With several months of socially distanced worship services underway in most areas of the US, the process of regathering ministries is slowly beginning to take shape. Children’s ministries are considering how to reshape programs to include the essentials in safe ways. Women’s ministries are navigating in-person Bible studies and events. But what about disability ministries? How do we begin to regather and plan for growth in the months to come?
Consider your church’s overall stage of regathering
In February 2020, I was really excited about the growth of new disability ministries across the PCA. I could not keep up with consultations and emails that were streaming in, asking for help getting started or taking the next steps. Then, COVID-19 hit full force in March, and with the closing of churches, schools, and businesses, silence came to my inbox and phone. I wasn’t surprised. How do you plan for ministry when no one is at church?
As churches began reopening in the summer, there were many logistics to be tackled. How do you safely move people around inside the church building? How do we adjust worship, communion, and baptism in a way that is safe for all, without compromising their functions? When leaders and volunteers are focused on safely seating people and disinfecting buildings, it is difficult to plan for more ministry efforts.
As children have been returning to school, we have become more confident in safely navigating life’s essentials. I am seeing leaders and volunteers in various ministry areas begin to plan more intentionally. If this is where your church is, I encourage you to begin planning for the regathering of your disability ministry.
Regathering is vitally important
Regathering our disability ministries begins with providing the needed supports for the current programs that the church is offering. Your church is probably not operating every program in every ministry area yet. What opportunities are being offered? And who of our friends with disabilities is not able to fully participate because they need supports?
It is important to remember that our friends and families impacted by disability often cannot return to church without some supports in place. The realities of regathering mean that each support once offered must now be re-evaluated: how do we make this support or accommodation safe for both volunteers and individuals with disabilities?
I recommend making a list of all your families who are impacted by disability. Then, list all the supports they have received across the various ministries of the church. Have they had buddies in Sunday School, ushers in the parking lot to help family get into church, adapted lessons, special snacks, etc.?
Creative reframing may be necessary
Most supports offered in disability ministry require genuine relationships, flexibility, and close proximity to an individual. Buddies are a perfect example. In order to help a child, teen, or adult with a disability, a buddy must be nearby. It might be easy to say, “Buddies must be closer than six feet, so we just can’t have buddies.” But this decision likely means that a family cannot attend church.
Another example is wearing masks. It is easy for the church to say, “If you cannot wear a mask, it is best for you to remain at home.” But the reality is that many of our children, teens, and adults with disabilities do not have—and possibly cannot gain—the skills needed to wear a mask for a long period of time. This policy would indefinitely close the doors for church attendance to them and their families.
Both of these examples take a more black and white approach. “This is the policy, and we cannot change or bend.” Instead, we encourage disability ministries to champion the people. “This policy keeps Sam from attending church. What can we do to keep everyone safe while welcoming him and his family back to church?”
Look at the needed supports and any new barriers to restarting those supports, including policies and procedures. Consider these questions:
- What supports are absolutely essential for this individual and family to return to church and fully participate in what is being offered? Start with worship, and then consider other ministry opportunities.
- Is there a way that a small team (two to three individuals) or family members could help with the essential supports in the short run to rebuild confidence in the disability ministry?
- If there are policies that are hindering the necessary supports, schedule an appointment with Engaging Disability to discuss creative solutions. There is almost always a middle ground starting step.
Planning for growth is possible
When I am asked how disability ministries should plan for the next few months, my response is always the same: start where you are now and plan to grow. Planning for ministry growth is possible during this unique season, but you may need to view the process through slightly different lenses.
Keep in mind:
- Ministry planning begins with your disability ministry’s present reality. If none of your families are back at church, begin planning for that. If half of your families are back, begin there.
- Ministry growth will probably feel like you are working just to return to where you were before the virus hit. Instead of allowing that to discourage you, look at it as a new growth opportunity. Growth can occur by getting more of your families back to church this month than were there last month.
- Your ministry supports and activities will likely look different moving forward, and that is OK. Aim for growth, but be realistic that ministry will likely not return to the same place as before COVID-19. That is to be expected. Consider new ministry opportunities that may be easier to start now than before. You may lose a former ministry initiative, but you might gain an even more effective ministry opportunity.
Post-COVID disability ministry
The realities of COVID-19 are changing the way ministry is accomplished across the Church. But as I survey the opportunities ahead, I am encouraged in several ways:
- Livestreamed worship services have made every church more accessible to people at home. How can you connect with viewers who have disabilities and invite them to church for in-person worship?
- Many new relationships have been forged as congregations have met in parks, gotten to know their neighbors, and lent a hand to those in need that they didn’t know before. How might you utilize these relationships as part of organic outreach to welcome new friends living with disability?
- Entire congregations are being forced to think creatively on almost everything. In disability ministry, creative, gospel-centered thinking is one of the greatest gifts. The ways we typically meet needs are not spelled out in any book. Focus on getting to know individuals well and creatively meeting their needs. Capitalize on this new reality where everyone is thinking creatively. How can you further help seniors, those with mental health concerns, and people with visible and invisible disabilities across the church?
As you plan for regathering your disability ministry, consider this time a unique opportunity to regroup. Instead of focusing on how to return to pre-COVID ministry, take a fresh look at the needs of your families touched by disability and be creative in how you might better meet those needs in the future. The future can be a time of ministry expansion. Start where you are, pray and plan for growth, and look forward to what the Lord has in store for your church!