Lessons learned on our journey to inclusion
Have you ever passed the point of no return? A seminal moment occurs. You realize a decision you’ve made has put forces in action beyond your control? I’ve had several; however, two have dramatically influenced my life trajectory. Number one, in my late teens, punch drunken love and poor impulse control left me landing a first kiss on the girl who would become my wife. And number two, becoming an inclusive children’s minister.
At 24 years old, I was haphazardly handed the helm of our mega-church’s children’s ministry. My boss resigned unexpectedly and I was tapped. As a father, I look back and wonder what my supervisors were thinking! I was oozing with idealism, arrogance, and an undeveloped prefrontal cortex.
Praise the Lord!
While some early choices I would certainly change, others I’m afraid I would no longer have the courage to take on, including our journey to inclusion.
As a sibling of a sister with disability I was determined to include all. To seal the deal, our staff team made a policy that has altered the course of my life. Seminal moment #2: “We will never turn a family away regardless of need.” I was proud. The policy was shiny and looked nice on paper! That was a Thursday; on Friday I got the call. The woman on the other end made no sense. Angela, a single mom, was so unchurched she lacked the basic vocabulary to ask about attending a weekend service. She explained to me that her daughter, Kaitlin, who was nonverbal and had severe autism, had spent the last several weeks googling “Bible”, “Good Samaritan”, “JESUS”, etc. Angela was terrified. She said, “If God is reaching out to my daughter or my daughter is chasing God I need Him too!” I was thrilled! Surely, Jesus heard our prayer and was sending people our way.
Sunday’s breakfast? Humble pie. The family arrived and within ten minutes I had two bleeding volunteers, chaos in the lobby, and a ripped off car mirror as Kaitlin loped through the parking lot. Words can’t describe my dejection. Our shiny policy wasn’t feeling shiny. Would we? Could we honor our word? We had to, but how?
We made a plan. We started meeting Kaitlin weekly at her favorite park. Once she had a friendship with her buddy we transitioned slowly to Sunday mornings. The relationship was the bridge. Within six months the family was able to attend the whole service, Mom and Grandma joined women’s studies, and Grandma came to faith a couple months before she died. I officiated the service.
Our team had no idea; our then, idealistic decision would continue to shape our congregation for years to come. Our church now has inclusive strategies across all ministries: sensory rooms, full-time staff, disability interns, and universally designed children’s programming. The student ministry has their own adaptive equipment for inclusion in home groups and summer camps. Kaitlin was hard, and yet the tension transformed us. Furthermore, it transformed me personally.
I currently work for 99 Balloons, a faith-based community development organization. I oversee our equipping team. Our team works hard providing training and resources that catalyze inclusion in churches. We do this through consulting, ministry coaching, and networking. One of our most sought after resources is rEcess—a turnkey parents’ night out for families that experience disability. It’s a tool for churches to take on and contextualize to build relationships in the special needs community. We provide training, programming, and registration software. It’s our desire to remove obstacles so that others can focus on relationships with families experiencing disability faster.
The following is what I consider a primer on inclusion—a number of core lessons I’ve personally learned in my own journey as well as lessons gifted to me from others. I treasure my story—good, bad, and ugly. I learned quickly that before I could have an inclusive ministry, I needed an inclusive heart.
Active vs. Passive Welcomes
People do not go where they are actively rejected. Furthermore, people do not want to be present where the absence creates no value loss to the community. “If no one notices I’m gone, perhaps I’m not valued to begin with.” Luke 14 tells us we should compel people with disabilities to come into the Master’s house. The church must actively reach out and create reason for people with disabilities to join their community. Passively waiting for people to come will not likely bare fruit.
Accessibility and Creativity are Synonymous
If you posture your ministry to always say yes, creativity will make a way. By working backwards toward a solution to include people experiencing disability you will almost always find a way to include everyone.
Plan Over Program
When taking steps toward inclusion, begin with individual plans that work for each child as they come. It is challenging and often expensive to create a program that will encompass the needs of disability from the start. Who has time for another program? Begin with a plan. What would make Sunday great for a specific kid? Step by step. You will never learn to swim if you don’t jump in the pool.
Another’s Need Reveals My Own Lack
People with disabilities can be harder to love. Their needs can require greater physical exertion, more patience with behaviors, or greater attentiveness in communication. However, would Jesus expect one to dispel a part of themselves they can’t control or for me to expand my capacity to love, of which His cross is my standard. I only know I am short of patience when another is requiring my patience. It is an unlikely coincidence that 1 Corinthians 12, a chapter on bodily difference, is followed by 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. Think about it.
Ministry To and Ministry With
People with disabilities should be the SUBJECTs of relationships, not the OBJECTS of programs. While ministry TO people with disabilities is valuable, it’s incomplete. We also need ministry WITH people with disabilities. The body of Christ is incomplete without everyone’s gifts contributing to the whole (1 Corinthians 12:22-23).
If people with disabilities make you uncomfortable, confess it, and ask God to heal that part of your heart. 1 John 4:18 says, “perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment.” Your fear is causing you to miss the blessings of an inclusive life and is hurtful to those with disabilities. Ask God for His eyes and heart. Don’t be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. You likely offend people in every relationship in your life. If you think you have offended someone, apologize. Would you want someone to avoid you because they are afraid they’ll hurt your feelings?