logo of the United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries
December 2011Vol. 1 No. 8

Santa using power wheelchair and service dog 

A Santa who uses a power chair  

and service dog! 



of the

United Methodist

 Disability Connection


Greetings in Christ! 


As we await the coming of our Savior during this holy season of Advent, may we be ever mindful of who is and who is not present at our worship services.  Your congregation may already have a significant outreach to community members who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.  You may already be discerning gifts and finding ways for everyone to be in ministry. If so, we thank you and look forward to hearing about your programs! 


If you look around and do not see persons who may have Down syndrome, autism, or other developmental disabilities worshiping alongside you, ask yourself if perhaps you are being called to expand your ministry.  


The articles this month will give you a glimpse of how worship can be adapted to be meaningful to a broader segment of participants.  Using all the senses helps worship impact our hearts as well as our minds.  Incorporating some of these ideas into your worship would make a wonderful gift for the new-born King!  May we eagerly reach out to, worship alongside, and learn from all who are called by Jesus to be his disciples.


Lynn Swedberg, Editor

In This Issue
Advent and Christmas Come Alive for All in Multisensory Worship Services
Churches Adopt "Rejoicing Spirits" Adapted Worship Model

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Advent and Christmas Come Alive for All in Multisensory Worship Services

 Imagine inviting a couple with a newborn baby to be the focus of an Advent service!  The Rev. Sallie Colwick, pastor for the weekly Chapel Church of Huntsville First UMC in Huntsville AL interviewed the parents, asking how they prepared for the baby and how life has changed since the baby arrived.  Sallie related the parents' experiences to preparing for the coming of baby Jesus.  Last year she invited costumed characters to come each Sunday of Advent and tell about their roles in the Christmas story. 

The Rev. Kristin Ellison-Oslin, UM Chaplain at Fircrest School in WA state, recently used a baby doll with a crown on his head and asked worshipers who that represented.  They came up with "newborn king".  Going further, she asked about the baby's kingdom, and used a large globe to symbolize that Jesus is king over the whole world.  She also introduces the pieces of the manger scene week by week, telling about the new additions. 
The sermon in an adapted worship service usually lasts no more than 10 minutes.  While the words are chosen to be easy to understand, the service is very much geared for adults who may happen to learn more slowly than their peers.  Kristin notes that her Biblical scholarship doesn't go away, and that it takes skill to create a meaningful message that is accessible to a broad range of listeners.  girl lighting candles on Advent wreath

Another skill is incorporating the actions of participants, who may seize the pulpit and announce that "Jesus has come to me!" or wheel up and kiss Kristin's hand, so the gestures become a meaningful part of the service.  "There is nothing invalid" about these God-gifted promptings, they just need to be interpreted.  A pastor facilitating adapted worship needs to be "truly responsive and flexible", she finds.

Worship must be multi-sensory for persons who may be Deaf and or have no vision in addition to intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Communion is naturally multi-sensory, offering taste, touch, and smell along with hearing the words of institution and seeing the elements.  Kristin finds that "any multisensory approach has to be connected to the story or it is worthless."  Since Jesus taught in stories, both pastors find that sharing stories out of their daily life experiences is most effective and keeps the message fresh. worshipers giving and receiving bulletin 

Chapel Church is one of several weekly services at Huntsville First.  Open to all, the 35 minute service was started two years ago around a young adult who had grown up in the church but who was not comfortable in larger, louder services.  Volunteers offer a variety of soft music, including organ, dulcimer, and gospel piano.  Chapel Church participants are actively involved in the service. They bring their pennies for missions and learn that pennies can make a difference.  Church School is offered after worship, and teachers reinforce the lesson of the day through crafts and activities.  The class recently held a craft show at a Senior Center to raise more money for missions.

Sallie has watched the service transform individuals.  One young woman initially clasped a stuffed animal, held her head down and cried.  After several months she began to enter the sanctuary clapping, with her head held high.  Four community members have been baptized.  Through prayer requests one woman experienced healing from painful childhood memories, and others have learned to get along with housemates.woman and child giving a warm welcome to a participant

Caregivers and individuals who have moved out of Fircrest School into group homes come back to attend the weekly services along with their friends from these homes.  Others come from the surrounding community, pleased to have found a service that allows them to participate.  Caregivers tell Kristin "That was the best service of the week."  "People are touched," Sallie said. "They feel closer to God."


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Churches Adopt "Rejoicing Spirits "

Adapted Worship Model

Central UMC of Lenoir City, TN has offered a Rejoicing Spirits service since 2006.  A video posted on the GBGM Health website shows the service in action.  Pastor Micah Nicolaus is new to Central, but immediately embraced this monthly worship as a part of the overall church program and as an opportunity for outreach.  The service was born from a combination of community need and the realization that the congregation had a high number of families including adults with significant disabilities.  They were approached by a consortium of community agencies and asked if they could design a service where persons making noise or moving around would not be disruptive. 

Rejoicing Spirits , founded in 2004 in a Lutheran church in PA, is based on the premise that while full inclusion in standard worship services is an ideal to aspire to, not every group of worshipers in front of Rejoicing spirits butterfly bannerchurch or every worshiper is ready for that.  The monthly adapted services may serve as a stepping stone, allowing persons to learn worship skills so they may better fit into a typical congregational service. Others may also attend Sunday morning worship but enjoy a supplemental service where they can relax, be themselves, and be actively engaged.  A third group may prefer this style of worship exclusively.  One key tenet of the adapted service is a "no shushing" policy, meaning that participants are free to wander and express themselves vocally.

Central has a number of participants with intellectual disabilities who have become engaged in the life of the church, involved in Sunday worship, small groups, prayer ministry, and helping with crafts.  Less than fifty percent of the Rejoicing Spirits attendees have a disability, as caregivers, volunteers, and church members also make up part of the congregation.  Central is wrestling with how best to welcome and support community staff members who accompany participants to worship and become part of the congregation.  Pastor Micah asks "How are we the body of Christ to caregivers who make little money and struggle to make ends meet?  This is their only church home." 

St. Paul's UMC in Lewisburg, PA started a Rejoicing Spirits service in October after months of planning.  They utilized the tools and resources that Rejoicing Spirits offers on their web site and in their Guidebook to help them conduct a feasibility study and put together an implementation plan.  Pastor Judi Dunkelberger, who was a special education teacher prior to her ordination, is delighted by the community and congregational response to the service, which includes 30-40 persons with disabilities and a similar number of volunteers from St. Paul's and the ecumenical community.
two friends share signs during service 

Each service includes a processional during which participants bring the Rejoicing Spirits butterfly banners in to the sanctuary.  Other worshipers read lines or act out scriptures, hand out bulletins and rhythm instruments, and sing in the choir.  The structure of the service is simple and similar each time to allow the songs and acts of worship to become familiar.  Participants look forward to singing "Happy Birthday" each month and celebrating each other's birthdays and victories.  Sharing joys and concerns and praying together also brings the congregation closer, as does the fellowship time following the service.

Caregivers in each setting see transformation, e.g. in the lives of participants who may be labeled non-verbal but begin saying a few words during worship. Some participants show awareness as they are wheeled into the sanctuary that they are entering a special place.  Parents shed tears of joy for finding a safe place where they and their children are accepted, allowing them to worship for the first time in many years.


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Pastors and worship planners wanting to modify worship services to be more inclusive will not find the information they need in one tidy source.

An excellent handout on Multisensory Worship Ideas was developed by Margot Hausmann and offered through the UCC Disabilities Ministries website as part of Any Body, Everybody, Christ's Body: A Congregational Guide for Becoming Accessible to ALL (pp. 45-50) written and compiled by the Rev. Jo Clare Hartsig.

Two books are helpful and belong in every church library, but address many other aspects in addition to the rationale for inclusion and tips for making worship more inclusive:

Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations by Erik W. Carter (2007), published by Brookes, Baltimore.  This book is both inspirational and practical, offering a comprehensive set of tools to use for outreach and program development.  The focus is primarily but never exclusively persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Autism and your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Revised Edition by Barbara J. Newman (2011), published by Friendship Ministries and available through Faith Alive Christian Resources, Grand Rapids, MI.

Brett Webb-Mitchell's recent book, Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities (2010), Church Publishing, New York, carries forward his passionate plea for moving from acceptance to full inclusion in all aspects of church life.  Readers familiar with Unexpected Guests at God's Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities into the Church (1994) and Dancing with Disabilities: Opening the Church to All God's Children (1996) will find familiar stories taken one step further.  The section on the practice of inclusion is highly theological and lacks significant practical suggestions, but is well worth reading for yet another reminder why anything less than full inclusion is stopping short of God's vision for the church.

Bethesda Institute has long been a leading provider of faith-based materials and training for organizations working alongside persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Their magazine Breakthrough in its Spring 2010 issue "Aspiring to Inclusive Worship" offers tips and ideas that all congregations can use.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's on-line resource library includes articles by Joan Huyser-Honig: "Disability and Worship" and "Communion and Intellectual Disability", both with examples of UM churches.The Christmas Book cover

Friendship Ministries offers age-appropriate but simplified worship activities such as dramas in The Christmas Book: A Resource for Leaders and Mentors, edited by Geri Vooys (2003).  These ideas could easily be incorporated into an adapted worship service.  This book and similar publications are available through Faith Alive Christian Resources, Grand Rapids, MI.


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The Task Force mission is "Through advocacy, education and empowerment, the United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries will lead the UMC in creating a culture where people with disabilities are fully included in all aspects of worship, leadership and ministry" and we continue to strive for that day!  
Please let us know about your inclusive and adapted worship ideas as well as upcoming events suggestions for article topics. 
Wishing you a joyous Christmas!

United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries

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