A recent survey from LifeWay Research of 1,000 protestant pastors and 1,002 churchgoers found that — surprisingly — 99% of the pastors interviewed believe someone with a disability would feel welcomed at their church. Churchgoers were not far behind, with 97% agreeing to the same.
The survey results have puzzled many disabled individuals, parents of kids with disabilities, and those involved in disability ministry. The survey focused on pastors and churchgoers, and many of us wonder why the focus was not on disabled individuals and the parents of kids with disabilities. This approach would result in documenting real-life experiences rather than inaccurate and biased self-perceptions .
While the majority of pastors and churchgoers believe their churches to be welcoming, the many reported experiences of those who are impacted by disability point to the fact that churches are not welcoming places. It is a stark comparison.
What does it mean to be welcoming?
I don’t doubt that most churches are a “friendly” place to visit. But let’s agree that being welcoming is more than being friendly.
My husband was a pastor for 13 years, and in the last four years we have visited several churches trying to find a home. Almost all churches we have visited are friendly, welcoming our family with smiles and statements declaring, “I am so glad you chose to worship with us today!” But we need more than that. The moment my two disabled daughters walk in, church leaders seem unsure of what to do. At one church I was asked to stay with my daughters during the children’s service. Imagine asking this of a visitor! At most churches, we had to keep our daughters with us during the service. Some churches we considered visiting, but the buildings were not accessible. One church said they wanted to meet with me to talk about how to best support my kids, but they never followed through. After four years, only one church has actually made a point to connect with our family and make sure that my kids feel like they belong.
We have to understand that being welcoming means that no matter how different someone is when they walk through your church doors, they will be respected and valued for exactly who they are. It means that even when someone “disrupts” the established norms of a church service — the way things are done — they will be included and find a place of belonging. It means we are willing to change in order for everyone to belong.
I reached out to my Facebook community — most of them parents of children with disabilities and disabled adults — and asked them if they believed the Church to be welcoming. Their responses provide a pointed difference of lived experiences when compared to the survey results.
Pete De Ritter, the parent of an adult child with a disability said, “I think part of the problem is that many churches [are concerned with] orderliness. They place so much emphasis on the service being dignified that they find it difficult to tolerate anyone who does not fit their model of proper behavior in church.” Pete went on to give the example of the disabled man whose friends lowered him through a hole they made on the roof so he could see Jesus, “In most churches today, the congregation would probably be upset if this happened during the service and complain that the service had been interrupted.”
We need more than friendliness to feel welcomed.
Are churches ready to receive individuals with disabilities?
Being welcoming means that you are willing and ready to include an adult or a child with a disability (and their families) — and are willing to invest your resources to make that happen.
Adam Morris, a pastor and father of a child with Down syndrome said, “In my experience, most churches are filled with people who love others and believe in the dignity of all people, including the disabled. At the same time, because of ignorance, most churches fail to see how unwelcoming they are to many in the disability community. It is one thing to theoretically say that all are welcome. It is quite another thing to have the way we do things be disrupted by someone who may not fit in the mold of how we operate. I think that is why you hear so many horror stories of people who were explicitly asked to leave or felt like they were not welcome. Disability attitudes have to change in order for the disabled and their families to truly be welcomed in our churches.”
I agree with Adam, as a disability ministry consultant, I find that most churches do want to be welcoming, but they don’t know how to do it. This is where I usually come in, helping and training churches and creating a plan of action. The first thing I do is address disability attitudes because even the best intentioned people hold problematic disability attitudes.
Not to mention, most pastors are not trained or knowledgable on theology of disability, that is where the problems begin. When you look at people with disabilities as “needy” and someone you do “ministry to” rather than “ministry with” you have a power dynamic that harms the disability community.
Welcoming those with disabilities.
When I work with churches, I have the leadership team work through a list of 10 questions I believe are important to ask when developing a disability ministry.
My first question — even before this survey came out — often is: “Is your church welcoming persons with disabilities and their families?” I follow up with the question, “What specifically are you doing to be welcoming of adults and children with disabilities?”
I am basically asking them to show me evidence that proves they are indeed welcoming.
Interestingly, the survey also asked pastors a similar question: “How are churches currently helping people with disabilities and their families?”
These were their responses:
75% of pastors said they encourage their members to volunteer in events that service the disability community.
My family has been to many, many disability related events and I wonder where these church volunteers are. As a mater of fact, I have yet to hear a pastor encourage this involvement, so it is puzzling that 75% of pastors claim to do so. Involvement in community? Yes, I have heard that. Specific to supporting disabled individuals in the community, I have not head that yet. I am sure some do, but that 75% response seems grossly inflated.
70% of pastors said they provide financially for families with ongoing needs.
Yes, churches do help people with financial needs/crisis. Most churches have a fund specifically for this purpose, but the response reflects the limited understanding church leaders have of the financial strain that disabled individuals and their families experience. Yes, helping with gas cards or grocery cards, helping cover the electricity bill for November, helping pay for rent or mortgage for a month… that is not the same as true financial support of the ongoing needs that those impacted by disability face. A one time financial gift for an ongoing challenge is helpful but doesn’t solve the problem.
60% of pastors said they serve family caregivers by giving them a break.
I don’t have an eloquent response to this because one of the biggest needs for families is respite. And guess who is not providing the respite needed? Their church families.
29% of pastors said their church offers a class or event specifically for individuals with disabilities.
I wish this response had a follow up question. Is this a church that has planned a sensory friendly Easter egg-hunt as an outreach event, or a church that actually has an established disability ministry. See the difference?
Where is the evidence that churches welcome those with disabilities?
As I continue working with churches I ask:
“What is the evidence that individuals with disabilities are valued and fully integrated in your church body?”
I also ask for evidence that as a church body we are doing the difficult work of loving all people. Because loving means we are willing to make necessary changes and put our money where we say our heart is.
Ellie Mahaney, a parent of a child with a disability said, “On the ‘welcoming’ question I’d say yes, I think so, but that doesn’t mean they are ready for us. Many churches we visited were super glad we were there but didn’t realize how hard it would be for us to stay. In our search we quickly realized that many churches were not very accessible for wheelchair users. You may be able to get trough the door but then are quickly reminded they are not prepared to include the individual with a disability in the services or programs they offer.”
Thankfully, there are churches that recognize — once a family visits — that changes must be made in order for a disabled individuals to be truly welcomed. Ellie Mahaney went on to say her family has found a place that is truly welcoming, “Fortunately, in our case the church we felt led to took up the charge with enthusiasm and made many changes that not only benefit our family but all families that will come after us as well. It wasn’t so much that they were ready for a family like ours but they were determined to change that. We were patient and they were loving and willing. They have come alongside my child and our family and embraced all our differences and challenges.”
The voices of families and disabled adults speak for themselves as evidence of what welcoming is and what welcoming is not. Here are some other responses from the community as evidence regarding whether or not churches are welcoming:
“I have been to church very few times since my son was born. There’s too much anxiety surrounding it. Nurseries/Sunday school can’t seem to provide accommodations. If I have my son in big church with me I feel like we are stared at for him making noises. So I end up watching from a TV in the hallway or something. I also don’t want pity or judgement from other churchgoers. The, ‘I’ll pray for God to heal him,’ is my biggest peeve — but he doesn’t need healing! He is perfect exactly the way God made him and intended him to be. This is why I have moved away from church (but closer to God) since becoming an adult. It’s sad. And I hope we do find a church home someday.” — Taylor Whitson
“I don’t want to say she hasn’t been welcomed. But, her presence is welcome with the caveat of, ‘sure she can come, if you come with her.’ I have tried to set up accommodations, but I can’t do it by myself. We’ve tried to set up a respite worker to go with her, but it always falls through. So, for now, she doesn’t go. No Sunday school, she was not a part of the Christmas program. So yes, she is welcome, but she is definitely not included.” — Emma Bouza
“I believe they are welcoming but still do not know how to accommodate or include those with disabilities. This is precisely why I quit attending my last church. Only one person in a large church actually attempted to interact with my daughter. I understand fears but it’s not like she had something contagious. Made me feel that same old isolated feeling that I’ve known for 30 years.” — Lisa Cummings
“As a whole, I’d say no! However, there are some amazing churches that are very welcoming. The best one we went to, the children’s pastor was an early childhood intervention specialist. They ‘got it.’ As a parent, I have been very rudely treated by church members.The awareness just isn’t there, especially for kids that have ‘hidden’ disabilities. For many of us, we just stay home.” — Laura Hartwig
“Our rural church of 50 has always embraced us. We don’t have a special needs ministry per se, but our 17-year-old with Down syndrome participates in everything, from Children’s Choir to supervised helping with the younger children. I think the family dynamic of a smaller church has contributed to this as we all know each other so well.” — Darren and Nannette Pettyjohn
“Churches try to be welcoming but they often don’t have the knowledge or facilities to support families with disabilities. If your child makes too much noise, you will often be asked to go into a separate area (eg family room). This can feel very excluding, especially if your child is making happy noises. I’ve had some good experiences where the priest is happy for a child to roam around the altar, but often it’s members of the congregation who have a problem with this.” — Emily Westlake
“As a whole, no, I do not think most churches are welcoming or accommodating of those with disabilities. That being said, we have a wonderful church that welcomes people with various disabilities and includes them in the church body. They have a sensory room where students can have time away from the noises of classes but the goal is to get them back with peers, when possible. They do have Buddies for children and adults with disabilities who need extra assistance. They have helpers to assist adults with disabilities who need assistance to take the Lord’s Supper. They also have a deaf ministry and translators at every service for the worship and the sermon. We have quite a few service dogs at our church, too!” — Amy Knueppel
“Our experience has been similar to others. My son has been welcomed, but not included by his peers. It is only recently that we have been able to find enough support people to go out with him so my husband and I can sit through a whole service. 2 of them we are paying with disability funding, which I still have a hard time with. Only one parent from the church has offered to help. The other non paid person is an ex school support worker who looks after him in her home, as she doesn’t go to church. The church has a long way to go towards being truly inclusive.” — Heather Stevens
Related: The Church and Disability
“My church was very welcoming of my son until he got bigger; he is 7 now but from 3-6 was welcomed in Sunday School and kid’s choir. He is no longer welcome. They actually put additional restrictions on ‘eligibility’ for the little kid’s choir to exclude my son. The Pastor told us he knows our son doesn’t sing all the words anyway, so I guess he isn’t worthy to be in a choir of k3-2nd grade. We also were told by the Pastor that our 7-year-old son gives too many hugs to teachers. Apparently that’s the worst transgression of all. Our hearts are absolutely broken. Our church was unwilling to help us find someone to be an ‘aid’ or peer model when we continued to strike out. We don’t expect them to reinvent the wheel, just to act welcoming of everyone. Conversely, there are two churches in town that have developed special needs ministries.” — Beth Wisniewski
“At my church yes. But we have a lot of people with disabilities in our church. I always felt welcomed and went to CCD with my peers. However, When I went to other churches with family sometimes they would try to “heal” me.” — Sarah Lovas
(This is just a small sample of the 130 people who responded. You can read all comments and responses and join in the conversation HERE).
Understanding the disconnect.
Clearly, church leaders (and churchgoers) are not aware of the realities of what it means to be disabled and attend church.
We have to look at church history to recognize that disabled individuals and their families have not felt welcomed by churches for a long time.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law in the United States in 1990. The ADA provides protections and rights to disabled individuals. It is also a law that combats discrimination against those with disabilities and guarantees they have the same opportunities as everyone else. Guess who fought to be excluded from the ADA? That’s right, churches did! What message do you think churches communicated to the disability community when they fought for their ADA exemption? You are not wanted here.
This is the reason why many churches today are not accessible. They don’t have to be.
But there is no excuse, because you show who you value by where you invest your time, money, and resources. Yes, making modifications to a building will cost a lot of money, but if you are not willing to make that investment, it means you do not value having disabled individuals as part of your congregation.
Somehow, 99% of pastors believe their churches are welcoming, but those responses lacked awareness of what being welcoming to disabled individuals and their families truly means. We are not looking for friendliness, we want more.
We want to belong.
We want to be valued.
We want to be included.
And the best way to become welcoming is to listen to the voices of actually disabled individuals, and then make the changes necessary to become a place where everyone belongs. This also means learning about the 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes and learning an accurate view on theology of disability.
If we want to be welcoming of disabled individuals, we have to value their voices and follow their lead.
Tonia Christle, a disabled adult and disability advocate said, “In my experience, churches are welcoming enough to get disabled people in the door. Around the third time I went, people were already talking to me about physical healing. This persisted no matter where I attended over a span of eight years. So, no, I wouldn’t say the church is welcoming to disabled people. Because in my experience? It was nothing short of abusive.”
It should break our hearts that a large number of disabled adults report being harmed in some way by the church.
In the last three weeks, I have spoken at two children and youth ministry conferences. This was the first time I was asked to deliver a keynote address about disability at a non-disability ministry conference. I am usually only invited to do workshops for those interested in disability ministry. Giving me the main platform to have a conversation surrounding disability hopefully shows we are moving in the right direction. I believe churches are beginning to recognize we are not as welcoming as we believe we are, and we have sinned against the disability community, treating them as expendable and not valuable.
My good friend Carlyle King said it best (he is autistic and physically disabled): “Disability-related efforts are nearly always managed and led by non-disabled folks and those people are often resistant to feedback from disabled people, especially concerning what isn’t working. In contrast, having disabled folks involved in these efforts shows other disabled folks within a church where they stand. Even kids will feel that they are more likely to be loved and respected when they see disabled people in positions of leadership and respect.”
As a disability ministry consultant, I am committed to help every church I can so that one day, we can truly say that 99% of our congregations are truly welcoming.
I want to see the day when we are truly co-laborers and we are doing ministry alongside our brothers and sisters with disabilities.
Join the conversation on Facebook.
Is your church ready to take the next steps to become truly welcoming of individuals with disabilities? Contact me and let’s work together.
Featured image photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash