ACCESSIBLE CHURCH & An example of an ability-inclusive church, where people with and without disabilities both worship and lead.

by Andrea Perrett, Christian Century Magazine, January 28, 2021.

… Each week at Beloved Everybody Church, these three symbols—a heart, a gift, an a butterfly—are used at the beginning of the service to remind the congregation of the community’s values. The Los Angeles church is intentionally ability inclusive: people with and without intellectual, developmental, or other disabilities worship there together. When I joined an online service from my home in Vancouver, British Columbia, 1,200 miles away, I expected to be there as an observer. Instead I was generously ministered to.

Bethany McKinney Fox, the church’s organizing pastor, stands out for her inclusive and integrated approach to worship. Bethany, who does not have a disability, has long had a passion for the inclusion of those who do. In high school, she formed a meaningful friendship with a student with physical and intellectual disabilities. She served as a longtime volunteer in a L’Arche community, a home in which people with and without disabilities share life together. She was a special education teacher. She has a PhD in Christian ethics, focusing on disability, healing, and the Gospels; she also worked for Fuller Theological Seminary as director of its disability services office. She and her spouse, Michael, are preparing to open their home to a person with an intellectual disability.

For all her credentials and achievements, Bethany says she “just really likes being friends with people with diverse abilities and disabilities.” It shows. She is clearly loved by those who participate in Beloved Everybody’s activities, and she joins them in many areas of their lives, not just for Sunday worship.

Everything at the church—from the style of worship to the way leadership functions—is designed for people with and without disabilities to join together in community. This structure presents an alternative view of the body of Christ, one that is perhaps closer to Paul’s original description, in which “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispens­able, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (1 Cor. 12:21–23).

Started in 2017, Beloved Everybody is still growing into its rhythms and rituals…

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PHYSICAL CHALLENGES & A Case Study: At this church, ‘special needs’ are nothing out of the ordinary

HELEN JERMAN, Baptist News Global, 9/2/20.

For many families, the most challenging aspect of going to church on Sunday morning is getting out the door: making sure everyone is dressed, fed and in the car on time and in one piece. For families who have children with special needs, going to church is fraught with additional challenges:

  • Will we be welcome and included?
  • What, if any, support for my child’s needs will be available?
  • Will I have to stay with my child during the service, or will qualified and trained individuals be able to care for my son or daughter so I can attend service alone?
  • Will my child be invited to participate in religious activities, and in the way that meets his or her needs?
  • Will other members of the congregation welcome and accept us, or look at us as “special” and “other”?

At Irving Bible Church in North Texas, those fears are quickly put to rest.

“The needs are so diverse, and the kids are unpredictable,” said Lori Baldridge, a church member who has a 16-year-old daughter with Down’s syndrome and a 10-year-old son who is typically developing. “What I’ve seen is that these kids come away feeling loved and they know they’re accepted. We know she’s in a place where she’s safe.”

And not only safe, but loved and accepted.

“This is not a pity ministry,” said Shannon Pugh, director of the special needs ministry at IBC. “We need to make sure those parents can go to church. And it’s also about empowering and including people with special needs of any kinds to use their gifts and teach others about God.”

An ever-evolving ministry

Getting to that point has taken years of hard work and intentionality, Pugh said.

When Pugh joined IBC as a congregant, the church had a respite program that offered free care for individuals with special needs so that their caretakers could have a few hours to themselves. Then, families who had children with special needs formed sort of a buddy system, she said. Volunteers looked after kids with more intensive needs in a separate room.

“There was not a really cohesive ministry,” Pugh said. “It was fragmented. The church saw a need and that the ministry was starting to grow. Kids were getting older, and it was no longer a children’s ministry but a children’s and teen ministry. In 2012, the church thought it would be better for one person to provide vision and direction.”

Pugh, who had training as a special education teacher and who had volunteered with the program for several years, took the job.

Although the role was part time, “it was a big step for IBC because a lot of churches that have a special needs ministry don’t have a specific person on staff,” she noted.

Since that time, the ministry has grown — so much so that it has its own name, Arise, and its own website.

Today, Irving Bible Church includes about 25 families who wouldn’t be able to attend worship services in a regular church setting. Lucy Holden, who asked that her real name not be used to maintain her family’s privacy, is one of them. Her son, Jacob, (also not his real name) has autism.

“We adopted our son, and going into it, we knew he had special needs,” Holden said. “Our old church was super supportive throughout our adoption, but once we started going to church, it became apparent that he wasn’t able handle our church environment. The people at our old church expected him to adjust to the classroom where he was, and he just couldn’t.”

After that, Holden and her husband started alternating who would go to church each week and who would stay home with their son. Soon, though, they began to pray about finding a church that already knew how to deal with Jacob’s issues. That led them to Pugh and IBC.

‘Such a normal question’

“When I dropped him off at IBC, Shannon had someone lined up to be his buddy, and she asked, ‘What does Jacob enjoy doing?’” Holden said. “And it was such a normal question that it was such a relief to me to know why we were there.”

One major program at IBC is a respite ministry, which offers monthly activities and child care for kids with special needs and their siblings — allowing the parents to take some time for themselves to rest, recharge or take care of personal business.

“It’s easy to become isolated if you have kids with special needs.”

The respite program has been particularly helpful for Baldridge and her husband.

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MENTAL ILLNESS & Why we need more ministry in the church to the physically disenfranchised (and what you can do about it).

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: I’ve been a passionate advocate for increasing ministry in our churches to the physically challenged cultures around us. Here is an article reminding us how we are falling short in reaching out to the mentally ill along with some ideas to remedy this shortcoming.

“Can mental illness be prayed away?” by Joy Allmond, Facts & Trends, LifeWay, 3/8/18.

… A 2014 study conducted by LifeWay Research and sponsored by Focus on the Family showed two-thirds (66 percent) of the 1,000 pastors surveyed do not address mental health issues from the pulpit.

It also found over a quarter (27 percent) of churches don’t have a plan in place to minister to individuals and families affected by mental illness. And less than a quarter (21 percent) of family members are aware such a ministry exists within their church.

In another study—just the year prior—LifeWay Research found a third of Americans, and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist or born-again Christians believe spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study can overcome serious mental illness.

While prayer and church involvement is important for any struggle—corporate or individual—more is needed to treat depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, said Rosati.

She urges families to seek church-led spiritual guidance and prayer on behalf of their loved one who suffers from mental illness. But she also cautions them not to ignore the clinical side of treatment.

“What I want to say to parents and families is, please keep in mind that neurochemical issues are not spiritual issues,” she said during the panel discussion.

“When our kids are broken and don’t work the way they should, our duty as parents is to advocate for them and give them the help they need.”

Read more at …

MENTAL ILLNESS & PowerPlays with Powerless People

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 10/13/15.

Recently IWU/Wesley Seminary  hosted a conference on ministry by and for the physically challenged.  Concurrently my students were studying the book “PowerPlays” about how power is used in churches. A student once shared a very heart-wrenching and powerful story about the physical challenge of mental illness. But, the student learned a great deal from it too.  Here it is (with an accompanying article about how the powerful must deal with the powerless).

The student wrote:

“We had a lady in our church who became a constant embarrassment to many of us (I am ashamed to say). She never bathed or combed her hair. She had many psychological issues that I did not understand back then. (I now understand that she was schizophrenic and bipolar). Many sweet old ladies at the church tried to help her with her hygiene but she never grasped it. She often told outlandish stories that could not be true; will marry a rich doctor next month, was a missionary to Brazil, etc.

One day she accused someone on our church board of beating her with a whip and that she had scars on her back to prove it. At this story I knew I had some justification of getting rid of her for good. I confronted her about the story and she became irate. She picked up a pool stick and threatened me with it and I told her that she was no longer welcome at our church and that she would have to leave immediately. Even a few weeks later when she returned I had instructed our ushers to not allow her in. As odd as it sounds, at that time I felt like I was the hero. I rid us of that strange woman. Let someone else deal with her.

But I never treated her with respect and never sought out the professional help she needed (even if she would have refused). God was gracious to me and she returned two years later. I was humbled when she came and sought me out to bring me a gift of M&M’s. I left the church the church soon after and was unable to get her the help she needed. But I explained the situation to the new pastor and gave him references to find her help.

What I learned from this was to pay attention to my motives. Maybe in the end it would have been good for her to leave but not the way or the reason I wanted. Never were my actions with grace, peace, love, gentleness, kindness, etc. towards her. I have since asked for her forgiveness and have seen God’s grace demonstrated despite my behavior.”

The student’s story highlighted a very important weakness in many churches. And that is that as professional ministers we often don’t know how or where to refer people with mental challenges.

Below is an article from the United Methodist News Service (Nov. 11, 1998) that shares a couple stories.  One story tells how a mentally challenged youth pastor was initially ostracized because of her mental illness, but later helped start a church that ministers to the physically challenged.

Churches must overcome fear, minister to mentally ill
A UMNS News Feature by Tim Tanton,* 11/11/98.
Retrieved from

Lynn Swan’s career as the professional youth lay leader of a large Alabama church ended when she was diagnosed as having a mental illness.

“I was just told that because of the illness, I didn’t have a job to return to,” she said.

Swan had gone into the hospital feeling ill and not knowing what the problem was. She was kept there for three weeks while she was stabilized with medicine. She was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a chemical imbalance in the mood center of the brain. Symptoms include severe depression and, at other times, manic behavior.

When she left the hospital, she was fired from her job with the United Methodist congregation.

“It was very devastating because I really enjoyed my work, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”

That dismissal in May 1990 was the beginning of a long struggle for Swan. It led to financial ruin, the loss of her career and other setbacks. Today, her voice joins others who say churches have a role to play in serving the mentally ill.

Churches are well qualified for helping people with mental illnesses, but in many cases they must overcome their own ignorance of the problem, according to advocates for the mentally ill.

Mental illness “is in many ways the leprosy of today,” said the Rev. James F. McIntire, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia and an advocate for people with disabilities. If you’re in a psychiatric hospital, the pastor might not even come and visit, he said.

“My big thing is that mental illness is what we call a no-casserole disease,” said Angie O’Malley, an instructor in family studies at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. People who go into the hospital with a mental illness don’t get cards, candy, flowers and meals from church members, she said.

That’s partly because of the ignorance of church members and others, she said. “Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, they are afraid.”

“Stigma” is a common word in discussions about mental illness.

“The stigma is what’s really difficult to live with in this society,” Swan said.

Being able to deal with that stigma and fear can make the difference in how a church is able to minister to the mentally ill. O’Malley and her husband, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, have a 23-year-old daughter who has schizophrenia. They went to two United Methodist churches that were not supportive of them before finally joining Centenary United Methodist Church in Lexington. There, the congregation reached out to them.

The United Methodist Church was not there for Swan. “It failed,” she said. “I think there were certain individuals in the church who were good, but the system failed, and I blame that on fear and ignorance and politics.”

The church failed her because when she was in need, she was totally isolated. “I really, really needed the church, and I didn’t have it,” she said. The politics, she explained, relate to the fact that it’s not popular to have a mentally ill person on staff.

Swan, McIntire and O’Malley shared their stories while in Nashville, Tenn., to participate in a Nov. 10 teleconference, “Mental Illness … Paint a Different Picture,” sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Health and Relief Unit; the Board of Church and Society; Pathways to Promise; and United Methodist Communications.

Swan’s journey has been hard. When she lost her job at the Alabama church, she was able to buy a house in Florida as part of her severance. As she was moving into her house, she sat down and became depressed. She overdosed on lithium and vodka, then went to the beach to die. A runner revived her and took her to a hospital.

“I awoke with restraints on my ankles and my hands,” Swan said. “I was told by the doctor I was very lucky to be alive.”

Swan didn’t feel so lucky then. She wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. For the next seven years, she struggled with thoughts of committing suicide. A year ago, she got past the point where that was a temptation.

For four years after her firing in Alabama, she went through a series of jobs, including working with a Presbyterian church in Michigan. Finally, she realized that she couldn’t keep working. She resigned from her job with a church in Florida in 1994.

Meanwhile, she continued battling depression. She underwent 50 electroconvulsive – or shock – treatments in about four years and also took medication. Finally, in December 1996, she began suffering “significant memory problems,” and the treatments were discontinued.

The high costs of her treatment forced her to file for medical catastrophic bankruptcy. She lost everything except her clothes, car and some personal belongings.

Swan remains “stuck in the poverty cycle.” Her monthly medicine costs are $1,200, and in order to receive government help through Medicaid, she must live on minimal income. She receives a disability check, but any honorarium or other money she earns as a motivational speaker must be given away.

“I live on $621 a month,” she said. “I live with a friend.”

Now 39, Swan lives in Cleveland and works as a motivational speaker. She and a group have recently started a nondenominational church, 25:40 Mission Way, with a focus on the mentally ill, people in prisons, the homeless, and people addicted to alcohol and other substances.

Like Swan, McIntire has struggled with mental illness.

“I’ve wrestled with my own depression, and several years ago, it got very deep for me,” he said.

His senior pastor helped him understand how the depression was affecting his job, so McIntire took a sabbatical – though not without reservations.

“I hesitated in doing it because of the stigma that can be attached to having a mental health issue in your life,” he said.

However, unlike Swan, McIntire had the support of the senior pastor and church staff. When he returned to work, he also found the congregation supportive. He preached on mental illness, and that led to congregation members sharing their own experiences.

“It opened our relationship,” he said.

The struggles of two family members have been important to McIntire’s ministry. His father fought depression and eventually committed suicide. His daughter has a developmental disability; at age 10, she has just learned to walk, and she can’t articulate words.

“She and my father have really been a powerful piece of my faith development over the years and have really become a center for my vision in ministry in working with people with disabilities and making the church a more open and inclusive place,” he said.

Churches try to be open and inclusive, but often they don’t know how, McIntire said. A church might think that building a ramp is way of being open, yet it is not reaching people in the community and bringing them up the ramp, he said.

“One out of four or five families is affected by mental illness,” he said. That brings the issue closer to home, he said.

“A person who has a mental illness also still has a spiritual life,” McIntire said, “… and what they’re struggling with in their mental illness is also affecting their spiritual health as well.”

Mentally ill people are less likely to be violent and more likely to be withdrawn, O’Malley said. They are often lonely and need a friend.

Churches are good about providing friendship ministries, about calling people, taking meals to them or just getting out and taking someone to a movie, she said. Often, people or families dealing with mental illness also need financial support to cover the cost of medicine and treatment because health insurance policies are “discriminatory” and don’t cover such disorders to the same extent that they do other diseases, she said.

“In a lot of ways, churches don’t need new ministries,” O’Malley said. “They just need to be more intentional in meeting the needs of mental illness with the ministries they have.”

Mentally ill people also have a contribution to make to the ministry of a church, she said. “If we exclude them from our communities, we miss out.

“The church is the only place in society that has a perspective of hope,” O’Malley said, ” … and a readymade supportive community.”

*Tanton is news editor with United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED & The Disabled Church: Desiring Difference w/in Congregational Life

By REBECCA SPURRIER,, Boston University, 10/19/15.

How does a congregation make time and space for the disabilities and differences of those who constitute it? How does it claim those differences as vital to its forms of knowing and loving God rather than disruptive to its unity? Such questions animate my encounter with Holy Family Episcopal Church[1], a parish in which a majority of congregants live with diagnoses of mental illness and are affected by the multiple stigmas of ableism, racism, and poverty. This community resists practices of “segregationist charity,”[2] refusing modes of giving that further isolate individuals rather than invite participation in and transformation of ecclesial practices. At the same time, it struggles to incorporate mental differences into a center of worship. Holy Family’s common prayer welcomes difference but assumes certain capacities— to read, to stand in unison, to sit still—capacities many congregants are unwilling or unable to perform.

As an ethnographic researcher, I move around the sanctuary from week to week in order to observe the community from different vantages. As a theologian, I notice that my own prayer shifts depending on where and with whom I am worshipping. I respond differently, if I am in the front with those who eagerly insert their own voices into the official prayers than if I am in the back with those who sit with heads folded into their hands or laps. My worship has different rhythms next to a woman who writes her own prayer poems and pictures during the service. It has different textures when I sit with a man who weeps or laughs whenever we sing a hymn. As I move around the sanctuary, I begin to follow the lead of those around me, choosing to stay seated with a woman who never stands in order to hear her voice. I honor an empty seat between myself and a man who jokes about his desire for both distance and proximity from other worshippers. I wave to a congregant across the aisle during the reading of the gospel, mirroring his gesture of welcome and recognition. I notice other configurations of individuals, holding and weaving one another into worship. Between the “We” of common prayer and the “I” of each person gathered, there is a small “we.” There are clusters of persons who interpolate one another’s responses and refrains.

I follow the small we into a decentered liturgy. Rather than assuming one unified communal body, directed by the priest or deacon, a decentered liturgy draws attention to the multiform responses and relationships that take place throughout the sanctuary.[3] Common prayer is made possible because smaller groups of congregants weave one another into community, creating opportunities for the relation and connection of the Body of Christ. They laugh and joke with one another, touch and gesture to one another, name one another, and share silence and unconventional conversations. These forms do not displace the formal liturgy at the center of the communal gathering, but occur alongside it; nonetheless, they are essential in holding a community of difference together.

Difference also decenters the space and time of this community. The sanctuary is not the center of gathering but is connected to a series of sites and paths where the people congregate to share their joys and concerns—an entryway, a set of picnic benches, a smoking circle, a dining hall, and a library that is also a foot clinic and a nail salon. Sunday Eucharist is not the only sacred meal but is held within a week-long liturgy where common meals, arts, gardening, yoga, and bingo gather and create space for difference. Here the congregation learns to “loiter with intent,” taking time to find more flexible rhythms than the formal worship services assume.

Following this Disabled Church outside the parish grounds, I lament the fragility of these forms, this time and space that hold the beauty and challenge of difference. Congregants are sent out “to love and to serve” in a segregated city, where some lives are of little public worth. The Disabled Church invites reflection on how a community of difference desires to share time and table with one another beyond the safe spaces of a center called “the church.”



[1] The name of the church has been changed for purposes of confidentiality.

[2] Scholar Nancy Eiesland describes the harms of segregationist charity in her work The Disabled God, a text whose mandate to transform theological symbols and body practices in light of disability experience inspires and informs my work. See: Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 70–71.

[3] My research draws on two texts which emphasize the theological significance of mapping public and ecclesial spaces: Teresa Berger’s Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011) and Sharon V. Betcher’s Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh: A Secular Theology for the Global City, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

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ILLNESS & How the Church Must Address Mental Health

By Christine A. Scheller

Would it surprise you to learn that every fourth person you meet struggles with a mental health challenge?

Twenty-six percent of American adults experience a diagnosable mental disorder each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental illness affects people of all ages, races, and walks of life.

But many church leaders and churchgoers don’t understand mental illness and don’t know how to support sufferers. A September 2013 LifeWay Research survey found nearly half (48 percent) of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and born-again Christians believe that with prayer and Bible study alone people can overcome serious mental illness.

LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer worries that some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition.

“They forget that the key part of mental illness is the word ‘illness,’” Stetzer says.”

For ideas regarding how your ministry can be part of the solution, read more at …

SPECIAL NEEDS & Talking to Children About Their Disabilities, With Metaphors and Minecraft #NYTimes

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Physically challenged people comprise one of the most underserved cultures of our faith communities. This article gives practical ideas regarding how to welcome them into our Christian fellowship and lives. Ministry to these individuals and their support networks is a critical cultural outreach that the church must face head on.”

by Sarah Wheeler, 5/13/14

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