Partnering With Parents: A Movement Of Relationships

September 27, 2012

Building Relationships

More and more churches that have a special needs ministry are seeking ways of becoming more intentional about supporting parents in actively participating in the spiritual formation of their children.  For many churches partnering with parents is a new endeavor; for others, it has long been an important part of who they are as a community of faith.  Some churches find themselves at the beginning of this partnering adventure; others have traveled much further along.  Partnering with parents is ongoing.  It is a journey and one worth traveling. 

As the Director of a family-empowered special needs ministry, it’s been my observation that this journey toward partnering with parents is really a movement of relationships.  That should come as no surprise because as Christ-followers we were created to be, and are called to be, a relational people.  In his book INDIVISIBLE, Jay Richards points out “very clearly that as people created by God, we are inherently and specifically social.  Meaningful life is found in meaningful relationships.”  I would suggest that at its core, partnerships (with parents) are simply meaningful relationships.

Therefore, I’d like to propose a model or way of looking at partnering with parents based on a series of relational stages.  These relational stages were initially outlined by Rev. Bill Gaventa back in 1986 as the stages in which churches developed relationships with people with disabilities.  I think his model has direct application to how churches or family ministry’s partner with parents.  I believe that each church (or ministry) often moves through these relational stages as they strive to initiate, engage, and support parents to take a more active role in nurturing their child’s faith.

Knowing these four relational stages is like having a map that will help you to accurately assess where you are in your partnership with parents, see where you have been, and identify where you need to go.  Keep in mind that churches/ministries and parents move through these different stages at different speeds.  Here are the four relational stages in partnering with parents:


Much of what takes place in churches across our country happens apart from parents of children with special needs.  Whether excluded or overlooked, parents who have children with disabilities are frequently missing from communities of faith.  Statistics from Joni and Friends indicate that a whopping 90% of parents who have a child with a disability do not attend a church.  Perhaps that’s because that across the US only about 17% of churches have a disability ministry.  The first step for many congregations is recognizing that an important part of their community is not actually part of their faith community.  Absent this initial awareness, it is unlikely that congregations will be energized to respond differently and be able to move to the next relational stage with parents.


Much of the spiritual formation of children that takes place in congregations throughout the country happens apart from parents of children with disabilities.  All churches provide a wide variety of activities for parents:  Life Groups, ACTS classes, Bible study, prayer groups, and worship services to name a few.  Ministry efforts are extended to parents to develop their personal faith.  In this sense they primarily function one-way, that is, they are developing the parent’s faith but not equipping them to develop their child’s faith.  According to George Barna, this phenomenon has unintentionally created a “drop-off mentality” among parents.  The step needed to move to the next relational stage and begin a partnership with parents is for the leadership of the church and/or special needs ministry to really begin to buy into the truth that what happens at home is as important as what happens at church when it comes to a child’s spiritual development.


Increasingly, churches and special needs ministries are creating avenues for encouraging and supporting the active participation of parents in the spiritual development of their children.  With the advent of conferences such as Orange, D6, The Gathering, and the upcoming Inclusion Fusion, churches are realizing the value—indeed the mandate—of partnering with parents.  Such churches are convinced that partnerships with parents are at the heart of the faith development of the next generation.  This belief is the prerequisite for the next relational stage in a partnership with parents.


Churches and ministries are slowly learning how to equip parents to engage their children and take ownership of the process of developing their child’s faith.  This willingness to partner with parents and let them take the lead is new territory for many churches.  Yet, anyone who has encouraged and supported parents in nurturing their child’s faith will likely testify to the profound impact it has had on their child.  Research conducted by George Barna (see Revolutionary Parenting) overwhelmingly shows that when parents are actively involved in their child’s spiritual development, kids develop a life-impacting faith.  What more do we need in order to recognize that substantial contributions in the faith development of children can be made by parents.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, partnering with parents of children with special needs is a journey and one worth traveling.  The bottom line is that partnering is a relational process that moves thru different stages.  These stages can act as a roadmap to help you assess where you are in your partnership with parents and identify where you need to go to support them in actively nurturing their child’s faith.

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Michael Woods, M.A. BCaBA

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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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