As I talk with church leaders, some of them tell me that they feel inadequate in ministering to people with disabilities in their congregations and neighborhoods. Needs of people with disabilities can be complex including the need for specialized equipment, medical services, financial assistance, special accommodations in communication and architecture, changes in the way Sunday School classes are taught, and more. In the face of these challenges, some church leaders throw up their hands and say, “It’s too much for our congregation. They should go somewhere else where their needs can be met.”
However, inviting people to leave church is the nuclear option of church membership. Churches do not need to meet all of the needs of all members. As churches seek to enhance their ministry with people with disabilities, it helps to sort out what the church should not do. Churches do not need to be special education schools; they do not need to build sensory rooms or have physical therapists on staff (though they can do a lot to welcome kids into their educational programs). Churches do not need to be social welfare agencies; they do not need to be responsible for all the financial needs of a person or family (though financial assistance may be appropriate in limited amounts for limited periods of time). Churches do not need to be medical institutions (though parish nursing can be a significant ministry in some situations).
However, churches are the primary tools that God uses in the lives of people with disabilities for meeting two particular needs: social and spiritual needs. The World Report on Disability emphasizes the importance of the social needs. In a section of health care and disability, the Report says, People with long-term mental health problems – such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia – and learning disabilities, such as autism:
■ Had more chronic health conditions than the general population. . . .
■ Developed chronic health conditions at a younger age than other people. . . .
■ Died sooner following diagnosis. . . .
Social deprivation was a major contributor to these health inequalities.
People with disabilities face “Social deprivation” in a variety of ways due to architectural, communication, and attitudinal barriers in church and society. But as we reduce those barriers in church and open our buildings, worship, educational programs, and our lives to people with disabilities, we begin to meet one of the greatest challenges that people with disabilities face. When the church does so, the church fulfills one of its most significant callings.
One tool to help church leaders learn better how to come along side and develop a relationship with people with disabilities is the training booklet, A Compassionate Journey.
As for the most important work of the church, addressing spiritual needs, the WRD does not address at all. But we who love God and who love his people, the church, know that this need is the most fundamental to us human beings. I’ll say more about that next week.