Pastoring a Small Church While Parenting Special Needs Children
All pastoring and parenting is hard. But some situations may be more difficult than others. I pastor a small church and parent children with special needs, and both can feel especially daunting.
For those in the same boat as me, I urge you to be faithful in the ordinary aspects of life and ministry, and to run to the Lord who has given you these immense responsibilities. Here are a few other things I’ve learned about living faithfully.
FAITHFUL, ORDINARY LIVING
Yes, you are a pastor. Yes, you are a father. But never forget: you’re also a disciple—and simply a human. So “keep watch over yourself” (Acts 20:28).
Whenever you can, sleep and eat well, exercise, and find ways to relax. Tend to your own soul, develop friendships. Cultivate relationships with your fellow elders, others local pastors, or just wise Christian friends. You need regular reminders you are not alone.
Amidst all this, don’t forget to care for your wife. She bears a unique burden while you shepherd the flock. Give her every opportunity for time by herself to reset and recharge. Seek to “live with [her] in an understanding way” (1 Pet. 3:7).
Both your church and family will suffer if you and your wife are struggling. Whatever it takes, carve out a few minutes to look your wife in the eye, assure her of your love, resolve conflict, and stay on the same page.
My wife and I occasionally quote a line from Hamilton, that we feel like we are “going through the unimaginable.” Emotions and tensions run high in our house, especially in the evenings. Anything you can do to lower the temperature in the room will make it easier to serve your family. Parenting special needs children will either pull you and your spouse apart or drive you together. With everything in your power, let it do the latter.
If someone offers to bless you in a tangible way—whether with a gift card, game tickets, or babysitting—give thanks to God and let them serve you. Even during the darkest, most difficult days, find joy.
FAITHFUL, ORDINARY PASTORING
Don’t make shepherding a church more complicated than it needs to be. You’re not omniscient or omnipresent. Don’t compare yourself to people with exceptional energy, competence, and influence. You may need to lower your expectations for yourself and stick with the basics: preach, pray, and lead by example.
Due to challenges at home, I rarely travel. It’s simply too much for my family to handle. I can’t teach every class, serve on every board, visit every member, or engage in every community event, even if I would otherwise enjoy it. I work ahead when I can because we never know when a block of time I’ve set aside for studying will be interrupted by urgent needs at home.
We have also chosen to be as upfront about our home life as we can with our congregation, while maintaining privacy and protecting the dignity of our children. We occasionally give updates about challenges we are facing. We share enough that the church understands, for instance, why they may not see some of our family as often as they might expect. Our church family has been so understanding and supportive. I regularly lean on my fellow elders, our deacons, and our volunteers. If someone else can take care of a responsibility, I let them, even if I might enjoy being more involved. I constantly remind myself: I am one person trying to faithfully do God’s work—and, ultimately, this work does not depend on me.
FAITHFUL, ORDINARY PARENTING
My wife and I didn’t come into marriage expecting to raise children with special needs. I’ve thought—and sometimes even said out loud—“I did not sign up for this.” A friend reminded me a few years ago that our kids with special needs didn’t sign up for this either. In probably every way, the emotional distress they feel is more significant for them than it is for me and my wife.
Once I began to try to see life through their eyes, my compassion for them grew, and my self-pity started to shrink. I became slower to assign spiritual motives for our children’s almost-daily emotional outbursts. Yes, they are sinners in need of repentance and redemption. I am quick to call them to hope in Christ alone. But they also have less bandwidth for the normal challenges of life in a fallen world, and they tend to express their frustration in ways that are not typical of other children at their stages of life. That affects how often we can host people in our home, how we celebrate birthdays and holidays, and what we can expect of our children on Sundays. So we try to be like the Lord himself: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).
We have sought to give thanks to the Lord for the ways he has met us in our valleys. Sometimes it means we give thanks for medical advancement. How much harder would this have been just fifty years ago? We are grateful for individuals who have made it their life’s work to serve people like our children. We praise God for the gift of common grace—the fact that even unregenerate sinners see beauty, dignity, and worth in our children.
In all this, we’ve sought to maintain humility—we are broken people in need of the gifts of a tender Savior. People will see our failures as parents, my failures as a pastor, my inability to be all things to all people. They will learn we are more fragile than we’d like to be, more worn-down by life and ministry than we care to admit, less able to have normal times of family worship than we ever would have imagined. But we keep trying. We put one foot in front of the other. We trust the goodness of our Sovereign King. And we keep resurrection hope at the forefront of our minds.
A few years ago, on a terribly dark night emotionally, I wrote 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 on a note card: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
Indeed, we are beyond our strength. We have despaired of life itself. We sometimes feel like God has given us a death sentence. But we also know he’s the one who will raise us from the dead.
Yes, parenting special needs children is exhausting. Pastoring a small church is overwhelming. But these challenges make us cry out for the Good Shepherd, whose goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, and who will lead us all the way home.