Christian Horizons’ Vision is that: “People with exceptional needs belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.” This Vision is supported by seven unique Service Principals (you can find the list of these principles here). These Service Principles describe the ways in which Christian Horizons supports people. This is the second in a series of posts that takes a look at these service principles, to learn how they are important in serving others whether in social services or as part of faith communities.

Christian Horizons’ second service principle is: Enhance Relationships.

We recognize that each person has a need to associate with others. We believe relationships are essential to a person’s quality of life. We believe that family and friends play a significant role in helping a person realize his or her full potential. We recognize that persons with exceptional needs are at risk of being marginalized and excluded; therefore, we seek to assist each person to develop valuable and positive interpersonal relationships.”

This service principle is important because it may relate to all types of relationships including but not limited to our relationships with God, family and friends, romantic partners, fellow church members, the wider community, healthcare providers and support staff. Furthermore, it is not particular to individuals with exceptional needs. Greater depth and meaningful connection as opposed to false pretenses and conflict is something many of us yearn for in our broken world. Therefore, it is no coincidence that in Luke 12:12 – 24 Jesus instructs us to invite various people with all manner of challenges. Perhaps relating to those who are different from us will serve to enhance our relationships more than we realize.

Enhanced relationships with God and one another may be a major factor in the vision of shalom or human flourishing that God intended for us. The Bible represents God’s efforts to enhance his relationship with us through Jesus Christ. Further, the Church is accountable to help us to grow in our relationship with Christ and we are all called to enhance our relationships with one another (Gal. 6:2, Col 3:13, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 3:35).

Enhancing relationships is a critical aspect of Christian Horizons’ services because there are many people with exceptional needs who seldom have opportunity to interact with people other than paid support staff or healthcare professionals. This problem may develop because it can be difficult to recognize common interests, gifts, and abilities of unique individuals who have exceptional needs.  I have found that the presence of God, particularly a common faith in him, may help to make unique gifts evident. For this reason, I think church communities are essential partners in enhancing relationships.

The challenge of developing interpersonal relationships with people who have exceptional needs may be compounded because it can be difficult to interact authentically and develop a relationship if a caregiver, external to the relationship, has to be present for safety or medical reasons. Ideally, he or she is able to be sensitive to the context and will choose to back off whenever possible. Nevertheless, this issue is often resolved over time, as you find a way to incorporate caregivers into the relational dynamic. Alternatively, you become so engaged with your friend that you forget that a caregiver, who may or may not be your friend also is present.

Some people are hesitant to befriend individuals with exceptional needs because they feel poorly qualified to care for them. However, it is important to realize that the responsibility of a friend to connect socially or emotionally is not the same as a caregivers’ responsibility to complete physical or mental tasks on behalf of an individual or family. Usually, it is not necessary or ideal to fulfill both roles. The lines between friend and caregiver may get blurry sometimes, especially depending on the proportion of time spent together, but consider that as a relationship grows, the comfort level of both parties may increase and willingness, rather than the obligation to provide caregiving support when necessary may change. In those situations where I have relied on a friend or an “unqualified” caregiver for physical support, I have found that they are the best kind of caregivers because they have no prior expectations of what it’s supposed to be like and I can direct them to help me with exactly what I need.

The biggest challenge for people with exceptional needs in relationship with others who may or may not have exceptional needs is often a lack of opportunity for reciprocity and responsibility. For example, for many years, I attended churches where little was expected of me. Everyone over-praised the fact that I showed up. As a result, I felt disconnected and as though I had already fulfilled everyone’s expectation of me. In particular, many church ministries that have welcomed me have been afraid to give me any responsibilities because they did not want to compound my challenges or burden me in any way. What they did not understand is that expectations are a form of connection, validation, and respect. If roles and responsibilities are mutually agreed-upon and truly utilize one’s talents, they are also more likely to represent acting out of one’s motivation and commitment rather than a burden. Therefore, rather than putting effort into ensuring that a person with exceptional needs is not burdened, and may be more useful to place effort in finding ways to discover, grow and utilize every gift they have. Doing so may truly enhance your relationships with one another. In turn, you will be blessed to experience the body of Christ more fully. It is not necessarily inappropriate to think not just what can I do for my friend but, what can my friend do for me. The mark of a Christian friend is not someone who does not expect anything of you. Rather, it is someone who believes that everyone has gifts to share. They believe this enough that they refuse to walk away from a potential relationship before discovering for themselves what some of those gifts may be.