Faith communities often have resources such as respite facilities volunteers and expertise in education and healthcare.
Historically, faith communities in the United States have been vital in shaping and supporting the larger community of which they are a part. In the early years of our nation, faith communities often provided the only existing social services, such as education and healthcare. They also provided significant input into the social concerns of the day, with the meeting house often doubling as a place for political assembly.
Over time, however, this social involvement slowly diminished. As government increasingly met society's social and economic needs, faith communities began to limit their focus to society's spiritual needs.
Today that focus is changing again, as a growing number of faith communities seek to serve not only the spiritual needs of their congregations but also the many different social needs in the larger community to which they belong.
Congregations wanting to improve their communities, however, may not know how to meet this goal. At the same time, programs that provide direct services may be reluctant to tie into the vast network of resources within a faith community for fear of offending nonmembers. This is a real concern but one that can be addressed with good communication. Respite programs, especially those in rural settings, often find themselves with limited resources. Faith communities, on the other hand, have resources such as facilities, volunteers and, in some cases, expertise that should no longer be ignored.
As a parent in need of respite, a pastor, and a respite coordinator, the author has found that with clear dialog respite programs and faith communities can come together, and that in doing so they can meet the needs of families better than if they had remained apart.
Creative Faith-based Models
The respite examples described in this fact sheet can be provided either voluntarily or for pay through any faith-based community, regardless of whether it is centered around a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other religious structure. The best faith-based supports are developed through collaboration between families in need of respite and the congregation, or members of the faith-based community. Together they determine what respite supports are needed and how the congregation can respond, given its vision and resources. The following list does not include all possible options but reflects successful efforts that presently exist, ranging from the least to the most involved by the faith community.
Some faith communities may not be willing or have the resources to initiate a respite program, but they may want to help fund an existing program. For example, a faith community may be willing to pay for a "provider," someone who provides respite service to families, if the need among families who are members of their congregation or community is clearly presented. The question to consider is, "Does the congregation have a benevolence or home mission fund that could support programs serving individuals, families and/or their local community"
Although a faith community may not be ready to start a respite program, it may be willing to allow others to use their facility as a place to provide respite. Many faith communities have outstanding childcare facilities that are used only once or twice a week. The same may be true of the community's space for adults and seniors. If the congregation can be shown that there is a need, then it is often willing to open its facility for others to use.
Support Group Respite
Some faith communities sponsor parent or caregiver support group meetings in their facilities. During the meetings a youth or adult group from the congregation provides childcare or eldercare in the same facility. This gives the respite providers the opportunity to develop a rapport and become comfortable with those they are caring for while their families are in a nearby room. It also gives the families and those with special needs time to become comfortable with the new care providers, so that after a while the support group could meet at another site, such as a restaurant.
In respite voucher programs, the congregation provides no direct services but helps pay the family or caregiver's cost of hiring the provider of their choice. Actual payment may be made to the family or directly to the respite provider. One church set up a benevolence fund to which anyone could contribute and any family needing respite could apply for grants of $50 or more.
The title of this program is self-explanatory. Parents or guardians with typically developing children who are members of a congregation within a congregation agree to care for the children of families needing respite. The arrangement is scheduled and carefully monitored so as not to overwhelm either family, and the family providing respite is reimbursed for incidentals such as mileage.
In a cooperative, two or more families needing respite trade off care for each other's child or children. In a site-based cooperative, parents of children with special needs work alongside congregational volunteers to provide quality care for their children (most include siblings). In one cooperative of eight families, for example, two parents provided care so the other six families could get a break. They were helped by a coordinator and additional volunteers, or shadows, recruited from the faith community. In this way both the parent and the volunteer respite providers learn about the children from the experts, their parents. Faith communities wanting to begin a respite cooperative may easily recruit interested families through local parent-to-parent groups, support groups, school districts, and disability groups, or through their own community contacts.
Congregations often have a myriad of existing programs: mother's morning out, child development center programs, vacation Bible school, church school or youth programs. Inclusion, or opening these programs to children with special needs, gives families another option for respite on a regular or as needed basis. The staff and volunteers of these programs may be willing to be inclusive but may not feel adequately trained. Offering workshops and training about disabilities, inclusion strategies, and respite can do much to develop a few well-equipped staff or volunteers and open up existing programs. As these programs become more inclusive, other community settings may follow, enabling families to tap into numerous options.
Trained Respite Providers
A faith community may decide to create a registry of providers by training members of the congregation to provide direct respite service, either for pay or as volunteers, to individuals or in group settings, for children or for adults.
Collaborative Respite, Faith & Community Programs
Some faith communities have acted as catalysts to bring families, community programs, state agencies and other congregations together to provide respite for families of children and adults with special needs. One collaborative network brought together a congregation, a community recreational program, and a university in order to create a respite program.
Why the Faith Community
Typically, those who participate in the activities of a faith community do so to better themselves and their community, and they have long-standing relationships with others who are like-minded. Active members of a faith community usually form a strong foundation that has stood the test of time and is community-based; their contacts and sphere of influence go far beyond the facility within which they meet. Tapping into these resources can be a great benefit in expanding a respite program.
While many people may feel sympathy for individuals who are less fortunate than they are, compassion implies much more than sympathy. It is sympathy combined with action, or as some have said, "come-passion," to come alongside with a passion. Often, members of faith communities have a desire to improve themselves, and for many that is done by helping others. A volunteer who truly wants to help is quite different from an employee just doing a job. People inspired to serve without personal gain are a very strong resource. For those in the faith community, it is their heart, not a paycheck, that often motivates them.
Most faith community programs or ministries are volunteer-based and volunteer-led, and, in many cases, these volunteers have a long history of working together on various other activities. This can help maintain a community-based focus. Young people have proven to be open and enthusiastic volunteers in respite programs, while mission groups or members with health or human service backgrounds are a tremendous resource as well.
Once volunteers are trained and providing respite, they often build lasting relationships with the families and individuals in their care. It is not uncommon for a volunteer to offer respite outside the scheduled respite program. Because families often develop close relationships with these volunteers, they may feel more comfortable using volunteer providers in other settings, especially in emergencies.
Although faith communities are focused around philosophical or theological beliefs, most are strongly rooted within their social community and therefore are a wealth of information and resources.
Family-driven respite programs or support groups can be and are strongly effective, but such programs can be endangered if there is a family crisis. For example, if a parent of a child with special needs develops and runs a program, one crisis within the family could force the parent to give up leadership of the program, which could cause the program to fold. Partnering with a faith community willing to help carry the administrative responsibilities can give a family-run respite program or support group the stability to survive even the roughest times.
For small respite programs the daunting task of becoming incorporated and applying for federal non-profit status can be overwhelming. However, many faith communities are willing to use their non-profit status to give individual donors or corporate sponsors a tax-deductible receipt. In these situations, donations must be "at the discretion of the faith community" to use as the "ministry of that faith community."
Benefits of a Respite Ministry to the Faith Community
The benefits to a faith community of providing respite are numerous, not only for the family and the respite provider, but for the congregation as a whole. These include
increased family participation in congregation activities
increased awareness by members of the needs of families and children
increased sense of belonging for families and children
increased awareness by members of the barriers to participation in the congregation and how to remove those barriers
new skills for caregivers and volunteers
a positive image in the community
Respite programs have often been the catalysts for opening faith communities to true inclusion. Once staff and volunteers are trained, any fears they may have had about inclusion or serving those with special needs are usually eliminated.
When fear is replaced with compassion and love for an individual or a family, many faith communities have made programming shifts and used their trained respite volunteers and staff to shadow children with special needs in typical church school classes and activities. This helps break down fears in the other students and teachers, so that friendships often develop naturally between the young people providing respite and those receiving care.
For many faith communities, serving their older members already is a major focus, and developing programs to help families who are caring for an elderly family member with special needs may be part of their strategic plan. Although they may not identify it as such, this is a "respite ministry."
Enlisting the Faith Community
Faith communities are typically relationship-based, so when a respite program initiates contact it is helpful if the program already has a relationship with someone in the faith community. This could be a family in the faith community who needs respite or a member interested in or already involved in providing respite. Either is a great place to start.
Congregants are also helpful because they can explain the typical working structure of the faith community, and a clear understanding of this structure and how decisions are made is advantageous. Knowing the faith community's calendar and its program start-up time is also strategically important. For example, youth groups often initiate new efforts at the beginning of a school year or start mission projects over spring or summer breaks. In addition, understanding the current focus of the faith community's ministry enables a program to correlate its own cause with the faith community's vision. For example, if one focus of its ministry is mentoring youth, a respite program may want to tailor its approach to training and overseeing young people in providing respite.
The decision-making process is different within each faith community. Some are "top-down," in other words, permission from the priest, bishop or imam is needed before the congregation gets involved. Some are "bottom-up," so that decisions start with members of the congregation and work up through committees of the faith community.
In either case a clear proposal is helpful. This should include
the mission statement of what the respite program proposes to do
the resources the respite program is requesting, such as financial help, staffing, volunteer providers, and/or space within a facility
the extent to which the program needs these resources (for example, the first and third Saturday of each month from 1-4 p.m.)
a clear statement of preliminary policies and procedures if a site or staffing is being requested (see ARCH Fact-sheet 17, Risk Management)
the resources the respite program has to offer
After an initial personal contact, a written proposal is the first formal step in the process of soliciting help from the faith community. This process may take some time depending on the structure of the faith community. Often a proposal will have to pass through several committees before a decision can be rendered. Keep yourself available to meet with these committees if questions arise.
The faith community has a wealth of resources, and its congregation can significantly impact the larger, social community by developing a respite program. With clear dialog, respite programs and faith communities can effectively work together to meet the respite needs of their families-better than if they remained apart.
Montgomery, B. Risk Management, Fact Sheet 17. ARCH National Respite Network & Resource Center, 1992.
For more information about how to talk to your local faith community or for a Respite Cooperative Start-up Manual, contact W.C. Hoecke, Special Connection of Family Connection of South Carolina, 2712 Middleburg Drive, Suite 103-B, Columbia, SC 29204, (800) 578-8750;
For information about Project Helping Hand or starting respite activities in your congregation, contact Kathy Mayfield-Smith, Center for Disability Resources (SC UAP), Department of Pediatrics, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Columbia, SC 29208, (803) 935-5234.
For more information about accessible congregations, contact National Organization on Disability (NOD), 910 16th St. NW, Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20006, (202) 293-5960;
Possible funding source for Interfaith Volunteer Caregiving program model ($35,000 start-up grants): Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Faith in Action Program, US Route 1 and College Road East, P.O. Box 2316, Princeton, NJ 08543-2316, (877) 324-8411;
National Council of Catholic Women
1275 K Street N.W., Suite 975, Washington, DC 20005, 1-800-506-9407
Reference: Wilfried C. Hoecke (pronounced "heck-uh"), M.Ed., is spouse of Catherine and father of three children, ages one to six, one with special needs. He coordinates Special Connection, a project of Family Connection of South Carolina, and works to find respite solutions for South Carolina families. W.C. is pastor of Horizon Christian Fellowship in Columbia and works to create family cooperatives within faith communities in South Carolina. He also coordinates Up on Downs, a Midlands parent support group.
Kathy Mayfield-Smith, M.A., M.B.A., is a research assistant professor at the University of South Carolina Center for Disability Resources, chair of the South Carolina Respite Coalition, and project director of Project Helping Hand, a respite initiative working with faith communities. Kathy is the parent of three children, two with special needs.