Does your church’s ‘extravagant welcome’ include ‘accessible to all’?

Somewhere in the post-General Synod clamor about “marriage equality” and “economic leverage,” a few frustrated voices wondered aloud how their equally weighty resolution on disability ministries could win delegates’ overwhelming approval but miss the wider church’s spotlight.

Ministry with and among those with physical, mental and developmental disabilities needs more than mere lip service, they say. Real work is needed across the church.

“We want the initials A2A [accessible to all] right up there alongside ONA [open and affirming] and M&M [multiracial, multicultural],” the Rev. Grant F. Sontag of Mountain View, Calif., wrote to United Church News last year. “Our presence, our witness and our ministry are essential to the life of the whole UCC and not just a part of it.”

To the detriment of the church’s self-proclaimed “extravagant welcome,” argues Sontag and others, the UCC has not given enough energy to accessibility issues. But the solution, they insist, is not competition with other justice movements, but a multi-pronged emphasis on inclusive evangelism.

“We treasure the church’s up-front approach on major social issues,” says the Rev. David Denham, pastor of Bethel UCC in Arlington, Va., and UCC Disabilities Ministries consultant, “but the time has come for the church to lead on this issue, just as it has on many other key issues throughout our history.

“My greatest frustration is that we do not give parallel attention to A2A as we do M&M and ONA,” Denham says. “The disability issue crosses all races, cultures and sexual orientations. Disability is not a separate issue. It is woven into the fabric of our humanity. I feel and observe that we miss these things as a church.”

Since General Synod, Denham says, the UCC Disability Ministry (UCCDM) has been meeting with UCC leaders “to develop a strategy to alter the course on this issue.”

The approved General Synod resolution, “Called to wholeness in Christ: Becoming a church accessible to all,” submitted by the Minnesota Conference, calls on UCC Conferences, Associations, congregations, seminaries, campus ministries and colleges, camps, covenanted ministries and all other UCC organizations “to become accessible to all; to embody a philosophy of inclusion and interdependence; and to support and implement the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

The resolution reaffirms and strengthens a 1995 statement that had earlier called the UCC to embrace the “spirit” of the ADA.

Ministry ‘with,’ not ‘to’

The Rev. Jo Clare Hartsig of Wayzata, Minn., who took a lead role in writing and editing UCCDM’s congregational resource, “Any Body, Everybody, Christ’s Body” – published last year – says the church’s mindset, above all, is what needs attention.

It’s not ministry “to” persons with disabilities, she says, but ministry “with” and “by” persons with different types of abilities. Her teaching mantra? “Never about me without me.”

“I guess the first thing to consider is, ‘Who do we become when we become accessible to all?’ says Hartsig. “We become more inclusive, more like Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community.’

“The reality of disability is that it fills a spectrum,” she says, “from people who have significant kinds of impairments, those with purely physical disabilities, those with learning disabilities, those with brain disorders to those with hidden – not immediately visible – disabilities, those with disabilities from birth, those with disabilities from trauma or illness, to those with the diminishments of capacities as part of aging.

“At some point or another, especially if we live long enough, most members of the UCC will acquire some kind of disability,” Hartsig emphasizes.

The Rev. Dearthrice DeWitt, a UCC disabilities ministries advocate, agrees. “It is important for a minister to understand the difference between ministry to, ministry for, ministry with and ministry by people with disabilities.”

Dewitt, who is African American, says his passion for disabilities ministries stems from several circumstances, but especially a life- changing friendship with a seminary classmate with cerebral palsy.

“We learned a lot from each other about disability and race,” DeWitt says. “There was always humor between us as well.

“I’ll never forget the time a relative visited me and made an ignorant comment about my friend,” DeWitt remembers. “I was embarrassed, but did not excuse them. I acknowledged how ignorant the comment – and person – was. Now [my friend] and I can laugh about it.”

DeWitt says the place for individuals and churches to start is with the celebration of “somebodiness,” as he calls it, borrowing a term from his Black Church experience – “a somebodiness that is as gifted to serve themselves, me, the church and God as any of us who are temporarily able-bodied.”

The Rev. Joan C. Jones, a chaplain at UCC-related Emmaus Homes in Missouri, the region’s largest provider of assisted-living housing for adults with developmental disabilities, says there are plenty of resources available to help churches, if only they’d ask. The UCC’s Council for Health and Human Services has 77 member institutions that offer a range of services.

“Invite us in, and let us help give some ideas about how churches can be welcoming,” she says.

Jones, along with fellow chaplain the Rev. Christy May, offers weekly worship, Bible study and spiritual care at Emmaus’ seven campuses across southeastern Missouri. They’ve developed a “spiritual life inventory” that helps them assess how Emmaus’ ministry – and other ministries – can benefit from the gifts and graces of residents.

“We have the tool to interview individuals and more deeply discover what matters to them spiritually,” Jones says.

Similarly, Jones suggests that churches find specific ministries that persons with disabilities might be interested in pursuing.

“They are not to be pitied,” Jones insists. “They have lives with lots of potential. I learn everyday something new as long as I am willing to listen and not think that I have to teach or instruct.”

Jones recalls one resident who, early on, seemed to be regularly acting out by taking others’ bulletins during worship. Soon, Jones realized the Emmaus resident actually wanted to be a greeter and distribute bulletins.

“To this day, she hands them out and collects them when we’re done,” Jones says. “She feels part of things, and we periodically recognize and affirm her.”

A commitment, not a ‘check list’

The Rev. Peg Slater, the UCC’s minister for diversity and inclusion, believes no one is “opposed” to the UCC’s A2A commitment, but some in the church do not know where to begin.

“It seems quite overwhelming to some people when I speak with them,” Slater says. “Others just want resources – a check list – but do not want to go too deep into the issue.

“Getting the church to understand that people with disabilities are just people is a primary step in becoming accessible to all,” Slater says. “Many people are uncomfortable or afraid of persons with disabilities. Disability seems ‘out of control.’ People are afraid it is ‘catchy,’ people want to know what ‘went wrong’ or who is ‘at fault’ in the case of disability. Others don’t want to ‘hurt’ disabled persons more than they are already ‘hurt’ or ‘broken.’ In many of our congregations there is a fear that people with disabilities will take ‘too much of our time.'”

And then there’s the practical concern about which changes a church should try to implement first.

“There is huge spectrum of disability in our midst,” Slater says. “Trying to do the right thing is also overwhelming.”

Hartsig observes that many evangelical churches are ahead of mainline churches when it comes to effective disabilities ministries.

“I am part of a large, interfaith inclusion group here in the Twin Cities,” Hartsig says. “I have been so deeply impressed with the array and complexity of disability ministry offerings in the large, evangelical congregations around town. One church hosts support groups for families, one-on-one peer helpers for Sunday School children with disabilities, respite care, lectures, support in school settings, financial help, special needs consultation, special camp sessions, hospitality space for disability advocacy groups, social events. . Contrast this with our local council of churches – my people – which has very little to say about disability ministries, and they’ve been asked.”

The Rev. Priscilla Bizer, vice president for development at Emmaus Homes, says many churches forget that public policy advocacy is crucial step that churches can take. Government cuts to Medicaid and Medicare dramatically impact residents at UCC facilities, as well as others with disabilities, she says.

Likewise, Jones says advocacy is often overlooked by churches as ministry.

“We need to engage congregations to do more advocacy,” Jones says. “This is the most vulnerable population, along with children. It’s crucial.”

Changed lives

Before coming to Emmaus eight years ago, Jones was pastor of a rather-proper UCC church in Pennsylvania. But, now, in a ministry that serves persons with development disabilities, Jones has learned to appreciate the disruptions can occur in church, especially one that’s accessible to all. And that’s okay.

“I was very particular about the liturgy, and then I came here and that all came undone,” she says. “I had to learn to accept that. I had to accept that disruption will be a fact, even though you can redirect it.”

“You can either be spontaneous about it and have a sense of humor about it, or let it get it you,” she says. “That’s not to say it has to be chaotic, but it can be a challenge.”

“But I was called here, and I love it,” Jones says. “It has changed my life.”

Hartsig, who was “chosen” by the disability advocacy community in 1999 when her oldest son was diagnosed with autism, says she yearns for the day “when a set of stairs in any public facility, even a church, will be looked upon as a reminder of the dark days before Universal Design.”

During her 25-plus years as a justice advocate, Hartsig has approached social change as a multi-issue campaign.

“What I appreciate so much about the UCC is our alphabet soup approach to our covenanted community,” Hartig says. “We are seeking to be all these things – A2A, M&M, ONA – because they all matter, we all matter. I think we can help each other along and assure ourselves that we are providing the deepest kind of welcome and sense of belonging possible.”

Slater, who learned 12 years ago that she has Rheumatoid Arthritis, says her disability has taught her a lot about herself and others.

“I have learned that community is built when I need help and when I give help,” Slater says. “I learned to swallow pride and develop pride in myself – as I am.”


More than a ramp up
Practical tips for improving your church’s accessibility

Stress the person, not the disability.

Always speak directly to persons with a disability instead of talking only to their companions.

Don’t hesitate to ask a person if you can help. Then follow his or her instructions.

Provide seating so family and friends can stay together, not separate. Shorten some pews so that persons in wheelchairs can sit with/among other worshipers.

Do not move a wheelchair, cane or crutches out of reach of the person who uses them.

If you must lift a wheelchair, follow person’s instructions carefully. She or he knows what works best.

Honor decisions. A person who uses a wheelchair may, at times, choose to walk.

When greeting a person with a hearing disability, never speak directly into the person’s ear. Speak clearly, slowly and normally. Provide audio aids, as necessary and requested. If necessary, communicate in writing.

Resist the urge to complete words or sentences for persons with a speech disability. Give your full, unhurried attention.

When greeting a person with a visual disability, identify not only yourself but your role (usher, greeter, pastor, etc.). Offer a bulletin whether the person can read it or not. Make sure large-print bulletins and hymnals are available.

Some persons with mental illness may be disruptive. Designate one or two church members willing to approach such a person quietly. Accompany them to a place where they can talk aloud.

If some are uncomfortable assisting those with developmental disabilities, find those more inclined to help. Empower those who can explain the service, share a hymnal or be a companion at lunch or times of fellowship.

In case of seizure, don’t attempt restraint or put objects in the person’s mouth. Move objects or furniture to prevent injury. After seizure, offer reassurance and a comfortable place to rest.

Keep contact numbers posted by church telephones. A seizure could be a sign of epilepsy, stroke or a reaction to medication. Quickly find a nurse, doctor or informed family member to attend to the person’s needs while emergency medical assistance is contacted.

To invite full participation, make accessible not only the major areas of the church facility, but also the choir loft, lectern/pulpit and chancel.

Adapted suggestions from “Any Body, Everybody, Christ’s Body,” a congregational resource created by the UCC Disability Ministries. Order by calling United Church of Christ Resources at 800/537.3394.

Learn more at


Take the accessibility test

Is your church taking steps to become accessible to all? Critique your congregation’s progress.

1. AWARENESS. Recognition by some congregation members or the ordained religious leadership that certain barriers were preventing children or adults with physical, sensory, psychiatric or intellectual disabilities from accessing a full life of faith (including worship, study, service and leadership).

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

2. ADVOCACY. (Internal) Growing advocacy within the congregation to welcome people with disabilities as full participants and to remove barriers (architecture, communications and attitudes) to this participation.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

3. DISCUSSIONS. Concerns raised regarding ability of the congregation to meet the challenges (e.g., Are there enough people with this need to justify the expense? Will people with disabilities feel comfortable in joining us once barriers have been removed?) and then solutions identified–ideally with input from people with disabilities and other experts.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

4. PLANS. Invitation of people with disabilities to join the congregation as full members (including participation in rites of passage and initiation), action plans devised to achieve barrier-removing goals, and formal commitment made to welcome people with disabilities.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

5. ACCOMMODATIONS. Accommodations made to improve the participation of people with disabilities (e.g. large print bulletins, trained ushers, accessible parking spaces, ramps and pew cuts, improved lighting and sound systems, appropriate religious education for children with disabilities).

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

6. WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT. Appreciation expressed for the changes being made and friendships extended to people with disabilities and their family members by increasing numbers within the congregation.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

7. HURDLES. Identification of architectural (e.g., elevator, accessible restroom, ramp to the altar, chancel or bimah), communications (e.g., sign language interpreter or alternative formats for materials), transportation (e.g., wheelchair accessible van), financial, or other barriers and ways found to move forward in spite of them.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

8. INCLUSION. Increased participation of people with disabilities in worship, study, service and leadership, as well as increased comfort levels of members with a more diverse congregation.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

9. OUTREACH. (Local) Options explored and action plans formulated for partnership opportunities with local agencies and organizations serving people with disabilities.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

10. LEADERSHIP. Recruitment of lay members with disabilities for leadership roles within the congregation and a willingness demonstrated to accept and accommodate an ordained leader with disability.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

11. NEW CONSCIOUSNESS. Resistant barriers of attitude within the congregation toward people with disabilities addressed (e.g., through adult education forums, consciousness raising by the leadership of the congregation and one-on-one friendships).

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

12. TRANSFORMATION. Ongoing transformation of the congregation (through enriched opportunities, responsibilities, and friendships) into a place where children and adults with disabilities are welcomed, fully included and treated with respect.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

13. ADVOCACY. (External) An expanded advocacy role for congregation members regarding the needs and rights of persons with disabilities in the community-at-large.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

14. OUTREACH. Successful strategies, insights, and effective practices compiled and shared with other congregations and communities.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

15. SHARING THE STORY. The story of the transformation of the congregation publicized through articles, presentations, and/or media events.

Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We’re there

SCORING: Invite several within your congregation to take this test, including persons with disabilities. Compare your individual assessments and group findings, then set a course for action.

Source: National Organization on Disability’s Accessible Congregations Campaign

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Categories: UC News

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