Disability ministry is about relationship, and no church is too small to have meaningful relationships with every person who walks through its doors.
While a small church might not be able to have all the bells and whistles of a robust disability ministry, a small church can do relationships well. In a smaller church, most people know each other, and the community that can result from this environment could potentially fill a larger need among special needs families.
At one point in his ministry career, my husband pastored a small church. I like to refer to it as a micro-church because we had an average of 50 people on Sundays, yet our disability ministry was thriving! As a matter of fact, our church centered around disability, and about 75% of our congregation had a connection to disability. Either they were disabled, parented kids with disabilities, or professionally worked within the disability community.
We actually had more children with disabilities in our children’s program than typical children.
So, what can a small church do to embrace families impacted by disability?
- Welcome every person, not just by saying hi, but by attitude. If someone worships differently than you and they are loud, celebrate the diversity and the fact that every person can participate in worship.
- If a special needs parent is sitting in the foyer with their child, don’t let them sit alone. Go to the foyer and sit with them, letting them know you are glad they made the effort to be there even if they are unable to sit in the sanctuary.
- Recognize that holy moments can happen in the church parking lot walking side-by-side with a parent as they push their child in a wheelchair. Sometimes church is too overwhelming for kids with sensory issues.
- Call when you notice a family impacted by disability didn’t make it to church. This lets them know you see them, they are not invisible, and that you care.
- Recognize that every person, regardless of ability or disability, is an invaluable member of the Body of Christ.
- Embrace messes because the very essence of life is messy.
- Recognize that everyone belongs, and everyone serves.
- Be willing to try new things to include everyone. When that doesn’t work, try again with a different approach.
- Function as a family—everyone has a role to play, and everyone is supported and valued.
One particular Sunday at our church, one of the girls in our class was having a hard time. There was a lot of commotion in the room, and as she struggled to get regulated she climbed on a table. A boy who is blind sat next to the table in his wheelchair. He reached out his hand and asked, “Who is this?” His gentle touch and question were enough to make the girl pause, and before she could answer he said, “Sounds like you are having a hard time, let me help you.” She replied, “Yes, I am having a hard time.” And in that short moment, she was calm, regulated, and smiling as she talked to her new friend.
This story, and many others like it, show us that everyone belongs, and everyone serves. It is an honor and a privilege to welcome these children and their families through the doors of our churches.
Disability ministry is not about a program, but a willingness to come alongside someone in relationship.
Regardless of the size of your congregation, if your church can love, your church can have a disability ministry.
Ellen Stumbo is the Founder and Director of Disability Matters. She is a writer and national speaker who focuses on sharing the real -sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly – aspects of faith, church, disability, parenting, and adoption. Ellen’s writing has appeared on Focus on the Family, LifeWay, MomSense, Not Alone, the Huffington Post, and The SpiritLed Woman’s Bible. Ellen blogs at ellenstumbo.com and whydisabilitymatters.org