-track again, I asked the youth leader a question that I had a pretty good idea I already knew the answer to…  “What did you pray about at the beginning of your session?”  I asked this as a way of challenging the youth leader to think about how prepared he and his team had been spiritually for the session they were just about to run, and I got the answer I had half-expected…

Oh we didn’t have time to pray!  We’d been at work all day, rushed home for something to eat, then down to the hall to get everything set up.  Then the parents arrived with the children and we were greeting them and sorting everything out.  We simply didn’t have time for anything else…

It’s easy to see how that happened isn’t it?  Busy people, lots to do, very little time available… I’m sure many of us have been there, just about getting everything done in time, constantly glancing at our watches…  Servant hearts willing to serve, but not checking in with God to help them understand how to serve…  And then it all unravels…

Praying doesn’t guarantee a smooth running children’s or youth session…  but it might make the difference between us being able to cope or not.  It might make the difference between us feeling that this is all down to us, or recognising that God is bigger than all the difficulties we might encounter…  It is so important to pray as we prepare to do God’s work with the children and young people, whether they have additional needs or not…  Why would we not include him?

Pray, even if it means the room isn’t laid out how we would like when the children arrive, even if it means the drinks aren’t ready, even if it means we have to open the doors a couple of minutes later! Pray…

  • Pray that God would be with us all, preparing us to serve him and the children, and helping us to be Jesus to them.
  • Pray that he would have prepared the children and young people for the session, opening their hearts and minds to what we might share together.
  • Pray that he would speak through us as we share his word with them, through all we say and do.
  • Pray that if there is a special word that we need to give to a particular child, that God will use us in that way.
  • Pray that the needs of all the children will be met.
  • Pray that God’s peace and protection will cover the building and all within it.

Pray about any or all of these things, and more, but pray…  God hears our prayers, God responds to our prayers, God recognises that in praying we are saying to him “this isn’t all about me and what I can do, it’s all about you and what you can do through me”

Prayer is powerful, prayer works, and prayer connects us to God in ways we can’t even understand… but he does.  Whatever else we do as we prepare to lead children’s and youth work next time, let’s all make sure we have time to pray!

Blessings,

Mark
27th July 2017

Image rights:  Thinkstock

‘Fidgets, Fiddles, Focus and Fun!’

There has been an enormous amount of fuss in the last few months about fidget (or fiddle) toys…  largely focussed around finger spinners and fidget cubes…  Much of the commentary around this has been generated by the debate as to whether schools are right or wrong to ban them, as many (but not all) have…  Are they a useful aid to focus for children?  Are they a distraction for them and others?  There has been much discussion about this, some very good and informed input provided (including from my good friend Miriam Gwynne, well worth reading her thoughts on this), as well as some utter guff from folk just jumping on the bandwagon without understanding this at all…

fidget cube and finger spinner

This blog doesn’t attempt to re-open that debate, but to move it on to look at how a wide range of fidget or fiddle toys can be a really effective part of the resource toolkit for children’s and youth workers in the church context, and what things to include in your fiddles box.

Firstly, it is important to think a little about how fiddle/fidget toys can help.  We all occasionally use other things to help us to focus…  some of us might listen to some music as we read or write, others might doodle as we chat on the ‘phone, some of us might even spin that pen around in our fingers a bit like a miniature cheerleaders baton, or repeatedly click the pen on and off, or chew the top of it…  In our case, these activities can help us to focus, relax, get rid of some nervous energy, or simply give us something to do with our hands…

It can be the same with children and young people with fiddle/fidget toys…  by using a variety of things, children and young people, including those with additional needs, can be helped in just the same way as us adults, especially during a talk time.  Each child will, like many of us, have a favourite item that they will choose from the fiddles box…  something that meets their needs and helps them concentrate.  Having a selection of different items in your fiddles box will ensure that you’ve got something for everyone…  and if more than one child wants the same thing, most items are fairly inexpensive so adding more to the box shouldn’t be difficult.  The variety of things to include can be up to each children’s or youth worker and the children/young people they work with, but here are a few suggestions (see the photo’s too):

  • Something you can twist or bend…  A string of wooden blocks that can be twisted into shapes, or pipe-cleaners which can be bent or twisted into spirals, can be excellent for this.
  • Something you can stretch…  Fitness rubber bands, or stretchy people, both work well.
  • Something you can squish/squeeze…  Play-Doh is a favourite for this, and is the go-to item for my son James, but a ball that you can squeeze is also good.
  • Something that lights up…  Balls or other items that light up if you squeeze them.
  • Something that has a little bit of weight…  Such as a bean bag or something similarly heavy.
  • Something you can stroke…  A small soft toy or finger puppet for example, or a piece of velvet.
  • Something you can click, manipulate etc…  This is where the fidget cube, finger spinner, or even a slinky can work well.

Fiddles box

Lots of other ideas are out there…  what would the children in your group find helpful?

What you have in your fiddles box might also depend on where you are going to use it…  Mine also has some velcro, which is very satisfying to tear apart and re-join, but could be a little too disruptive for a quieter setting!

It is important that everyone has the opportunity to choose something from the fiddles box during the session as they need it…  It shouldn’t only be available to some children or this risks building resentment.  Initially, the excitement of it all might make it a short-term distraction, but things will settle down quite quickly and then having access to the fiddles box will be normalised.  Don’t forget to add extra of any items that are popular!

A great suggestion is to bring the fiddles box along to your next children’s or youth work team meeting.  Let your team choose something to fiddle with while you all talk (instead of their usual pen!)  It will soon be evident that this helps concentration and focus, rather than hindering it…  and it’s a bit of harmless fun at the same time!

More tips on how to engage effectively with all children and young people, including those with additional needs, can be found here: www.urbansaints.org/additionalneeds

I hope you find these tips helpful, and look forward to hearing your stories as you create your own fiddles/fidget box and use it effectively in your group!

Now, where did I put my finger spinner…

Mark
22nd June 2017

Image rights: Urban Saints & Mark Arnold

‘Inclusion Champions – Transforming The Church’

There are many ways that those involved in children’s and youth work can make a big difference for children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, and their families.  I often get asked what one change can make the most difference, can have the greatest impact, can enable lasting transformation.  The answer I always give is this… have someone that owns this, that champions it, that challenges the rest of the church to step up and make a difference.

It’s not just about inclusion; so often churches feel that if a child or young person with additional needs or disability is able to access the group then the inclusion box can be ticked.  It is so much more than this, as to settle for inclusion could just mean settling for offering a child-minding service, and there is much, much more that the church can, and should do.  Having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ can help churches to develop three important steps for their work with all children and young people, including those with additional needs or disability:

Three stepsThree important steps

  • Inclusion: This is still important, and needs to be a foundation stone for everything else. Looking to ensure that everything the church offers is accessible to all, inclusive of all, accommodating the needs of all.  An ‘Inclusion Champion’ can be vital here to ensure that the programme the church provides is assessed against the needs of everyone.  What parts of the programme might be difficult for some to access?  Are there certain activities that are inaccessible to some?  What simple changes and adaptations can be made to change this so that everyone is welcome, everyone can take part, everyone’s needs are considered and acted upon.
  • Belonging: Inclusion is just the first, important, step.  If we stop there, we settle for so much less than is possible, so much less than we should.  Within children’s and youth work we risk just settling for child-minding.  But do those children and young people really feel that they belong to the church; that it is their church?  Are they missed, for all the right reasons, when they can’t come?  Is what they bring to the group valued and cherished, bringing a flavour to the group that is distinctive and vibrant?  An ‘Inclusion Champion’ can work with the leaders of the children’s and youth work, the children and young people themselves, as well as parents and carers, to create a place of belonging for all, where everyone is valued.
  • Faith development: Even belonging isn’t the end of the journey; while it’s great to reach a place where all children and young people feel fully valued within their church, there is even more that can be done.  Every child or young person, whether they have additional needs or not, can develop and grow in their faith and should be helped to do so within the work of the church.  An ‘Inclusion Champion’ can enable children’s and youth workers to consider how to help everyone to be discipled; to create an environment for all to be reached by, and to respond to, the Gospel message of grace, love and hope.

Where an ‘Inclusion Champion’ is in place, the impact across the work of the church is transforming.  Time and time again I come across stories from churches that have been involved in some of the training I run, which highlights having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ or ‘Inclusion Leader’ as the most important step, and are now seeing amazing results from having someone in this role.

An ‘Inclusion Champion’s’ story:

Claire from Hitchin Christian Centre sums up their recent experience here:

One of the ‘Top Tips’ which is shared in the Urban Saints ‘All Inclusive?’ seminar (www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive) is for every church to appoint a SENCO/Inclusion Leader.  I was challenged by this fantastic suggestion and in September 2016 took on the voluntary role of Inclusion Leader at Hitchin Christian Centre.  This is such an exciting opportunity and so far, together with the Children’s Pastor, we have made significant changes and made a great start in helping our children’s-work groups to be more inclusive and accommodating for children and young people with additional needs.  In my role as Inclusion Leader I also led a seminar at a training event for children and young people on the subject of including children with additional needs in a church setting.”

A mum’s story:

Beckie is mum to a child with additional needs who attends St. Paul’s Church in St. Albans; here she speaks about the difference having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ has made for her and her family:

“I wanted to write to say how important the SEN inclusion at St Paul’s has been for us as a family.  I understand that the inclusion that there is now at St Paul’s stemmed from a course that members/staff from the church attended; the ‘All Inclusive?’ course run by Urban Saints.  I understand that this encouraged the creation of an ‘Inclusion Officer’ role at church and a whole host of other practical measures that support inclusion of SEN families.

 Life with a child with SEN can be very isolating and there are few places in which, at times, it is possible to feel comfortable and welcomed.  Some of the things that were implemented at St Paul’s include Makaton signing in family services; a space for those with additional needs to be during the service; a one-to-one helper provided for those children that need it; Makaton training for the children’s leaders; visual time lines for the service timetable etc.

 These steps have helped us as a family to feel welcomed and included in the church.  The fact that the church has implemented these steps portrays a strong message that those with SEN are welcome, and that means they are welcomed with all the potential behavioural and emotional issues that that may bring.  It also has helped our other daughter who does not have special needs.  Her seeing the Makaton in the services has normalised the use of the signs for her and we think helps her not to feel like we are a different family.  If we had not felt so comfortable and welcomed it would have been very difficult for us, practically and emotionally, to continue attending.”

These stories lay down a challenge to churches across the country; if they want to be serious about inclusion, belonging and faith formation for all children and young people then having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ in place is vital…  Not waiting for the need to arise (the reality is that the need is already there anyway) but catching the vision, seeing the benefits this can bring, and going for it!

So come on church…  let’s see a wave of ‘Inclusion Champions’ sweep across the churches of the country, and see all the children and young people of this land included, belonging, and discipled.

Mark
9th June 2017

Image rights: Unknown

‘One-to-One Heroes’

Where inclusion in church is done well, particularly where it is done well within children’s and youth work, there are often unsung heroes working in the background to care for and support those with additional needs and disabilities.

These folk get alongside children and young people who need additional support and provide them with the help, encouragement, confidence and care they need to cope, thrive and benefit from their time at church.  One-to-one help can be transforming for a child or young person, reducing the uncertainty and fear of the unknown… what is happening now, what is expected of me, what is happening next.  Having a caring friend alongside to help and to explain what is happening, to answer questions and to assist with the range of needs that a child or young person might have, revolutionises church for them.

When I’m running training for churches and I start to talk about one-to-one help, I know that usually I’m going to be met with the same comments, so I pre-empt them…  I ask for a show of hands for anyone whose children’s or youth work has more volunteers than they need… that they have to turn volunteers away as they have so many already!  This always gets a laugh, accompanied by no hands going up at all.   I then ask how many of them struggle to get enough help, who scrape by with the small number of volunteers that they have… A forest of hands is then visible…

So, when I then start talking about one-to-one help, the scene has already been set.  I introduce the idea of one-to-one help but with one important clarification…  this isn’t necessarily about getting a bunch more children’s or youth workers along to help.

When thinking about one-to-one help, we sometimes have to fish in a different pond…  While some people that make great one-to-one helpers can also be great children’s/youth workers, the main responsibility of a one-to-one helper isn’t to run children’s work but to get alongside one child/young person and support them.

You don’t necessarily need someone who can lead songs, organise games, tell dramatic stories or plan a teaching programme.  What is needed is someone with a heart to help a particular child or young person, someone with the pastoral skills to see when they are struggling and to help them, someone who can interpret what is happening and what is expected in a way that the child or young person can understand.  They can be observant for when a child or young person might be starting to struggle, and have strategies in place to help when this happens, preventing it developing into a meltdown.  They can be a great connection for parents/carers, debriefing at the end of the session about how the child/young person has got on, what they have enjoyed, what they found harder.

They can be people like the three one-to-one helpers that care for James…  On a once-a-month rota they sit with him, help him to do the things that the others are doing, explain things to him, but most of all they show him Jesus’ love through the ways that they love him.  He’s had Alison, Ian and Rich to help him for years, knows each of them really well, and is happy to spend time with them.  And they love seeing him, look forward to their time with him, and it is a mutually enjoyable and beneficial time that they spend together.

I sometimes get asked how James copes with having a different helper each week, as routine is really important to him.  He has known each of his helpers for many years, so manages the changes well, and having a pool of one-to-one helpers available means that when holidays or other time conflicts arise, there is the opportunity to swap people around to ensure James still has support.

One-to-one helpers can come from lots of different ‘ponds’…  the grandparent generation can be great at this, so can other young people who can be ‘buddies’ for those that need them.  Everyone benefits, and it is always great to see these relationships grow.  Churches that provide this help generally reap the rewards of seeing the children/young people involved thriving, seeing parents/carers able to be spiritually fed in church themselves (vitally important, see my previous blog post: ‘Additional Needs Families And A Truly Supportive Church) and seeing the work of the church become more inclusive.

So let’s go fishing, let’s fish in a different pond for the one-to-one helpers that can make a transforming impact on the way children and young people with additional needs and disabilities can engage with, and be an active part of, a church where they truly belong.  And where these heroes lovingly care for children and young people already, let’s recognise the work they do and the impact it makes…

To all the Alison’s, Ian’s and Rich’s out there… thank you!!

Mark
2nd June 2017

Image rights: ‘All In’ holiday

‘Additional Needs Families And A Truly Supportive Church’

Often the starting point for a church looking to be more inclusive of children and young people with additional needs is to seek out some training to help them to do this better during their Sunday morning sessions, or during a mid-week club night.  To be able to work more effectively with all children and young people during these times, including those with additional needs.

But that is really just scratching at the surface of what the church could, and should, be offering.  In many ways, it’s a ‘church focused’ approach… “We have some children/young people that we struggle to support, we need some solutions to help us to do this better”.  It’s putting the needs of the church at the heart of the matter, rather than the needs of the children/young people themselves and the families that they come from.  And these two sets of needs may be very very different indeed!

A story from last summer really helps to illustrate this…  It was the beginning of the school summer holidays and a family that includes two children with additional needs was facing the six-week school break with no respite available for them at all.  Six weeks of constant 24/7 care for their two children, and they were finding the prospect pretty daunting!  They had tried all avenues to get some respite or support but nothing was available, or there was no budget that would pay for it.

So… they went to their local church and asked if there was any way that they could help…  Did they ask if their children could be included in Sunday School for an hour on Sunday mornings?  Or if they could bring them to the mid-week kids club?  Both of these settings are incredibly important, and to make them accessible, inclusive, and places of belonging for everyone should be a priority for every church (see www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive for ideas), but that isn’t all that this family needed…  They needed help!  Real honest-to-goodness practical help!

Did the church turn them away?  Did the church say they didn’t have enough resources, volunteers or training?  Did the church say this is really a Social Services matter?  No… they immediately saw the need, recognised that here was a family in crisis, and rolled up their sleeves ready to serve.

They took the children out on trips, they made meals for the family, some of the women took mum for a pampering session while the guys took dad out for a round of golf.  They did loads of practical things to support and serve this family.  They loved them as Jesus loves them, and by showing their love in this way it made an enormously positive impact on this family…  They were literally loved through the six-weeks of the summer holiday, and support has remained in place since.

If a church has children and young people in it, it is going to have children and young people with additional needs, and their families, of all shapes and sizes.  Serving those families both in church and at home is a vital ministry to families who regularly struggle.  Helping families like the church in the story above did makes the headlines, but there are many other ways in which the families that we serve can be helped on a week-by-week basis through church.  Here are just a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t make a parent of a child with additional needs be the one that cares for their child in Sunday School. Parents need to be spiritually refreshed and fed too, and they won’t get that providing childcare.  Look to provide one-to-one support to give these parents the opportunity to be discipled.
  2. Offer childminding to parents so that they can come along to a Bible study, growth group, evening service etc. together. The opportunity to just come to something as a couple is rare, so help them with this.  Over half of couples with a child with a disability say that it causes major relationship difficulties or breakups…  it’s a stressful life, let’s help these couples get some quality time together.
  3. Think about holding a monthly drop in style event for parents with children with additional needs where they can come, share coffee and cake, make friendships, share stories. Parenting a child with additional needs can be really lonely and isolating, the church can help here.  Contact ‘Take 5 and Chat’ for ideas… take5andchat.org.uk
  4. Offer pastoral support to parents of children with additional needs. There is so much to celebrate and enjoy in parenting a child with additional needs, but there are only so many times that you can clear up poo before you really just need to just talk to someone about the hard stuff (no pun intended…).  Maybe linking to Care For The Family’s befriending service might also be a good start? careforthefamily.org.uk
  5. Recognise that many families with a child or children with additional needs struggle financially… Much needed benefits are being cut back or withdrawn leaving families facing real financial hardship.  How can the church help here?  Maybe linking to Christians Against Poverty (CAP) capuk.org, or starting a food bank www.trusselltrust.org could offer practical help?
  6. And don’t forget to pray… Among all of the practical things that can be done, and there are many, let’s not forget to lift these families up into God’s presence and ask him to bless them and help them too…  We can do plenty to help, but God can do even more!

These are just a few ideas, there are a great many other ways that churches can get alongside families with children/young people with additional needs.  If you are a church leader reading this, what will your churches response be?  What will you do?  What do you think Jesus would do?

Then let’s make a difference together…

Mark
25th May 2017

Special Needs FamilyImage rights: specialneeds.com