GRAND RAPIDS – Pastor Scott Carman knows the challenges faced by families with special needs children. He
and his wife, Jeanette, have a 7-year-old daughter with autism.
"We have struggled at times during church services when she had a meltdown and we had to take her
out," Carman said of his daughter.
The pastor now leads a monthly service at Calvary United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids designed to be
friendly to similar families.
After reading statistics that showed 90 percent of families which consist of children with special needs
don’t attend church services, Carman said he started asking questions. The answers were not acceptable.
"I got answers I wasn’t prepared to hear," the pastor said.
Those answers included horror stories of the families not being accepted by churches because of their
children. One family was asked specifically not to attend or at least, not to bring their child. Carman
said he heard stories of people getting dirty looks and nasty comments from other church members with
the perception those families could not discipline their child.
"People don’t understand. It’s not that simple," Carman said.
After visiting a "sensory friendly" movie showing in Maumee, he reasoned the same types of
things could be employed in a church service.
He met with other parents as well as occupational therapists and carefully planned out the short service
which runs only about 30 to 45 minutes to allow for shorter attention spans.
He brought in his daughter and found the hum of the fans during quiet prayer time could be a trigger, so
the fans are turned off.
"The kids are allowed to get out of their seats and run," Carman said
Despite not having anyone in attendance for the debut in May, the pastor said word is spreading through
social media and he expects it to continue to grow.
At the June service, one 13-year-old young man bluntly said he was bored and didn’t understand and wished
he was at home. That was prior to the service. After the service, he hugged the pastor and told him,
"This was the best church service, ever."
Needless to say that family plans to return regularly.
"The neat thing about it is every family is in the same boat. We’ve all been through it,"
Carman said. "My hope is that this church service creates a community."
Beyond church he knows that his and similar families often don’t have nights out or time away from home
because of the challenges finding quality baby sitters who can handle children with special needs.
"We don’t get out very often," he said hoping if they build a community, they can assist each
The pianist for the service will play children-friendly music at a lower volume and Carman said his
sermons will also be children-friendly. There will be an occupational therapist on hand should the need
arise to deal with a meltdown or other needs.
"I want to give anyone a safe place to worship where everyone is welcome," Carman said.
The children can roam throughout the church or even play during the worship. The PECS (Picture Exchange
Communication System) system provides assistance to those families. The pages which assist the child to
follow the service can be obtained by email via Jeanette Carman at [email protected] There is
also a quiet area if needed equipped with sensory tools. Families can bring electronic devices to aid
their child and comfortable clothes are encouraged.
The "Sensory Friendly Church Services" are held at 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month.
July 5 will be the next service, They are held at the church, 24362 W. Third St., Grand Rapids.
For more information contact Carman by email at [email protected] or call at 419-574-2048.