Broken behavior: Going to church with a challenging child

Taking her son with special needs to Sunday services taught Heather Moffitt how to be broken in church.

I am the daughter of a pastor. Among many other things, this means that I know how to behave myself in church. A deacon from one of my father’s early pastorates might add that I didn’t always know how to act right in church -- and tell the story of when he snatched me from crawling under the pews during a service and sternly warned me to sit still. From experience, I discovered (as did the rest of the congregation) that dispensing an entire bottle of air freshener did not in fact make the church smell like a field of lavender. Apart from these missteps, however, I took great pride in the compliments people gave my mother about my stellar behavior.

When I became a mother, I didn’t expect my children automatically to exhibit angelic behavior in church. But I did expect them to learn how to comport themselves. I wanted them to worship with the people of God and learn the Bible stories that had shaped me. They would discover which deacons kept peppermints and butterscotch candies for the children. They would learn that they were a valuable part of the congregation.

Reality doesn’t always conform to expectation. We joined a new church when my son was 14 months old. Just weeks later, he began to exhibit debilitating behavioral challenges. His outbursts were often violent and usually unpredictable, making it difficult to take him anywhere, much less church. I spent most of the time in our new members Sunday school class pacing the halls with him.

In the years that followed, he was diagnosed with an alphabet soup of conditions: ADHD, ODD, ASD and more. (The question of diagnosis is a worthy topic for another time.) I dreaded Sunday mornings. We’d pull into the parking lot of the church and I would be in a state of prayer -- praying we could get through an entire service before we would have to leave, praying he wouldn’t have an epic tantrum in the pews, praying he wouldn’t attack other children, and praying that people would be nice to us. Some weeks we made it through church OK; many weeks either my husband or I would spend most of the service trying to find a place to go where our son’s screams couldn’t be heard in the sanctuary. Other weeks we would give up and go back home.

And I thought crawling under the pews was bad -- my son ripped up hymnbooks during one service. He was asked to leave Sunday school after spitting on other children. He ran out of the choir stand from children’s choir. He wouldn’t go into the nursery. He wouldn’t stay in the service. Most of my feelings about going to church ranged from embarrassed to humiliated.

During the Easter Sunday service one year, he was part of the children’s program. He had one line: “J is for Jesus!” When it was his turn, he did not say his line. Instead, he screamed, “NO!” and hit me in the face. I was bleeding in front of the entire church. As soon as we left the platform, I dragged him to the car to go home. I screamed, “This is the worst thing you have ever done to me!” In truth, it wasn’t. We had weathered far more intense outbursts and tantrums. But this happened at church. My expectation of compliments for my well-behaved children was a fantasy; my illusion of parental control over his behavior was as broken as my upper lip.

Some well-meaning members of our congregation gave us advice -- much of it contradictory. The problem was that he was with me too much! The problem was that I didn’t spend enough time with him! He was disciplined too much! He wasn’t disciplined enough! But overall, people were kind. We do not attend a church where ushers ask noisy children to leave the sanctuary. We were never shunned because of our challenging child. Instead, people prayed over him with love. Our pastor would get down on his knees to meet him at eye level every week and talk to him. One lovely couple even offered to keep our son some Sunday afternoons so we could have a break.

I slowly realized that this church was a manifestation of God’s grace to us, for it is not a church where everyone arrives with a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life. And I realized that, as much as I wanted my son’s spiritual formation to happen in the church, I had wanted even more to be acknowledged as a good mother based on his model behavior. A challenging child in church forces everyone -- parents and other parishioners -- to confront whether we value compliance over compassion.

Navigating church with a challenging child isn’t easy, and I understand why many families who desire to be part of a community of faith decide they can no longer deal with the raised eyebrows, the cramped physical space or the implicit comparisons with all the seemingly normal children. Sometimes the place that should most understand brokenness, at least theologically, is the least equipped to deal with a child with ADHD or autism.

Today, my son has a treatment plan that is working well. He is able to engage with Sunday school and sing in the choir. I’m delighted that every church service is no longer a wrestling match, but I’m far more thankful that my son has absorbed the truth that God made him and loves him. He joins in worship with the people of God, people who have demonstrated their love by embracing him through the years of turmoil and accepting his frazzled, frustrated mother.

Even though I’ve long known how to behave in church, I’ve had to accept how to be broken in church. I wanted to be praised for my parenting instead of healed from my hurt. I thought I was seeking spiritual formation for my son, and discovered I needed it for my own soul.