5 Things To Consider When Looking For A Special Needs Program

July 7, 2011


There are so many things to consider when finding the right church for your family – beliefs, location, congregation size, worship style, just to name a few – that looking for one with a special needs ministry can be overwhelming. My husband and I recently took on this task and learned a lot along the way.

Types of special needs programs

The first thing to know is that no two special needs ministries are the same; each church will have developed a program that fits the current needs of their congregation. But from my own research, I have come across three major types of special needs ministry programs: special classrooms, mainstreaming, or respite care.

Special classrooms

In this format, churches will have a separate classroom for special needs children. This can be beneficial to children who have a lot of specialized needs or are lower functioning. There is often more one-on-one time for children in this type of program.

An example of a church that uses this type of program is Calvary Church in Los Gatos. Cryy Out Christian Fellowship in San Jose also offers a special service for disabled teens and adults.


This type of program allows the child to attend church with peers, but still addresses the child’s individual needs. Usually, the staff will have parents fill out a form alerting them to any needs, behaviors, or sensitivities the child may have.

In some cases, the parents and staff decide the child needs a “buddy,” or a volunteer who will partner with your child during Sunday school. They can help with meeting your child’s needs and redirecting any inappropriate behaviors. Both Westgate Church and Crossroads Bible Church have a mainstream program and buddy option.


Oh, respite! This is my favorite type of program. Some churches will offer free respite to parents of special needs children. With this, parents are able to drop off all of their children (even the normally developing ones!) and enjoy some time without the kids. This is usually partnered with another special needs program the church uses every Sunday, but it could be a stand-alone program.

Calvary Church offers this every other month and alternates between daytime and evening respite. Cathedral of Faith in San Jose offers a monthly respite and parent support group.

Finding churches with the program you want

So, now that you know the types of ministries, how do you find a church that has one? Joni and Friends, an organization devoted to helping disabled people around the world, has a listing of churches with a special needs ministry. This is definitely not a complete listing, but it can give you a starting point.

You can also check out church websites and look for a “special needs ministry ” or a “disabled ministry.” If you don’t find anything and the church website has a search engine, you can try typing in “special needs” and see if there are any results. This is what I had to do to find information on Westgate Church’s special needs ministry. They put it on a webpage about age groups.

You can also contact the children’s pastor or director and ask them how they accommodate special needs children. They may have a program in place, but haven’t put it on the website. They also may have an informal procedure that allows them to meet your child’s needs.

No matter which way you zero-in on a church or two, you should definitely speak to someone in the children’s ministries. Your child is unique and you will want to make sure the program is compatible for your family. And remember that some churches only offer these programs for certain age groups.

Author: Amanda McFadden  (Raising two boys with autism, she brings years of hands-on experience and knowledge of community resources!).

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


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2 Comments on “5 Things To Consider When Looking For A Special Needs Program”

  1. Barbara Lester, LCSW Says:

    These are great suggestions and so important! I talk to so many families who need support from their faith community. If any of you are interested I have a free app for Android phones that has a behavior management plan for going to church that is described in my blog post about helping ASD children attend church: http://j.mp/jAzzKo.


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