The United Methodist Church, of which I am a pastor, has a policy on how to help keep children and vulnerable adults safe during worship and other church-sponsored events. Known as “Safe Sanctuaries,” the policy is similar to those in place in other churches and intends to guide churches and volunteers to run an effective and safe ministry.
The church cares for children and vulnerable adults through these policies. It is based on Scripture through the Great Commandment’s call to love God and our neighbor and the Golden Rule’s emphasis on treating people with the same kindness as we would desire for ourselves.
However, many of our policies do not effectively train or equip churches on how to effectively amend their policies to include autistic individuals or others with special needs. Our policies lack any mention or conversation points regarding disabilities. Nor do these policies guide a church on how it can do ministry with these communities in mind.
Considering that autistic individuals and other individuals with disabilities could fall under the vulnerability provisions within most policies, not helping churches to have a basic understanding of how to administer these policies with these important communities in mind is a gross oversight. It creates a situation where churches that depend on denominational leaders and authorities to help guide questions about safety for their programs are without help in figuring out the answers to reach inclusion.
The lack of guidance and resourcing for the local church on how safe sanctuary and child protection policies can be adapted in light of the needs of the autistic and special needs communities is a failure of inclusion on behalf of the church. It is especially appalling when 1 in every 44 children is on the autism spectrum, according to the CDC.
So, how might a church amend its policies to produce effective and inclusive ministries with the autism and special needs communities in mind?
For one, churches and ministries should consider having a specific volunteer who works with an individual with special needs or other disabilities. This volunteer is another person in the room who works specifically with that individual and helps them participate in the ministry. It is something the church I serve is slowly implementing with positive results.
A church can create safety measures for its ministry rooms if a church has a child or vulnerable adult with elopement issues. Volunteers can lock a room where ministry is taking place to keep the person safe from leaving. This can only occur if the following conditions have been met: two unrelated adults are in the room, doors have proper windows to allow for someone to see into the room, and no windows are closed by shades.
It is also important for child registration forms to include a place for a parent or guardian to include information specific to a child. This information helps with special needs inclusion because it provides a family an opportunity to address food texture issues (some individuals on the spectrum have an aversion to certain foods), noise concerns, or even how to soothe an individual through a meltdown.
Finally, it is also important for annual safe sanctuary training sessions to include information on how to care for and do ministry with individuals with disabilities or special needs. Having this information on the mind of volunteers helps in creating a welcoming and safe atmosphere for all people involved in a ministry. It also provides volunteers guidance on what to or not do in terms of welcoming a special needs individual.
The church must work through protection policies to help foster inclusion if the church ever wants to be a place of welcome for the autistic and special needs communities. Failure to do so continues to send the message to the autistic and special needs community of “we don’t know how to care for you.”
We can do better for our children, and it starts with having better training volunteers who know how to care for and love those on the spectrum or who have special needs.