Every Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special Needs

Written by Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo Reviewed By Jared Mulvihill

Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo, both former public school teachers, arrange a banquet of strategies on integrating kids with specials needs into children’s ministries (p. 10). The book opens detailing each author’s parenting story of their own child with disabilities. The goal of the book is to encourage quality teaching about Jesus by equipping ministry volunteers in a variety of circumstances (pp. 10–11). Each chapter serves this goal by recommending a menu of strategies for ministry volunteers as they teach children with disabilities.

Chapter 1 aims to create a welcoming atmosphere with strategies like detailed schedules and clear communication with parents. Chapter 2 is about making good first impressions to eradicate the fears of children by techniques such as check-in stations and visual schedules. Chapter 3 seeks to help introduce kids to new environments and concepts as they prepare for learning. Chapter 4 takes up the task of promoting a positive classroom climate through ideas such as peer training, formulating classroom rules, and predictable routines. Chapter 5, the heart of the book, provides a variety of ways to prepare and serve biblical truths to kids through various reading strategies, encouraging responsiveness, and helpful teaching methods. Chapter 6 gives tools to enhance learning truths of the Bible such as creating social stories, visual timers, and fidget toys. Chapters 7 and 8 offers ideas for special holidays and how to help a child with special needs serve the church. Chapter 9 details navigating transitions and how to reassure kids who have a difficult experience. Finally, chapter 10 introduces ideas for teaching children who cannot attend children’s ministry. The book closes with a resource list and several appendices.

This book has several notable strengths. First, the repeated goal to provide rhythms and strategies for all children to grow in a knowledge and enjoyment of God (p. 12). Authors encourage those ministering to children with special needs to know each child well in order to best support and engage that child with biblical truth. For instance, “Your goal when sharing biblical truths with children is not to force-feed them. Your goal is to present truth in ways that make it understandable and accessible to them” (p. 78). This is a refreshing and biblical aim permeating the entire book. Second, there are a host of ideas and resources this book offers. Wetherbee and Philo are proven educators of children with disabilities, and their expertise and experience is evident. They do the church a great service by borrowing effective educational practices and passing them along to enhance learning within children’s ministries. They unmistakably reach their goal of resourcing ministry workers with these valuable insights as they relate them to a remarkable number of disabilities.

While the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, a couple of changes could more fully accomplish the authors’ objective. While many readers will benefit from this book, one can quickly get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of strategies and lack of big picture ideas. Although the authors write in an engaging dinner party format with meal courses corresponding to general topics, the reader is unable to quickly find a specific disability or answers to a specific challenge one might be facing. Either an index listing disabilities and their corresponding strategy or an alternate more organized format would help. As a result, the book feels a bit overwhelming as each individual chapter includes anywhere from two to sixteen different strategies. Because the authors do not present overarching principles all these helpful resources begin to blur together.

Additionally, the book would serve readers better if the authors reflected more fully on the theological truths that undergird their proposed strategies. Wetherbee and Philo cite Matthew 19:14 (“Let the little children come to me”) as their foundation for writing. While their belief that no child regardless of ability should be restricted from hearing the gospel is correct, this text seems to be a stretch in supporting that claim and offering foundational support for ministry to children with disabilities. This is because children were brought to Jesus to receive a blessing from him (Matt 19:13; cf. Gen 48:14) and also because children in this passage were serving as a metaphor for entering the kingdom (cf. Matt 18:2–4). Yet, this book is not without right theological understanding, though it is implicit. For example, the authors correctly claim that God uniquely created each child. However, when the theological basis for inclusion is only slightly hinted at, the “why” question still looms. Furthermore, the authors also make several vague theological statements such as how to understand children with disabilities serving within the church. In chapter 8 they appear to conflate natural gifts with spiritual gifts intended to build up the body of Christ by implying that children serving the church are identical with covenant members within the church. To encourage service while addressing how to correctly view that service would have helped in rightly motivating volunteers to implement many of these beneficial strategies. Within the field of disability studies while the practical “how to” continues to be published and prove helpful, but the theological undergirding of such practices needs further development. The theological in turn will aid the practical.

Overall, this is a well-written and very helpful resource for the church. Every Child Welcome fills a gap regarding how to minister well to children with disabilities within the church. While Wetherbee and Philo write mainly to ministry volunteers, this book will most likely be effective for ministry leaders who oversee and organize programming. I was grateful to personally glean from the authors’ educational expertise in order to implement ideas for my own son with complex medical and cognitive disabilities. I recommend this book to all who are seeking to include children with disabilities into their ministries and create an environment in which all children can flourish as they learn to treasure Christ.

Jared Mulvihill

Jared Mulvihill
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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