By Dr. Evelyn Worth McMullen, Director of Bright Threads Ministries
Parents of children with disabilities who come to church for the first time want the same thing all parents want: for their child to feel welcomed into the church family and for them to be known as an individual child of God. Even in the most welcoming of congregations, however, children and adults with disabilities are often known first by a label: “the child with autism,” “the woman in a wheelchair.” Our challenge as leaders in ministry is to help congregations move from labeling someone who is on the margins to drawing them into the church family as a valuable child of God—a person who has a purpose in God’s Kingdom.
For 13 years I’ve been on a journey in educational ministry with people with disabilities. My traveling companions have been children and adults with disabilities who have transformed my ministry and have transformed the attitudes and the practices of my congregation, North Lakeland Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, FL. Recently some colleagues at Friendship Ministries introduced me to a framework called “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes.” It was developed by Dan VanderPlaats of Elim Christian Services and is a downloadable handout from their website.
This framework has been such a helpful tool for me that I’ve been passing it along to others, calling it my new GPS for disability ministry. I hope it will guide your journey of transforming attitudes and practices toward people with disabilities. In this brief introduction I’ll introduce you to some of the volunteers, children, and adults with disabilities with whom God has called me to serve. (All of the names below have been changed.)
Stage 1 – Lack of Knowledge about people impacted by disabilities
Thirteen years ago God led two families with teens with disabilities to North Lakeland Presbyterian. We asked the parents what would help their children participate in worship. We asked what kind of learning situation would help them discover their place in God’s story. One parent said in previous congregations no one had asked what her child needed. The first stage on the journey is to recognize that each person impacted by disability is different and each is a child of God who is part of the Body of Christ.
Stage 2 – Pity
During volunteer training Walter asked, “Can’t doctors do anything to fix Bobby?” Walter began helping out of pity. He realized Bobby had been created in God’s image and didn’t need fixing. Bobby transformed Walter’s attitude of pity toward people with disabilities.
Stage 3 – Care
We began to reach out to the disabilities community by offering Friendship Class for adults with intellectual disabilities. Several years later another set of volunteers began a Buddy Break program, a monthly respite ministry for families offered by churches nationwide through Nathaniel’s Hope of Orlando, FL. Sharon volunteered as a Buddy because her grandchild in another state has a disability and she wanted to help care for these families.
Stage 4 – Friendship
The unexpected blessing from Buddy Break is that the families, volunteer Buddies, and children have become a community. We see what Julia has in common with many children: Julia loves to play dress-up and draw pictures. When Julia hears the songs from “Frozen” she lights up. We see her individuality rather than her disability.
Stage 5 – Co-Laborers serving alongside each other
Leslie is no longer “the woman in the wheelchair” to the congregation. People know her name. They know that Leslie loves music and loves to worship, gifts that have enriched the worship of all around her. The group of adults who began as the Friendship Class are now the Friendship Community. Teachers and students are friends. Together they serve others in the church family and community, helping with senior citizens’ yard work, helping serve at fellowship dinners, and preparing tray favors for Meals on Wheels.
I’m grateful for the way my friends have helped my attitude move through the 5 Stages to develop Bright Threads Ministries. (We are so new that our website is still under construction.) Here’s our vision: Each person is a bright thread created in God’s image. Bright Threads Ministries supports families and churches by drawing people from the margins into the beautiful, surprising pattern that God is weaving with all of us!
If you and your congregation are on a journey with disability ministries, I hope you’ll find this new GPS helpful. And you may find the Holy Spirit “recalculating” your route.
Dr. Evelyn Worth McMullen is Director of Bright Threads Ministries in Lakeland, FL. You can contact her at evelyn@BrightThreadsMinistries.org. She has been in educational ministry for 32 years, with an MA from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and a DEdMin from Columbia Theological Seminary. Her DEdMin work was an important part of her journey into ministry with people with developmental disabilities.
The Center for Lifelong Learning is in the early stages of planning for an event tentatively slotted for late spring 2016 that will address how to better incorporate the gifts of children and youth with disabilities into congregational worship and spiritual formation/education ministries.
Discover more about the “5 Stages” through Friendship Ministries’ series of blogposts to help churches move along the journey of changing attitudes.