How Exceptional People Can Become The Stars in Your Congregation
by Dr. Kimberly "Kace" Leetch, Clergy Stuff Founder
I was a really weird kid. It’s hard to explain exactly how I was different. I generally kept to myself, explored a variety of spiritual practices, and spoke my mind. I didn’t make friends easily, but was fiercely loyal to the one or two that I did make. But other kids could sense something about me – something different that they didn’t like. I was bullied, shunned, and spent most of my childhood alone.
When I grew up and became a parish pastor, I made it my mission to make sure nobody ever felt the way I felt. I welcomed and accepted people that others avoided. (Not without effort – I am still human, and flawed.) I was especially protective of kids. The kids that didn’t fit in were among my favorite. They needed to know that they had people that loved them, that they were worthy of affection and attention.
Kids with special needs were no exception– correction – kids with special needs were exceptional. There was one, in particular, with significant cognitive and physical limitations. He came to church regularly in his wheelchair, and he didn’t speak. We included him as much as we could.
One Christmas he was the star of the show – literally. He was cast in the role of the star. He had a silver star affixed to his chair and he led the procession of magi to the manger. It was a beautiful moment for everyone!
But there were challenges, too. One morning during Sunday School we decided to move the class into the youth room, which was more intimate than the hall where we usually met. Halfway through the class time, his mom came to check on him. Immediately, she grabbed his chair and took him out of the room. I followed, wondering what was the matter. She said he was in distress because of the florescent lights in the youth room. I had no idea! To my eyes, he looked just fine, but she knew instantly he was not.
That was a defining moment in my ministry. I realized I had done everything to welcome him – but I never got to know him. I knew nothing of his condition, how to read him, what his individual needs were. In an effort to make sure he didn’t feel left out, to treat him like any other kid, I completely missed that he was not like any other kid. To really include him meant I also needed to understand him. I set up a meeting with his parents that very week and learned as much as I could about him—what he liked and didn’t like, how to read him, how to talk to him, how to know when he needed more than I could offer, when to ask for help.
My lovely little star is a primary reason for this blog. We want to help guide ministers to better serve all their parishioners – not to be afraid or intimidated by the differences, but to embrace and understand them. Truly, these little (and big) ones are an exceptional people. I hope you have the privilege to serve them.
About the Author
Dr. Kimberly Leetch served as an ELCA parish pastor for twelve years. She now serves by providing resources for congregations to assist their ministry and outreach as the founder, writer, editor, business manager, and all-out creative guru at Clergy Stuff. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Minnesota.