Why Invest in Disability Ministry?

Why Invest in Disability Ministry?

By Ryan Nelson, NDI Disability Ministry Coordinator | 22 Jan 2024

Disability Ministry

As I think about disability ministry, the first thing that comes to mind is “why.” Why does this ministry matter so much that the church has dedicated the resources to build it up? Why does it matter that we turn our attention to disability ministries? To answer these questions, I would like to share the testimony of a family that has been on this journey of faith with their son (the names in this testimony have been changed at the request of the family). Included with this article, you will find some resources from our partner, Wonderful Works. The provided resources include tips and suggestions to help you get started with disability ministry in your local church.

Reflections from the Lee Family

“The church was always friendly to our family. It helped that I was always a Sunday school or children’s church teacher. I was mindful to be inclusive of all the kids, not just our child. I worked hard to try to plan lessons and activities according to everyone’s strengths. We had children who were great for lead roles in plays or great quizzers. We also had children who were not interested in these things (disability or not). Quizzing was not for everyone, but I made sure everyone had a role. If we had children who didn’t quiz, we encouraged them to draw or participate in photography. I also had a small choir for contest so that everyone could participate together, no matter the ability.

We had great men in our church who were always good to speak to our child (John). They were diligent to talk about things John could understand and converse on. We had a pastor (Terry) who served our church for 24 years. Terry was intentional about connecting with John. That connection was made and it still makes an incredible impact on John’s life, even today. Pastor Terry would take John to local baseball games, hockey games, or just out around town. Our pastor was always there for John and for our family no matter the circumstance.

Having a pastor who is aware and accepting of disabilities is vital and necessary. Pastors should never be “too pretty” to include those with disabilities. It is also important to note that the church community shouldn’t assume that kids can’t do; assume they can. Being inclusive begins with including these individuals in your circle. John often experienced a sense of being left out or of being left behind. The church must be intentional about inclusion, not just in the classroom but in fellowship as well. For the most part, John had good church support as a child and as a teen. After John graduated, there was a couple that started attending the church. This couple made a great effort to make John feel welcome in their home. They were intentional about including John in any activity they would do with young people. We have a couple in the church now who invite John over simply to watch football games. John loves it.

There is a key element that we think the church should know: it is not the sole responsibility of the pastor to include children with disabilities. If there isn’t a naturally inclusive place, church leadership should recruit and nurture the “inclusive pockets”[ST1]  for the sake of those with disabilities. Even having just one trusted family that would be willing to take a child home for dinner is a huge blessing. We were fortunate enough to have a family like this in our church. Sometimes it is necessary to take a break and have a reset.     

We feel that it is important for churches to create intentional ways for families with disabilities to be part of the church community. There is a way to go about this that churches should be mindful of. Things like not announcing “we are doing this just for disability families.” These efforts of inclusion should be normal, just like for any other family. No one likes the spotlight on a disability, whether it be intellectual or physical. We must remember there are all kinds of disabilities. One of the best things a church can do is to provide a space for every child to participate and applaud whatever happens. Sometimes the best thing that happens is not what has been achieved but simply being on the same team.

When we think about the big picture, we have to say churches need a plan. This plan shouldn’t stop with children but continue through the whole journey. As part of this plan, it is imperative that churches seriously look at who they are allowing into these ministry settings. If the church is not diligent in selecting volunteers and leaders, bad things happen. For example, we experienced individuals who participated in small groups with John [that were] users of people They specifically targeted people who could drive, have their own vehicle, work, and have their own money. The church needs to be vigilant about [choosing] volunteers, leaders, and even participants because often children with disabilities [will go to any extent] to have friends. It would benefit the church greatly to include these children’s parents in the conversation. No one knows their child’s abilities better than the parents, and often the parents too [benefit from mutual conversations].

This is just a small glimpse into our story. Many successes, some heartbreaks, and life come along the way. I am extremely grateful that John has people like our previous pastor, Terry and our current pastor, Scott. I am grateful that John has family, and he has friends that are like family. One of the reasons John still attends church is because of the intentional efforts of these individuals. It hasn’t always been perfect, but we are blessed to be in a church that makes us feel like family. After all, isn’t that what the definition of church should be? To quote the little song, ‘I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.’”

For more information about NDI’s disability ministry, email Ryan at rnelson@nazarene.org.