When Mama Needs Help…Ellen Stumbo

shutterstock_120187948Editor’s Note: Ellen Stumbo gave us permission to share this post featured on her blog several weeks ago. I suspect it will resonate with many of our readers. SG

This is a hard post to write because it’s a big issue, it’s something I am constantly working on, an ongoing journey that changes along with the needs of my family. This is not a post about parenting kids with disabilities, or about parenting adopted kids who live with the trauma from their past, or even a post about parenting children with mental health issues. But it is a post about parenting in the trenches, whatever that means to you, because mainly this post is about you, the parent, and how you are dealing with the extra needs in your family.

Parenting kids with high needs affects everyone in the family. Whether it’s a child with a disability, with mental health issues, or with trauma (or a combination of those), the reality is that at some point – and as hard as it is to admit – there might come a time when mama needs help.

It is so easy to focus on what our children need, to allow a schedule to become dictated by their therapists, specialists, or counselors. As parents we do everything we can to meet their needs, sometimes even at our own expense.

Now let me pause for a moment and acknowledge there are many special needs parents out there that do not feel they live with extra needs, or they feel their kids with disabilities are no different than their typical kids; this post is probably not for you. But this post is for all the parents out there who feel wrecked, who feel like they can barely go on, who wish that someone out there cared enough and had the courage to enter into their pain, those parents who have many times locked themselves in the bathroom and sobbed.

Parenting children with high needs can be so incredibly hard and painfully lonely.

My middle daughter not only has cerebral palsy, but she lives with the trauma from spending the first four years of her life in a Ukrainian orphanage. She is not the only one living with the trauma, it affects everyone in the family. She has mental health issues, along with the trauma we have reactive attachment disorder (a “symptom” of trauma) and we have depression and anxiety that could be related to her disability, or her trauma, or both. And nothing has broken me more than parenting her, dealing with the behaviors, the manipulation, the survival that she lives with no matter how much we love her.

And it was just a few months ago when we finally came undone, when after weeks of challenging behaviors my daughter unbuckled herself and raged in our van, kicking at the door, shouting hate at us, hitting her head as hard as she could, all because we were going to take her to a party and she decided she did not want to go. And my youngest daughter cried silently in her car-seat, closing her eyes as tightly as she could, and my oldest broke down, “I feel like our family is falling apart!” And that statement was all it took for me to break down too, sobbing, and realizing I needed help, because I felt so broken. So very broken.

I was not living, I was merely surviving.I could not keep living like this, my family could not keep living like this.

Weekly calls to her pediatrician and weekly intervention did not seem enough. She wasn’t sleeping so we were not sleeping either. And then one day as I talked to one of her therapists she said, “I see trauma symptoms in you, I was wondering if you would be open to doing neurofeedback too, this tension you are living with is not helping you or your daughter.” Just the day before I had told my husband I felt like I had PTSD and perhaps I needed to see a counselor. That call confirmed the fact that I needed help.

So I want to talk to you, my fellow parent who feels wrecked, it is okay to ask for help.

There was a recent study that looked at the mental health of parents of children with a “special health care need.” These parents are those who identified themselves as having a child with a “chronic disease or disability” or “emotional problems.” The results of the study were as follows:

Cross-sectional analyses indicated that parents of a child with special care needs reported poorer self-rated mental health, greater depressive symptoms, and more restrictions in instrumental activities of daily living (IADL). Parents of a child with special health care needs had greater increases in depressive symptoms over time and greater declines in instrumental activities of daily living than parents of typically developing children. Perceived control was a robust predictor of all health outcomes over time.

And I think we need to start talking about this. This is a big deal!

What happens in our home – the stress, the extra needs, the lack of sleep, the limited support – it affects us!

We are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and poor mental health. So what are we going to do about it? We will do whatever it takes to care for our kids, will we do whatever it takes to take care of us? Our kids need us!

So friend, pick up the phone and make an appointment to see a counselor. I’ve been there, and seeing a therapist, even if only a few times, does a lot to my heart. And especially if you feel like you do not have close friends that are willing or able to walk this journey with you, get a counselor! It is so important to have someone to talk to. YOU ARE WORTH IT!

Pick up the phone and make an appointment with your doctor. Get on meds if necessary. I’ve been there, it is humbling, but it can make such a difference! For a while my anxiety was becoming debilitating and I had to ask for help. There is no shame in battling your own mental health issues, and it is so important to have a clear head as you parent your kids. Friend, YOU ARE WORTH IT!

Talk to friends and family about needing help. Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places. YOU ARE WORTH IT!

Find something that gives you life. Whatever that is, make time for you. You need time for yourself, you really do. Please do not feel guilty about a girl’s night out, do not feel guilty if you enjoy time away from your kids, it is okay. Go, have fun. YOU ARE WORTH IT!

And I want you to know I am praying for you, you are not alone, I know what it is like to feel wrecked.

And don’t forget that taking care of us is the best thing we can do for our kids.

Your kids need a mama ready to face the world and it’s challenges, and sometimes mama needs help to get there. It’s okay. YOU ARE WORTH IT!


Ellen-StumboEllen Stumbo is a rising star in the field of disability ministry and the founder of Disability Matters. She is a writer and speaker who focuses on sharing the real -sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly – aspects of faith, church, disability, parenting, and adoption. Ellen is a pastor’s wife, and her husband, Andy, leads a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. Ellen’s writing has appeared on Focus on the Family, LifeWay, MomSense, Not Alone, Mamapedia and the Huffington Post. Ellen blogs at ellenstumbo.com and you can also find her on Twitter and Facebook

Posted in Adoption, Anxiety Disorders, Families, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Celebrating Mike

Mike MegaphoneMike Woods has been a friend of Key Ministry and the larger disability ministry community now for a number of years. He and his wife have triplet teenage sons, all of whom have varying degrees of impairment associated with autism spectrum disorders. Following his family’s experience of scouting out thirty churches before finding one able to support the needs of his family, Mike became actively involved with resourcing churches to offer special needs ministry. Several years ago, Mike was called to serve as Director of the Special Friends Ministry at First Baptist Orlando, where he oversees one of the preeminent church-based disability ministries in the U.S.

Last Spring, I approached Mike (along with Shannon Dingle) when we needed help. Within a seven month time frame, we lost three “Key” employees who did the bulk of our work in supporting churches seeking to serve kids and families with disabilities. A big part of the plan put together by our leadership team involved providing direct service to churches and offering churches relationships along with resources. We needed a couple of people who we could connect with churches to offer expert advice as they launched new ministries, developed plans to grow existing ministries or sought wise counsel on how to serve especially challenging kids and families. Both Mike and Shannon have served with excellence while performing a vital role for our ministry.

Not Alone 2015Mike has been a leader in exploring technology and new media in supporting families of kids with disabilities and leaders in disability ministry. He has regularly contributed to this blog, served as the founder of the Not Alone blog for parents of kids with special needs that has encouraged tens of thousands of parents since its’ inception two years ago and developed a wonderful video archive under the auspices of the Special Friends Ministry created to serve both ministry volunteers and families of kids with significant disabilities. God has accomplished all of this through Mike while his family has experienced the challenges associated with disability.

Mike let me know about ten days ago that he’d no longer be able to serve in his current capacity with Key Ministry. While we’re very disappointed to be losing his services on behalf of Key, we know that Mike will continue to have a great impact for the Kingdom through the Special Friends Ministry at FBO while prioritizing the needs of his wife and family in accordance with Scripture.

We’re putting together a blog page with links to all of the wonderful resources Mike has offered with Key Ministry over the years. We’ve been honored to serve alongside Mike this past year, and hope to continue to serve with him in the larger disability ministry movement for many years to come. He is always welcome to be part of our team and a true master teacher and practitioner of disability ministry.

If Mike has blessed you or your church over this past year, please let him know publicly by posting in the comments section below or on our Facebook page, or e-mail him directly at mike@keyministry.org through the end of March, 2015.

Here’s a link to an interview I did with Mike when he had a regular radio program through Blog Talk Radio in 2011 oentitled Family Focused Special Needs Ministry.


shutterstock_24510829Key Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

Posted in Announcements, Autism, Key Ministry, Mike Woods, Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shhh…We’re talking about ADHD medication and church

ADHD pencil noseWe’re going to plunge headfirst into a topic that I’ve never seen addressed anywhere in books, articles or seminars on working with families of kids with ADHD…the use of medication for the specific purpose of helping kids function better during church-based programs and activities.

There are several reasons why today’s discussion is a “taboo topic.” Parents of kids with ADHD who make their way to church are often very uncomfortable sharing information about their child’s diagnosis or treatment. Church staff and volunteers should avoid speculation about a child’s diagnosis or judgments regarding a child’s treatment needs. Physicians and other professionals involved with treating kids with ADHD are likely too uncomfortable broaching the need for medication at church or too oblivious to the reality that some parents would desire treatment in support of activities central to their child’s spiritual development.

First, my two cents: If your child’s experience at church is as important as their experience at school, the need for effective treatment at church is as great as their need for treatment at school.

Why would a parent not give their child medication on the weekend that would help them have a better experience at church? Here’s one reason…the side effects many kids experience from commonly prescribed ADHD medications.

Here’s data from a study I presented a number of years ago at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry looking at prescription fill rates for children and adults with ADHD:

Parents of the “average” kid with ADHD fill between four and five 30 day prescriptions per year…the number for adults is 3.1. 27% fill seven or more 30 day prescriptions per year. As a result, the “average” kid with ADHD who has been prescribed medication isn’t on their medication on any given day.  My interpretation is that kids and adults take medication when they really need it and avoid taking it whenever they can.

Appetite suppression is the most common side effect in kids. Some kids have more difficulty sleeping on medication. Kids with ADHD who also have anxiety disorders (30%) often experience worsening of anxiety symptoms accompanied by moodiness and irritability on stimulants. Parents administer medicine because, in many instances, their kids just wouldn’t make it through school without it or their behavior would just be too disruptive to family life and peer relationships.

Parents haven’t been conditioned to think about the impact of ADHD on their child or family’s church participation because I doubt most clinicians ask about it. In the last fifteen years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I can recall a parent spontaneously volunteering that they were concerned about their family’s inability to do church because of their child’s ADHD before I raised the question. Talk about don’t ask, don’t tell!

Tweens and teens frequently take themselves off medication between the ages of 10-14. I hear kids tell me their medicine results in feedback from friends telling them they’re too “serious,” or they don’t feel like themselves or experience more self-consciousness in social situations. The middle schooler on a retreat may be more concerned about having fun with their friends than being able to absorb the content of the group discussions on the trip. Parents may choose not to provide medication for overnight retreats or mission trips because of concerns the knowledge their child takes medication may not remain confidential.

IMG_0905Finally, some church activities are scheduled at times of day when administration of ADHD medication is inconvenient or becomes problematic because of side effects. For example, if your church offers AWANA and has a relatively high population of kids with ADHD, starting your programming at 7:00 PM on a weeknight probably isn’t a great idea.  The three most commonly prescribed ADHD medications, Adderall XR, Concerta and Vyvanse typically last (at the most) 10-13 hours. If kids are getting medication before school, the effects will typically be wearing off around dinnertime. The only time I’ve ever had to have a parent sign a release of information for me to talk to my wife involved a situation when she was serving as AWANA group leader. One of my patients with ADHD got into a fight with another kid who probably should have been one of my patients. Having an understanding of this boy’s issues at a time of night when others wouldn’t have considered his need for treatment led to a medication adjustment and a successful year in AWANA.

My hope would be that parents would become as comfortable addressing the need for medication at church with their child’s physician as they would discussing the impact of their child’s ADHD in school or at home, and physicians would routinely ask about the impact of ADHD on the child’s church participation and spiritual development. We’ve got a long way to go before those conversations become routine.


KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

Posted in ADHD, Controversies, Families, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lorna Bradley…Hope for Healthy Relationships

Lorna BowlLorna Bradley partnered with us around the development of a prototype for a real time, interactive small group model for families impacted by disability using advanced videoconferencing technology. The curriculum for the small group is the focus of her new book, Special Needs Parenting: From Coping to Thriving. Here’s the second post of a three-part miniseries from Lorna. Click here to check out her first post…

But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.

Ruth 1:16 NLT

Relationships are critically important to personal and family resilience. Maintaining healthy relationships within the family and developing friendships help create a network of support as well as emotional reserves for current and upcoming challenges. The need for relationships among special needs parents is a large part of my motivation for writing material for use by small groups. One of the greatest gifts parents who are overwhelmed can receive is the knowledge that they are not alone. The relationships that come through meeting others on the same journey provide meaningful connections and support.

Since healthy relationships are an important part of building resilience in special needs parents, where to begin?

  • Set priorities. Which are the relationships you value most? Which are the relationships most in need of nurture? Spouse? Child? Friends? Set priorities to focus your attention there. A pastor I know shared that he and his wife make an intentional priority to set aside a few evenings each month to nurture relationships with other couples so that they have friendships.
  • Understand the difference between acquaintances and friends. Social media announces our friend count and number of connections. Who can you really count on when needed? Who can hear your disappointments without judgment? Who is willing to work through challenges with you? Do you return the favor? Those are your real friends.
  • Create space for the important relationships. In my household we have “family time” pretty much every weeknight. We read together or watch a show or share a meal. Studies show the simple act of eating together builds family resilience as it engages four relationship building blocks (loving action, time, communication, and healthy boundaries). My husband and I set a priority for a weekly date night. For my most valued friendships I try to keep regular contact and get together as often as possible.
  • Pay attention to the give-and-take of relationships. Are you giving too much and in need of getting something more back? Are you taking too much yourself? Relationships should have a rhythm to them. At times we are in need and at times we are the ones offering support. Relationships that lack a balance of give and take become draining over time for the person who is always in the mode of giving.
  • Enjoy being a parent. Yes, there are therapies to do, medications to administer, schedules to watch, behaviors to observe and modify. Just remember you are a parent and not a caseworker even though it sure can feel that way at times.
  • Set healthy boundaries between you and your child. I often experience among special needs parents a sense of a blurring of that boundary. I have heard the pronoun “we” countless times. “We got a low grade on the math test.” “We had a rough day at school.” “We forgot our medication.” “We had five seizures last night.”

Healthy relationships are an important part of the journey with special needs. In challenging times it is especially important to have a core of support. I opened with a well-known verse from the story of Ruth. Naomi had lost her husband and her two sons, who were also married. In Naomi’s culture, a woman’s status and security resided in her connections with the men in her family. Her worth was tied to fertility. All three of the widows were in a precarious situation, but especially so for Naomi. Unlike Naomi, her daughters-in-law were young and could hold onto hope of another marriage. Yet, in the midst of the darkest of times Naomi had a core relationship with her daughter-in-law Ruth that provided support. The health of her relationship with her daughter-in-law revealed itself in her Ruth’s fierce loyalty. Their mutual support sustained them both through the hardest of times. It may seem difficult to set a high priority to build healthy relationships with so many other pressing needs. However, healthy relationships are key tool to personal resilience for the journey ahead.


Special Needs Parenting Cover[2]Rev. Dr. Lorna Bradley, an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, received MTS and D. Min. degrees from Perkins School of Theology. Her doctoral project examines how churches can provide a holistic welcome to families raising children with special needs by meeting the emotional and spiritual needs within the entire family. As a Fellow at The Hope and Healing Institute in Houston, Texas she creates resources for special needs family support. She has led parent support groups for over five years and worked in welcoming ministries for over ten years. She and her husband of thirty years have an adult son with Asperger’s Disorder. Lorna enjoys spending time with family, entertaining, traveling, scuba diving, and running.

Lorna’s new book, Special Needs Parenting: From Coping to Thriving is available at Huff Publishing.

Posted in Families, Key Ministry, Parents, Resources, Spiritual Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Was Elijah depressed?

Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015As we wrap up our series on Sin, Mental Illness and the Church over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to look at several Biblical figures who exhibited symptoms commonly associated with mental illness. Today, we’ll look at Elijah. In subsequent posts we’ll look at King Saul and the Apostle Paul…

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

1 Kings  19:1-10 (ESV)

I’d like to share a few observations about this story insofar as it pertains to mental health…

There’s no evidence in the Scriptures that Elijah was ever depressed. He was clearly frightened and discouraged when he was running from Jezebel, but the incident described in 1 Kings 19:4 in which he asks God to take his life occurred two days after Elijah was an integral part of God’s demonstration of His power and glory on Mount Carmel in which he conquered Baal and his prophets.

We toss around the word “depression” in many instances when we really mean something else. Depression involves persistent feelings of sadness or unhappiness and/or a loss of ability to experience pleasure that by definition lasts for at least two weeks, and often lasts for months or years, especially when untreated. People often experience depressed mood as an adjustment reaction to life circumstances (loss of a job, a romantic breakup, illness, a family member being identified with a disabling condition, etc.) without experiencing the physical signs and symptoms typically associated with depression (changes in eating habits, weight, energy level, memory, concentration, libido). By definition, because of the time frame involved and the absence of any indication in the text that Elijah experienced symptoms of depression prior to confronting the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, we can’t say (using our current terminology that Elijah was “depressed.”

shutterstock_205677724People can and do become acutely hopeless in response to their situations. Teens in particular are noted for their inability to see past their immediate pain to recognize their long-term potential and impulsively commit acts of self-harm with high potential for lethality. One doesn’t need to be clinically depressed to act upon suicidal thoughts.

While there’s no particular verse in the Bible prohibiting suicide outside of the prohibition against murder, Elijah recognizes in this passage that God uniquely has the authority to give and take human life. He turns to God in his moment of crisis in which he no longer desires to live, as opposed to taking the matter into his own hands.  I’m less concerned about suicide risk when teens can recognize the impact of completed suicide on their family and friends or when they’ve been raised with the same understanding of Scripture demonstrated by Elijah in this passage.

What I was most struck by in Elijah’s story was the extent to which the disconnect between his expectations and reality contributed to his feelings of hopelessness and despair. We struggle greatly when our expectations don’t meet our circumstances…when our ministry doesn’t go as we planned, when our job is different than we envisioned, when our kids or spouses struggle as a result of disability. Elijah clearly thought the miraculous sign that God performed on Mount Carmel, coupled by the slaughter of 450 prophets of Baal would have led King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, along with the nation of Israel to turn from their idol worship. Elijah had fearlessly risked his life in the past in the service of God. Fear entered his mind when events didn’t unfold in the way he envisioned, despite personal experience of God having protected him from his enemies and performed miraculous acts (including the first resurrection documented in Scripture) through Elijah’s ministry. He was probably disappointed as well that he wasn’t elevated to a position of prominence as a result of his role in this most recent spectacular demonstration of God’s power. The ability to live free of the burden of our expectations and in accordance with God’s plan is critical.

The other piece of Elijah’s story that is most relevant is his propensity in the moment to view his circumstances in an inappropriately negative light. He offers two great examples in this passage of what my cognitive-behavioral therapist friends refer to as “thinking errors.”

“for I am no better than my fathers”

Elijah was judging his success based upon the results achieved as opposed to his faithfulness to the mission God gave him. It is most certainly true that others before Elijah sought to turn Israel away from pagan worship and toward God without Israel demonstrating repentance. Elijah did his job up to and through the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. He may have abandoned an opportunity to witness to God by fleeing in response to Jezebel’s plans to kill him (the text doesn’t let us know whether God had  alternate plans for Elijah in the immediate aftermath of the events of Mount Carmel) , but he’d fulfilled the tasks God had given him up to that time.

I, even I only, am left

This one God addressed directly. In verse 18, God informs Elijah that the faithful remnant in Israel was far larger than Elijah recognized…

Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

We often assume that we’re all alone…that we have no friends, no supporters and perceive that the situations we face are far more dire than reality would indicate. Such misperceptions often intensify feelings of worry and sadness, and increase the risk for anxiety disorders or depression.

One last observation in the passage that confirms something I see often in clinical practice…rest is absolutely essential to good emotional self-regulation. Here, God took the initiative to provide for Elijah when Elijah would have likely died without such provision. Also, as with Moses and later, Jesus, God called Elijah to a forty day period of quiet and preparation in the wilderness during which he was sustained by God before embarking upon a series of very important tasks in his public ministry.

I know personally that I’ve erred on the side of working myself to a state of mental exhaustion because of assuming the success of our ministry efforts depended upon me as opposed to God, rationalizing the behavior to myself as worship. The downside has been times when I don’t do a very good job representing Jesus because of inappropriate displays of emotion…ask anyone who works at my office!

Elijah wasn’t depressed. But we’re at risk of becoming depressed or anxious when our need to fulfill our mental images of a desired reality gets in the way of our recognition that God is in control of our circumstances.

Image: “Dieric Bouts – Prophet Elijah in the Desert – WGA03015″ by Dieric Bouts (circa 1420-1475) – Web Gallery of Art: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons  


shutterstock_206040040Key Ministry has assembled a resource page for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents on depression in children and teens. We’ve included…

  • Links to all the posts from our recent blog series on depression
  • Links to other outstanding blog posts on depression from leaders in the disability ministry community
  • Links to educational resources on the web, including excellent resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a parent medication guide, and excellent information from Mental Health Grace Alliance.

Click here to access our depression resource page!

Posted in Controversies, Depression, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four challenges of leading disability ministry as a special needs parent…Shannon Dingle

When I first started serving in disability ministry, our family looked like this.

easter 2008

It was 2007. Jocelyn was a baby with no known special needs. Around the same time, we began our involvement in special needs ministry. Then in 2009 Robbie would join our family by birth, also without any disability at first. Shortly thereafter, we stepped up our role, creating Access Ministry and leading it. Then Zoe came by adoption from Taiwan in 2012, with cerebral palsy and a few other diagnoses. A few months later, Robbie had his first seizure, which brought with it a label of epilepsy. In late 2013, Patience, Philip, and Patricia joined us via sibling/special needs/older child adoption from Uganda; they were 2.5, 4.5, and almost 7 at the time, and one is HIV+. We recently found out about Zoe’s little brother Sam, living in an orphanage in Taiwan, so we’re adding to our family once again (though he has no known special needs).

Here’s our family now, minus Sam.


Our passion for and calling to special needs ministry hasn’t changed. Lee and I know we are still serving exactly where we should be. But I’ve struggled this year with juggling my roles as mom to Zoe, who needs extra support at church, and as Access Ministry coordinator. Here are four challenges I’ve experienced personally or I’ve learned about from others who also wear both hats:

  1. It can be hard to convey that this ministry matters for the whole church.

When I was first advocating for our church’s Access Ministry, I could more easily frame this as a church-wide issue. After all, I wasn’t personally affected by disability but I was advocating for our church to fully include those who were. Now it can seem like I’m passionate about this solely because of my personal connection, which can lead others to feel like it’s not their concern if they don’t feel the same personal stake.

  1. Sometimes it’s easier to advocate for other kids at church than my own.

I love stepping in as the third party to help when a parent needs support in conveying their child’s needs or strengths to a Sunday school teacher or other church leader. But when it’s my kid, I’m not the third party. I’m the parent. And while I can certainly advocate for my child, I don’t get the benefit of having that third party. (That said, after realizing this challenge, I reached out to our children’s ministry staff so that one of them can fill that role when I need help. So if you’re feeling like this, please seek out someone else who can come alongside you!)

  1. Recruiting volunteers to serve with my kid feels self-serving.

As I planned for this year, I assigned one-on-one helpers to other kids before assigning Zoe’s. I knew Zoe was easier to include than some of the kids we serve, and I didn’t want other parents to worry that their child wasn’t going to have a buddy. The result? I covered everyone but Zoe. And then I struggled – and continue to struggle – with finding someone to pair up with Zoe because I feel like soliciting a helper for her seems more self-serving and beggar-like than it does when I’m recruiting volunteers for other children. I know this isn’t the right solution, but for now we’re bringing Zoe with us to worship during the first hour we’re at church, even though class would be more appropriate at her age, because she doesn’t have a helper and then we’re missing our Sunday school class most weeks so we can be with her during that hour. Why are we settling for that? Because…

  1. We’re tired.

I know we are serving exactly where God has called us, but we are weary. All parents are, but there’s a different kind of bone-weariness that is common in my conversations with other special needs parents. After fighting for our kids with insurance companies, schools, doctors, and so on, we’re worn. So when someone else joins us in advocating for our kids at church, that’s a blessing. For most special needs parents who also lead in disability ministry, we feel like we miss out on that sometimes.

So what does this mean for your church?

If the parent of a child with special needs wants to serve or lead in disability ministry at your church, don’t say no. But do ask some questions out of love, knowing that these parents willing to serve also need to be served too. Are they serving because they truly want to or because they’re afraid their child won’t be welcome at church if they aren’t leading the way? If it’s the latter, then step up to make sure those fears don’t ever come to be.

If it’s the former, though, support them as they serve. I find great joy in both my roles, disability ministry leader and special needs mama, so please don’t bar parents from serving if this is where God is leading them. (But knowing the challenges, please don’t force them to serve if that’s not the case!) If they are serving, check in with them as you would for any other volunteer – or maybe more so – to ensure that they aren’t burning out, because the risk is especially high for us.

The challenges are real, but – like any area of ministry – the rewards are too. I’m glad to be able to serve as I do, but that it isn’t hard some days to juggle special needs parenting and special needs ministry.

If you are a special needs parent who also serves in disability ministry, would you be willing to share your challenges (and joys!) in the comments? I think they can be helpful for others to read.


2000x770 S DINGLE CHRCH4EVCHILD 2Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.

Posted in Families, Key Ministry, Leadership, Parents, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

An Open Letter to Pastors, Biblical Counselors, Psychologists and Psychiatrists…Mitzi VanCleve

Mitzi March 22 graphicMitzi VanCleve shared this blog post yesterday with our Facebook group on Sin, Mental Illness and the Church. She gave us permission to reblog.

I’m a Christian. What I mean by that is I’m a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and therefore, I try to live my life under His Lordship. And, like most Christians I have experienced trials and afflictions of varying sorts throughout my life. This is normal and I haven’t expected that I would be exempt from that. Several of my afflictions are chronic in that they have waxed and waned throughout my life. I’m not suggesting that my experience of suffering from these afflictions is any worse than all the kinds of afflictions that a person may experience, but what I am saying is that my afflictions do indeed cause suffering and sometimes that suffering can be excruciating. The afflictions that I’m referring to are my Panic Disorder and my Pure O-OCD.

What I’d like to express in this blog is that it’s often much harder for a Christian who has a mental illness to get the help and support they need than a person who isn’t a Christian. First off, we may feel ashamed of our illness because of the stigma that still remains within some churches which suggests that mental illnesses are spiritual problems. We may even believe this kind of thing all on our own, based upon the things we’ve heard over the years. But the second reason, has to do with the fact that we often feel confused and torn in regard to seeking help. Should we seek help from a pastor or Biblical counselor or, should we seek help from a doctor; such as a psychologist or psychiatrist? The good news for me, is that I have been able to obtain help for my disorders. The bad news is that I avoided getting help for many, many years.

shutterstock_156304973There are a lot of reasons for this and those are the things that I wanted to share about in this blog/letter. But before I jump in, I wanted to express that I have the greatest admiration for all of you. I thank God for pastors and Biblical counselors; for the heart they have to serve the Lord which in turn compels them to serve His people. I have been greatly blessed in my own life by the way God has used my Pastors to teach and comfort me. But, I also thank God for psychologists and psychiatrists, especially now that I’ve benefited from your medical expertise and your desire to help alleviate the suffering that mental disorders cause to those of us who are afflicted. Please hold these assertions in mind should choose to press on through the rest of this blog.

Now that I’ve made that clear, I feel ready to move on to the thing that I see going on between a fairly large number of ministers of the faith and ministers of health that can really throw up a roadblock for those of us who need help and encouragement from all of you. There are some Pastors and Biblical counselors who discourage people who have a mental health diagnosis from seeking help from a psychologist or a psychiatrist. And, there are some psychologists and psychiatrists who tell their patients to avoid talking to their pastor or Biblical counselor about their suffering. This makes me sad because there is benefit to be had for Christians who suffer from mental illness from the whole lot of you.

So why would some pastors/Biblical counselors discourage us from seeking professional help? I think I’ve uncovered a few of those reasons, although there are likely other reasons that I’m not aware of.

shutterstock_216281383First off; there are still some, not all, of you who don’t believe that mental illnesses are valid afflictions. You may really imagine that you are correct; not because you are a mean or judgmental individual but just because you lack an education in regard to the cause and management of mental illnesses and therefore, you have nothing to go on in regard to your point of view, other than presupposition. I know this is true, because now that I’m “out there” about my anxiety disorders some of you have told me that my problem isn’t a mental illness at all, but rather a lack of faith. (This was what I feared might happen.)

There are some of you who have insisted that those of us who are suffering, just need to have more faith, read our Bible more and pray for healing and all shall be most well. I’ve been very blessed that none of my Pastors have ever held these opinions, but over the years I’ve heard stories where this kind of counsel was given to other people like me and I hear tell that it’s pretty painful to be blamed for something that you didn’t choose. Then, what if you follow that counsel and work even harder at reading your Bible, praying, and trying to muster up enough faith to make your mental illness disappear and it’s still there? What are you to do when this counsel hasn’t worked? Will you despair? Sadly, some do – even of life itself. I know these attitudes are still out there within the church because I’ve heard them being espoused in Bible studies and on Christian talk radio. And, it’s these attitudes and these stories which played a role in regard to why I held back from seeking help and chose to just keep my suffering to myself rather than run the risk of opening up and being chastised for a weak spiritual condition or a lack of Biblical understanding.

Secondly, some of you may have heard some ugly tales of Christians who sought professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, who were then given counsel which violated or disrespected their faith and so you may feel the need to protect the folk in your congregation from the harm that you think might happen to their faith if they seek professional help for their disorder. If so, your motive may be pure, but there still remains this major hurdle in regard to your limits: You can only do so much to help the person in your congregation who is afflicted with a mental illness just as you can only do so much for the person who is afflicted with cancer, or a heart condition, or diabetes.

shutterstock_164748302You are not trained to diagnose and treat all the differing kinds of mental illness and in order to do so you would need more than a doctorate in theology. You would also need a doctorate in psychology or psychiatry. This isn’t to say that the people in your congregation who are suffering don’t need your encouragement, your prayers, your support and your compassion, but you need to offer it to those of us with mental illnesses in the exact same way you offer it to people with differing afflictions. I’m quite sure you’d be very quick to acknowledge your limits in regard to what you are able to do for the folk who are afflicted with other types of illness. I’m sure you wouldn’t pull out a stethoscope and diagnose a heart condition or pull out a prescription pad and write a script for insulin for the diabetic and therefore, if you believe that mental illnesses are valid afflictions which are caused by chemical imbalances and even genetically inherited, then surely you must realize that more often than not, professional assistance is also needed.

But you see here’s the thing you may not have considered; your opinions carry a lot of weight with those of us who are suffering. If you tell us that it’s a sin for us to seek professional help, we probably won’t do it. If you tell us that using medication to treat our illness demonstrates a lack of faith, we probably won’t use it because we are trusting you to counsel us in such a way that we will live a life that’s pleasing to our Lord. And sadly, this, in turn, may be one of the reasons why some psychologists and psychiatrists tell their Christian patients to steer clear of you. And that’s definitely not a good thing for us either!

Moving right along to the other side of this issue; there are also ways that some, not all, psychologists/psychiatrists may make it very hard for a Christian to get the help they need for their mental illness. The main reason will likely be a scoffing or disrespectful attitude toward our faith and the moral ethical choices that are married to it. How do I know that this happens? I’ve had conversations with some people who are afflicted with my disorder, OCD, who have shared about some pretty awful encounters. For instance; I used to struggle with Religious OCD and one of the ways that I managed the obsessional themes that came with this type of OCD was to employ a behavioral therapy approach called: “Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy or ERP. (It should come as no surprise to those ministers of faith who are reading this blog that they don’t understand what this means. That’s okay, I don’t expect you to.)

The obsessions that can plague a Christian with OCD will often be those which run completely against the grain of our faith and our desire to live a life that is obedient to Christ. You professionals will typically reference these thoughts as being ego-dystonic. These obsessions can cause the OCD sufferer to feel that the their relationship with Christ is at risk. These feelings are false and are part and parcel of how OCD operates. A well schooled psychologist/behavioral therapist will know this. And yet, there are some of you who don’t take this particular obsessional theme as seriously as you would other obsessional themes and therefore, you may suggest things to the Christian which run completely counter to their faith and allegiance to Christ.

shutterstock_120187600You may be more than ready to help the person who struggles with Relationship OCD by telling them that they need to stay in a relationship with their spouse and not allow the OCD to make them run from it, while at the same time, telling the Christian with Religious OCD that if going to church, reading their Bible or praying makes them feel anxious or uncomfortable that it’s okay to stop doing those things, as if they don’t really matter. Why would you make such a suggestion when you are well aware that in OCD avoidance is a compulsion and compulsions only make OCD worse? Do you think it would be right to promote the insignificance or separation of a human relationship just because of OCD? Would you tell the mother with Harm OCD to quit taking care of her children? If you did, you could certainly be accused of endorsing neglect.

The only reason I can think of for a psychologist to tell a Christian that they don’t need to bother about reading their Bible, praying or going to church would more than likely be just a general disrespect and disregard for the validity or importance of their Christian patient’s faith. When you treat our faith as being insignificant we can no longer come to you for help. And, when we can no longer come to you for help, we are often left grappling with a disorder that is creating enormous pain and not knowing where to turn next. This is just one of many scenarios that I’ve heard about where a Christian with OCD might be expressing fears in regard to religious themes where a psychologist, rather than treating the patient according to protocol, interjects their worldview or philosophy into the treatment and then suddenly the Christian patient is left without the help they need to manage their illness because they can’t work with a professional who disrespects their faith and their moral and ethical beliefs.

These are just some of the roadblocks that this tug of war between ministers of the Gospel and ministers of health create for the Christian who is afflicted with a mental illness. There are certainly valid reasons on both sides of the aisle for distrust, but do any of you ever take into consideration how all of this impacts the Christian who is afflicted? I can tell you that this creates just a huge amount of confusion and trepidation in regard to our being able to seek and receive the help we need.

Those of us who live with these disorders need to be ministered to from all of you. It shouldn’t be an either/or thing but rather a both/and thing. The last thing we need when we are experiencing the pain of our disorder is to be confused or made to feel guilty about where to go for help.

While I certainly don’t know everything that needs to happen to overcome this sad state of affairs, I do know that there are some doors opening up for the church and it’s leaders to become better equipped to minister to those in the flock who are afflicted with mental disorders. Education is certainly key, but that can’t happen if the will to disbelieve in the validity of mental illness is stronger than a willingness to listen to another point of view. This willingness needs to happen on both sides of the aisle. My faith teaches me that I am to show respect and honor toward all people. I think this is a pretty good way to open up a line of communication with others whether you are a Christian or not.

Below I’ve listed two organizations which are working toward educating the church in regard to how they can be better equipped to minister to those who have mental health disorders:



10947709_612305872234627_941507695_nMitzi VanCleve is a mother and an author with a very powerful witness of how God has provided her with grace and strength through her personal experience with OCD and Social Anxiety Disorder. She’s recently launched a new blog, The OCD Christian to offer hope and encouragement to others experiencing similar struggles. Her book, Strivings Within-The OCD Christian is available at Amazon.

Posted in Anxiety Disorders, Controversies, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Gillian Marchenko…Down Syndrome Day 2015

579946_10200657836665518_426234612_nMarch 21, 2015 marks the tenth annual World Down Syndrome Day. Celebrated on the 21st day of the third month of the year, the date is symbolic of the third copy of the 21st chromosome that characterizes Down syndrome. There are over 400,000 Americans living with Down syndrome. It is the most common chromosomal condition.

In honor of Down Syndrome Day, I could think of no one better to guest blog than Gillian Marchenko. Here’s Gillian’s post…To the New Mother of a Baby With Down Syndrome.

Marchenko Girls

Meeting Her

I remember the feeling.

That first meeting with another family farther along the path of Down syndrome after the birth of our child with the same diagnosis.

I remember fear and fascination.

Fear of the child four or five years old whose eyes mirrored my baby’s. She shouldn’t have looked like him. I birthed her. She should have resembled me.

Fascination, as I watched his sister play with him; he hit her, she cried, mother reprimanded. So common, so usual, so family. Things I thought we may have lost with the appearance of an extra chromosome.

I cried quietly for two hours while visiting this dear little boy and his family. They loved him. They cherished him. He played games, and communicated with his hands and with his voice. He chowed down on his lunch.

But still, I cried, because this path wasn’t my choice. At my point of weakness his mother appeared strong. I was an anthill. She, a mountain. I clutched my baby to my chest, each second teetering between relief and uncertainty.

His mother was gracious, tender. We whispered to each other as her children played nearby. ”I love him. Our life is good. Really. It is.”

Her smiling eyes met mine.

I looked away.

I loved my baby.

But that day I did not love Down syndrome. It was too big, too unknown.

Meeting You

11015119_10205882166190491_1584471142_nYour husband contacted us last week. We scheduled dinner. The following days you kept popping up in my mind. A mother forced to move from a typical parenting landscape to some place new, a place everyone claimed was special. If you are anything like me, shocked by a culture wildly unknown and unsolicited.

“Mom, why are you cleaning up around the house, and making us all put on fresh shirts and brush our hair?” Elaina asked as I set the table. “You usually don’t make such a big deal out of dinner guests.”

Several responses queued on my tongue. Instead, in a brief moment of clarity, understanding that Elaina would learn more from the truth, I responded.

“Because, this family had a baby a few months ago with Down syndrome and I want them to feel welcome. I want them to see that we are happy, and that Papa and I treasure all four of our girls. I want them to see that we are OK.”

Your family arrived. We cooed over both of your children. I held your new baby in my arms. He smelled like sunshine.

His eyes mirrored my daughter’s.

I held your little one to my chest as our children played close by. Polly hit Zoya. Zoya cried which made Evie cry, and Elaina played on the floor with your son.

You probably aren’t excited to be a part of our special needs club. I have to tell you, though, welcoming you into my home was like welcoming family.

You teared up as you talked about your love for your son. “Down syndrome is something different. It’s a lot to take in.”

Oh, how I know.

I am a bit farther down your new path. Give yourself time to fall in love with your son, and to get used to Down syndrome. Breathe in his baby smell. Watch how his brother kisses the top of his head, how your husband gently puts him down to sleep, how your baby locks eyes with you when he eats. The weight of the world is in those eyes.

Today, you don’t have to love Down syndrome. Just love your son.

And know that we, other parents in this very special club, are here when you need us and that someday, you will be the one looking a new mother in the eye saying,

“Our life is good. Really. It is.”

Editor’s note: I’d recommend two additional posts from Gillian…21 Things You Should Know About Down Syndrome and Ten Things Not to Say to the Parent of a Child With Down Syndrome.

Originally posted March 21, 2013.


Gillian MarchenkoGillian Marchenko is an author and national speaker who lives in Chicago with her husband Sergei and four daughters. She writes and speaks about parenting kids with Down syndrome, faith, depression, imperfection, and adoption. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Parent, Thriving Family, Gifted for Leadership, Literary Mama, Today’s Christian Woman, MomSense Magazine, Charlottesville Family, EFCA Today, and the Tri-City Record. Her book, Sun Shine Down, a memoir, was published by T. S. Poetry Press. Gillian says the world is full of people who seem to have it all together. She speaks for the rest of us.

Click here to download a free excerpt of Sun Shine Down.

Posted in Advocacy, Inclusion, Intellectual Disabilities, Key Ministry, Resources, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We’re teaming up for a counseling summit in Cincinnati!

Spring Counseling SummitOur crew at Key Ministry is partnering with the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Cincinnati Christian University to put on the most unique training event we’ve yet been part of, and we’re hoping that as many of you as possible will be able to join us!

Cincinnati Christian’s Spring Counseling Summit will be held at the university’s Counseling and Ministry Center on Friday, April 17th from 9:00 AM-4:30 PM, focusing on the topic of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Concerns and featuring presenters from Key Ministry.

crest-150x150An estimated 20% of school-age children and teens in the U.S. meet criteria for one or more mental health disorders. Access to counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists with familiarity and experience in treating kids and teens with symptoms of mental illness is limited nearly everywhere. In this counseling Summit, we’ll offer practical strategies for identifying and treating the most common…and pressing mental health concerns in children and teens.

We’ll integrate the most current research and diagnostic terminology with a bio/psycho/social/spiritual perspective, incorporating case discussion and strategies for connecting families with natural support systems in the community.

Some of the topics we’ll be covering at the Summit include…

– recognizing and treating anxiety disorders
– making sense of the ADHD epidemic
– clinical challenges when kids have two or more psychiatric diagnoses
– clinical challenges with adopted/foster kids
– recognition and advocacy for kids with special education needs
– recognizing and treating mood disorders

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll be joined in Cincinnati by my colleague Dr. Sherri McClurg. Sherri serves as Managing Director of our group practice (Family Center by the Falls) and specializes in child and adolescent clinical psychology as well as forensic psychology. Dr. McClurg previously served as the Division Director for Outpatient Services in Lorain County for Bellefaire JCB and developed both clincial outpatient and school based programs. She has worked with schools, children services, and courts designing intervention programs for youth at risk and has specialized training in trauma-focused CBT. In addition to her clinical work she provides graduate and post-graduate clinical training for students and teaches graduate psychology courses. More recently, Sherri has served as the Special Needs Ministry Director at her local church, and is currently serving as Interim Director of New Horizons for Children, the largest faith-based orphan hosting program nationwide.

The Spring Counseling Summit is approved by the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage & Family Therapist Board  for 6.0 CEUs for counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists and for 6.0 CEUs for counselors by the Kentucky LPC Board.

Fall10_237For more information, or to register for the Spring Counseling Summit, click here to access the Summit webpage. Early-bird registration rates are available before April 1st, and students can register for a reduced fee of $10. Lunch is included in the cost of registration.

Interested in a “crash course” on some of the most pressing topics in children’s mental health? Join us at Cincinnati Christian University on Friday, April 17th! It’s a great time of year to visit the Tri-State and take the 90 minute drive to Lexington to check out some thoroughbred racing at Keeneland.


KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

Posted in ADHD, Adoption, Anxiety Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Foster Care, Key Ministry, Mental Health, PTSD, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t tell me your church’s theology is sound if my family isn’t welcome…Shannon Dingle

christmas eve church“Oh, the theology at our church – what’s being preached and taught – is spot on,” she said.

“No,” I firmly answered. “No, it’s not.”

As she blinked back, I tried to explain.

“I can’t accept that as true. I just can’t. Because you just told me that your church leadership knows that it isn’t welcoming to families affected by disability like mine and justified all the reasons they couldn’t or wouldn’t say yes to our family if we came on a Sunday morning. To me, that says your theology is garbage. I don’t care how true to God’s words your sermons are if your actions are far from it.”

Our conversation was a hypothetical one, because I was merely visiting her city for my youngest daughter’s surgery so we wouldn’t be coming to their church anyway. But I’ve been turning our conversation over and over in my mind ever since.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

(James 1:22-25, ESV)

If your church is hearing the word but not putting it into action, then the Bible says you’re fooling yourself. And if you say you love your city but you’re willing to say no to people with disabilities – even knowing that nearly 20% of Americans have a disability, half of whom report their disability as severe, according to the 2010 US Census – then you’re deceiving yourselves.

I’m not saying every church needs to put in place supports for every imaginable disability area. Our church, with a well-established special needs ministry, certainly doesn’t have that! I wouldn’t expect any new church to be fully equipped with how to support our family if we wanted to join. But I would expect, hope, wish, pray that they would be willing to love us enough to try to learn.

And if they didn’t, no argument about the soundness of their theology would convince me that they were right. Because if the God you’re following and teaching about doesn’t compel you to welcome struggling families, then I don’t think we worship the same God after all.

Shannon Dingle provides consultation, training and support to pastors, ministry staff and volunteers from churches requesting assistance from Key Ministry. In addition, Shannon regularly blogs for Key Ministry on topics related to adoption and foster care, and serves on the Program Committee for Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s Disability Ministry Web Summit. Shannon and her husband (Lee) serve as coordinators of the Access Ministry, the Special Needs Ministry of Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.


2000x770 S DINGLE CHRCH4EVCHILD 2Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.

Posted in Advocacy, Inclusion, Key Ministry | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments