8 Tips for New Disability Ministry Teachers

8 Tips for New Disability Ministry Teachers

I attended a disability ministry volunteer training session at my church, Southeast Christian, recently and it was brought to my attention that we have now been in the new Shine Suite for over a year now.  This is significant for a variety of reasons, however, the one that hit home with me the most was that it marks a year where I have been teaching our teen disability ministry class. It is amazing how fast time goes by, especially with the thought of “oh wait, I am in charge?” still very fresh in my mind.

Being placed in a leadership role within the disability ministry at our church brought a flood of all different types of emotions, ranging from excitement, nervousness, fear, and a feeling of not being good enough.

1. Have a plan and be ready to completely abandon it.

Routine is calming for me.  Routine is calming for a lot of those in our class.  A routine does not mean boring, however.  Routine can easily incorporate fun and exciting new aspects to class.  You just have to have a plan.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that if I was going to do this right, I needed to spend time with the lessons.  I needed to think about our class and everyone in it and create a schedule.  Using our sample schedule as a template, I created one of my own just for our class. I have changed this up a little since starting it, but my basic class flow will look something like this:

  1. One awesome thing
  2. Lesson intro
  3. Lesson
  4. Discussion
  5. Prayer requests
  6. Closing prayer

I love starting off with “One awesome thing” which is where we go around the group and everyone will talk about the most awesome thing that happened to them over the past week.  This starts the morning off on a positive note but it also gives the entire group an inside look into what everyone’s life is like outside of the Sunday morning class.

Having a plan like this really helps keep me on track, mindful of the time, and the more we do it, the more the class becomes familiar and comfortable with our routine.

That being said, no matter how awesome of a plan that I have, I learned quickly that there will be days when it all goes out the window.  And that is OK.  Not every class will go to plan.  That does not mean you have failed as a leader.  That does not indicate you are doing something wrong.  It just means that day in particular was different.  Perhaps a topic comes up in the middle of class and you need to drop the lesson to address that topic.  Again, that is OK.  There are times when God puts it on our hearts something else.  Just remember you are in His house and speaking, learning, and gathering in love.  For me, I take it as a huge compliment anytime someone brings up an important issue because it tells me they feel safe enough to discuss it.

2. Sensory items and time fillers.

One Sunday, our class had finished the lesson, the discussion question, and prayer requests.  I looked up at the clock and broke out into a cold sweat when I saw we had at least 30 more minutes left in class and I had absolutely nothing planned.

Since then, I bring a backpack filled with sensory-friendly items that I can quickly turn into a fun activity or time filler.  Many of these ideas came from a training video that Ryan put together (You can watch that here.) which has proven to be a lifesaver in so many instances.  I have also come up with a few other go-to activities that have helped me incorporate portions of the lesson with something the class looks forward to doing.  Here are a couple that went over well in class:

3. Make it your own.

The pastor at my church is amazing.  I often find myself wondering how he is capable of taking a complex topic and explaining it in such a simple way that I can grasp.  When I found out I would be leading a teen class, I immediately began to stress because I am not our pastor.  I am just not that skilled.  I immediately thought that everyone might not enjoy class because I wouldn’t be good, yet that wasn’t the case at all.

When I finally realized that our time in our class was ours and we could be ourselves, have fun, and learn about God, and do it our way, that relieved a ton of pressure.  I rearranged furniture just for our class.  I changed lighting just for our class.  I brought in props just for our class.  I wanted our class to be special and unique just for us, which meant getting out of my comfort zone, not comparing myself to our lead pastor, and also being willing to try new things.

4. Communicate with staff.

If you are a volunteer and working with staff, chances are they are super busy, especially on Sunday.  They might not have time to catch a full debrief about how class went.  It isn’t that they don’t care, but there are so many moving parts that they might be dealing with.  I have found that if anything out of the ordinary happens during class, it is helpful to shoot them an email and keep them in the loop.  The staff will most likely have more in-depth interactions with some of the families or have intimate details about situations that you are not aware of.  Letting the staff know what is going on can help everyone.

5. Love on the entire family.

Class time can get busy, but when and where possible, I like to periodically talk to the parents and families.  It is important to me that they know they are all important and welcomed.  It also gives me some insight into the class.

For example, one teen in our group would always politely say “no thank you” anytime we asked her anything.  No matter what we asked.  She did not want to participate in activities or answer questions.  She was always polite, however, and I merely wanted her to be involved with the rest of class.  Taking a few minutes with her parents after class allowed me a chance to learn a bit about her that I might not get to know during class.

Of equal importance is letting families know that you are aware when they are not there and that you miss them.  I bought a set of blank cards and I keep them handy, making notes of when someone in our class has missed a few Sundays in a row.  If I haven’t seen them, I personally write a card and have the church mail it to the family.

6. Make notes.

A good ice breaker to start class for us has been something that I call “one awesome thing”.  We go around the room and everyone tells the class “one awesome thing” that happened to them over the past week.  I like this because we are all talking about something positive, plus it gives us all a glimpse into what is happening in all of our lives.

During this time, and especially during prayer requests, I make notes and keep them in my Bible.  Having this gives me a pretty good handle on what is happening with our class.  Before class, I like to quickly review it so that I am in tune and up to date with everything that is going on and it lets the class know that their life, in and out of the church, is important.

7. Don’t Assume.

At some point, someone will most likely tell you not to assume anything when serving in disability ministry.  Don’t assume that everything will follow the schedule.  Don’t assume that everyone will love the lesson.  Don’t assume that the activity will go as planned.  The biggest mistake with assuming is that we limit those we are serving with.

One of the teens in my class has an absolute bubbling personality.  When he is in class, you most definitely know it.  He is not soft-spoken and he talks a lot.  In fact, he never stops talking.  He talks through the lesson.  He talks through the videos we watch.  He talks when other people are talking.  It would be easy to assume that because he is always talking that he doesn’t listen.  This is a mistake that I made and thankfully I realized it quickly.  Just because he is always talking, doesn’t mean he isn’t listening.  At any given point during class, I can ask him a question and he will answer.

Another teen, who is mostly non-verbal except for a few words, was more on the quiet side when he first started coming back to church.  We would do our best to engage with him, but he still seemed rather shy.  Over the past few weeks, he has really started to come out of his shell, and in a big way.  He is such a blast to have in class and has been saying more and more words than we have ever heard before.  It would have been easy to assume that he just didn’t talk, didn’t want to interact, or didn’t have the ability to participate, but he most certainly does. It just took some time for him.  Which is perfectly fine.  We are not in a rush in our class and watching him continually become more and more involved has been fantastic for everyone.

8. Have fun.

Why is this even on the list, right?  Shouldn’t having fun be obvious?  There are so many moving parts in our teen class that it could be very easy to start focusing on the schedule, the lesson, the discussion question, any everything else, that I lose sight of enjoying our time together.  Yes, the focus is on God and learning more about Him and the Bible.  However, if everyone is bored to tears and hates being in the class, they are just not going to listen as intently.  Bring in silly props.  Don’t be afraid to dress funny.  Make people laugh.  Enjoy church!

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