Disability ministry often begins at a church because of a single person.
Maybe you’re the one trying to come up with a plan before approaching your pastor. Maybe you’ve had that first conversation and were disappointed by how it went. Either way, being able to clearly articulate the need and benefit of disability ministry is vital to the health of your church! Don’t give up.
Before that conversation, there are five things you need to do.
Psalm 127 tells us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who built it labor in vain.”
The best laid plans will fail unless God is in it. Pray for wisdom for both you and your church leadership. Repeat this step often.
2. Define the Mission
Your church leadership has probably carefully crafted a church mission statement. This statement guides everything your leadership pursues, allows, and supports. Before going to your leadership, ask yourself:
“How do all people, with different needs and abilities, already fit into our mission?”
Church leaders have a tendency to see “disability ministry” as a new and novel activity of the church.
Your job is to help normalize disability ministry and have it become an integrated and essential part of every church activity and ministry. Some people with disabilities will not benefit from a separate, specific “disability ministry.” Someone like Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic, needs physical accommodations more than a disability ministry program. Others may benefit from more specific help, such as a child with ADHD who needs help staying focused at church.
A clearly defined mission sets your ministry up for success. Without knowing the goal, it’s impossible to know whether or not your ministry is succeeding! Begin by articulating the needs of those with disabilities who are already a part of your church.
“Disability” is a very broad term. Putting faces to terms like “autism” or “spina-bifida” bring “disability ministry” out of the abstract and into the concrete.
3. Make a Plan
Before simply coming to your church leadership with a problem, suggest a solution. Hold this plan loosely and understand it may change based on input from leadership. Make sure you know who in your church would benefit from your ministry. Perhaps a child with special needs requires the support of a buddy. There may be an adult living in a group home finding it difficult to get to church or connect with their peers. Identify those you want to serve and start asking questions! Before making plans for a disability ministry, make sure you ask those with disabilities to share the biggest hurdles they face to engaging in the life of your church.
As you lay this groundwork, follow these two principles:
Many churches are stuck wanting everything but not knowing how to accomplish their lofty goals! It’s better to do one thing well for ten years than ten things poorly for one year. Start with modest goals, and trust that God will grow your ministry! Remember that spiritual growth in the lives of those with disabilities is more important than numeric growth.
Get Others Involved
Assemble a team! Inviting a group of people committed to praying alongside you will make a huge difference. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” For a guide on structuring your ministry, click here.
4. Connect with Like-Minded Individuals
It can be discouraging to feel like you’re the only one with a vision for building churches with inclusive communities. But you’re not alone! There are many others who have walked down this same road. Let us walk with you, pray for you, and help you connect with other church leaders in your area. To connect with a real person from Joni and Friends, click here.
5. Go to Your Leadership
When approaching your leadership, it’s important to use the proper channels and honor the processes already in place. To put it more bluntly: don’t stop a pastor or ministry leader in the parking lot after church to talk!
Once you have scheduled a meeting, plan to hit three main points:
Begin by describing the need. Point to specific people in the church that would benefit from a purposeful disability ministry. If you are one of those people, don’t be afraid to share your experiences. You are not a burden! Highlight elements of your church’s service that may be challenging for people with particular disabilities to navigate. Helping church leadership to see the need is crucial!
Second, explain the benefit of including people with disabilities in the life of your church. Anyone who is a follower of Christ has at least one spiritual gift for the benefit of the church. A church that lacks believers with disabilities is—in a very real sense—incomplete (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
And thirdly, make clear your capacity to help. No one person can do everything. So consider how you can share responsibilities with others to ensure longevity and sustainability.
6. What if It’s Just Me?
If your leadership is not ready to embrace your vision just yet, don’t be discouraged! Be patient, gracious, and submissive. Include your leadership in opportunities to grow in relationship with families affected by disability. Stories are powerful! Share your own story or look for local parachurch ministries such as a Friendship Ministries or Young Life Capernaum club.
These types of clubs can be great places for leadership to gain exposure to people with disabilities and become aware of the need in the community for accessible and welcoming churches! Joni and Friends Family Retreats typically happen during the summer across the United States and are also an opportunity to encounter and serve families living with disability.