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Every so often the alarm sounds. Sometimes, even before the alarm, something else may trigger it—a pleasant smell or maybe an appealing commercial. It can be a little different for all of us, but one thing is for sure. There is no Do Not Disturb button for the hunger alarm within us. We have to eat!

Oh, yes! The alarm sounds at different times for us all. When we awake. Before we sleep. At lunchtime. Dinnertime. Snack time. During a long meeting. During our commutes. At the best times and at the worst times. Sometimes we can control it, but not usually. It controls us.

Food is essential to nourish our bodies. That is why we go to great lengths to feed ourselves and others. It is always great to see parents eating with their kids, friends sharing meals, and most of all, support for organizations that are tackling hunger. Because of our hunger alarms, food is a daily concern for each of us. There is something else that is essential in our lives.

Love. What if we had love alarms that went off several times a day to remind us of how vital it is that we love each other? How would it feel? What would it sound like? Well, maybe it would sound like a voice? Scripture actually urges us to teach love throughout the day—at least four times a day to be exact. How brilliant?!

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength. The commandments I give you today must be in your hearts. Make sure your children learn them. Talk about them when you are at home. Talk about them when you walk along the road. Speak about them when you go to bed. And speak about them when you get up.” – Deuteronomy 6:5-7 NIRV

At Orange, this scripture is foundational to how we lead families to connect with their kids. Our Parent Cue resources lead parents to talk with their kids during these four times of the day—Morning Time, Drive Time, Meal Time, and Bed Time. Over time, these conversations can help to strengthen a kid’s faith and relationship with God. These love alarms remind kids to love in the present and for years to come.

The Parent Cue App provides phase-specific things to make it easy to sound these alarms. Imagine what families would look like if we used these love alarms, consistently.

Morning Time: Jessie comes downstairs after brushing her teeth. In what way could we welcome her with an interesting question to get the gears moving? She may step onto the bus and, before she knows it, see the perfect opportunity to love someone.

Drive Time: On the way to get our favorite takeout, or during the commute to cooking class, Alex and Jessie remind us of a hilarious family memory. Might this be a great time to sound another love alarm?

Meal Time: Alex devours dinner, and proceeds to get seconds. Jessie is still on her first round. Sure, we gave thanks before eating. But, maybe we can pose a question to generate discussion?

Bed Time: It’s time to tuck in. Jessie usually fades away pretty fast, so a quick phrase may be just what she needs as a final alarm. Alex, on the other hand, loves to talk before he shuts his eyes. The same phrase may be just fine, but a listening ear could be an alarm of its own.

Though Deuteronomy 6:5-7 focuses on teaching children, it can be helpful in various aspects of life. Give it a try!

Ready? Set your love alarms. Go!

Read more on this topic:

Why Deuteronomy 6 Matters

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All my life my mother was a schoolteacher. Through the years, she taught several different grades, but primarily she taught elementary school. However, it wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that I discovered that my mom had actually gone to school to be a singer. She had a beautiful voice. Although I remember her singing in weddings and that she had taught piano out of our house most of my elementary school years, it never occurred to me that music might be something she wanted to pursue. Because her mother was a teacher she had also gotten her teaching degree alongside of her music degree. So, when she met my dad (who also had his teaching degree) and had us, she took the steady route of schoolteacher.

When I was in college, I became aware of this past dream because my mother got the opportunity to do something that she’d always wanted. She was able to join the alumni choir from her college and tour Great Britain. This was a magical time for her. It was something she cherished greatly. However, it came with a cost. When she returned home she started having trouble standing, she would lose time, and she was having trouble with her memory. After many doctor visits, they were able to determine that the plane ride had started a bleed on her brain. Then—whether it was related or just allowed the doctors to identify it alongside of the brain bleed—it was around this time that my mother was diagnosed with ALS.

This was a difficult time for my family. There was a thick tension in the air. Even before the disease took its toll and limited her mobility, there was a constant reminder that this was terminal and would end in loss. Even though we had the luxury (if you can call it that) of mourning her loss before she actually died, the end was no less devastating. She was truly a shining light that was taken from the world far too soon. The impact of her loss was felt immediately, not just in our family, but all the lives she had touched throughout her extraordinarily caring life.

During the last year of her life, I had graduated college and decided that instead of pursuing my career I would go home and help. So, I was living with my parents during the end of my mother’s life. Because she had been unable to climb the stairs, they had given me the master bedroom which was on the second floor. They had converted the back den on the ground floor into their bedroom. Often, my mother would come to the foot of the stairs and call to me when she needed something. This was such a constant occurrence that I became very attuned to the sound of her voice, no matter where I was upstairs.

Shortly after my mother died, I could swear I heard her voice calling to me from the foot of the stairs. It was so instinctual that I was headed into my room from the hallway and instead turned around to face the stairs and reply to her. My mouth was open with the words coming out when I looked to the bottom of the stairs and realized that she was not there and she would never be there again. It was a moment of being caught between two realities that both seemed completely real. Of course, as I looked at the stairs the weight of her loss came flooding back, and it seemed very obvious that I had not heard her. I was playing out a scenario that happened so often that it became somewhat of an echo.

That particular scenario is very common. Many describe a time when, right after the loss, they experience an everyday interaction that now was not possible. However, this could also happen with significant family scenarios even a year later. Holidays are probably the most dominant on the list. It is very similar to losing a limb. Although this is a very drastic experience, often those who lose a limb forget from time to time. For instance, those who’ve lost a leg will step out on the missing limb forgetting entirely that it isn’t there. Some will have phantom sensations like an itch that they can’t scratch on the limb that is no longer there. The brain is telling them it IS there, but reality and their senses are confirming that it’s not. This can be so unsettling, especially in that brief moment of transition from the phantom echo to remembering the reality of the loss.

Loss is inevitable. It is the fragile nature of our existence that we have been given the miracle blessing of life, but that physical life will end at some point. When we are first able to comprehend complex thought we come face to face with this fact. We know it most of our life and loss happens every second of our life in some part of the world. Yet, when we come face to face with it in a personal way it is nearly always a heavy emotional impact. This is normal, but it feels far from it when it is happening to you. As we mentioned earlier, this can last up to and sometimes longer than a year. So, if loss has entered your life recently, here are some important things to keep at the front of your brain as you navigate the next year.

You’re not crazy.

This first year will bring many emotions, thoughts, and experiences that will make you feel absolutely crazy. It’s important that you understand that you’re not. Your brain is working exactly the way it’s intended to. When something matters in your life it becomes part of your story; part of what affects you. When that something is another person it only makes sense that their loss would cause upheaval. It’s the great paradox of love and connection. The thing that brings us such stability and peace also can bring great pain and disruption. For your brain to move on without a hiccup would be unhealthy. All the emotions and thoughts and confusion you were feeling are just the echo of things that matter moving from the here and now to the past. The person isn’t present, physically interacting as part of your story. You’re not crazy, you’re grieving.

This is not to say that counseling isn’t necessary. Counseling can be an incredible resource to help you navigate the transitions from life to loss.

Don’t avoid the events. Embrace them.

The coming year will be the biggest time of transition. Each time you’re in a location experiencing things externally the person will be missing from that physical existence. That missing element that was their life will definitely be felt. Many choose to avoid events so that they don’t have to remember what was or feel the impact of the loss. Although it may make sense on the surface, it actually will do great harm for you mentally. When you lose somebody to death, their physical life ends, but your life continues. Experiences continue to happen for you. When we try to stop new memories from forming because of losing what was, we’re trying to control something that can’t be controlled. We’re setting ourselves up for failure. It’ll be important for your transition for you to allow yourself to experience things in the coming year without the person in your life in order for your brain to accept to the new normal. The confusion and feeling of being crazy you’re feeling is your brain trying to live in two realties: one with the person and one without.

The following year will be a year to create new memories. The first year after the loss it’s okay to remember them and take stock in that particular holiday without them. It will probably be a holiday or event that includes pain and hurt, but it will be an important one to experience in order for joy and stability to return. You have to keep living and experiencing. It’s what you were created to do with the blessing of life.

You may think that the event will be ruined because of the loss. It won’t.

It will be different. It will be filled with a myriad of emotions, but it won’t necessarily be ruined. Change is inevitable. Change has to happen for us to be healthy. This is a good opportunity to go through a normal transition of change. To keep the event from being ruined, you have to be able to let it change organically. Holding on to what was will mean a greater chance of it never being as good because it won’t ever be the way it was. If you try to hold on to something exactly the way it was with significant missing pieces, you’re setting yourself up for failure. So, along with not avoiding the holidays and events, it will also be equally important for you to go into these things without pre-conceived negative emotions. Know that they’ll be different, but leave room for pleasure and happiness. Often people feel guilty the first year when they are happy or feel joy without the other person present. You can’t avoid remembering. The first year, many things will trigger you. Instead of assuming the worst, walk in with an open mind and allow yourself to feel positive emotions if they come.

If the loss is a death, do something intentional to keep the person’s memory alive.

It’s very easy to focus on the pain or the actual event of a loss whether that’s death or some other tragic event. When we care about somebody their life is far more important than their loss. Most of us would see this as a very obvious statement. However, it’s hard to keep this in mind in the first year. To be able to focus on their life rather than the loss it’ll be important to do something that honors their life. It might take the form of a new tradition you add to your Thanksgiving where you talk about things you were thankful for in your interaction with the one who is gone. Have a time of the holiday where you share stories about past years that involve the one who has died. Start a physical tradition like creating a special ornament that honors the loved one that will remain part of future holidays.

Helping new generations remember and cherish generations past is important. This happens almost exclusively in the brain through story. Story gives context and meaning to people and events that are not present. They are the glue that bridges time and space.

For example, I was sitting with my six-year-old on his bed about to go through the nighttime ritual before he went to sleep. He has this stuffed animal that I bought for him before he was born. It’s a long blue dog named Limbo that he uses as a pillow. That dog has been everything to him.

On this particular night he was getting socks out of the sock drawer and putting them on Limbo’s paws. He thought this was a brilliant idea, but didn’t really know why. I was able to remind him that Limbo originally came with socks. I also reminded him that his nursery had been designed around an original story I wrote for him about a magical land where all the animals wore socks on their feet because of the belief that the warmth of your heart was directly related to the warmth of your feet. In this magical land named Parkapita, socks grew on trees like fruit so they were always plentiful. In the story Limbo had lost his sock and needed my son, Truman to help him travel back to the land of Parkapita to find more. In the end they both discover that the warmth of your heart is more about the kind things you do for others (like trying to help them find their socks) and the connection you make while doing it rather than the external things (like socks).

This story was a labor of love that I worked on while he was still in his mother’s womb. His entire nursery was designed with sock trees and other life-sized cut outs of the land of Parkapita. We even bought socks for every stuffed animal in his room. Even though this was so important to me, Truman, as a six-year-old had no memory of it at all. It never occurred to me that as time progressed and we had more kids and we moved houses and life organically shifted that this very special thing would be lost in his mind. So, for what seemed like an hour we sat on his bed with my phone and looked at pictures of his nursery that turned into pictures of him as a baby that turned into videos of him playing that turned into special moments with family members like his late great grandfather whom he is named after. Story is very impactful. It keeps important things in our life present even when they are physically gone.

Loss is hard but inevitable. Hiding, avoiding, stuffing, feeling crazy only prolong the difficulty in the first year. Remember, everyone handles loss differently, but we can’t handle it if we don’t face it.

Read more on this topic:

Showing Up For People Who Are Hurting 

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The Christmas season is upon us! It’s the time of year that you can catch Elf on TV at least 20 times and it’s socially acceptable to quote it often (I quote it year around!). It’s also an opportunity for your church to be intentional about connecting with families in your community. As you consider all families that might come through your church’s doors this season, it’s understandable to sometimes feel ill-equipped to minister to families with children and students with special needs who may visit your church. This feeling can be amplified if your church doesn’t have a formal special needs ministry. However, there are small things you can do to create a more welcoming environment this Christmas season. For families on the special needs journey, small efforts can pave the way for relationships to be formed. Here are a few ideas to jumpstart the conversation over the coming weeks.

Lean on the Real Experts

Be intentional about reaching out to a family with a child or student with special needs in your congregation or community. The church is a place where we can encourage special needs families to dream again, so be willing to ask parents and caregivers—the real experts—to envision what Christmas at your church could look like for their family. We can assume what families need all day, but it’s always better to just ask. Allowing these families to have a voice in how you tailor those Christmas moments for families like theirs will constructively shape what you do during the holiday season.

Take Steps to Anticipate the Needs

Engage your church staff about how you might anticipate the needs of special needs families who visit this Christmas. A few ways might be to:

  • Walk through your building and identify any areas that could be problematic for special needs families visiting. Invite a parent or caregiver of a child or student with special needs to join you and to provide a fresh perspective.
  • Consider creating special parking spaces available for special needs families at crowded Christmas Eve services. Many families will not have a handicap parking placard, but would benefit from a closer parking spot to navigate the crowds.
  • Take time to create some “go” bags for families who might be attending your Christmas services. You can include things like noise reducing headphones, fidget toys, a visual schedule of your service order, and as well as some activities to do.

These ideas help families know that you see some of their needs and have anticipated their visit. Please know that even the best plans may not meet the needs of the families who show up. In that case, take some time to identify some creative and compassionate leaders who can be present for special needs families during your church’s Christmas Eve services. Encourage them to go the second mile for families and to think outside the box when an unexpected need may arise.

Include Special Needs Families in Your Traditions

As a ministry team, identify the important traditions and moments that happen during the Christmas season at your church. Figure out how to include individuals with special needs into those Christmas moments. If families serve as greeters during your services, invite a family with a child with special needs to be a part of welcoming people into your church. If your church lights an Advent wreath, encourage a family with a student with special needs to help be a part of that moment. When you invite families with children and students with special needs to participate in those traditions and moments, those special needs families who visit your church during the holidays are able to envision that they could also have a place in your church family as well.

Acknowledge the Effort

Be mindful that families with children or students with special needs may have had negative experiences at churches. Families may have felt excluded or judged. While those experiences are not your fault, it is our fight as leaders in our communities to clear a place at the table for children and students with special needs and their families. Stepping back into church after a disappointing experience is a huge leap of trust and faith. Acknowledge that leap if you get to have a conversation with the family before, during, or after the Christmas season. Saying something like, “Thanks for allowing us to come alongside your family this Christmas season. We don’t take that lightly,” will speak volumes to your willingness to recognize the effort it took to come to church.

Offer Opportunities to Recharge and Celebrate the Season

Special needs parents and caregivers are often operating far above their capacity and the Church is uniquely positioned to provide moments of love and grace that replenish the soul. Your church might consider providing a night of respite for a few hours. This will give those families with a break to finish up some shopping or to simply rest. Another tangible outreach is to provide free Christmas pictures for special needs families in the community. Many special needs families struggle to get pictures taken. Finding a patient photographer to shoot short, mini sessions with each family can be a huge blessing. Have the photos developed and give them as a gift from your church.

Share What You’re Doing

Families will be looking for places to worship during the holidays, but if they are unaware of the accommodations your church has made, they may miss a great opportunity to worship with you. Post on social media about some of the things your church is doing to be intentional to meet the needs of families with children and students with special needs this Christmas. Share this with community partners who are already serving in the special needs community and encourage them to help spread the word.

Critical Follow-Up

Don’t miss the opportunity to follow up with these families after the holidays. We will miss the mark if we decide to make accommodations during the Christmas season and then subtly dismiss those same needs during the rest of the year. Follow up and plan ahead for what your next step might be in ministering to children and students with special needs.

Take these ideas to your next staff or ministry meeting and start discussing what your church can do to welcome special needs families this Christmas!

Read more on this topic:

Making a Place in Your Ministry for Children With Special Needs

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Really! It is! Not only do we get to exchange gifts, watch classic movies, eat well, and maybe play in the snow. We get to host more visitors than usual at our churches. For various reasons, many people choose to visit our churches for Easter and Christmastime. What an amazing opportunity for us to connect with families from our communities, who don’t usually visit.

Now, it is time for us to get ready for them. How will we connect with them? What will we do to engage with them? How will we make them feel welcome? What will we do to inspire them to return? How will we create an unforgettable experience? Most of all, how can we do all of this without making them feel weird? We have a lot of control over the answers to these questions. Let’s see how to prepare.

The Christmas season is busy. Yeah. You are right. I lied. The Christmas season is chaotic. Traffic levels rise. Shopping centers are bursting at the bricks. It seems that kid’s energy levels spike. Bank accounts are rapidly depleting. Credit card balances are increasing. Tempers are shorter than usual, and even patience is impatient. It is chaotic for sure. One way to counteract that and connect with our visitors is to make their entry easy.

Let’s think about ways to make a pleasant parking experience (i.e. entering, parking, exiting). Even what visitors will experience when they enter the doors matters (i.e. friendly faces, clear directional signage, comfortable temperature). We should also prepare for their kids (i.e. easy check-in/out process, clear expectations, additional teachers).

Our visitors may come from all walks of life. They will have different careers, backgrounds, and cultures. They may believe what we do or not. One way to engage them all is to be genuine. Sincerity speaks volumes. As we engage our visitors in conversations, let’s be genuine as we ask questions and discover more about them.

We are encountering people that we know nothing about. Sure, some of them are just as thrilled as we are about Christmastime. But, to be honest, we know there are quite a bit of people that aren’t so celebratory during this season. For one reason or another, there are other times of the year that they may consider to be the most wonderful time.

Life can deal us some heartfelt hugs and some brutal blows. We may be up one moment and down the next. During the Christmas season, we will host visitors all over this spectrum. One way to make them feel welcome is to be sensitive to that. We never know what someone is going through. Being perceptive of that and observing body language, may help as we approach our visitors.

Our worship experience plays a critical role in inspiring our visitors to return. Some factors to consider are the duration, content, and easy next steps. No one wants to spend all day in an experience unless they expected it ahead of time. Determine what an ideal timeframe is for your community. We may also want to tailor our content so the majority of the visitors aren’t clueless. Finally, sharing easy next steps eliminates barriers that may have kept them from returning.

Remember, there is already a lot of noise during the Christmas season. As visitors join us and express interest in our churches, listening is powerful. There is something special about being heard. Really listening helps us to know more about others and helps us to minister more specifically to them. Maybe we can provide hope to our guests by simply being an ear. Let’s hope so!

Here’s to the most wonderful time of the year!

Read more on this topic:

5 Ways To Welcome Visitors This Christmas Without Making Them Rethink Their Visit

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It’s the most wonderful time of year! The holidays are a fantastic few months of pure joy and hope. It’s an opportunity for people to share thanks for the blessings God has done, rejoice in the love of God through Christ’s birth and hope for a new year and a fresh start.

As joyful and happy as these months are for a lot of people, it can also be a very challenging time of year for others. Just because someone is supposed to feel joy and hope over the holidays doesn’t always translate into real life. Life isn’t always a Hallmark Channel movie filled with wonderful endings. This can be a tough time for many. That is why what leaders do and say to kids and teenagers these months can be so important.

As a leader who is investing time and energy in the lives of kids and teenagers, you are uniquely positioned to be a shining light to students during this time of year. But what can you say to them that can make an impact and difference? Here are three things you can say.

God loves you.

All that we celebrate over these holiday months is because of God and the hope He gave us through Christ. Kids need to hear that we don’t just celebrate Christmas to get the latest and greatest “it” gift. They need to hear the real reason why we celebrate is because of God’s love for all of us. It gives a different perspective to kids that is necessary to gain full perspective of the holiday season.

You are awesome.

There is a reason why words of affirmation is noted as a love language. People feel encouraged when someone tells them they are doing good and that people care about them. Unfortunately, we don’t hear it enough. In fact, words of discouragement can be just as common as words of affirmation. That is why kids and teens need to hear that they are doing a good job and that they are awesome. They need to hear that God uniquely created them for a purpose and a reason.

I’m not going anywhere.

Kids and teens need consistency in their lives. After all, a lot of their lives are filled with inconsistencies. Relationships come and go, family is not always around and some parents are not involved in their lives much. That is why kids need to hear and feel that leaders are not just popping in and out of their lives. They need to know that leaders are there for them and will continue to be there. Consistency in the lives of kids and teens is so important and leaders can be that for them.

As great as the holiday season it, it can also be a very challenging time in the lives of students. As a leader you can communicate so much to students during this time of year. By sharing words of affirmation can be invaluable to them. These are just three things you can say (or variations of them) that can make an important and life-altering difference in the lives of kids and teenagers this holiday season.

Read more on this topic:

Ways to Appreciate and Encourage Volunteers This Season

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Holidays and high church attendance days seem to go hand-in-hand. People we’ve never met and people we haven’t seen in a while all seem to be present at once on Sundays connected to holidays. In addition to the Sundays, we have special events and services that are designed as easy on-ramps for people to join our communities of faith. Holidays give churches a great impetus to influence the faith of parents, kids, and students that we don’t get during the rest of the year. However, because of the hustle-and-bustle and unexpected numbers, this time of year can also be met with chaos, nervousness, and opportunity wasted if not managed well. Whatever reason people are coming, we cannot afford to waste it. These next few months will provide great chances to connect with new families, re-connect to families we haven’t seen in a while, and love on team members who might be feeling the pressure.

Logistical preparation shows people coming through your doors that you were thinking about and preparing for them before they arrived. It is essential to ensure logistical plans are updated, discussed, and talked through before the holidays get here. Does everyone on your team know the times of any special events or services? Have you scheduled your volunteers? Have you lined out the budget? Are you going to do small groups or all large group experiences? When logistics fall through the cracks, it is easier for chaos and anxiety to grow in their place. One of the best ways to make room to respond to unexpected things that will happen on high-attendance days is to take care of the expected things that you can anticipate.

When it comes to volunteer schedules, contact your team now and make sure that everyone who is scheduled to be present on the weekends that bookend holidays will indeed be there. Some of your families will be traveling. Don’t wait for them to contact you. Start filling those spaces now. Consider your activities. It’s much easier to alter a game or conversation than an elaborate craft activity. If your church generally sees a surge in first-time families, it might be best to reserve in-depth discussion about faith in your student environments. Think through the attendance patterns of your community and customize your curriculum and activities to fit those patterns.

With new families coming and older families re-engaging, make sure to not lose them with dull connection tools. Sharpen up those connection tools! How are your new families signing in? Do you have a basic and quick way to answer their questions? If you don’t, consider putting together a 4×6 cheat sheet that answers the five W’s of your family ministry set-up:

  1. Who do we serve?
  2. When do we serve them?
  3. Where do we serve them?
  4. Why do we serve them?
  5. What can their kids and students expect when they come to your environment?

Do you need to put some additional greeters in place to answer questions or help folks find their way around? Have you given out some additional, “We’re Glad You Were Here,” cards to your small group leaders? These are all questions and ways to make sure new families feel welcome, safe, and in the loop.

The increase in attendance is not only felt by the church staff but volunteers feel the pressure too. Motivate your team by loving them well on holiday Sundays. There’s never a bad time to extend a heartfelt “thank you.” If you are a curriculum user, the curriculum Facebook groups and Pinterest pages are great resources for creative and inexpensive ideas. For now, here are some of my favorites:

  • Potpourri mason jars filled with nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, dried oranges, cranberries, anything that gives off a holiday scent when boiled.
  • Holiday decorated bags of chocolates and candy canes.
  • Celebrate New Year’s with a bag of popcorn or popcorn balls with a personalized note.

Holidays are great days to be an example of the love of God to our families and teams. They provide natural opportunities that don’t have to be forced to love on people that we might not otherwise see or engage. Plan for God to send them. Love on them well when they arrive. And don’t forget to show special attention to the hands and feet that reach out to them when you, the leader, are being pulled in several different directions. Prepare to love them well.

Read more on this topic:

How to Maximize Conversations with Families During the Holiday Season

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Although Summer is my favorite season, I’ve always loved the events that happen this time of year. I love bundling up in a blanket on cold metal stands watching a football game. I love the smell that permeates the neighborhood that comes from roaring fireplaces. I love the hot beverages that usually accompany this time of year. Most of all, I love the holidays!

Holidays have always been a very special time of year for me. As a kid, they meant being able to play with the cousins that I hadn’t seen for most of the rest of the year. It meant all the special activities we would do in school. It meant the anticipation of presents that would be under the tree with my name on them. It was all good, all fun, all the time.

Once I got married, that changed a bit. All the fun and joy was still there, however it came with some added pressures. In a blink of an eye all the things that had solely been about my family now included someone else’s family. Many of those things were expressed in greatly different ways with wholly different expectations. On top of all of this came the added time pressures from work and parties and all the other things that made holiday joy possible. Once I had my own kids, this all intensified exponentially. It turns out that all the things I enjoyed as a kid didn’t “just” happen. As any married couple can tell you, this extra pressure in addition to all the extra things that go along with the holidays can sometimes erode the connection that’s being celebrated in the first place.

All the plans and the parties and the perfect family photos at the end of the day are about the family. To lose connection with the family in order to get the perfect pictures and plans and parties is ridiculous. No one wants this to happen, but all too often it happens nonetheless. In order to navigate this time more smoothly, to retain more of the happy and less of the hectic, here are some helpful tips.

Talk through your individual expectations and desires when it comes to financial spending and gift giving.

It doesn’t take long for a married couple to identify that they came into the marriage with different expectations. One of the biggest areas that can cause tension is individual spending habits. This is never more acute than during the holiday season. Things cost money. How much money we spend and what things we feel compelled to buy can be a major source of tension. This is intensified with the added emotional link with the holiday season. Gift giving can be more than just buying an object and giving it to another. It can have the added emotional weight of the meaning behind that gift and even symbolize the relationship itself. For this reason, it will be important for the two of you as a couple to sit down and talk through your personal feelings surrounding the holidays. Talk about what gift giving means to you. Talk about expectations of who to buy gifts for. Talk about the spending that comes from travel and attending parties, as well as other related things like Christmas decorations. Everyone values these things a little differently.

The first example I ever experienced this clash of differences during a Christmas was when my wife and I were dating. I spent a lot of time, energy, and money pulling together many seasons of her favorite TV show on DVD. She got me a pillow. To her, the meal we had together as well as the time we spent was much more important than what we bought for each other. On top of that, my wife is a practical gift giver, where I give gifts that have some thoughtful connection to the person or our relationship. Luckily, we navigated this successfully enough that we ended up getting married. However, this could have been a disastrous omen of misery to come.

Resources like the book, The Five Love Languages and talking through special memories of holidays past can give insight into how each of you approach the holidays in terms of giving and expenditure expectations.

Understand that your families of origin probably differ vastly in the way they conceptualize the holidays.

It will be very important for you to talk openly about the differences of your families. For most of us that will mean vastly different family dynamics and personalities. At the very least, there will be idiosyncrasies that you take for granted in your own family, but your spouse experiences very differently from them as in-laws. Make sure you talk through your family identity, expectations with the way the holidays unfold, and the differences that may become clear in contrast. Also, take some time talking through the things you might notice about your in-laws that may be difficult for you, but indifferent to your spouse. Be sure to approach the conversation with a nonjudgmental, open mind. This can be a very sensitive discussion. For this very reason, this discussion will be easy to avoid. Unfortunately, avoidance can often leave room for resentment, misunderstanding, and disconnect to take root.

Talk through your family/couple Identity.

This involves being aware of the values, constraints, idiosyncrasies, needs and expectations that go into you as a couple and family. During the holiday season, your family will butt up against other families, whether that be your in-laws and extended family or families/friends from work and church. Hopefully by now, you’ve already undergone tips #1 and #2. So as a couple, you understand better how to blend the expectations of the two of you. It’ll be important that you don’t lose sight of what’s good and meaningful for your family as you interact with others. When coming in contact with other systems, it’s easy to feel other’s expectations pushing in on you and your family. Many times, families who have difficulty setting these boundaries will choose to isolate rather than spend time with others. Although there’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend an intimate holiday with just your immediate family, that isn’t necessary to navigate the pressure of other’s expectations. It’ll be important for you to sit down with your spouse and talk through time, money and resource constraints. It’ll be important to set boundaries that celebrate your personal values and identity as a family before you fall into the trap of trying to keep up with the Joneses or unintentionally lose yourself in the expectations of others.

Create a concrete game plan for navigating the holidays.

This will help you keep first things first. As we’ve already discussed, every family leans into the holidays a little differently. Take the values, desires and personality of your particular family and make sure they are protected as you navigate the pressures that go along with this time. Things included in a game plan might include:

  • Set time limits for time with family both with the time you stay with them as well as the time you spend with family while you are there.
  • Have a way for you as a couple to stay connected when around other family members. This might be a code word to indicate disconnection or special time you set aside while staying with family to connect with just each other.
  • Set a budget for spending. This would include who to buy a present for and how much to spend on each. Sometimes it’s easier to create group categories like coworkers, family, and kids in order to have a general budget that can be spread out differently in that particular category. This still allows you to have a bottom line for each category.
  • Think through setting aside weekends and weekdays that you have available for parties and activities. This way you can be intentional with your schedule rather than feeling like you need to attend everything and feeling so overwhelmed you enjoy nothing.
  • Set aside a few evenings or days on the weekend for preparing for the holidays. This would include gift wrapping, shopping, baking, packing and/or doing all the things you might need to do for a party or event. Many times, we expect this time to magically appear out of nowhere. Most of the time “nowhere” ends up being time we would normally sleep.
  • Talk through and set boundaries around specific things you want to do or experience while with family or just during this busy time. When there are too many things to do and not enough time to do them, this will allow you to make sure first things come first. It’s much easier to say no to something if you know you’re saying yes to something that matters more to you.

Hopefully this provided some areas to help you navigate this very busy time and keep the connection with your spouse and family you value most. The most important aspect out of everything is to be intentional. When we experience an event or time of year that is emotionally charged, there is a danger of justifying bad or unhealthy behavior. This behavior often takes the form of over-spending, not taking into account others’ feelings, or losing ourselves in the event. Intentionality helps you use your resources like time, energy, and finances in a way that fits your identity and values as a family. When we experience something, whether horrible or the best thing we’ve ever done, it’s more meaningful when we’re connected.

Again, all the plans and the parties and the perfect family photos, at the end of the day, are about the family. Being aware of where each of you comes from, valuing your differences as you set your joint expectations, and planning how to use your resources will help you keep family and connection at the forefront during this holiday season.

Read more on this topic:

A Leader’s Top Priority This Busy Holiday Season

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“The King will answer and say to them, ‘I assure you and most solemnly say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it for Me.’” – Matthew 25:40 (AMP)

Oftentimes when we think of this verse, our thoughts are drawn to the homeless, the helpless, the sick or the poor. We think of third-world countries, people without food or clean drinking water, and children who are growing up without opportunity. During the last five years, our church expanded our definition of “the least of these” to include the special needs population. What started with one child has grown into a multi-department ministry seeking to welcome a marginalized people-group into the family of God with love, compassion, acceptance, awareness and education. Through the use of Orange’s 252 Kids and First Look, we’ve sought to instill God’s immeasurable love and acceptance into the hearts of both children with special needs and their families.

For many people, the thought of serving the special needs population can be very overwhelming. Four questions immediately come to mind:

Where do we start?
Who is going to do this?
How do we teach them?
And what happens if we fail?

We faced these very same questions when we decided to take the first step to create a special needs ministry within our elementary kid’s ministry. My prayer is that God uses this article to speak to your heart. To encourage you. To speak life into your ministry and to show you a small glimpse of how the heart of the Father has changed the very trajectory of ministry and service for us and hopefully for you.

Where Do We Start?

You start by having the conversation. You start by entertaining the thought that this population of people is highly marginalized within the church community. You start by recognizing that statistics show that 80 percent of families with someone with special needs do not attend church because they can’t. The resources aren’t there, and they are often turned away due to the lack of acceptance and support. You start by making the decision to make a space for them. Those words go a long way.

Who is Going to Do This?

In church world, we have this phrase: “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.” Our special needs ministry started with two people; two educators who have a heart for children and a heart for Jesus. From there we’ve built a team of special needs buddies to serve alongside us each week. These volunteers serve as one-to-one buddies who assist each child in navigating through their environment safely and in a way that allows them to access the curriculum to best suits their individual needs. What’s the common trait in each of these volunteers? A heart to see the world experience the powerful love of Jesus Christ. We believe that is all you need.

How Do We Teach Them?

As our vision for the ministry began to grow beyond providing special needs buddies, we wanted our children with special needs to be able to access the curriculum in a way that best suited their individual needs. At first this meant becoming more intentional with our processes. We created special needs intake forms to gather important information about each child before they even set foot into the ministry space. We began having parent meetings and discussing each child’s diagnosis and what that meant for both that individual and their family. We sat with parents and shared our heart to welcome them and to seek to pour out the love of Jesus on their child week in and week out. We allowed parents the opportunity to express their hurt, their pains and their struggles, and we sat with them in that. Empathy is a powerful thing. Sit with them. Be slow to speak. Hear their heart, allow God to move in their vulnerability with healing and grace, and see the beauty that unfolds.

From there, we sought to modify the curriculum. Each child with special needs presents different capabilities, processing levels, modes of communication and behavioral needs. We began creating visuals to pair with the 252 Kids curriculum. We created visual schedules that broke the programming down into small pieces to relieve anxiety and fear of unknown expectations. We created small communicative symbols for our non-vocal children so that they had the opportunity to express their wants and needs in a different way. We provided sensory fidgets to help ground our kids that needed to keep their hands busy during our Large Group setting. We then began utilizing Orange’s Pre-K Curriculum, First Look, for our kids who needed a more tactile and fine-motor approach to participate. We wanted to maintain the goal of creating an inclusive environment so we made it a point to talk to the various small groups about special needs and how much God loves each one of them the same as the other. When that happened, the very culture of our ministry changed. The acceptance and love that was poured out BETWEEN CHILDREN was unreal. It became apparent that the heart of a child is something we can all use a bit more of.

What If We Fail?

You won’t. You can’t. If you walk this journey seeking to reflect God’s heart, wanting to serve these beautiful children and welcome these families into the family of God, you won’t fail. I believe that God will honor your pursuit. I believe that just by saying yes to one child, you’ve changed the very nature and course of not only the life of that child, but of their family. Partner with families. Take feedback. Be willing to take small steps and not feel the pressure to jump in all at once. Seek out advice. Partner with other churches. Share resources. John 17:20-23 says that Jesus prayed for His people to be united together as one so that the world would recognize and be convinced that the Father sent Him for they will see His love. “Churches should be places where everyone feels welcome, regardless of disability.” (Brotherhood Mutual)

“Then the godly will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty and give you food and something to drink? When did we see you with no place to stay and invite you in? When did we see you poorly clothed and cover you? When did we see you sick and tenderly care for you, or in prison and visit you?’ “And the King will answer them, ‘Don’t you know? When you cared for one of the least important of these my little ones, my true brothers and sisters, you demonstrated love for me.’” – Matthew 25:37-40 (TPT)

Read more on this topic:

Welcoming Children With Special Needs On Any Sunday

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