This is part 2 of a series about disability ministry. You can read part 1 here.
Now that we have discussed the general importance of pursuing individuals with disabilities rather than merely accommodating them, let us now turn our focus toward what not to do in attempting to establish an inclusive community within your church. When it comes to how churches approach disability ministry, there are some common, if unintentional, pitfalls that, if not avoided, will hurt a congregation’s disability ministry efforts. Here are just a few to be mindful of:
The Expert. Well-meaning churches make this mistake all the time—designating one person who handles all questions regarding disability, who is expected to have all the answers pertaining thereto, and who is tasked with everything related to special needs, disability, or mental health challenges of any kind. Churches fall into this trap mainly because someone cares too much not to do something.
No one needs to be an expert to build relationships and interact with people with disability.
These people are usually saints. However, they are often and, unwittingly, saints who keep the church from experiencing the blessing of ministering to persons with disability. Disability affects people across every age and spectrum of life, and different individuals have different needs. This is not a one-size-fits-all category. Attention to disability ministry is not something that can be shoved off on one person simply because they have a heart for persons with disability. Disability should be considered in every stage, initiative, and offering that a church provides—children’s ministry, worship services, communication, facility access, community groups, Sunday school, curriculum, etc.
No one needs to be an expert to build relationships and interact with people with disability. A resident expert can best serve the church by equipping and supporting all staff and laypeople in their pursuit to include disability considerations within their spheres rather than taking on all of the issues or challenges themselves.
A Separate Class. Say it with me: Inclusion first. Believe it or not, children and adults experiencing disability do not come to church in order to be separated from everyone else. Remember, no approach will hold up to every person with disability you may encounter, but the same starting point will: How can we best include this person in a community with their peers?
Remember that the category of “peers” does not mean other people with disability. Persons with disability may need different and various personalized supports, but these supports need always to be put in place in order to allow the person to be as integrated with the rest of the church community as possible. There may also be times and situations when a class for adults with disability is perfectly appropriate, but the church must be vigilant to ensure they have not created a silo that allows them to feel good about persons with disability being present while also keeping their distance from those individuals.
Unsolicited Healing or Anointing Rituals. I know that some ministers believe very strongly in the power of God’s healing through their prayers or the touch of their hands or their anointing oil. But when approaching a new family including a person with disability or a individual with disability who is new to your church, a general best practice is not to offer unsolicited healing or anointing. Offer welcome instead. Offer hospitality and love instead.
Jesus healed people in the Bible when they sought him out and asked for it. Ministers would be wise to take the same approach. By all means, act on such requests if they are presented to you and if you feel comfortable doing so. But it is a mistake to assume that a family is sad or emotionally impoverished just because disability is a part of their reality. It is a mistake to assume persons with disability or their families want your prayers for healing. If it makes you cringe to imagine a pastor offering someone unsolicited prayers on behalf of that person’s obesity, then please understand that persons with disability and their families often feel the same way when uninvited prayers or pity are offered to them.
It is a mistake to assume that a family is sad or emotionally impoverished just because disability is a part of their reality.
Disability ministry is important to consider carefully and do well because the body of Christ is most accurately reflected when all kinds, shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities are present together in service and worship and community.
You can read more about Disability Ministry and what we embrace here.