I have a friend who serves as the youth minister at a small denominational church. One of the families in the church adopted an infant (I'll call him Steven) with special needs that resulted from his birth-mother's substance abuse. By all accounts Steven is extremely sweet and good natured, but he is also hyper, reckless, and immature. He has a hard time staying still or keeping focused for any length of time. So far he's been able to advance along with children his age academically, but has failed to keep pace with his peers socially or emotionally.
When Steven first arrived, the church showered his parents with congratulations and support. As most churches do, they provided meals for a week or two. Unfortunately, this is pretty much where their care for Steven and his family ended. Everyone agreed that Steven's parents were wonderful to take him in, saints even. Yet by making Steven's parents out to be saints, they seemed to excuse themselves from the responsibility to help them raise Steven. Steven's parents, it was assumed, were uniquely called to care for special children like Steven. They, on the other hand, were not. And so the couple was revered by the community for their decision to take the child, even as they were left to carry out the work of raising him alone.
Things went okay when Steven's parents took him to the church nursery. But when Steven grew and moved on to Sunday school, problems emerged. The format of the classes did not engage Steven the way they did the other kids. He was constantly distracted, and his behavior distracted other children. Gradually a consensus grew among parents and teachers that Steven's presence was disruptive to the learning experience of the other children.
I understand this reaction. I do. I am a father, and I desperately want my children to know and follow Christ. Sunday school can be an important part of that process. I have no doubt the parents in this church had the same desire for their children. I imagine that is why they took their children's experience at Sunday school and youth group so very seriously. It is particularly tragic, then, that in their best efforts to teach, they undermined one of the most important lessons their kids could have learned.
Sticking with Steven
When my friend arrived at the church as the new youth minister Steven was just old enough to take part in the middle school program. My friend was repeatedly warned, "Steven is, um, difficult." Still, he made it a priority to engage every child in the church's youth program, including Steven.
It required creativity. Volunteers were assigned to give Steven one-on-one attention and supervision during each youth meeting. They took turns so that no one would burn out. Meetings and activities were restructured so that both Steven and the other children were engaged. Events were cancelled if Steven could not be included, and new activities were created to take their place. This was not how my friend was used to doing youth ministry, but he recognized this as an opportunity to show the kids what it means to be the family of God.
As you can imagine, Steven's parents were incredibly grateful that their son was being included. They found strength and encouragement in the church's renewed effort to care for Steven. At the time I was a youth director at a different church, and we'd occasionally partner for youth activities. One weekend we teamed up for what would be Steven's first overnight retreat. I still remember the look on his parents' faces as we drove away—a look of thankfulness and exhaustion.