Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families. By Amy Fenton Lee. Orange (2013).
Book review by Rachel Miller Jacobs
Amy Fenton Lee is the special needs consultant for The reThink Group, an evangelical parachurch organization committed to “combining the critical influences of the light of the church and the love of the family [to show] a generation who God is more effectively than either could alone.”* The group focuses its energy on children from preschool to college, writing curriculum, hosting events, and providing training for congregations.
Some of the language and assumptions of the books (such as the question of whether “bad” behavior is a sin) may not resonate theologically with all readers, but there is much in this book that is valuable to congregations, families, and leaders.
Lee makes the important point that while churches are generally good at providing help in crises, most congregations struggle with the long-term reality of children with special needs, since caring for them requires cultural and systematic transformation rather than three weeks’ worth of casseroles.
Lee divided the book into three parts to address this comprehensive vision, moving from the general to the increasingly more specific: loving the family of a special needs child, especially through the diagnosis; concrete suggestions for including special needs children in congregational life; and an FAQ section and five appendices that provide the building blocks for specific programs and procedures. As the title indicates, this is a very practical book—which is why it is so helpful in both enlarging congregational imaginations and suggesting next steps.
The real genius of the book, however, is this sentence: “I believe the goal of every church ministry is to point people to Jesus” (42). Lee is clear that special needs children don’t need the congregation to be focused on therapeutic, behavioral, social, or educational achievement and performance. The church’s particular mission is to encourage and make possible friendship—friendship with God, friendship with people, friendship with creation. This is both theologically correct and participates in the generosity and abundance that is at the core of the reign of God.
Asking first of all “How does this help the child and us love Jesus more?” rather than “Can we afford expensive equipment?” or “How can we get more volunteers to help?” will energize congregations and spark the kind of imagination needed to adapt the book’s suggestions to particular children, and specific congregations, rather than miring people in trying to re-create what may not work in their context for a whole variety of reasons.
This is a book I highly recommend to all pastors, congregational oversight groups, and pastoral caregivers—not to mention worship planners and especially Sunday school departments.
Reviewer Rachel Miller Jacobs is Assistant Professor of Congregational Formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and a member of Faith Mennonite Church, Goshen, IN.
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