Tag Archives: sunday school

Lead with Love

If you have a disability or are the parent or guardian of someone with a disability, then you are very familiar with assessments for eligibility of services. These assessments are designed to identify whether  or not an individual requires support of some kind which would then lead to the kinds of intervention or available services. Assessments can be just a few minutes long or take hours and hours and require you to answer hundreds of questions.

As the parent of a young adult with severe autism, I have sat through my fair share of assessments and can assure you that they usually are not fun. This is mainly because the whole reason for the questions is to determine what my child can not do, what her weaknesses are, and why she needs support for daily living, etc.

No one wants to have to spend time focusing solely on their child’s weaknesses, because, despite the truth off all the information, this does not define our child, it is just a part of who they are. Unfortunately, it is the only part that is usually relevant during an assessment.

Recently, this idea of assessments came to mind when consulting with a local small church. I met with a very kind group of people who wanted to discuss how best to support a young person with severe autism. This is the kind of situation I get calls and emails about most frequently as Director of FIN. Due to the challenging behaviors, people leading religious education programs, Sunday schools and other children-focused ministries in churches and synagogues are often at a loss as to how best to include children with autism.

Discussing the situation of inclusion for a young child with autism always brings me back to when my daughter was nine years old. We had just started attending a new church and I was working with the director of the religious education program on how to understand and include Samantha. Even though this was over 10 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. Do you know what sticks out most in my mind? The initial response from the director of RE. She didn’t ask about all the challenges and how we were going to accomplish including Samantha into Sunday school classses, she just said, “We will figure it out” and asssured me that the church would help. She asked me what Samantha liked to do and what she was like at home. I felt that Samantha was going to be loved and appreciated because of those questions, and I was right.  

The small group I was asked to join was assembled to address and develop strategies to include the child with autism. I have no doubt that they too want what is best for this child and family, as well as the congregation as a whole. I arrived with a small stack of books, resources from some of my favorite authors like Barb Newman, Jolene Philo and Shelly Christensen who have detailed suggestions as to how best to develop support and develop a positive inclusive environment. I brought along some Joni and Friends resources too and I threw in David Morstad’s latest book, “Whole Community” for a big picture look at the importance of developing inclusion.

It was an informal meeting and the group leader jumped right in with some ideas they had been thinking about and the conversation they wanted to have with the parents. As I listened to all their suggestions, it occurred to me that this well-intentioned meeting felt like a group that was assessing and solving a problem, much like the assessments I go through with my daughter to receive services.

Eventually, I chimed in with the suggestion that we back up to the initial talk with the child’s parents. How would I feel if members of my church started a conversation about my daughter with questions about her weaknesses, about the challenges and how to address them in the Sunday school class? I am pretty sure it would feel like an assessment. What is wrong? What are the weaknesses? How do we fix it or what do we provide to make this work?

I made the suggestion that perhaps they could start by asking the parents what their child’s strengths were? What does he do well? What does he like? Yes, the challenging behaviors do exist and need to be discussed to find a way to best support and include the child, but this young person is first and foremost a child of God, with their own set of gifts to offer the community.

The suggestion was noted and appreciated, I think. The group was a well-educated, smart and loving group of people who are all interested in what is best for this individual child, family and the rest of their children in the congregation too. I was glad to be a part of the conversation and hopefully had some good suggestions and helpful resources.

But what I came away with personally was an important reminder of what I believe we all must remember as we go about the work of developing supports and inclusion in our faith communities for people with disabilities or special needs. In addition to learning and utilizing best practice strategies to help our children be included in congregational activities, which very often means religious education classes, we must always start by seeing the person as a precious child of God, a person that brings their own gifts, talents, and special qualities to the table…and we must keep in mind how loved that individual is by their family and by God. We must lead with love.