4 practical tips for welcoming and including families with disability in your church

My friend told me about their first Sunday morning when they returned to church after lockdown. Their four young children had forgotten the usual groove of leaving home by a particular time and were in no hurry.  Breakfast had been snubbed by the toddlers and the five year old refused to leave without her cherished teddy. When they finally arrived at church, their eight-year-old had drawn all over himself with permanent marker and had no shoes on his feet. This little boy, with Down Syndrome told his Mum that they were uncomfortable, so he had thrown them out of the car window.

The welcome they received from their church family whom they had not seen for months helped dislodge the knot of tension growing in my friend throughout the morning.

The chaos of the morning’s events, the frustration of the loss of her son’s shoes, paled in comparison to the joy of being back in church and worshipping together. The welcome and sense of belonging my friend felt made the chaos of the morning worthwhile. 

Getting to church on a Sunday morning can be hectic for any family with young children but for families with children with disability, the challenges can be exponentially harder and more complex. My friend and her family are part of a loving and inclusive church who have embraced her family, including their son with Down Syndrome, and worked to ensure they are able to participate fully in the life of the church.

Sadly, this is not always the experience for families living with disability. Church communities have the opportunity to put the gospel into action by upholding the value and dignity of all people, made in God’s image and likeness. In a world that can be hostile and negative for people with disability, we have the opportunity to live out the gospel and model God’s great love for people.

Here are 4 simple tips for welcoming and including families living with disability in your church:

1. Ask the question: Do families living with disability feel welcomed and valued in your church?

The easiest way to find out the answer to this question is to ask! Ask the parents of the children with disability in your church how they find coming to church. Are there barriers that make it difficult for them to participate in the service? Is their child able to fully participate in the kids church program? Asking these questions in an open and receptive way will help families feel like their voices and experience matter and will help inform you about any changes you could make to help this family feel loved and included.

The changes that will make the biggest difference are often small and inexpensive. A visual timetable at a kid’s program showing the children what is happening is easy to create, costs next to nothing but could make a huge difference to a child’s ability to participate in the children’s program.

2. Get to the know the family and the needs of the child with disability

Parents will always be your best resource when it comes to getting to know a child or young person with a disability. Why not create a flexible enrolment form for kid’s church for a child with disability that enables you to find out more about the child’s needs.  Helpful questions include: what might be triggering for them?  What helps to settle them if they are upset or distressed?  What are their interests?  Their favourite toy? 

Take the time to meet with a family of a child with disability. Visit their home and get to know the child in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable. What resources do the family use at home that you might be able to make use of at church? Do they use a visual timetable? Does the child use noise-cancelling headphones to manage loud noises? Some changes will be easy and affordable but can make a significant difference to a child’s ability to participate in church and feel safe and at home.

3. Recognise the challenges faced by families living with disability

The stresses on families who have children with disability are well documented. The divorce rate among parents of children with disability is higher, carers have an increased risk of mental health challenges, and for many families, the financial cost of caring for a child with a disability can add additional stress. It is not surprising that families with children with disability might be exhausted by Sunday and find it difficult to get everyone ready to arrive at church on time. It is worth understanding these challenges as they are unique to that family. For example, what impact does loud music have on the child with disability; how does the family get treated by other families when they are regularly late and feel like a noisy intrusion? This will help all of us respond with compassion and kindness.

As a church, we might be able to make them feel welcome no matter what time they arrive by acknowledging the effort they have taken to get there.  We might be able to offer help and support to these parents on their arrival.  For example:

  • Offer to colour in with the child rather than trying to ‘shush’ them
  • Offer to help get the child ready for the kid’s program rather than rolling your eyes at them for arriving late – yet again
  • Consider making the use of zoom a regular part of church and bible study to enable parents to participate on those days when it is all too hard to get them out the door

4. Provide practical support for families

It can be hard to know how to support a family when the challenges they face are long term. The best thing to do is to ask the family what would be helpful. But be specific about when and what you are able to help so it doesn’t seem like an empty offer. “I am available on Saturday. Would it be helpful if I came and mowed the lawn for you?” Get to know the child with a disability so you can babysit and give the parents the night off. Could you offer to help with one of the siblings? If you are going to the park after church, can you take the siblings with you and give the parents one-on-one time with their child with a disability? You may be surprised at how ‘doable’ what the family suggests would help them could be.

Mary Andrews College offers a subject on disability ministry which will be running in semester 1, 2022 and will be taught by Louise. This is an excellent course designed to help all of us care and love people with disability.  For more information on studying at MAC, go to www.mac.edu.au

For more on families with disability in churches, check out:

Stephanie Hubach’s Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability available from Koorong here.

Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo’s Every Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special Needs available from Koorong here.

Dr Louise Gosbell is the principal at Mary Andrews College in Sydney. Louise’s PhD on disability in the New Testament was published in 2018. Louise has spent more than 15 years training churches in disability inclusion. 

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