EDITOR'S NOTE: Below this story, pastor and father of special needs kids Robert Lutz shares advice on how to help make church a better experience.
SARALAND, Ala. (BP) -- Robert Lutz is quick to say that the road his family has walked is one of miracles -- and not the kind you would expect.
For starters, it was a miracle that he and his wife Belinda were able to adopt their first two children back in 2005, he said.
"God had been working in our hearts toward adopting, specifically from Russia," said Lutz, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, Saraland, Ala. But as they walked through the process, they hit some snags.
They learned that the wait time was getting longer and longer, a fact that wasn't just inconvenient -- it could shut things down. The accreditation of their adoption would expire soon -- June 1 of that year -- and if they didn't finalize the adoption before then, it might be difficult to get approved again.
They also learned that if they found out they were expecting a biological baby during the adoption process, all the paperwork would be annulled.
But then miracles happened, Lutz said.
The process, which usually took months, took 12 days for them. The court granted the adoptions one day before the deadline.
"We tell them all the time, 'God really wanted you in our home,'" Lutz said.
And when they got back home to Alabama with Braden and Denae, they found out Belinda was pregnant.
"We got three children within a seven-month window," Lutz said.
It seemed like a whirlwind.
But it wasn't long until things got challenging in a different way -- they found out that two of the three children had special needs.
Their oldest son, Braden, now 15, has a rare genetic abnormality that only four people in the U.S. have. Their oldest biological son, Andrew, now 12, was born with another rare genetic disorder.
And a few years later, they had a fourth child -- a little girl named Casey who would have the most severe special needs of all of their children.
"When she was born, she had a really unique cry -- it sounded like a cat," Lutz said. "That's the telltale sign of 5P- or Cri du Chat Syndrome (Cat Cry Syndrome)."
She had the same rare condition as Andrew, but at 8 years old, she is unable to walk or talk. Andrew's issues are mostly tactile and sensory.
When he took the pastorate at Shiloh Baptist a decade ago, they already had two children with special needs, but in the couple of years that followed, they added Casey and learned more about Braden's rare disorder.
Called by God
"I remember getting in the pulpit and telling our church that God had called me to be their pastor but He had also called us to walk this journey as a special needs family," Lutz said. "And I told them that as our church, they would be on this journey too."
The church's response, he said, has been "super gracious" for the long haul. Through trial and error, they've gotten to know how to best minister to special needs children.
One of those ways has been through a system where they pair a "buddy" with each child. For children with less severe needs, that can be a friend their own age who can include and watch out for them. For children with more severe needs, a buddy could be a student or an adult trained to help them.
The ministry has been great for the Lutz family, but it hasn't stopped there.
Because of the way the Lutz children pioneered the church's ministry to special needs children, other families with special needs found a warm welcome at Shiloh Baptist.
Thomas Wright, executive director of missions for Mobile Association, said the church's response has been a catalyst for great things in the community.
"The Shiloh church family was aware calling a pastor with special needs children would require new awareness and ministry," Wright said. "Each person needs to hear and understand the Gospel in order to respond, no matter the severity of the physical and mental challenges. Making adjustments in facilities and presentation have allowed for many creative events and activities that meet tremendous physical and spiritual needs."
One of those events is a twice-a-year festival for special needs children and their families.
Around 60 special needs children -- along with several hundred family members and volunteers -- gather each time for the event.
Shiloh provides a controlled environment where the children can enjoy games, horseback rides, hayrides, inflatables, even zip lines. Just like at church, special needs children are paired with buddies. A nurse is on hand for any health emergencies that might arise.
A good experience
And then Lutz gathers all the parents together for a meal. While they eat, he talks to them for a few minutes about ways they can help a church experience be better for them and their children.
"But the biggest thing is just for them to be around the table with other parents of special needs children," he said.
A powerful ministry has been birthed out of the family's hardship, Wright said.
"The Lutz family provides a great testimony of converting physical challenge into compassionate ministry with eternal consequences," he said. "Special needs children and adults can be overlooked due to the required time, patience and emotional investment."
The demands can be overwhelming, Wright said. "Robert and Belinda understand how to bring needed support and biblical ministry to parents, siblings and special needs children."
See tips below for churches and parents of special needs children.
Advice from special needs parent on improving church experience
SARALAND, Ala. (BP) -- Robert Lutz said that one of the things he has learned through his family's journey with three special needs children is that many families in his shoes don't know the best way to approach a church about their special needs child.
"One of the things I tell them is to call a church ahead of time to find out if they can provide what their child needs in order to be there," said Lutz, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, Saraland. "If I were to call a church and explain our situation and they don't have the resources in place to handle it, I'd rather know now than after I get there and have a bad experience."
It's not a bad mark on the church if it doesn't have the resources in place, he noted, it's just important that they and the family communicate well.
There to help
For example, in another church where Lutz served, a family attended with a little boy who had autism.
"He was an escape artist and would sometimes manage to get out of his classroom and would come into the church and yell," he said.
The church was used to it, and the family of the child knew that everyone there was their church family and was there to help and support them through it all, Lutz said. "It's important to know if a church is OK with your needs before you go."
Another question to ask is if a church has a special needs class or someone who can be a buddy for the child.
"Most churches, if they have a special needs ministry, opt to do a buddy system where someone is paired with the child and attends their class with them," Lutz said.
Another way to lay the groundwork for a good experience is to be willing to give the church information about your child, he said. "People are sometimes scared of what they don't know.
"Find out what they've done for other special needs families," he said. "All this can make it easier when you're visiting a new church."