The Ministry of the Disabled

How Christians with intellectual disabilities are serving churches (not just being served by them).
The Ministry of the Disabled
Image: Ryan Donnell
L’Arche member Charles Clark, 82, hugs volunteers and also serves as co-chair of an annual retreat-planning committee at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.

“I can’t wait to see what kind of ministry she will have,” our friend said a few weeks after our daughter Penny was born.

His words surprised me. Penny was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. Her diagnosis swept away one set of expectations about what her life would hold. A different, bleaker set replaced them. In those early days, I did not imagine our daughter having “a ministry” to anyone.

My friend’s words offered me a vision for our daughter’s future that I hadn’t considered. I already assumed Penny would teach me patience and compassion. I assumed she might help me see myself differently and help me understand my own brokenness and limitations. I assumed she would connect me to other people with intellectual and physical disabilities, and that these relationships might usher me into new types of ministry and help me discover new gifts.

But until that moment, I hadn’t considered whether God had gifted Penny for ministry in her own right. I suspect I’m not alone in the way I used to see Penny. Many Christians, if we’re honest, only see the needs associated with disability. But when we only see the needs, we miss out on the gifts.

People with intellectual disabilities are less likely to attend church than members of the general population. According to Erik Carter, a special education professor at Vanderbilt who studies religion and disability, 45 percent of Americans who identify as having a severe disability say they attend a place of worship each month—compared to 57 percent of all Americans.

Carter also reports that for those with disabilities who do attend church services, barriers to full and active participation are significant. Churchgoers with ...

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