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.