Disability and the Gospel for Youth Ministers

Rooted’s blog editors had the opportunity to interview Gigi Sanders, director of special needs ministry at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. In the following conversation, Gigi shares how youth ministers can foster belonging among teenagers with special needs.

Rooted: Hello Gigi! Tell us a little about your work with people affected by disability. How did you get started in this ministry, and how do you serve families at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville? 

Gigi: In 2005, I started working five hours per week with the special needs arm of our children’s ministry. I helped secure and organize buddies for children with special needs on Sunday mornings. We continued to add new aspects of the ministry, all birthed from conversations with families. Over time, we added a monthly respite, an annual special needs Bible school, and a class for adults with special needs. We continued to grow with a Sunday evening bi-monthly fellowship night for adults alongside two other churches and a class for younger individuals with special needs.

Because of this growth, my position increased and eventually became full time. As children grew into teenagers and then into adults, the Lord directed us to make the special needs ministry its own department. We wanted to give our teenagers and adults age-appropriate care and attention.

Rooted: It’s so encouraging to hear about the priority Christ Pres has given to special needs ministry! How does the gospel inform our ministry to and with people who have disabilities?

Gigi: The gospel is at the heart of ministry to, with, and by people with disabilities. In creative and intentional ways, we aim to make the gospel accessible to all. The gospel is relational, and the starting point is that all human beings are made in the image of God. All people are in need of a relationship with God, through the saving knowledge of Christ alone. This is true regardless of our abilities or disabilities.

Rooted: What are some very practical ways in which youth ministers can care for teenagers with special needs?

Gigi: Youth ministers can shepherd and support students with special needs by including them in large and small group settings. Having staff, key volunteers, and peer mentors greet students by name sets the stage for inclusive gatherings. Students with special needs should receive invitations to use their gifts within the group—and within the church as a whole. 

A student with a disability could serve as a greeter, pass out song sheets, or run slides. He could serve on a team to set up and take down, or he could pass out snacks to the group. Students can participate in any of these roles alongside a peer mentor or with the assistance of youth leaders. 

Fostering inclusion also means creating a sense of belonging for students with special needs. If the student misses a Sunday, a text, call, or email to the student or her parents lets her know the group isn’t the same without her. If a student is participating in activities within the community, such as the Special Olympics, having volunteers or staff attend can be an encouragement to the student and his or her family. 

Rooted: One thing that can feel daunting as a youth minister is trying to teach to a wide spectrum of students with differing cognitive abilities. What are some of the best ways to teach the Bible to people with disabilities?

Gigi: I recommend music as a wonderful tool for teaching Scripture because music is such a connector of the heart to Scripture. Puttingt Scripture to music—with accompanying hand motions—allows those with varying abilities to understand and express God’s Word. Repetition of biblical concepts gives opportunity for longer processing and for retention. Using different modes of teaching, such as visual aids or hands-on activities help to convey the truth of Scripture to students of differnt abilities. 

Rooted: One of Rooted’s five pillars of youth ministry is partnering with parents. What do families (including parents and siblings) affected by disability need from the youth pastor?

Gigi: Youth pastors are often amazingly relational and relevant. Families with special needs would likely say their core needs are very similar to neurotypical families—to be seen and known, and to belong in community. Families with teenagers who have cognitive or physical disabilities want to know their church understands their student’s individual needs and accommodations. It’s not always possible for the church to meet every need, but it means a great deal to families to experience church leadership’s listening to their needs. Many students could also benefit from peer mentors within the youth group. The peer mentor could help facilitate social situations.  

Rooted: You mentioned the goal of seeing teenagers with special needs serving in the church body. Rooted believes strongly in what we call intergenerational integration—another one of our pillars! How can youth ministers help to enfold students with special needs into the life of the whole church?

Gigi: There are many ways for students with special needs to truly belong to the church family. Youth ministers and other church leaders can assess potential opportunities for students to use their gifts for the kingdom. The church may need to make modifications for a student to understand the steps associated with serving. For example, perhaps a student could serve on the greeter team alongside a peer or adult buddy. Youth ministers can approach parents or caregivers in order to listen to their hopes for their family members. Doing so may help facilitate involvement within the church.

In order to be enfolded in the whole church, students need to be present in the life of the body. Determining what barriers may exist can be a first step toward that goal. Barriers could include transportation, physical accessibility into the building space, or hidden barriers. These more hidden barriers could include things like fear or fellow congregants’ feeling unequipped to support a student. Identifying the barriers can help propel the church toward being inclusive and inviting. 

Church leaders or those serving in disability ministry may also need to provide training to encourage other congregants to seek community with those who have special needs. One simple way congregants can help to enfold people is to start with “hello,” speaking individually to the student with special needs.

Rooted: You’ve worked with so many children, teenagers, and adults through the years at Christ Pres. How have you seen Jesus through your friendships with people with special needs, and through their families?

Gigi: Jesus shines through our friendships with those with special needs! We have seen an authenticity in relationships between those with special needs and those who are neurotypical. We see the Lord’s character in our special friends through their immense ability to love others well, to feel the sorrows and joys of others, and to worship with a true and teachable spirit. 

The families of those with special needs reflect Jesus in the way they persevere with long suffering, advocating for their family members and believing in the Lord for their strength. Our friendships with those with special needs and their families mirror the Lord in commitment and loyalty. We are changed people being in community with those with special needs and their families. We see the Father’s love in a greater and deeper way.  

Rooted: What would you say to a youth minister who is feeling tentative about serving teenagers with special needs because of lack of training or experience? How would you encourage him or her in the gospel when entering this exciting opportunity? 

Gigi: Serving teenagers with special needs within a youth group can feel overwhelming due to fear of the unknown, lack of resources and already feeling over-committed. Remembering that friends with special needs have the same desires and needs as those who are neurotypical can help calm the anxiety about getting started including teenagers with special needs. 

Starting pro-active conversations with the families or caregivers often yields insight into needed support and modifications. Keeping open and regular lines of communication allows for input about possible changes to help the student thrive spiritually and emotionally. 

Fear can be paralyzing. Sometimes we simply need to take the first step and move toward the teenager and family with special needs. When we do, we can encourage the teenager to be a part of what the Lord is doing in our churches and youth ministries.

Having friends with special needs is a gift that God uses for the good of everyone in the youth group. Including our friends with special needs helps us to see God’s desire to fill his table with people of all kinds of abilities.  

If you’re looking for more resources for facilitating gospel-centered youth ministry, we have a conference for you! Join us in Nashville November 2-4, 2023 for teaching, workshops, and camaraderie with fellow youth workers in the trenches.

Gigi Sanders

Gigi grew up in Alton, Illinois and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Vanderbilt University, After several years of pediatric nursing, she raised a family of five children with her husband, Carl. Gigi now serves as the Director of Special Needs Ministry at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN.  She has ministered to children and adults with special needs and their families for the past 18 years.

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