Welcoming A New Pastor with a Special Needs Individual 

It is moving season in the United Methodist Church. Every June, a select group of pastors transitions from one congregation to another. The process of itinerancy (the movement of clergy to various locations) connects back to the example of Christ during his earthly ministry, as he would routinely roam from place to place to preach, teach, and heal. It also connects to our Circuit Rider heritage in the late 18th and earthly 19th Century when the appointed pastor would travel from church to church on a circuit and might only get to a church once per month.

The process of moving, in general, for a special needs child and family can be overwhelming. There is a lot that has to be concerned about when a family with a special needs child or individual considers a move. 

For my family, those considerations have been:

How far will we be from therapy options for developmental, speech, and ABA? Because of the nature of my job, we have decided that our max comfortable level is a 30-minute commute. 

Does the school provide an autism-centric educational environment? We want to know if the school’s special education program has only a general special education class or if it has a specific class for children with autism. An autistic-specific classroom is vital for development and behavioral needs.

What is the quality of health care in the community? Are there medical professionals trained to handle the specific medical needs related to autism? This training is necessary because autism presents its litany of medical concerns. Some medical issues, such as sleep disorders, can easily be missed if someone does not understand how autism affects the body.

Recognizing that a pastoral family with a special needs child or individual at home presents challenges for care is often the first step in welcoming that family into your congregation. Here are some other tips that can be welcoming and encouraging for a new pastoral family.

Take an Interest in the Individual

The best tool in welcoming a special needs family is to take an interest in them, especially in what their child with special needs likes. I will never forget the aspect of welcome and grace we received at one church that reached out to us wanting to know our son’s specific likes and dislikes. When we arrived at the parsonage, some new toys and foods that he loved were there to welcome him into the community.

Spend time, as well, talking with the pastor about how to embrace and love the child. What cues are there for when a child might be overwhelmed? If a child is nonverbal, what might be the best way to interact with them?

Have Conversations Before Move Day About Acceptance and Inclusion

This is important if the church does not have any involvement with a special needs individual. Take the time before move day to have conversations with the pastor and trusted leaders in the community about welcoming. Invite a special education teacher or special needs ministry advocate to meet with your new pastor, children’s ministry team, lay leader, and staff-parish relations chair to talk about adaptations and welcoming tools. Share those tools with the congregation before the pastor arrives, and begin to implement the strategies discussed.

Be Understanding that the Move is Challenging

Even if a move seems simple on paper, moving to a new community will be challenging and complex for a special needs family. It is a new home, a new environment, new people, and new routines. For a neurologically-typically child, this can be an overwhelming and exhausting experience. It can be difficult for a special needs individual to process the emotions often associated with a move. It is possible at home that the pastor might be dealing with meltdowns and disruptive behaviors that are associated with the child being out of routine and unable to process what is taking place.

With that, let the new pastor ease into the new community. Let them guide the process of how to welcome and adapt their family to their new context. Try not to push the family to be too involved too quickly, as it can add to the overwhelming feeling. Space welcome gatherings out over several weeks to allow the family to breathe. Give the family permission to say no to events that may not fit their family’s needs.

These are three easy steps that a church receiving a new pastor with a special needs individual can implement to make the first few months go well. Doing these will help create a loving and grace-filled environment, which the church can replicate to welcome other special needs families in the community.

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