An ELCA Sunday school teacher gave each student a piece of a small jigsaw puzzle. He reminded the class that without each individual piece they held in their hands, the complete picture would never be finished. He explained that without each and every one of us God’s plan is incomplete.

This lesson just happened to be in a class of adults with developmental disabilities, but the same message rings true for all ELCA congregations eager to respond to the call to discipleship by welcoming people with a variety of abilities.

Walk together, learn from each other, and consider them partners in faith as their contributions are woven into the fabric of your congregation’s life. A developmental disability is a disability that is manifested before age 18 and is attributable to mental retardation or related conditions that include cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism or other neurological conditions.

We must reshape our attitude about those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities by building from the perspective of similarities rather than differences.

When your Lutheran congregation looks at one of its members with a disability, do they see an individual who only has needs? Or do they see an usher, greeter, altar guild member, acolyte, communion assistant, choir member, banner maker, bulletin folder, nursery volunteer, teacher assistant, prayer chain member, church library assistant, grounds maintenance worker or pastoral call committee member? With enough support, anyone can do anything!

Evangelism and inclusive ministry

As we take a wide-angle snapshot of our congregations, how many of those actively involved are people with disabilities? Parents and siblings often fear a sense of isolation, rejection or even embarrassment as they consider the congregation’s reaction to their loved one’s involvement in church.

Many congregations share wonderful stories of entire families who became involved and baptized in the church through the gateway invitation of a holistic disability ministry. As you begin your ministry with and among those with disabilities, connect with neighboring congregations and reach out into the community with the message of God’s love and grace for all. Contact local agencies and institutions. Encourage those with disabilities to invite their friends. Your congregation will be enriched and strengthened.

Beginning a developmental disability ministry

The most successful disability awareness initiatives seek to answer a fundamental question: How are the God-given gifts of all people discovered and put to use in this community of faith?

Bethesda Lutheran Communities has prepared a comprehensive and easy-to-use manual called Building a Developmental Disability Ministry to help congregations start and sustain a vital ministry with and for those with developmental disabilities and their families.

In the meantime, as you consider what a developmental disability ministry might look like in your setting, be open to creative and significant essentials and possibilities:

Ask your prayer team or worship leaders to call upon the Holy Spirit to stir the hearts of those who would form a small coordinating team.
Use temple talks, bulletin inserts or newsletter columns to educate and equip, and to dispel apprehension about interacting with those with disabilities.
Language communicates values. Teach people of all ages to use “people-first” references that honor the individual rather than the disability. Say, “child with a disability,” not “disabled child.”
Say, “people with developmental disabilities,” not “the developmentally disabled.” In addition, respect adults with developmental disabilities. They are adults, not children.
Consider a special monthly worship service for the congregation and the community designed for those with disabilities and their families.
Train high school youth and adults to be mentor/buddies. Friendship Ministries provides training and resources.
Uphold the notion of “whole person, whole family” by recognizing that parents, siblings and caregivers have unique concerns, struggles and celebrations.
Help individuals in the congregation develop a relationship with those with disabilities with a visit, call or invitation to congregational activities and with birthday cards.
Many ELCA congregations offer adapted Sunday school classes for those with disabilities in the congregation and community. Don’t limit yourself to traditional Sunday morning activities. Consider a day-long retreat for social and spiritual nurture with lots of music and interactive stimuli.

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