Many church members believe that churches are places of support and acceptance to all families. Most would be surprised to find that families of children with disabilities have difficulty establishing and maintaining church relationships. As a general rule, faith communities struggle in their response to this growing population. This article addresses the spiritual implications for families of children with disabilities and how faith communities can provide support to them.
According to Christianity Today (“Fear Not,” 2005), there are an estimated 50 million people with disabilities of all kinds in the United States, and 600 million worldwide. Each one, to borrow a phrase from the late Mother Teresa, is “Jesus in distressing disguise.” Families of children with disabilities live in all communities, yet many are not a part of a church. Churches have not been especially welcoming to these families.
Unfortunately, parents of disabled children are not likely to visit a church without an invitation or knowledge that a program exists for their children (Fuller & Jones, 1997), and currently, few of these programs exist. Many families have endured great disappointments and embarrassments when they have assumed that anyone, even the church, will accept their children.
A Message from the Parents
When asked what message they would give churches seeking to minister to families of children with disabilities, they state that churches must move beyond merely “finding a place” for them. What these children need is to be truly welcomed, and the parents’ deepest desire is that their children be wanted, not just tolerated:
Welcome them, number one. The parents need to know above all else that you love their children and not just that you love their children but that you want their children.
For these parents, welcoming their children includes recognizing their spiritual capacity. “We want people to believe she can learn about Jesus.” When the focus is on the child’s cognitive capacity, the risk is that we will ignore the intuitive aspects of relationship with God (Webster, 2004).
Show those kids the love of Jesus and . . . that God has promised that we will know his voice and that in some way, some how, in a way that we don’t understand, God has promised that these kids can know him and will know him.
These parents know that their children exhibit behaviors that can be very difficult to manage in the church setting.
It is not easy to teach these children. They sometimes act out and they are aggressive and parents know that. I think they are terrified to bring their child to a new place and have him act out and kick and scream the whole time.
You know, just be open and honest with them (the parents) and say, “You know, we’re not sure how to handle this but we would like to try.” They will give you some suggestions. Parents would be happy to do that and we know that our child is different.
Families of children with disabilities face many struggles—financial, health, emotional, social—as well as the simple activities of day-to-day life. As such, many turn to their faith and spirituality in an effort to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Many of these families are in search of religious communities for the support they need. Without that support, however, parents are either reluctant to attend or are unable to benefit from attending because they spend their time providing direct support to their children with disabilities.
The comments from families in this study indicate that they are looking for at least three things:
- Acceptance of their child with disabilities
- Spiritual and emotional support
- A program for their special needs child so that the other members of the family can have a meaningful experience in religious practice.
Serving families of children with special needs doesn’t just begin in the Sunday school teacher’s classroom although that is important. Serving these families is ultimately dependent upon the entire church; it means making a commitment to the special needs child through his adulthood.
Practical Questions for the Church to Ask
- What vision do we have for including people with disabilities in our churches?
- Should we discuss with the leaders of our churches a mission statement regarding individuals with disabilities? A well-grounded philosophy among the leaders of any organization is fundamental to the success of such a program.
- Are all members in the church treated fairly?
- Does everyone have an opportunity to contribute?
- Are individuals with disabilities really included in the worship service or are they relegated to a small section in the auditorium?
- Are they greeted when they enter the sanctuary or must they keep to themselves?
- Do we have enough accessible parking?
- Are the aisles wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs?
Spiritual and Emotional Support
Faith provides a framework through which families—all families—can bring meaning to their lives. Given this premise, are there opportunities to explore how the biblical text brings relevance and meaning to these families’ unique journeys?
- How can we, the church, connect those families farther along in the journey with those who have heard “the bad news” for the first time?
- How can we provide them with a safe space to grieve the loss and lament freely and ultimately empower them to move forward to claim joy despite the struggle?
- Should we send teachers to seminars and workshops so that they can receive the proper training?
- Because divorce rates among parents of children with disabilities are higher than average, what are we doing to minister to these families?
If our churches provide a place of community, then we must be careful not to draw the proverbial lines around those who are included in the community and those who are not. All of us—not just some of us—comprise the body of Christ.
A church that is “inclusive” is grounded in an attitude of acceptance. Once this attitude is adopted it will drive the decisions and actions made by the church (Breeding, Hood & Whitworth, 2006). The lives of these children and their families have not been lived in vain and we have learned a great deal about hope from them.
As one parent put it, “I think as time goes on most churches will find the way to reach our kids, especially if they understand it’s critical.”
About The Authors
MaLesa Breeding, Ed.D., is an associate professor and Dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, TX.
Dana Hood, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Abilene Christian University.
Breeding and Hood are co-authors of Let All the Children Come to Me (2006, Cook).
Voices Unheard: Exploring the Spiritual Needs of Families of Children with Disabilities is taken from the Christian Education Journal, CEJ: Series 3, Vol. 4 No. 2, Copyright 2007; p 280-292. All rights reserved. Permission granted by Christian Education Journal.
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