To care well for a family who has a child with developmental delays, the multitude of the gifts and skills of the body of Christ are needed. Here are practical ways the local church can minister to children with developmental delays and their families, followed by ways that people with specific positions in the church can minister. No matter what size church you have, there are critical ways your body of believers can come alongside families with developmentally delayed children and love them well.
• Be on the lookout. Go out of your way to introduce yourself and sit with the family. This lets them know they are welcome. Don’t ask or expect a family with a developmentally delayed child to sit in the back row at church because they may have to get up during the service. Instead, tell them you understand it’s hard to come to church and you are so happy they came. Help the family feel that you see them as a part of the community and not as a burden or bother.
• Be intentional in pursuing relationships with the parents. Reach out and call them on the phone. Be willing to listen for an extended amount of time. Hold off on giving advice—they have therapists and countless professionals in their lives who help devise strategies for their child. Instead, ask how you can be an encouragement to them in what they are facing.
• When you offer to serve in a certain way, always ask if there is a different idea that might work better for the family. Be willing to help them in ways you might not have considered.
• Help to alleviate economic strain for the family.
• Offer to come and babysit.
• Offer to pray. Ask for a specific prayer list—for example, before an important doctor’s appointment that is coming. Follow up after the appointment, and ask for new specific requests based on the visit.
• Periodically offer to sit with the child during church, so the parent can have a more focused time of worship.
• Be aware of the family’s schedule. Initially when awaiting a diagnosis, there is a long wait period and the parents are coordinating many appointments. Ask how you can be helpful during this period.
• Offer to go to a doctor’s appointment. Wait outside with the child while the parent talks to the doctor. Offer to drive home as the parent may be too upset to drive after talking to the doctor.
• Offer to come over for an hour so parents can play and spend time with their other children.
• If a parent shares a concern with you, don’t dismiss it or imply it’s an overreaction. Encourage the parent to speak with a doctor. When developmental delays are caught early, treatment can be more effective.
• Send a note or anything that says you remember.
• Don’t make assumptions when you see an unusual scene. Remember it’s easy to assume and then render judgments based on your assumptions.
• Sunday school teachers:
o Don’t simply report disturbances to parents after being with their child. Instead, explain what happened and ask what might help in the future. This shows the parents you are in it for the long haul.
o Ask if there is anything that can be helpful to create a better environment for the child—for example, dimming the lights.
o As a church, commit to the child. It’s usually not best to have a different teacher in Sunday school every week because the care needed is so specific. Is the church willing to have people work for two months at a time so there is consistency?
• Youth group leaders:
o Find ways for developmentally delayed children to serve.
o Realize that peer relationships may be hard. Connect an older, more mature teen with the child.
o Teach other children how to respond and interact well with the child.
• Pastors and elders:
o Visit the home and pray. This cannot be stressed enough. Include this family in a regular rotation.
o Preach and teach the truth that we are all made in God’s image. If the leadership treats the broken as valuable and created in God’s image, then that will be contagious.
o Create a culture within your church where the physically or mentally broken are incorporated into the life of the body, valued for their uniqueness, and able to offer their service in some way.
o Coordinate long-term care and discipleship for this long-term struggle. Churches are really good at helping in a crisis, but these families can feel forgotten.
o Realize that these families are often unreached by the church. Think of creative ways to invite them in, like making church facilities available for support groups or for sporting events.
To read more about ministry with developmentally delayed children and their families, read the 'Meet the Counselor' interview with Darby from the newest issue of CCEF Now