Published: October 23, 2023
Looking for a program to assist your church in addressing its disability ministry needs? Try implementing Peer-to-Peer Leadership!
One year, I was the keynote speaker at the One Able Body conference in Bismarck, North Dakota. I was fascinated by one presenter, special education teacher Sara Bohrer. Sara explained how she’d created a program called Peer-to-Peer Leadership Class in her high school. She also explained how it could benefit our churches. As a disability ministry consultant, I knew immediately this program could assist churches to address their disability ministry needs. Here are the basics of Sara’s program.
What Is Peer-to-Peer Leadership?
Peer-to-Peer Leadership Class is a general education course where school students learn about a variety of disabilities. They develop leadership skills, model appropriate social behaviors, and create rapport with a variety of students with different needs. This leads to friendships that extend beyond the classroom. Students also learn how to support their peers with disabilities in the community and how they can modify activities to include all.
After the first year, students from the Peer-to-Peer Leadership Class replace adult paraeducators in the general education classroom as aides. These students have resources and support and are expected to take initiative.
How Can It Work at Church?
Sara thinks this model can be used in both youth and children’s ministry. Just as in school, a church can set up a place where interested kids learn about disabilities, inclusion, and appropriate social skills. Then, after kids learn and come alongside adults who model how to lead children with disabilities, these kids can begin to lead their peers. Sara explains, “The power behind Peer-to-Peer Leadership is that all students learn from one another through the time they spend together.”
Why Do It?
When kids get the opportunity, they develop empathy, understanding, and leadership skills they can use across their communities. Sara believes implementing Peer-to-Peer Leadership ensures the inclusion of students with disabilities in the church.
“By implementing a program like this, you’re able to foster friendships that could last for years,” says Sara. This partnership between disabled and non-disabled creates friendship and support among the church community.
Implement “Peer-to-Peer” Leadership
Follow these steps to implement a peer-to-peer type of program at your church.
First, explain the program and plan to your congregation. Make sure to include kids who might be involved in the program. It’s hard to be successful at any new undertaking without the full support of the congregation. Explain the benefits and how this type of approach models Jesus’ heart since we know Jesus had a vibrant ministry toward people with disabilities.
Next, interview parents whose children with disabilities will join the program. Ask parents what they’re looking for and how you can support their children. Get a sense for whether parents would be willing to teach about their child’s particular disability.
Then teach on a wide variety of special needs. As kids learn about needs, share strategies that work universally—but also help them understand that not all needs are the same. Help kids understand that everyone belongs and has a purpose in God’s family.
Next, facilitate interactions. Help kids model how to provide support, create modifications, or interact with a child who may be nonverbal or unable to walk. Show how to develop friendships with kids with disabilities in and out of the church.
Lastly, allow kids to take the lead. Once kids are familiar with disability, watch how much they help one another. Peer-to-Peer Leadership isn’t a service or charity; it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Ellen Stumbo is the director of Disability Matters, where she encourages every church to embrace disability.
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