Engaging Disability With The Gospel is the denominational disability ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Since 2007, we have served our churches and church plants by helping them embrace and enfold individuals and families living with disability.
Meeting Unique Needs
People touched by disability have unique needs. While some needs are apparent, others are not. Congregations want to meet the needs of all their members, but sometimes they are unaware of how to address the extra needs of those with disabilities. We come alongside churches to help them learn to make adaptations and accommodations that not only meet special needs but also result in a stronger congregation for everyone.
Serving Unique Churches
Every church is unique in its culture and context. Our approach with each church is unique as we help the congregation develop a series of small, sustainable steps that fit the congregation’s context. We have worked with over one fourth of the PCA’s 1,900+ churches to develop ongoing steps to integrate families touched by disability into their congregations and reach similar unchurched families in their communities.
We are here to serve all PCA congregations. Contact us today and tell us about your church. We want to get to know you!
Attend Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville on a Sunday morning and you’re likely to run into people involved in the church’s Special Needs Ministry. With several Sunday School classes for children and adults with disabilities, and special care during worship services, Christ Pres is meeting the spiritual and practical needs of approximately 20 individuals who have disabilities.
Extending the Vision Beyond Sundays
The scope of the Special Needs Ministry, however, is much larger. It includes intentionally ministering to the 20 families, addressing the unique needs that each one has. The reach of the ministry extends beyond Sundays. A mom’s support group, “Extreme Moms,” allows the women opportunities for support and community throughout the week. Regular respite events provide opportunities for parents to have a much-needed break from the daily challenges of caring for their family members with disabilities. More on that ministry below.
Extending the Vision to the Whole Congregation
The Special Needs Ministry doesn’t focus only on families living with disability. It also includes intentional ministry to many other church families by giving them opportunities to volunteer and be blessed by the people whom they are seeking to bless. Special Needs Ministry Director Gigi Sanders tells the story of a volunteer mother-son team. “They volunteered at one event and said their lives were changed as their own spiritual needs were met by the children with whom they went to minister to. They now regularly volunteer with us as buddies to our special kids on Sunday morning.”
Volunteers aren’t only recruited from among the general church population. Sanders says, “As our kids with special needs grow up, we reach out to their parents and ask if the kids can become helpers in the ministry, too.” The Special Needs Ministry also partners with Christ Presbyterian Academy whose students have been greatly impacted by serving others with disabilities.
Yet the Foundations Remain the Same
While the program aspect of the Special Needs Ministry is important, the heart of the ministry is the same as it was 27 years ago when it began: people coming alongside others to celebrate life’s joys and face life’s challenges together. The church didn’t launch an organized ministry. It began with people taking one step toward others, and then another step and another. Sanders says, “It all started when one of our members had a baby with Down syndrome. As she walked the halls at church with her baby, a church member said, ‘Let me hold your baby and you go to service.’ That began our special needs ministry.”
Extending the Vision to the Community
As the ministry grew, the church recognized the needs of families touched by disability beyond the congregation. In 2006, the church began a new outreach in the community. Special Saturdays was born out of the need for rest and respite for parents of kids with special needs. Every second Saturday of the month, about 60 children (including kids with disabilities and their siblings) from 30-35 families spend a day of exciting activities at the church while their parents have a day off to do things they ordinarily can’t do.
Christ Pres recently posted a video about Special Saturdays. It describes better than any article could how this outreach is changing lives.
If you would like to learn more about the special needs ministry of Christ Presbyterian Church, please email Gigi Sanders at email@example.com.
At 36, motherhood entered my life with a bang as my firstborn came into the world six weeks early after a routine appointment with my doctor miraculously found him in crisis. I headed to the hospital and spent six hours in the ER listening to his heart rate drop to nothing over and over again. I lay perfectly still, trying to keep from cutting off any of his oxygen supply while watching the monitor go up and down. Thankfully, my son was born with strong vital signs and very mad. Mad was good. It helped him to be the scrappy little fighter needed for the month ahead in the NICU. “Welcome to parenthood!” some would say. Welcome to the world of special needs.
His next two years were riddled with missed developmental milestones, catch-up periods, confusing times of regression, food allergies, and severe gastrointestinal issues. There were hours of unexplained crying as an infant followed by hours of insomnia as a toddler. We reported regularly to our pediatrician, had our son assessed twice for early intervention, and hoped for improvement. Having met and married in our thirties, we had accepted that having children was a question mark. God used this lesson along with our son’s rocky birth to graciously undergird those years with deep gratitude for being parents at all.
Three years later, our second son was born. Trying to learn from my first very difficult pregnancy and from losing our second baby in miscarriage, I was extremely careful and rested often, even as doctors continued to tell me everything was “perfect” (just like the first time). But he too had to be delivered early. He began to have seizures after he was born and was admitted to the NICU with dangerously low blood sugar. Tests revealed that he had suffered a stroke sometime around birth and that he had brain damage. And so began the trips to nine different doctors. A few months after he was born, we finally got a diagnosis of autism for his older brother. That same week, we were told that our second son might be showing early signs of cerebral palsy. It was a rough week, and a rough two years followed as we went to the children’s hospital almost weekly. So began our walk on this road God chose for us—disability.
I see now how in the years leading up to motherhood God had prepared me. As my single years stretched into my thirties, I knew that if I ever married and had children, the likelihood of disability was greater each year. I thought about that—a lot. I taught a Bible study lesson on John 1 just weeks before my son was born, noting Jesus is the Lord over every molecule of the universe. Another lesson was on John 9, the story of the man born blind. The disciples asked Jesus who sinned to cause this disability, him or his parents. Jesus tells them that it was neither; it was so that God might show himself to us. God was lighting in me an excitement for how he calls and redeems his disabled people, and how he uses disability—a visible picture of the brokenness that exists in all of us—to show us our need for a Redeemer. He prepared me to have open hands to receive his “gift” of disability, but with it came something that was harder for me to receive. Suddenly, life was like that of a dancer, twirling on stage, surrounded by judges flashing scorecards in every corner with scores that are shockingly low.
I was prepared for the “mommy wars,” but this felt different. Doesn’t she see something is wrong? Doesn’t she discipline? The voices of judges weighing in, judges who do not know the roads we have traveled devoid of answers or heartbreaking days of skill regression. Parents of kids with disabilities each have their own painful stories. Children at the playground who call our kids “crazy” and leave when our little ones try to play with them. The friend who disappears when our children look or act differently. Family members who resent our neediness. She should have gotten the hang of this by now. Spouses who emotionally “check out,” or worse, who leave altogether. The stranger in the grocery store who callously asks, “What did you do to make your child this way?” The close friend who with the crushing theology of Job’s friends tells you, “This is your fault.” They need not bother. A mother’s heart has already been down that road.
Are scorecards flashing all around you? They add up quickly. They are crushing. Come and gather with me those scorecards. I have them too. Gather the accusations, the guilt and shame, the deep hurt, the fear of man. Then join me in bowing the knee to the ultimate Judge—and be free.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:15-17).
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out (Isa. 42:3).
The truth is that most of those scorecards from others are ill-informed, in error. But the truth of the gospel tells me that there are plenty of other areas of life in which my scorecard reads zero. My ultimate authority, Jesus, takes all that onto Himself; and in exchange, gives me his pure, white robes of righteousness. His score is perfection. He gives me his Spirit to enable me to walk in his ways. He gives me his written Word, through which I can weigh the judgments of others—with truth.
Behold this Judge. He is not safe. No, he is holy. And as we behold the glory of his holiness by faith, we see that he is good and kind. All the judges of the universe must submit their judgment to his rule. He is the Judge of judges. That’s not our job. He alone discerns hearts and can make that right. We can let that go. At the end of the day, freedom comes in remembering we dance for him.
Liz Ross served as a Director of Women’s Ministry for almost a decade at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS and Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN, where she also served in the Children’s Ministry and still calls her church home. She is now the full-time wife of the kindest man alive, and mother to two adorable boys, ages 7 and 4. In her free time she enjoys music, coffee, reading fiction, and riding steam locomotives every chance she can get.
Disability ministry, now a very natural part of church body life at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has come a long way since its beginning in 2000.
“During the early 2000’s, we began having special buddies for two of our children who have autism,” recalls Lisa Updike, Children’s Ministry Director at Covenant Church. “Then, at the request of an attendee with Tourette syndrome, we built a soundproof room where he could worship without being concerned about distracting anyone with his vocal tics. This was the start of what would soon become known as ‘Through the Roof,’ our disability ministry.”
Almost seventeen years later, Covenant Presbyterian Church’s ministry to individuals with disability numbers approximately 40, including both members and friends from the community. What was originally a few natural steps toward meeting the needs of a few families has grown into a fully developed ministry with its own leadership and volunteers.
Coffee House Equals Relationships
In the fall of 2016, Through the Roof leaders began to contemplate ways to better reach and minister to their families touched by disability. Their desire was not simply to offer ministry activities for individuals who have disabilities, but to get to know them deeply, walk alongside them, and build genuine friendships, while offering support to their caregivers.
Coordinators Amy Roy and Sarah Pruett brainstormed on ways to create the ideal ministry setting that would invite the sharing of stories and lives. Their solution? A coffee house.
“We wanted parents to be able to enjoy relaxed, genuine conversation; and while they enjoyed coffee and fellowship, our volunteers held a social event for the children with disabilities and their siblings,” said Updike. “We were pleased to have about 30 adults attend and were delighted to care for almost 20 children.” Interestingly, among the 50 attendees, there was a wide range of disabilities: physical disabilities, intellectual disability, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s, RAD, learning disabilities and ADHD.
Through the Roof coordinators set the tone for the meeting by sharing their own stories of learning to live with disability. Following their testimonies, there were discussions at each table, facilitated by members of the Session and the Children’s Ministry team.
Families were asked to be honest about what the church was doing well and what could be improved in the areas of care and spiritual growth for their loved ones with disabilities. “We wanted to know how the church could be proactive in ministering to them, and how the congregation could more fully integrate these individuals into the life of the church body.”
Tears and laughter were shared as families felt valued and accepted in the midst of their struggles. “There was such freedom in sharing with others who ‘get it.’ Most importantly, we heard the needs of these dear members of the body, and we developed a way to move forward in our ministry,” Lisa reflected.
One of our goals at Engaging Disability is to connect churches with each other. We share your stories so that you can be inspired and learn from others who have had experienced success and ministry growth in very authentic and organic ways.
Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia has approximately 900 members. They offer three services each Sunday: two in English and one in Spanish. Worship services have a casual atmosphere, mixed style of worship, and traditional structure, with a strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word.
The children’s programs are bursting at the seams as all their kids (English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and Through the Roof kids) participate in all children’s ministry activities together. Children in first grade and older join their parents in the Sunday worship services.
If you would like to learn more about the disability ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church, you may contact the Through the Roof co-leaders Sarah Pruett at firstname.lastname@example.org and Amy Roy at email@example.com.
If you are a family member touched by disability, we would love to get to know you! We have new resources designed specifically for you that will come out over the next several months. We would love to be able to communicate directly with you or your family via newsletters and emails that are tailored to your needs. Our desire at Engaging Disability is to encourage your spiritual growth and to help you in assimilating into your church over the years as your needs change.