Define Terms and the Need
The Importance of Defining Terms. Many churches approach disability ministry with a preconceived idea of what it is or should look like. At times, this is helpful, but it can also limit the natural, organic steps that would meet more timely needs because you are focusing on what is farther down the road.
What is a disability ministry? We define it as any intentional ministry to one or more people impacted by disability. The steps you take toward individuals and their families may be organic, organized, or both.
Recognize the Need and Start the Conversation. Most disability ministries arise because one person begins discussing the possibilities of adapting, buoying, or further enfolding children, teens, and adults with disabilities. Conversations can begin through anyone—the person with a disability, parents, family members, friends, those who have seen the value of intentional ministry, or church leadership. The important thing is to begin the conversation about the need to be more intentional in discipleship and care for those in your congregation who are impacted by disability.
Every church will have a different story about how disability ministry begins. Trust that God has placed in a good position in your church and that he might use YOU to begin the conversation.
Get to Know Your Families
Every church has someone impacted by disability already in their midst. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered the following statistics for the presence of disability in the US:
- 1 in 4 adults
- 2 in 5 seniors over age 65
- 1 in 4 women
- 2 in 5 American Indians and Alaskans
- 1 in 6 children have a developmental disability or developmental delay
Often, churches think of one or two individuals who have visible disabilities but fail to think about the greater scope of disability ministry.
If broad US statistics are reflected in the church, we would likely see a much greater prevalence of disability in our church pews. But it is safe to assume that every North American church has someone with a disability, whether it is a child, teen, or adult.
Your church is unique in whom God has brought to you. Your people touched by disability will have different needs than those in the next church. Your ministry starts with who is in your church.
The next step in getting started is to identify those in your congregation that have unique needs. Then build relationships with them so that you can get to know their strengths, their needs, and their families.
Begin to Develop Big-Picture Goals
It is important to know the direction that you want disability ministry to go initially. Otherwise, it will be very challenging to get past the first step in becoming more intentional with families impacted by disability.
The goal in disability ministry in every church is very simple: we want kids, teens, adults, and seniors who are impacted by disability to be growing in Christ and genuinely enfolded into the congregation. This is the same goal of discipleship that you have for every other member of your church.
So as you are thinking about how to adapt ministry, start with the basics. What would it take to move your families living with disability beyond just being present at church? How can you help them grow in Christ and thrive in fellowship with others?
Consider Your Church’s Existing Ministries and How to Adapt Them
Every church’s disability ministry should be unique to that congregation. There is no single model that fits every church. What is important is that the disability ministry helps, supports, and contributes to the overall mission and ministries of the church.
Disability ministries are often more sustainable when they adapt and support the existing ministries of the church. This is especially true in small and medium size churches. Setting up a separate, siloed disability ministry with its own programming is usually not the best way to start.
It is important to remember that the individuals and families in your congregation want to be part of the ministries of your church. They want to be enfolded into children’s ministry, youth ministry, and the adult ministries. They want to serve, not just be served. They want to experience the benefits of genuine, mutual friendships in the body of Christ.
Look at all the ministries you have now and find ways to adapt them so that your kids, teens, and adults with disabilities begin to grow in Christ and thrive in relationships with others.
For example, ask yourself questions like these:
- How can we adapt the youth group to support our teens with autism?
- How can we utilize existing care groups in the church to support our seniors with dementia?
- How can women’s and men’s ministries uniquely support adults with intellectual disabilities?
Identify and Understand Barriers That Need Careful Thought and Planning
Every church has strengths and weaknesses. Every church also has barriers that hinder children, teens, and adults with disabilities from being able to easily enfold, serve, and grow. Unless you have personally experienced the impact of disability, these barriers may not be as obvious to you as they are to those living with disability.
Talk to your families about the barriers they face in participating fully in church life. You may have to encourage them that it is safe to be completely open and honest with you. Many families may be reluctant initially because they do not want to be a burden to others. Assure them that you want to share the burdens and challenges they experience arising from disability. If true barriers are not identified, you won’t know how to navigate them.
Once you understand the barriers, begin to have discussions on where to start. Some barriers are easier to navigate than others. We never recommend starting with the hardest barrier. Starting in easier places can help you succeed and build momentum for your families and volunteers. It is almost always possible to carefully and creatively think about ways to meet needs and educate the congregation as we go.
Putting It All Together
These initial steps must be thoughtfully and prayerfully executed in order to form an action plan of small steps forward. Once your church has thought through these steps, or if you need help and encouragement getting through these initial steps, Engaging Disability with the Gospel is here to assist. We can help you and your church put together a realistic picture of ministry that supports the larger mission and activities of your church and the refined, nuanced needs of your families.
Start a conversation and take the next step today. Contact us to schedule a consultation, request training for your church, or for support and encouragement.
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