After over eight years of serving an awesome, vibrant, and diverse congregation in Lagrange, GA my family and I followed the call to serve a new congregation and community in Atlanta. It was only one year into my tenure as pastor of my former church when I received my autism diagnosis. Over the years following my diagnosis, we worked diligently to use my new found diagnosis as a launching pad to develop a ministry that was more disability inclusive. Over the course of nearly five years I watched as the church rallied around a new found mission to do ministry with and for people with diverse disabilities and mental health issues.
In January of this year, when I transitioned to a church, I was asked about the future of disability ministry at my former church. How could I be sure that they would carry on the mission of ministry with and to the disability community once I was gone?
In Hebrews 12 Paul paints a picture of the Christian journey as a race in which we need divine help, determination, and discipline in order to pass on our faith from one generation to the next. About halfway through his artful assessment of our faith, he pens a line that provides instruction about the discipline it takes to create room for the disability community in our communities of faith.
“Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.” (Hebrews 12:13 NLT)
Because the Christian faith is a relay race, it is the responsibility of each Christian and each church to leave a trail that clears the path for those coming behind us. This is especially true as it relates to disability ministry.
While every church should be constantly growing and evolving into becoming more inclusive of the disability community, the most important thing is to create a path for others to follow by creating a culture of determination, discipline, and dependence on divine help from God. In other words, special needs ministry must be in the DNA of your church. Here are three ways to get started.
Leaders must have a personal interest in special needs ministry
I have had the pleasure at speaking at many great disability ministry conferences across the country. One of the comments I consistently get is that the people that attend these conferences have the passion for disability ministry, but they lack the support of the pastor and leadership. I always respond with a statement of complete transparency and honesty: “Nothing happens at your church that is not important to the pastor and leaders.” If you want to create a legacy of disability ministry, it has to be personal to the pastor and leaders. The reason why the special needs ministry continues to grow at my former church is because it personally benefitted members of the staff and elders. Our team was built to be diverse; we chose staff with disabilities and chose leaders whose families are personally impacted by disability.
Chances are you already have staff and/or leaders that have a disability of some form. They are just fearful of disclosing that information. When I became public about my autism, it gave church leaders the courage to disclose disability-related issues that they or their children were facing. Making disability ministry a part of the DNA of you church sometimes begins with giving people the freedom to disclose their own daily challenges with disability or mental health issues.
Create designated funding sources for special needs ministry
Having the discipline to infuse disability ministry into the DNA of your church will ultimately require you to place dollars behind the mission. In my 18 years of pastoring, I have learned a simple truth that Jesus shares in the gospel of Matthew: Heart follows treasure (Matthew 6:21). If your church has a desire to do disability ministry long-term, it has to place the treasure where it wants its heart to be in the future.
In the early stages of creating a special needs ministry, I used this principle to defend against our natural inclination to excuse the church from reaching the disability community because of budget constraints. Slowly but surely we created opportunities to designate funds to special needs ministry. Offerings from our monthly 1st Wednesday service went directly to special needs ministry. Proceeds from our annual autism breakfast went directly to special needs ministry. I even donated all of the proceeds from the sale of my book at the church to the ministry. Jesus is clear that if you want your heart to belong to something, invest in it.
Create a sense of accountability to your community
One simple strategy for making disability ministry a part of the DNA of your church is to tell your community that you want to serve the special needs community. One of the greatest mistakes churches make is to not talk about their desire for serving the disability community, or not talk about the ministry that the church is currently providing to the disability community. Many times, this is because the church feels ill-prepared or inadequate. While we should use wisdom before advertising, talking about it publicly creates a sense of accountability. When we stay quiet, we don’t have to answer to the disability community, but when we dare to go public with our pursuit of creating a disability inclusive church, we place ourselves in the position of having to be accountable for actually doing it.
Christianity is a relay race. It is a race where we are called as Christians and leaders to make a straight path so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong. Making that mission a part of the DNA of our churches will require determination, discipline, and divine help from God.
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is the pastor of Tri-Cities Church in Atlanta and the author of I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor. For more information visit www.autismpastor.com