19 Feb Going to Church
The mission of the Buddy Ministry at Church of the Nativity is to help individuals with special needs access our children’s ministry programs while growing in a relationship with Christ in a safe and accepting environment. With this mission in mind, the Buddy Ministry started small by simply matching one volunteer “Buddy Minister” with one student who had autism.
Since then, the program has blossomed! It wasn’t long before information about the Buddy Ministry spread to other families in the community: some with children who needed special attention during church, and others who wanted to participate as “buddies”.
“How to Begin”
It takes dedication, patience, and an open heart to be a Buddy Minister, and we want to make sure all of our volunteers know what to expect. Potential Buddy Ministers complete a “First Serve,” where they shadow a current buddy. If they feel the ministry is a good fit, volunteers then undergo a background check and proper child protection training, as well as attend an orientation training to familiarize themselves with expectations of the ministry. Ministers must be adults or teenagers.
We have found that it is important to find a good match between a minister and a child because we hope that a Buddy Minister will accompany his or her buddy to various programs as the child grows and develops. Therefore, when a person signs up to serve, we initially ask questions such as: “What age child would you like to serve with? When are you available to serve? Have you had any experience assisting kids with special needs?” We try to find volunteers willing to serve for a year and beyond with the same child. Some ministers serve every week. Some alternate with another minister. In some cases, one minister will work with two children…it just depends on the needs of the individual.
“Communication and Planning”
Over time, we have realized it is important to collect specific data about each child, so that any adult working with the child (including a substitute buddy) is well informed. Once a parent initially contacts us through the website or email, we send them a link to complete a “Buddy Information Form,” where we gather information about their child. Once the form is complete, we print it out and place it in a “Buddy Ministry Binder” in each classroom. The binder is a confidential resource for ministers, and includes all Buddy forms, Buddy Minister expectations, and health and safety policies.
Families and Buddy Ministers share contact information, so that they can inform each other of absences and any other relevant information. (ex: sickness, life events, etc.) It is up to the buddy minister and parents to decide what is best for the child. Since we only meet for one hour, once a week, sometimes kids attend their age-appropriate programs, and other times they may stay with younger age groups or different environments, depending on their comfort level or interest. Additionally, while inclusion is the goal, there are times we take breaks with the children, or may meet with a small group of students with special needs to explain certain concepts.
Some kids gradually enter a program – maybe staying for the beginning, and then eventually transitioning to attend the entire program by the end of the year.
We also keep a Buddy Box within each room, which includes fidgets, visual cues, and timers. While it would be desired for the Buddy Ministry to have its own space to support children and house supplies as needed, the church itself just doesn’t have any extra space to accommodate this need on the weekend. Therefore, we adapt to each environment as much as possible.
We are currently creating a group that will support kids and students with special needs who want to serve in ministry, making it possible for them to have the proper support to serve in our children’s programs and other areas of the church. As the popularity of the program continues to grow, our recruitment efforts have increased. We are designing new Buddy Ministry t-shirts and planning events such as “Parents’ Night Out”. Eventually, we would like to become a more visible presence in the community by participating in special needs events around our area.
If you are a person who desires to start a Buddy Ministry in your place of worship, remember, starting small – but with a big heart – is key. Consistently share your vision, being sure to adapt and grow as needed. We are constantly dreaming up ways that the Buddy Ministry will grow in the years ahead. We know that through this ministry, life change is possible and it can happen for you, too!
Coordinator of Children’s Ministers
Church of the Nativity, Timonium, Maryland