May 07, 2012
by Colleen Swindoll Thompson
It was a bustling Sunday morning at church. The children’s classes and adult fellowships overflowed with folks who appeared focused as well as fulfilled. The church was highly respected throughout the community and centrally located in one of the fastest growing cities of the nation.
A visiting couple assessed the morning’s activities. Because their son was autistic with attention and behavioral challenges, they chose to have him stay with his caregiver that Sunday. They had attended several other churches—usually returning only once—due to their son’s challenges. But this time, the people involved in various ministries and children’s programs appeared welcoming—something the couple had longed for ever since their son’s diagnosis was confirmed 12 months prior. The two exchanged a hopeful glance. They enjoyed the worship service and spent extra time talking with the children’s pastor as well as observing the interaction between the kids and Sunday school teachers.
They brought their son on the second visit and observed his interactions with the other kids and the Sunday school teachers. Although the church did not have a specific special needs classroom or program, the couple hoped their son would adjust smoothly.
They met with the pastor that next week. They had questions and a few concerns, but they desired for this to become their church home. When the couple expressed their needs and the challenges of parenting a child with disabilities, the pastor tried to show sympathy. But his words came across as insincere pity, similar to the reactions of people at the grocery store.
After that, the couple gave up on going to church.
More often than most imagine, an “un-welcome” mat on the church doorstep greets almost 100 percent of families with a disabled child. In a place God designed for its members to extend understanding and acceptance, families are shunned or ignored. No one desires to be distasteful or disagreeable, but disapproval and distance occurs nevertheless.
Does this describe your church? Could everything else be in such precise working order that nobody notices the doorbell is broken? Although unity remains challenging, it is possible.
One of the strongest disability ministry organizations is “Joni and Friends,” founded by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada. For more than 30 years Joni and Friends has developed outstanding resources for churches with disabilities ministries. The Web site address is: www.joniandfriends.org/church-relations/
Here are some specific suggestions for how this ministry can help fix your church’s doorbell:
- For individuals, families, K–12 educators, and interested church members, this overview shows you which course or set of materials is right for you:
- Consider a one-day training seminar for your pastor, church leaders, and volunteers. The Web site address is:
- For further study for pastors or lay leaders, consider taking a graduate or undergraduate course on church ministry and disability. Joni and Friends’ The Christian Institute on Disability offers many classes online as well in specific locations. You will find an excellent listing of options here: