Brentwood Baptist Church has had a unique calling to radically care for the special needs community of Middle Tennessee for a long time. Seven years ago, more and more families with individuals impacted by disability started coming to church, and very quickly it became apparent that there was a very large community with a growing need for intentional ministry.
These families began voicing their needs and expressing their specific hindrances to participating in church life. It is commonly difficult for parents of individuals with special needs to experience church as a couple – often, one parent will stay home with their child with special needs while the other parent takes the rest of the family to church. As a result, the couple rarely gets to participate in worship services or Sunday School classes together. If the entire family does come to church together, things like weather can make just physically getting into the building really difficult – for example, if it’s raining or snowing, friends with sensory issues might not even make it out of the car. Once they get to church, there are many aspects of typical services and Sunday morning programs that simply don’t set up special needs friends for success. These “small” moments make a huge impact on families with special needs being able to come to church at all. There are many seemingly small barriers that families with neuro-typical children just don’t have to think about.
The common denominator in each of these struggles is that there typically isn’t a specific, thought-out space for individuals with special needs to go and thrive on Sundays during church. It became clear to the leadership at Brentwood Baptist that there was a huge opportunity here to meet the needs of the special needs community and their families.
“I’m grateful that members of our church saw a need slowly emerge and began to understand a unique calling. And, we’ve discovered an entire community of families in need because of the challenges of raising a child with special needs.”
Pastor Mike Glenn
The Embrace Special Needs Ministry
As this community grew at Brentwood Baptist and the need continued to rise, the church began the search for a Special Needs Minister. Tiffany McCullough was hired in 2016. Tiffany’s background was in the public school system, so shifting to the church world presented a transition which offered tremendous opportunity. As she described it, in education you are surrounded by colleagues and entire departments dedicated to Special Education and individuals/families impacted by disability. However, in the church realm, she was starting off solo, as her own department. Therefore, part of her job included creating awareness of the special needs community for the entire church. Not only was she guiding the special needs ministry in a specific direction, but she was also educating the rest of the church staff, leaders, and volunteers on the impact it could have on the church as a whole. The entire BBC staff was incredibly receptive and enthusiastic about creating a welcoming environment for their special needs families, from the senior pastor down to volunteers.
In special needs ministry, the ages of those who need support is not isolated to childhood. Parents of children with special needs are caretakers for life – not just until their children are 18. The caretakers are aging too, and need lots of support as well! Every ministry plays a valuable role in the special needs ministry being successful – from the parking team, to the door greeters, to children’s check-in, to the LIFEgroup leaders, to the deacons, to the Pastors. Tiffany focused on equipping the BBC staff with the knowledge and tools to love special needs families well. The Embrace Special Needs Ministry at Brentwood Baptist Church has grown in big ways, and now has a staff of five, along with over 90 volunteers that help serve for various ministry events and programming. This ministry has truly blossomed due to the intentionality and support that the church has provided to the staff and community.
The Rowen Glenn Center took some serious time and planning to become a reality. It did not happen overnight; when Tiffany came on staff at BBC, there were many stepping stones in the ministry that came first. All of those things were very important and worked for the ministry and the community at that time, but the need continued to outgrow each one until a custom, dedicated space was the next right thing.
Nearly three years ago, in a meeting with Brentwood Baptist leadership, Tiffany was asked about her vision for the ministry. She was enthusiastically supported by pastor Mike Glenn, BBC leadership, and the entire church. This support fueled the fire and enabled many of their ideas and hopes become a reality! The ability to provide a unique, safe, and welcoming space for the special needs families and community of Middle Tennessee was within reach.
“God can do so much when we just get out of the way – just be ready to respond to the need.”
The Generosity of Others
In an incredibly generous turn of events, BBC was blessed by a church member who donated several million dollars towards the construction of a new space for the Embrace Special Needs Ministry. This substantial gift allowed the church to move forward on the project very quickly, and even moved the hearts of other members who began to give in addition to the original amount, allowing this space to be built debt-free. You can imagine how this opened up the possibilities for the Rowen Glenn Center to be everything Tiffany and her team had dreamed up – the most intentionally designed space for individuals with special needs.
The Rowen Glenn Center is a beautiful 15,000 sq. ft. space located on Brentwood Baptist’s main campus. The Groundbreaking Ceremony was held on November 1, 2020, and the official Ribbon Cutting Ceremony took place on January 9, 2022. Every square inch of this space was thoughtfully curated and planned out with great detail. The most unique thing about the Rowen Glenn Center is that from the very foundation, special needs friends and their families were thought of first. From the moment they arrive on campus, every detail was intentionally thought through to meet their specific needs.
When you drive onto campus, you are met with clear signage leading to designated parking right in front of a covered walkway into the building. This offers protection from rain or snow, which can cause a problem for friends with sensory issues. These first moments of arrival can make all the difference for a friend to even get out of the car, so Tiffany wanted to make sure from the moment these families make it to campus, everything is designed for them to arrive smoothly. Once you walk into the building, you are met with a calming spa-like lobby. The walls made of water-filled bubble panels and the dimmable lights work together to create a soothing environment. There is a welcoming space called “The Living Room” which is designed to feel like a cozy, calming family-type room at a beach cottage. This spot is perfect for welcoming new parents, holding intake meetings, and provides parents a place to relax as they soak in the goodness that their child is in a place where they are being well taken care of.
There are two different wings of the building. One side is perfectly designed for preschool and children, and the other side is for students and adults. Each wing caters to the size of those individuals, their developmental level, and their interests – everything is specialized, from the furniture size, the bathrooms, to where items are hung on the walls. Leading off from the kids’ side of the building is a huge indoor play space called the Whimsical Woodland with a garage door that leads to an outdoor play space with different sections for various sensory preferences.
Throughout the entire building, there are iPads in the walls that control the brightness and color of the lights, which is an incredibly important feature for friends with sensory issues. The ability to be able to control the lighting brightness and dimmability throughout the building, no matter who they’re serving, is a feature that has massive impact. Each of the restrooms are single occupancy to ease the noise anxiety of other toilets flushing, and the sink heights are specific to age group size. There is a calming room outfitted with a padded floor and walls , along with soft, cozy furniture for moments when friends need a safe space to calm down and re-calibrate their mind and body.
There are so many more unique and amazing aspects of this building that perfectly serve the needs of those with special needs. Sadly, in most places in the community our special needs friends are an afterthought. But in the Rowen Glenn Center, they were thought of first.
“In this space, they were thought of FIRST. They are number one.”
The Rowen Glenn Center not only offers care on Sunday mornings and Wednesdays during regular church programming hours, but they are currently partnering with 99 Balloons to offer once-a-month respite nights on Fridays called rEcess. This night allows parents to drop off their preschool through adult-age children (not just their child with special needs, but their siblings as well) for a few hours of fun, while they have the opportunity to go out and have some time to themselves. Respite nights kick off with a time of worship before splitting up into small groups with volunteers to rotate through different activities such as Bible stories, share time, games, recreational play, and crafts.
The Embrace Special Needs Ministry also just started a day program for adult friends who have aged out of school system transition programs, called Embrace Community. This program is open to the community; not just church members. The day program offers these friends a fun and safe space to build community and connection with each other through visual arts, music & movement, and social club classes. The Rowen Glenn Center is equipped with various educational and sensory spaces that allow each individual’s needs to be met as they explore recreational and fun activities together.
All are welcome at the Rowen Glenn Center, and these various programs allow the community to just come as they are, when and where they are able to. The mission is simple – serve and love the special needs families and community of Middle Tennessee.
“When we do special needs ministry well – we are not just serving the individual with the disability, we are serving the entire family.”
The Rowen Glenn Center is more than just a cool building. What Brentwood Baptist has done is created a safe place where these families are valued, welcomed, cared for, and celebrated. It has provided an environment where those with special needs are thought of first, instead of being an afterthought. It has allowed families to be united once again on Sunday mornings to worship together and connect with others, all while their child is also being taken care of and having fun. It is the gospel in action.