Faith communities: Making sure everyone feels welcomed
Invite everyone in your congregation to complete this Congregational Outreach Survey
Dr. Erik W. Carter is an Assistant Professor with the University of WisconsinMadison's Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. He specializes in effective strategies for including children and youth with developmental disabilities more fully and meaningfully in schools and communities. In his new book, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations, he offers practical guidance* on how to become a responsive congregation:
Is your congregation a place of welcome and belonging for children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families?
When asked this question, most people would offer a response along the lines of “Of course! At least ... I think so.” Yet, many congregations do not count people with developmental disabilities and their families among their members.
Even when present, people with disabilities are often found only on the periphery of congregational life. The architectural, attitudinal, programmatic, and other barriers that may push people away from your congregation are not insurmountable, but they will not disappear without intentional efforts.
Here are steps congregations can take to reach out to people with disabilities and their families. They will equip you to become more responsive to the people already associated with your congregation and, as you improve your capacity to welcome people, inspire you to begin reaching out to the broader community:
Conduct a Congregational Outreach Survey [see above]. The purpose of the survey is to identify existing needs and potential partners within your congregation, so invite input from as many members of your congregation as possible. Distribute surveys in bulletins, include them in mailings, and display them in a prominent place in the congregation’s foyer, hallways, or fellowship areas. Your efforts to keep abreast of needs should be ongoing, rather than limited to a one-time effort.
Have the faith leader set an example. A simple acknowledgement from the pulpitwhether through an announcement, prayer, sermon, or special messagethat people with disabilities are absolutely integral to the mission of the congregation can have a profound impact, breaking the silence that often exists in congregations around disabilities.
Write an article in your weekly bulletin or newsletter describing your ongoing efforts to welcome and support children and adults with disabilities as well as their families. Provide a point of contact through which people can obtain additional information.
Develop a brochure or flyer that describes the ways in which adults and children with disabilities and their families are contributing to congregational life. Place this information in key locations throughout your building, such as in the lobby and outside of classrooms used for nursery and children’s activities.
Create a bulletin board or other display that describes some of the needs of people with disabilities in your community and avenues through which congregation members can respond to these needs.
Talk with leaders of other ministry and outreach efforts to learn about people with disabilities in your congregation. For example, congregational care team members, Meals on Wheels volunteers, or a parish nurse might be aware of adults and children with disabilities and their families.
If you discover that few, if any, people with developmental disabilities and their families are involved in your congregation, ask yourself why this might be the case. Have they never heard of your congregation? Did they attend your services at one time, but left feeling unwelcome? Perhaps your congregation had little to offer them or was unable to find a way to meet their particular needs?
Outreach efforts into the greater community
Outreach efforts to community members with disabilities may have to be more deliberate than those commonly used. Passive efforts such as advertisements, outdoor signs, newspaper articles, and web sites may work for some parents of children with disabilities, but they often are inaccessible and ineffective avenues for reaching adults with disabilities. Consider the following ideas for extending invitations:
*Adapted from Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations by Erik W. Carter.