“Why doesn’t somebody…”
It’s the phrase that makes the hair stand up on the back of every pastor’s neck when uttered by complaining church goers. Those in the Western Church seem to approach their faith community more like consumers than members of the Body of Christ. Church leaders hear it far too often.
Is it any wonder then that pastors are inclined to say, “If you want that ministry, then YOU lead it.”
In a church world where the needs and demands are high and the manpower low, disability ministry often falls into this category of the “You go do it.” Add to that the fact that clergy is most often untrained in dealing with related issues, and they are understandably reluctant to step up. There is a fear of the unknown. There is concern that they are taking on some great liability. An attitude of defeat prevails before ever taking a step forward. It’s just too complicated taking on the disability community when you are serving the masses.
Here’s who loses
Sadly, most pastors are unaware that 16-20% of the greater population falls under the label of disability. Ignoring that many people is leaving out a huge segment of the population. Surely churches wouldn’t ignore their missions projects to that level. Yet, serving those with health, mobility, and cognition issues is a missions field right in our midst.
We, the Church, also lose out on the talents, wisdom, humor, and life experiences of those in the disability community when we fail to welcome and include. It is to our benefit and enrichment to weave people of all talents and abilities into the fabric of our faith families. How sad that it seldom occurs to us that those with disabilities actually have something to GIVE!
When church leadership does see the need to include and serve those with a diagnosis and their families, they are often inclined to do what I call “A Dump-N-Run.” In other words, they offload the ministry responsibility onto parents or caregivers of those living with unique challenges, never looking back. They rarely visit these ministries or follow up on these ministries. Inclusive programs are rarely featured when churches report their progress and vitality. Often churches fail to include any disability ministry in the whole umbrella of activity and service. I have had to dig to find the information on websites of churches that I KNOW have disability ministries. As a result, those with special needs become marginalized in ministry.
Ultimately, we are robbing ourselves of the Body of Christ that God envisions when we avoid making room for a diverse group of individuals. We only need brush up on 1 Corinthians 12 to be awakened to that truth.
What Jesus looked like
Nowhere in Jesus’ ministry can you see those with special needs, disabilities, and chronic illnesses treated this way. Christ drew a MUCH bigger circle. He placed what the world considered the least and broken at the center of his circle. He did this to put God’s glory on full display. He shattered discomfort by demonstrating that He was the God of the impossible circumstance.
With this in mind, how can we make it easy for churches to turn this attitude around and create an inclusive environment?
Pastors must really gather what people need in the immediate term with a particular church. This may mean creating a church-wide survey. It definitely means sitting down with those who are bringing the need to the fore. Are individuals with disabilities trying to find ways to connect with regular activities and ministries? Perhaps a type of ambassador program that can connect people in such a way would be in order. That might look like finding transportation and creating accessibility where there wasn’t any previously. Are parents asking that their child with cognitive challenges have Sunday school opportunities? Maybe adding an “inclusion specialist” to work in partnership with children’s ministry is the place to start. The point is, until those at the top of the local church structure really listen, the greatest need and starting point can neither be identified nor addressed. Few things are more insulting than being told what you need rather than being asked.
While “nothing about us without us” is a passionate cry from the disability community, training is needed. Possible volunteer leaders may not have the skill set to coordinate this sort of environment in a church setting. Providing tools to assure success in this endeavor benefits everyone. Training would include basic safety procedures that are used in all children’s and counseling ministries. It would also add to that the knowledge of what resources are available (such as cognitively appropriate Sunday school materials). Simple instruction can bolster awareness of what adaptations might be made to facilitate inclusion. There are wonderful, easy guides that a church can access, such as EVERY CHILD WELCOME by Jolene Philo and Katie Wetherbee. Bringing in a learning specialist or occupational therapist from the local school district can be incredibly fruitful as well. Besides offering simple training, this approach can build goodwill in the local community. All of this will equip a volunteer leader to make the disabled feel far more welcome in church.
An inclusive ministry that merely segregates those with disabilities into their own separate programming further wounds them. It perpetuates the “us-them” mentality. Show an interest in what this ministry area is doing! Commit to check-in at least once a month with the leader. See what progress is being made and where there are challenges. Spread the message of acceptance and inclusion by inviting typical church-goers unaffected by disability to participate. Notify the leader of upcoming events and themes of the larger church. This way, everyone makes the journey and shares the focus TOGETHER. Since the Lord tells us that He is close to the brokenhearted, some of the church’s most inspirational stories come from the area of disability ministry.
Prone to human worry, we often make the idea of inclusion and disability ministry MUCH harder than required. Simple approaches and attitudes can create ENORMOUS impact, making every church look more like Jesus.
Latest posts by Barb Dittrich (see all)
- Why I’ve Banished The Term “Support Group” - November 15, 2016
- MARGINALIZED IN MINISTRY: Why Including the Disabled is a Call for All - October 4, 2016
- 1 Key to Breaking the Glass Wall of Isolation - April 11, 2016