Autism Ministry is Personal Journey for Ohio Pastor, Family

Autism Ministry is Personal Journey for Ohio Pastor, Family

By Trennis Henderson, writer, The Baptist Paper

When Wayne Yeager talks about autism ministry, it’s personal.

Yeager, lead pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Liberty Township, Ohio, has served the Cincinnati-area congregation since 2019. A few years earlier, his 9-year-old son, Anakin, was officially diagnosed at age 2 as being on the autism spectrum.

As Yeager and his wife, Sara, struggled with what the diagnosis would mean for Anakin and their family, “it took us six months before we told anyone in our family that he was diagnosed with autism,” he acknowledged. “We didn’t know how the rest of our family was going to deal with that.” 

On the ministry front, “it took us another six months — so a full year after the diagnosis — before we revealed it to our church,” Yeager added, “because let’s be honest, most churches are looking for that husband and wife and the two nice kids that are going to be at everything and here we are telling them, ‘You know, there’s gonna be some differences here.’”

Yeager said he was grateful that their church at the time was accepting and supportive amid the issues their family was facing. The greater challenge came when he sensed God’s leadership to serve elsewhere.

“As we moved and God called us to another church, we had to begin talking about the process of looking for a church and being very upfront and honest with churches: ‘Hey, we’re not a typical family. We have a son with autism,’” Yeager shared.

“And I’ve gotta tell you, there were some interviews that when I answered that question or brought that up, that was kind of the end. … They wanted more of a typical pastor.”

Bethany Baptist ‘didn’t blink’

When Bethany Baptist explored calling Yeager as pastor, the congregation “didn’t blink about that,” he affirmed. “They brought us on.

“One thing that my associate pastor often says is that Bethany Baptist agreed to do autism ministry the day that they brought me on as their pastor because they knew what they were getting,” he added. “They see Anakin as part of our church.”

Yeager said he often shares with other pastors and churches that an average of one of 36 kids in the United States is on the autism spectrum. 

“The average church size in America is now 55 people, and seven out of 10 churches are less than 100 people,” he elaborated. “That means if you take those stats and put them together, every church ought to have one, two or three people in their church who are on the autism spectrum. The fact that you don’t see them is because 93% of autistic families are unchurched. It’s because they don’t feel welcome at their churches.

“That’s one reason I’m always a big advocate for our church and other churches that we’ve got to have more opportunities to reach families that have a child on the autism spectrum,” he emphasized. “Eighty-five percent of families with special needs end up in divorce. That’s a sad stat. 

“The church can do something about that,” Yeager said. “But we’ve got to be open and honest and have an honest discussion that we’re not really set up or equipped to handle special needs kids, and we ought to be. I’m very thankful that our church has chosen to be able to do that.”

Autistic people need Jesus

Mark Snowden, director of missional leadership for Cincinnati Area Baptist Association, affirmed the Yeagers and Bethany Church’s efforts to serve Anakin and others with special needs.

He acknowledged, however, that such ministries often are the exception among churches and associations.

Make disciples of all people

Noting that a primary ministry goal at both the associational and local church levels is to “make disciples of all people,” Snowden said, “Well, autistic people are people that need Jesus just as much as anybody else.”

Autistic people are people that need Jesus just as much as anybody else

With many churches “not attracting or involving people that have autism,” Snowden encouraged churches to be willing to learn and experiment with launching special needs ministries. He said such efforts could help congregations discover that “more families with special needs kids would want to be involved in those churches.”

While serving at Bethany since 2019, Yeager has led the congregation to provide a buddy ministry for Anakin, recruiting adult volunteers to spend time with him one-on-one as needed. The church also has equipped a small sensory room with a mini trampoline, tent, Legos and other activities for Anakin and others who may benefit from those resources. 

Thanks to such initiatives and openness to families dealing with special needs issues, the church recently welcomed a second family with a son who also has autism.

The Yeagers currently are in the process of having Anakin reevaluated since he was initially diagnosed at such a young age. While Anakin has limited verbal skills, Yeager said, “He can request what he wants and he finds ways to communicate.”

Noting that “there’s no universal set of symptoms,” Yeager added, “If you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve seen one kid with autism.

“But I do say for our world, autism is unforgiving,” he pointed out. “Routines are huge for him. Getting out of routine can be difficult. Doing something that is outside the norm is difficult.”

Yeager said Anakin’s older sister, Elizabeth, “had to grow up pretty fast” as she learned to “be a little more responsible and help us take care of Anakin more.”

As a family, “it’s having a lot of extra margin in what we do, having contingency plans,” he explained. “One of the things we’ve really learned is just to be flexible.”

Blessings amid challenges

Citing the blessings he sees amid the challenges, Yeager said, “I see so much empathy in him. Sometimes I think he has more empathy than a typical person because he just wants to reach out and give hugs and love on people.”

Along with such resources as a buddy system and a sensory room, Yeager said flexibility is a key ingredient for churches interested in pursuing ministry to families dealing with autism and other special needs. Noting that parents of kids on the autism spectrum seldom get any breaks, he encouraged churches to consider providing respite or babysitting opportunities.

On a personal level, Yeager reflected, “The most important thing that Anakin needs to know is not how to read and write and spell. The most important thing Anakin needs to know is how to have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Emphasizing that “he’s not stupid, he’s not intellectually handicapped in any way,” Anakin’s dad and pastor concluded, “He is very smart. I believe he can understand that he’s a sinner and needing the grace of Jesus. And so, my goal, and I hope our church’s goal, is to find a way for him to understand the truth of Jesus and accept Him as his Lord and Savior.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Baptist Paper.