The Role of Youth Workers Enfolding Youth With Disabilities Into the Life of the Church

I know youth ministers. I don’t just mean that I have friends who are in youth ministry, but I know you because I once was you. I was blessed with the opportunity to work in youth ministry for over ten years. I know how busy you are and I know how much time you spend pursuing students. I know that you have the best intentions and want everyone to come and feel welcomed all of the time.

I am here to tell you that you need a team of people helping you think through how to enfold students affected by disability. This is not something that you can simply add on to your already diverse job description. Please, find a team! You can start by praying that God would help you identify this group of people to help you. Look for parents and lay leaders in your church who have a desire to see students affected by disability more enfolded into your ministry.

Our church has organically come alongside people affected by disability, but after a small pocket of people championed the cause and sought a vision for more, our church now has a disability ministry that I get to direct. Often it is children’s ministry that is the first place in the church to help a family affected by disability to be welcomed and made comfortable. But guess what happens as that child grows out of children’s ministry? They enter youth ministry and our churches need to be ready.

Build Your Team, Starting With Families

First of all, identify a team member interested in doing the learning. This person will need to learn a little bit about enfolding students with disabilities, but they will also need to learn from the families themselves. The families in your church who are affected by disability are the experts on their children. This member of your team acts as a liaison who can communicate with the youth staff. They can help you find your starting place with each student. Again, I know you! You are going to want to do all of the things at one time. You cannot possibly do it all at once. You may need to build in classroom supports. You may need to think of visuals, different types of seating, using buddies, adaptations for games, or different places for retreats. Are you overwhelmed yet? It’s a lot, but it’s worth it! Build a team to help you creatively think through what your first step towards a family can be.

Secondly, you need a team member to keep pushing you and asking you the hard questions. After about a month you want this person to ask you… How is it going? Is there anything else that could be helpful? How can I help? This person will help you carry out the plan. They will help you determine next steps. They will likely encourage you that what you are doing is good and meaningful. They will help you persevere, even though you don’t feel like you see progress, reminding you that the Lord is at work helping all the students involved to be grow in their relationship with Him and with each other (Matthew 22:37-39). Someone who will check in with you once a month or once a quarter will be vital to your success.

Third, you will need this process covered in prayer. God is the one doing the real work! Come to him with your neediness. Come to him asking for creative ideas, for student’s hearts to be drawn to him, and for real friendships to develop. What an opportunity for you to see the provision of the Lord! Your team will experience a front row seat at seeing the Lord working in the lives of your students.

The Work is Hard But the Rewards Are Great

We learn from Scripture that all are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), that God looks at the heart rather than the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16), and that all are wonderfully made (Psalm 139). John 9 tells the story of the man born blind. Jesus says that his disability is not because of his sin or because of his parents’ sin, but so that the works of God might be displayed. Welcoming youth with disabilities into your ministry will display the works of God. We can all remember together that it is what the Lord has done for us and not what we have done for the Lord. We are all beggars at the same feast. We all have equal standing at the foot of the cross. God has accepted us fully because we are joined to Jesus, not because of anything we’ve done to prove ourselves worthy.

Our students who are affected by disability are a gift to the church! They too have a great purpose to glorify God and are created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10).  They are our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ reflecting God’s image to a broken world. Every person brings value to the group and every person has a role in God’s kingdom work. Your youth ministry needs students touched by disability in your group. All students will benefit from seeing everyone worshipping and serving the Lord together.

Your youth room can be a safe refuge for those struggling with both visible and invisible disabilities. There are students struggling with physical, emotional, intellectual, and neurological disabilities. There are students with learning differences, mental illness, and chronic illnesses. Life is harder for these families. We don’t want the church to be another place that is hard. As you work to create a safe place for all students to share and be vulnerable about what is hard, everyone will benefit as the community rallies around each other and reminds each other of what is true.

There is a lot to think through. This is not going to be easy and you will need help. Many who are affected by disability have been wounded by the church and are not regularly attending a church.  See this as an opportunity to share the Gospel as well as a way to grow the hearts of those already in our ministry and to help everyone see a vision of God’s kingdom. Enfolding students with disabilities will strengthen your youth ministry and give your entire church a vision for God’s kingdom, bringing God’s diverse people together to glorify and enjoy him. Your team will be used by God to create a community of belonging.

We are all moving towards restoration. We can all truly say together “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Check back on the blog tomorrow for resources about disability for youth pastors and parents, and Friday for an article about disability and family. Please see also Special Needs Parenting: What Does My Child Really Understand About God?

Katie Flores is the Director of Enfold Disability Ministry at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. She started her time at Covenant as a youth intern, spent time in both Junior High and Senior High Ministries, and currently serves as Assistant Director of Children’s Ministries. Katie met her husband Bryan as a ninth grade student and can’t believe she now has a ninth grade son herself. They also have a fourth grade daughter.

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