More and more, I gauge the health of a church by how well it cares for the “least of these.” This especially includes the elderly, widowed, orphaned, and handicapped. I have seen firsthand the ineptitude of churches to minister to those who are not strong, smart, contemporary, and fashionable, basically those who do not fit into the category of average or above. I have only ran across a few churches in all my years of travel who actually had ministry purposefully designed for the disabled. Let’s begin with some very obvious factors.
First, we must make our buildings accessible to all people. A lot of this will depend on the country and local laws and building codes. Many churches have not upgraded their facilities to be user friendly for the handicapped. This can be an expensive proposition in some situations. Churches should be models of this as much as possible. In the Philippines, accessibility for people with disabilities is a big issue. Often sanctuaries are on the second floor or have many steps. The restrooms are far away and difficult to get to. Pews are uncomfortable and difficult for people. Sometimes even the restrooms lack toilets with seats! We cannot let culture, economics, or laziness keep us from offering the best facility for those who are disabled. There are many creative things a church can do to help make their facilities user friendly. The pastor must lead in this vision and make it a priority to the church people.
Second, churches must purposefully seek to disciple all people. This will start with a healthy concept of the church as the Body of Christ and the theological idea that all people are created in the image of God. Every person, no matter how infirmed, young, old, rich or poor they may be, has a place of ministry in the church. Every person can be discipled, not just the smart outspoken ones. This may be one of the most challenging aspects of ministry to the disabled. I have seen few places that specifically attempt to disciple the mentally challenged. It may take special effort and gifts, but as the people of God, we are obligated to take care of our brothers and sisters in spiritual matters.
Third, church leaders need to help people overcome their discomfort and fears of being around disabled people. This seems to be one of the biggest issues for people. They are not “comfortable” around those with disabilities. Basically, what they are saying is that they are too selfish to go out of their comfort zone to show unconditional love to people who may not meet their conditions of friendship and worthiness. That is a harsh statement, but holds a lot of truth. I don’t think we need to confront the church with this statement at first, but we can offer the challenge. If it comes down to it, we may have to rebuke the church for its ingrownness and lack of love. Jesus certainly did that to the religious leaders of his day. How can we help people overcome their fears? One is simply by educating them and teaching them the full gospel of love. Fear can be caused by a lack of knowledge. We can also model this as leaders by our interaction. We can guide a church board into making this a ministry and budgeting appropriately for it. We can pray and ask God to raise up a person who can lead a special ministry for the disabled.
Fourth, we must remember to care for the families of the disabled. Often, it is difficult for people with disabilities to leave home. Going to church can become almost impossible. Behind every disabled person is a family who struggles to fit in this world. Families are often homebound. They cannot go to a church service without great effort. They cannot participate in many activities planned by the church, youth groups, or children’s ministries. Families cannot stay out late for events. They may feel isolated but want to be around people. A church can have a special ministry of calling and visitation. Church services can be held in the homes of the disabled. Bring communion, music, and a word from God’s Word. Events can be planned that take the families into consideration. There may be a special ministry that cares for the disabled (young or old) that allows the family members to participate in a worship service or special event. Give the family a “break time” to get away to be refreshed.
Fifth, develop patience when working with disabled people. They may not be able to do many things and may require more time. There is often a reason why family members of the disabled are stressed. It takes a lot of extra work sometimes to help those who are weak. Be sensitive to the needs of disabled persons. Walk in their shoes for a day and see their struggles. God may use such persons to grow us to be more like Jesus.
Sixth, become genuine friends of the disabled. Learn to appreciate them as God’s special creations. See Jesus in them. Love them unconditionally. This may be one of the greatest things you ever do. During the last part of his life, the famous Henry Nouwen lived with a disabled person. Nouwen said that this was the greatest thing he ever did. See this person as a treasure to you from God. We can also ask the disabled about how they want to be loved.
Pastors can set an example in all of this. We are the leaders of the church. Our attitudes will filter out to the people. This may take time, but people will model what we do, even in slight ways. Change and growth in this area will take churchwide participation. We are called to model God’s love. In some cases, this will require more intentionality and purpose.
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