When God Speaks: My Journey With Additional Needs Ministry

I’ve been on a bit of a journey over the last couple of years, a ministry journey that I am still on and that continues to amaze and excite me every single day…  It’s a journey of God’s calling and leading, of friends encouraging, of family understanding…  It’s a journey with some key moments, some of them very raw and personal, but a journey that a recent Facebook conversation with a friend has inspired me to share as an encouragement to others.  So, deep breath, here goes!

I’m married to Clare and we have two children; Phoebe, now 18 and who is heading off to University in September, and James, aged 16 with whom we’ve walked a very different path due to him being Autistic and having Learning Disabilities and Epilepsy, as well as a yet undiagnosed anxiety condition.  Our experiences with James in particular provide a significant context to this journey.

For most of my career I have worked in IT and Telecoms, including running international technology training teams.  Alongside that I’ve been involved in church children’s and youth work as a volunteer for virtually all of my adult life.  Those two streams came together when, almost twelve years ago, I felt called to leave the corporate world and join Urban Saints, a Christian children’s and youth charity, initially heading up a team that looked after all of our volunteers, resources, and training.

After a few years I changed role, heading up the operations team, all the really exciting things that a national children’s and youth organisation gets to do including finance, IT, HR, buildings etc!  But more significantly, around that time some six years ago, I was invited to deliver a short talk about ‘special needs’ to a collective of youth workers. They wanted to better understand how to engage with young people with ‘special needs’, and knowing that I had an Autistic son, they asked me along.

The evening was a big success, with great interest and engagement from those attending, all of whom left inspired to make a difference and were equipped to do so.  This response caused me to consider whether similar training may be of value to children’s and youth workers elsewhere across the country; I felt a real sense of calling to explore this some more.

I investigated what training might already be available, to discover that there was some great work happening, but not as much as I expected.  I did find some wonderful friends who were, and still are, providing some training and support either across a geographic area, or via a church denomination or through their organisation, and they encouraged me to get more involved in this area as well.  ‘All Inclusive?’ (www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive) , a training programme for children’s and youth workers, was launched and this has to-date reached over 8,000 people through dedicated training sessions and conference speaking.

My good friend Kay Morgan-Gurr and I, following a series of conference talks on this topic that encouraged some of the participants to keep in touch after the conference, co-founded the Additional Needs Alliance (www.additionalneedsalliance.org.uk), a member based collective of children’s and youth workers, parents, practitioners, anyone who is passionate about supporting children and young people with additional needs or disabilities.  There’s a Facebook group with over 1,600 members connecting with each other for support, resourcing and inspiration (search in Facebook for Additional Needs Alliance to join in!)

This part-time role, while still heading up the operations team at Urban Saints, was growing and growing, to the point where in effect I was trying to do two full-time jobs at the same time…  It’s easy for that kind of situation to creep up on you when you’re in ministry doing something you love, and I hadn’t really noticed the impact that this was having in a number of areas of my life, including my health.  Fortunately, a couple of years ago, another good friend had noticed, and booked me a Bupa private health check-up!

I went along feeling slightly irritated and thinking that it was a complete waste of time, but as it had been very kindly paid for I felt obliged to go ahead with it!  I’m so glad I did, because the results weren’t very good at all… they considered immediately admitting me to the hospital due to, among other things, ragingly high blood pressure!  It seemed that trying to do two full-time jobs wasn’t so smart after all!

A few days later, God turned up in the middle of the night…  not something that happens to me very often but this was very clear.  I was suddenly wide awake at about 3:30 in the morning (why does God often pick the early hours of the morning… is he working on Israel time?!)  My mind was full of images, or words, of Bible passages.

Words about jubilee, from Deuteronomy 15, about being set free and how I needed to be set free from my operations role to focus on additional needs ministry.  About how 2017 was a significant year for this.  And then I saw an image very clearly in my mind, a picture very similar to the one at the top of this blog post, a picture of a road with a fork just ahead.

By now I had rallied my senses (or so I thought) and I remember saying to God “Ah, I see what this is, you’re telling me that I have to make a choice soon between my operations role and my additional needs ministry role aren’t you?!”  I remember feeling quite smug, thinking I’d guessed God’s punchline…  I’d guessed wrong!  God’s reply absolutely nailed me…  “Mark, you reached this point some time ago. Since then you’ve been trying to run on both roads, running between them to try and keep up.  The fork is getting wider, that’s why your health is in a mess. Oh, and by the way, it’s the additional needs ministry road that you should be focussing on…”

Afterwards, I had the most profound feeling of peace and joy.  An amazing and extraordinary experience and sense of God’s presence!  I wrote down everything that had happened, that had been said…  I laid in bed with it all going over and over in my mind, I couldn’t sleep!  It took me 24-hours before I could talk to Clare about it, and she agreed that this couldn’t be ignored, I had to talk to Urban Saints about it.

I spoke with my colleagues at Urban Saints, and they encouraged me greatly too.  At a leadership meeting where I shared about this, there were wonderful words of confirmation.  They reminded me not to settle for second best, that while there were others who could do what I did in the operations department, there were fewer that could do what was building in the additional needs ministry work.  That what I am passionate about, what comes easily, what doesn’t feel like “work” is God’s calling and gifting, and that his favour and fruit are all over this.  They encouraged me to be bold, to take a big first step of faith, trusting in God. That the Israelite priests crossing the Jordan had to take their first step into water before the river stopped flowing… they needed to show their faith that God would act, and he did.

Those words from Deuteronomy 15 kept coming back and were words that were for Urban Saints as much as they were for me; “If any of your people… sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty handed… Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you.” v12-14  and “Do not consider it a hardship to set your servants free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much… and the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.” v18  It had been approximately six years that I had been heading the operations team at Urban Saints.

It took almost a year to completely be able to put down my operations department responsibilities as finding a replacement took its time, but I’ve been full-time focused on additional needs ministry for a year now and haven’t looked back for a second.  God is continuing to bless the work and shower it with his favour, opening doors to new opportunities and connections.  New friends have joined the journey alongside me as we have seen more organisations focusing on how to include and create belonging for children and young people with additional needs.

I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to write, including my own blog site www.theadditionalneedsblogfather.com as well as blog and vlog posts and articles for others, which has been a totally unexpected joy!

The journey continues…  during this quieter month there is an opportunity to take stock, to reflect on all that has happened, to give thanks to God, as well as to encourage others to follow the calling that God might have given to them… Maybe as you read this you are grappling with a sense of God’s leading into something new and you don’t know what to do about it…  I get that, the uncertainty and stepping out in faith is scary…  I remember when I had to tell the Urban Saints Board of Trustees what God had said to me; it was daunting but I felt God’s presence with me.  When the Chair of Trustees asked me, “Mark, if we say no to this (me giving up my operations role and going full-time in additional needs ministry) what will you do?”  Without a pause I was able to say “I’ll do this anyway… God will find a way.”  And I totally believed that, and believe it still.

So, if you think God is calling you to do something different, calling you out of your comfort zone to something new, asking you to take that first step into the river, in faith that God will stop the water flowing, then don’t miss the opportunity.  I love doing what I do now, it is so good to be in the place God wants me to be, using the experiences he has given me with James, in youth work, in a career of training, to make a difference for him and those he’s called me to serve.  If you follow God’s calling on your life, you’ll love it too, even the harder bits, and you’ll be aligned with what God is doing, which is always the best place to be!

Go on, get your feet wet!

Blessings,

Mark

Mark Arnold
9th August 2018

Bible passage used in this blog post:  Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Image rights: © unknown

To find out more about my work in the additional needs ministry at Urban Saints, visit www.urbansaints.org/additionalneeds

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