Nearly one in five people has a disability in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Many of those who are part of this 20 percent of the population, as well as their families, are seeking a faith community in which they can be a vital part.
“When I read the Gospels and think about Jesus’ ministry, I notice that he never passed by anyone with a disability. He would take the time to find out what they wanted and he would meet that need,” said Sharon McCart, chair of the DisAbilities Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church.
United Methodist churches are gradually taking steps to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, and many have found opportunities for ministry that have far exceeded their expectations.
Listening to needs
“One of the most unchurched groups are parents with special-needs kids because it is so hard to find a place where their loved one can feel welcomed. Many have been asked to leave churches because they don’t fit into a box,” said Joy Johnston, pastor of caring ministry and special needs ministry at The Woodlands United Methodist Church (TWUMC) near Houston, Texas.
“Individuals with special learning needs are not problems to be solved; these are unique, talented, perfectly created individuals.”
TWUMC’s disability ministry began with just six families who wanted to attend church as family units but were unable to do so. The families united, partnered with the children’s ministry team, did some research, and started a Sunday school class that their children could attend.
Thirteen years later, TWUMC’s ministry has grown immensely. About 100 people of all ages take part each week, aided by caring volunteers and special programs that are tailored to each individual’s needs.
“We found refuge and respite through God and the Special Blessings Ministry,” said Michelle Shannon, TWUMC member and parent to Noah, who has autism. “Noah is now in sixth grade and has a shadow to help him navigate Sunday school. My husband and I joined — no, thrive in — our small group for parents of special-needs children. Our life as a family has flourished.”
An important first step of welcoming people with disabilities is the completion of an annual local church accessibility audit. The process, mentioned in The United Methodist Book of Discipline paragraph 2533.6, is a necessary part of understanding how accommodating the church building is.
McCart suggests, “Take someone with a disability on the accessibility audit to offer their feedback. Their viewpoint is crucial to really understanding the needs that people have.”
TWUMC also places signage throughout the church to indicate fully accessible areas and gathering spaces. This helps with logistics, but also builds awareness for ministry offerings that may be available.
“Accessibility to basic necessities of life is a challenging task for any person with disability. Parents and caregivers are constantly battling to gain access for their loved ones and they should not have to continue this battle in church,” said Stephen Taylor, special needs ministry pastor at Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia.
“The key is to make sure that their loved ones have access to all aspects of the church community, including leading worship, going on retreats and going through communion.”
McCart points out that people need to feel that the congregation is ready to accept them and offer assistance if it is needed. Educate greeters and ushers, as well as the congregation, so that they are aware of accessible areas and the resources available to people with disabilities.
Growing beyond access
There are a few further steps for congregations to take before beginning a new disability ministry. TWUMC's ministry leaders suggest that church leaders and congregants who see the need for the ministry should cover the possibility in prayer. Then, survey the congregation to gauge interest.
If there is enough support to begin a ministry, McCart recommends that churches should “involve people with disabilities in the planning — what would they like to see happen, what do they need, what would they like to do? Put them in the driver’s seat.”
As TWUMC learned as their ministry began, the next step is recruiting a core group of dedicated, loving, patient volunteers and guiding them through a training process that will ensure safety, understanding and an environment in which families will feel comfortable bringing their loved ones. Even starting with a small group of volunteers will allow the ministry to take shape.
“To begin a ministry for people with disabilities, trust must be established,” said Taylor. He suggests hosting a community event that announces your church as a congregation that welcomes people with disabilities, such as a respite night, dance, movie night, game night or even a simple cookout.
“The event serves as an invitation to meet the leaders of the church and the ministry so that the parents receive affirmation that the ministry is deemed important to the church,” he said.
A family worship service is another great initial step into disability ministry, something TWUMC hosts four times per year.
“Our service is designed to welcome all people however they are called by the spirit to worship,” explained Johnston. “With parents always so worried about noise and movement, this service allows the whole family to freely worship together. Read a book, incorporate music, encourage movement throughout the space …this lets people relax and worship the way they are created.”
Imagining the possibilities
“A forewarning: Once you invite the disability community into your church, be prepared for an amazing transformation to take place,” said Taylor. “Give those with disabilities a place at the table because they have gifts to share with the community. Their greatest gift is the ability to love, and they are ready to share that love with anyone.”
When a member of Taylor’s church attended a disability ministry event for the first time, they commented, “I believe that I have just witnessed what the kingdom of God looks like: a room full of people with a variety of abilities and ages, coming together and having fun without regard to their differences. Love was in that room and I am so glad that I was able to experience that.”
*Laura Buchanan is a PR Specialist at United Methodist Communications.