Ministry to people with mental retardation recently has been sharply curtailed by several financially strapped denominations as the churches struggle to maintain programs.

The disability divisions of two denominations, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have been eliminated. After being dismantled in January, the Special Education Department of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Sunday School Board has been reinstated and enlarged following sharp protests.

Bill Gaventa, executive secretary of the religious division of the American Association of Mental Retardation, says there has been a shift from “special religious programs” to inclusive ministries for disabled people.

Gene Nabi, a consultant to the Special Education Department of the SBC, believes the current trends toward inclusive ministries are “a big mistake.” Nabi asks, “In the normal classroom environment, are mentally retarded persons going to get the point of the Bible lessons? The Sunday-school setting demands that everyone hear the gospel. If we are evangelical, we will be held accountable.”

The tension felt within the church is an outgrowth of the debate among professionals who work within the disability community regarding “normalization,” a term used to describe the practice of mainstreaming disabled people into existing schools, classrooms, and churches.

Nabi believes denominational leaders making reforms are well-meaning people; however, he believes decisions are “not thought out.” Nabi says, “The spiritual lives of people who are mentally retarded have been put in jeopardy.”


While larger denominations are paring back, the 320,000-member Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is expanding its evangelization and ...

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