A frequently-asked question in the local church is, “What should we do next in disability ministry?” The answer varies from church to church. It largely depends on factors such as the needs of the families touched by disability, the number of available volunteers, and the stage of ministry (start-up, established, declining).
When it comes to programmatic efforts in disability ministry, we always encourage churches first to consider the existing age and stage-of-life programs for everyone. Think about ways to adapt the programs instead of starting new ones.
There are several advantages of adapting current ministries. You likely already have many members of your congregation who are committed to those programs and avenues for discipleship. You don’t have to consider how to come up with the extra space, funding, and volunteers that new programs inevitably require.
Here are a few tips to help you strategically adapt existing programs:
- In each calendar season, take a step back and look at the big picture of church ministry. Are there any new avenues of discipleship that are being highlighted and offered to the congregation? If so, what would be needed to enfold people with disabilities into new Christian education or service opportunities? Whether it’s a new discipleship group, new choir, new book club, or a monthly meal on the grounds, capitalize on the existing excitement that the congregation already has. Work to provide supports so that friends with special needs can participate, too.
- At least once a year, schedule a meeting with the staff members or volunteers who know the most about the age groups represented in each special-needs family. Suppose you have a family with parents in their early 40s, a teenage son with autism, and two elementary-aged daughters. Start with your Youth Ministry. Make sure you know all that is being offered. Then, choose one youth program to adapt that fits both the desires and needs of the family and your volunteer capacity. Also, if possible, find out all the ministry opportunities for the parents’ and the children’s age groups. Take time to listen and learn if the rest of the family is as fully involved as they want to be and explore with them all their options.
Once you have decided which program to adapt for the person who has a disability, ask these questions:
- What skills are required to fully and independently participate in this program? Consider all skills: physical, intellectual, spiritual, and social.
- Of these required skills, which ones will be most challenging for the friend who has a disability?
- What creative supports might buoy this friend in one of those areas? What would be needed to buoy the person in two of those areas of weakness?
- Does the program require a parallel but separate track for those with disabilities or can you be successful in enfolding and integrating them into what is already offered?
- What is the goal for this individual in this context? (Hint: is it relationship with God or relationship with others?)
- Think strategically about who to recruit to help you provide the needed supports and adaptations.
Use our planning chart (PDF) to support this process.
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