By Sharon Mager
Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) Associate Executive Director Tom Stolle is now serving in a volunteer capacity as The Banquet Network’s (TBN) executive director. TBN is a ministry designed to equip churches to start and strengthen special needs ministries. Stolle, who also serves as the consultant for the BCM/D’s special needs ministry, sees the move as an extension of his ministry.
Stolle, sharing his special needs journey, starts with the birth of his son, Jimmy, now 19, who is affected by severe autism. Upon the discovery of their son’s diagnosis, Stolle and his wife, Shelley, were crushed. “We were trying to understand his challenges. We didn’t know the first thing about it,” Tom admits.
They began their long journey into a new way of life, caring and loving their son, with all the joys and struggles.
Praying for a special needs ministry
The journey brought them to their knees. “Loving someone that has so many challenges and limitations spurred persistent prayer for a ministry, birthed in Maryland/Delaware, that would basically equip churches to reach out and share the Gospel and include individuals and families affected by disabilities,” Tom shares.
God began to answer that prayer mightily, but in His time, over the course of a decade. Tom reflects on a “watershed moment” at the 2015 BCM/D Annual Meeting in Ocean City, Maryland. There were several special needs components. Joni and Friends New England Area Director Shauna Amick led a successful breakout session about ministering to special needs families. Then, during one of the plenary sessions, Tom introduced his guests, Christine Duffley and her then 14-year-old son, Christopher, who was born blind and had autism. Christopher led messengers in singing “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” And God touched the hearts of messengers.
The trajectory changed and special needs ministry was happening. Suddenly there was a strong interest. Churches began asking for help, and more were re-thinking and intentionally starting special needs ministry.
“The BCM/D became the first state convention with a budgeted special needs ministry,” Tom shares.
The Banquet Network is birthed
While God continued to stir hearts, Amberle Brown, a member of Freedom Church (FC) in Baltimore, started a special needs ministry called, “The Banquet Network.” Brown contracted a virus that rendered her legally blind, and she became aware of the many needs of others with disabilities and special needs. Michael Crawford, then the pastor of FC, embraced the ministry.
The Banquet Network is based on Luke 14:13-14: “… when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The Network partners with churches, providing an Individualized Ministry Plan (IMP) based on the public schools’ Individualized Educational Plan (EIP) model. Katie Matthews, who serves as a program manager and coach, explains, “The IMP is tailored to your church and your church’s needs.
“We meet you where you are based on the unique things going on in your church.” Matthews continues. For example, Matthews says she would visit your church, in person or virtually, to learn about its culture and needs. It might be that the church has several people with disabilities or special needs or you have two kids who can’t do children’s ministry because of behavioral issues. “We go through, step-by-step, considering the culture of the church, demographics, and mission statement, and create very specific steps to get you to your end goal. That may be becoming more inclusive for those who have behavioral issues with an end game that the kids can successfully be in a classroom without being violent.” Another church may want to have a respite night for parents and need help to discover the steps to provide appropriate childcare.
Stolle says, “We want churches to want to love and embrace people in their community, not just accommodate, but include them in our churches.”
The BCM/D began partnering with The Banquet Network, basically expanding the special needs ministry.
When Amberle and Hunter Brown, her husband, moved to England late in 2020, TBN staff asked Tom to become the executive director.
Expanding The Banquet Network’s reach
As executive director of TBN, Tom says he feels it strengthens special needs ministry for both TBN and the convention, as they work together as partners providing more resources and volunteers.
Matthews says Tom was the perfect choice to succeed Amberle. “Our team began praying who her replacement might be and Tom came to all of our minds separately. I thought he’s great because of his passion and dedication to his son and special needs ministry. He doesn’t do this for a job or a title, but because he actually cares about it.
“He will always be fighting for people with special needs to be included in the church,” she reflects.
The BCM/D and TBN are partnering on upcoming events, including the annual special needs conference on June 5 at The Church at Severn Run; an overnight retreat at Skycroft Conference Center; and a 10k bike ride and disability walk. More information will be available in upcoming BaptistLIFE posts.