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By Rev. Stephen Waggoner

Chair of the ARUMC Disability Concerns Committee

For the church, it is true now as it was before COVID, that the first step of having an effective ministry with persons with special needs is to identify and highlight ABILITIES. The term “disability” comes from an understanding of labeling people as defective whereas in scripture there is no such all-encompassing term. 

In scripture, particular physical or mental impairments have specific terms. In the biblical era, the focus was upon each person having a purpose and a place in the community. Every member of a congregation needs to have a purpose and a way to contribute to the community. I recall the story of a special needs child who needed a “friend” Sunday mornings and how the person recruited to be that friend was so richly blessed to the extent that working with that child was their greatest part of the week.  

Needs should be identified by those who have the need. The story is told of the Boy Scout who, trying to take care of the requirement to do a good turn daily, practically dragged an elderly woman across the street. His good turn done, he left the woman fuming about how she was going to get back across the street she never intended to cross. 

A well-meaning ministry created by well-intentioned clergy and laity based on what the church wants to do but which is not needed by others misses the point. Jesus provides a model for meeting needs in the many gospel stories. Repeatedly he begins with recognizing others as a people, not a category.  His conversations begin with people as they are in their current circumstances. Creating a ministry and then looking for people who want to access it was not the model of the Son of God.  

A special needs ministry responds to what people need and not what you want for them. One of my favorite stories is that of the paralytic at Capernaum in which Jesus sees the paralytic and says, “your sins are forgiven.” Contemporaries are horrified because only God can forgive sins and the modern reader is likewise horrified because to us the problem was that the person was paralyzed. Jesus, who has the advantage of being a mind reader, recognized that this was someone who was desiring the saving grace of God. Jesus takes care of the man’s need, forgiveness, and then takes care of our need, the desire to see the man healed. He leaps up and carries off his pallet and rejoices because he has received forgiveness, not because he can walk.

We are to listen to needs and take care of needs not as we see them but as those who are in need see them. For the pastor and the local congregation, any desire to meet people’s special needs should begin with existing relationships. In fact, I would argue that a church which has a posture of engaging people, being flexible to their needs, and earnestly listening will naturally develop vital, targeted ministries as a matter of course. 

The government caseworker and the school counselor have a job to do and it is to see into which category you fall and for what program you are eligible. It is the job of the church to listen. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to tell families how we are going to bless them with our ministry and, too kind-hearted to correct us, they accept it with a little disappointment when the real need is something else.

We should be adaptable in including people in our life together. One of the greatest needs of all of us is to be a contributing part of the world around us. It is insulting to see those with special needs simply as consumers or users of services. In my work both as a pastor and a professional in the disability field with those of advanced age, diminished health, and developmental disabilities I am sure that they have blessed me more than I have blessed them. One of the real jewels in my study of disability ministry in the Arkansas Conference was that the congregations that were most effective in ministry with special needs were flexible and had long-term pastorates. They did not have a history of clergy conflict.

Finally, we should see inclusion and meeting special needs not as a ministry but as a posture.  Our churches need to be adaptable in recognizing and responding to the needs of our faith communities. For those who need brevity, I give the following three steps and a conclusion for ministering to special needs in the time of COVID-19.

  1. Call every family in your congregation and ask them the open-ended question the early Methodists asked each other: how is it with your soul?… And with your family?
  2. The follow-up question after a heartfelt conversation about how things are going would be: What do you need?
  3. Organize to meet the needs

Very few people will tell you right off about their special needs. We share needs based on trust and relationship. A church with a posture of taking care of needs will naturally discover patterns and develop ministries. The unique circumstances of COVID-19 have created new types of disability, or special needs, and a proactive congregation will seek out and meet needs in a rapidly changing time. It is through dialog and asking that we can discover the special needs in our congregations and through a posture of flexibility discover new ways to ensure that in our communities of faith that there is not a needy person among us.

There are numerous books and websites with programs and models for specialized ministries with special needs individuals.  However, any such ministry should begin with relationships, honest conversations regarding individual barriers, and only then moving to design a ministry with those with special needs.

About the author

Dr. Stephen Waggoner makes his home in Wilburn, Arkansas with his wife Angel who has worked with people with developmental disabilities for 28 years.  They have four children including one with autism.  Stephen holds degrees from Arkansas Tech University, University of Arkansas Little Rock, Duke Divinity School, and Asbury Theological Seminary.  His dissertation, “No Such Thing as Normal: An Exploratory Study of Ministry with Persons With a Developmental Disability in the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church” was completed in 2017.  Stephen is an Elder in the Arkansas Conference, a part-time pastor, and a full-time Director of Human Resources at the Community School of Cleburne County which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities both in clinical and supportive living settings.