Fall 2014
Vol. 4  No. 3
Boy with painted feet walking on butcher paper
Following in Jesus'      Footsteps:     Messy Church


of the

United Methodist

 Disability Connection


Greetings in Christ!   

       This has been an exciting year in the life of the church! We have heard about new Annual Conference initiatives and new local church ministries. Participants in the United Methodist Women Mission u disability study returned home to ask questions and find answers as to how their churches could be more disability-friendly. Congregations are raising funds to build ramps, install automatic door openers, and add lifts and elevators. The Spirit is on the move!


       One thing many of these ministries share in common is a local church committee which assesses, initiates, implements, and monitors improvements in accessibility and inclusion.  Check out our new on-line article to learn how your congregation can start a disability committee.

       Please consider making a gift to the Disability Advance #3021054 on Giving Tuesday, December 2nd.  Your gifts help congregations launch important new ministries.  


Lynn Swedberg, Editor

In This Issue
Churches with Intentional Inclusion Ministries
Messy Church, Where Everyone Belongs
Understanding Sensory Overload
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Disability Prayer Ministry Launched

       UMC Disability Connections is the new prayer ministry arm of the DisAbility Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church.  Each week a devotional and prayer requests are e-mailed to everyone on a growing list of subscribers.  A blog containing all the past devotionals is maintained at UMC Disability Connections.  

      If you would like to be part of this prayer ministry, want to receive the devotional, or have a prayer request, please e-mail your request to Pastor Diane Mettam.  We want to pray for your ministry launches, special events, barriers you are facing, workshops, or anything else that is relevant to people with disabilities and the church.  We know we cannot do the work of changing the church in our own power!  Thanks to Pastor Diane for taking on this important ministry.

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Churches with Intentional Inclusion Ministries

       This article focuses on the benefits of those congregations which strive to truly live out our mandate from the Book of Discipline to include all persons throughout the life of the church.

       St.Paul's UMC in Asheville, NC, is intentional in being inclusive in worship for adults with disabilities. St. Paul has maintained a Sunday School class designed to meet the needs of adults with disabilities for the past forty years. St. Paul's includes class members in the choir, as greeters, and in various other parts of worship. Individuals from local group homes and independent or supported living settings come to learn, worship and fellowship at St. Paul's. During the summer of 2013, members of the class contributed shakers that they made for the congregation to use during worship. 

       Alpharetta First UMC in Alpharetta, GA, is intentional in reaching out to children and their families who have been affected by disability. The Exceptional Children's Ministry currently serves thirteen families. In 2012-13 Alpharetta First completed work on an accessible playground. Each week children with special needs are matched with a shadow/buddy to provide a one to one child to volunteer ratio to enable full participation in worship and Sunday School. This system is also in place for the children's choirs as well as other opportunities presented by children's VBS bus prop with two children's faces  ministries.

       Allyssa Green currently serves as the Special Needs Coordinator at Alpharetta First, working with children with disabilities (from birth to 18 years) and their families. She adapts curriculum and program literature, for example recently when the 5th graders participated in worship she adapted the litany so that all who wanted to take part were able.

       Elizabeth and David Elrod, church members of Alpharetta, share about inclusion and their experiences:
"When you have a family member with special needs, church is one place that can be difficult to attend all together as a family. Before David and I learned about the special needs ministry here at Alpharetta First, we would swap out who would go to church with the rest of the family while the other stayed home with Harrison. During our first visit to the church, Harrison's needs were easily accommodated without any hesitation. This visit took place about four years ago, and we have been attending ever since! In addition to Sunday School, Harrison has successfully participated in children's choir and Vacation Bible School, all due VBS children climbing through bouncy equipment to encouragement received from those involved in the special needs ministry. It is such a relief to have people that are so willing to help out so that my family can easily be involved in all aspects of church life."

       Parent Diane Saliceti states: "Alpharetta First has gone the extra mile to include Joey since he was born. Even before there was an official special needs ministry, there were always wonderful individuals who volunteered to make sure Joey's needs were met while my husband and I enjoyed attending worship services. Once Joey became old enough to participate in the children's ministries, such as Bible school and summer camps, shadows always stepped up and helped him to participate in any activity that he wished to attend. It has been a blessing to be part of a congregation that cares, and I am so thankful each day for all the individuals who have reached out to Joey and our family." 


Submitted by DisAbility Ministries Committee member and SE Jurisdiction representative Allyssa Green.  Note: photos show inclusive play during Vacation Bible School.

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Hints for Including Children with Disabilities in Your Church
  • Include individuals in worship perhaps serving as a greeter, singing in the choir, or collecting programs after worship for recycling.
  • Short term respite date nights are a great way to start or grow your program.
  • Provide fidgets or other items such as koosh balls, dental floss, plastic party beads,
    variety of fidgets including stretchy band, pencil with spinner bolt, and textured balls
    Assortment of "fidgets"
    pipe cleaners, and board books and place these in Sunday School classrooms and near sanctuary worship bags. Sensory fidget kits may be individualized for the children and adults you serve.
  • Be mindful of personal space.
  • Have large print resources available, and feel free to adapt materials such as the litany using software programs, e.g. Boardmaker � and Symbolstix �.
  • Be mindful of lighting and noise, as some individuals may be sensitive to loud sounds and bright lights.
  • Check out local resource fairs such as Kids Enabled and community groups/teams such as your local Miracle League.
  • Reach out to local support groups such as Parent to Parent.
  • Adopt a special education class at a school in your area.
  • And last but not least, ask families what they want or need; most families are more than willing to speak up if you ask!

Submitted by Allyssa Green.

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Messy Church, Where Everyone Belongs

       "At Messy Church, my daughter is able to relax and truly be herself. I love that she is free to decide which games to play, which activities to try, and which craft projects to make. I love to see her building friendships, learning about God, and having fun - all at the same time. I'm thrilled that going to Church is a positive experience for our whole family!"  (From Cindy Welchko, a mother of a six-year-old child who is on the autism spectrum.)


       Messy Church originated in the United Kingdom as a way to reach people who had never been to church, who didn't know anything about Bible stories or traditional worship. It took away all the "unwritten rules" of going to church and replaced them with a way to learn about God that helped everyone feel welcome.


       The basic elements of Messy Church are simple---1) Welcoming and greeting time, 2) games and crafts (the "messy" part!), 3) participatory worship time, which includes music, and 4) a simple meal together.  On a weeknight or on the weekend, for two hours or so, all generations come together to learn, play, create, sing and eat, while learning about God using a theme based on a Bible story. There are lots of choices so no one is pressured to do anything they don't want to. No one needs to stay quiet. No one is left out. This makes it a great option for families that include a member with a disability.


       Currently about fifteen churches in the California-Pacific Annual Conference are Girl reading a welcome board about Messy Church participating in Messy Church, with more coming on board all the time.


       The Rev. Nicole Reilley, who trains churches to implement this ministry, says, "Messy church is a great match for children, youth and adults with disabilities. Messy Church places a high value on hospitality so those who are differently abled are warmly welcomed. Because Messy Church doesn't worship in a way where sitting still and being quiet is important, it is a natural fit for churches who want to reach people who -for whatever reason ---do not find a home on Sunday morning."


       Messy Church is held once a month. The day of the week and time vary from church to church. Some churches focus on a particular age group. Others have gifted musicians to help. There are many ways to have Messy Church, and all are fun and disability-friendly!


The Rev. Erika Gara of Hope UMC in Torrance, states:


Messy Church is great for persons of all abilities on so many different levels. It is highly participatory and everyone is welcome to participate to their level of comfort. We have a child with autism and a visually-impaired woman who participate regularly in our Messy Church. We keep them in mind when we create activities, crafts, celebration time (worship) and food/fellowship time. As we plan our meals, we are mindful of food allergies and concerns. We ask everyone who comes to fill out a registration form to share information that helps make Messy Church more accessible to all.


       I'm so appreciative of the founding leadership's desire to make sure all Messy Churches were welcoming and accessible to everyone. They teach about different learning styles and making sure you take those styles into consideration-- offering a variety of different ways to engage the theme and the scripture for the day. This might mean making sure there is a quiet activity to balance out a loud activity. It might mean if there is a messy activity (this past month our theme was water/Messy Baptism and one thing we did was paint objects and then wash them off) with something less messy (a group coloring/art project).

  rainbow colored cooked spaghetti for a messy activity

       As a parent of a child with autism I'm particularly grateful that Messy Church allows my daughter to be herself. She is excited to go to Messy Church and do what she wants to do. She's never forced to do something she doesn't want to do or made to feel bad for not doing things a certain way. There is great permission to come as you are and who you are is celebrated is a part of the community. This is why we are intentional about inviting families with children with special needs-- so that they might find a comfortable, safe place to worship and grow in faith together as a family."


       Pastor Lyda Eddington of La Tijera UMC adds, "The best thing about Messy Church is that it respects the contributions each person has to offer, and meets each child, person and family where they are.  Messy Church is fluid, and embraces all learning styles, and abilities regardless of physical or mental capacity, and reflects our wonderfully diverse world.  Whether there is a child who doesn't sit still or a child who doesn't walk, Messy Church offers them a place to be church together.  Messy Church gives families a new way of being in a faith community without judgment or fear of not fitting in.  One of our children deals with challenges associated with being born very prematurely.  Messy Church welcomes her and gives her a safe and loving place to celebrate her wonderful self!  She told me that on Messy Church days, she doesn't want to go to preschool, she just wants to come to Messy Church!"


       Dena Babb, coordinator at Riviera UMC, says "We have four families with children on the autism spectrum who attend Messy Church regularly. The thing that I love most is how the format allows every child and adult to explore the theme in whichever way they feel most comfortable - there are no "wrong answers" and nobody is singled out for opting out of a specific portion of the experience. I also believe that every single child and adult who attends Messy Church leaves each month with a deeper understanding of God's love and how to share that love in the world."


       So how do you reach out to people in the community to invite them to Messy Church?  Child walking on drums as others watch   Erika and others participated in the Friendship Walk, an event that raises funds for special education in their school districts.  They walked to raise awareness and spread the word among families who support special education and receive special education services about Messy Church.


       With good reviews from parents, children, pastors and church members, Messy Church is a wonderful way to reach out to the families impacted by disabilities in your community!  To learn more, please contact the Rev. Nicole Reilley or Sharon McCart.


Submitted by Sharon McCart, DisAbility Ministries Committee chairperson and faciliitator of the California-Pacific Conference Committee on Ministry with People with Disabilities.

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Understanding Sensory Overload
     Do you feel that itch? Or maybe it feels like a bite or a cut? There, on the back of your neck? Are you the kind of person who removes clothing labels of shirts or dresses before you wear them? If so, you may have a mild sensory processing disorder. Sometimes called sensory integration dysfunction, these behavioral responses to sensory stimuli - sound, sight, taste, touch - can range from discomfort to explosive behavior. 

     I became aware that something more than being overly tired was going on with one of my sons when we went to view July 4th fireworks on site, rather than at a distance. He was two. He seemed to like the pretty colors, but the loud bangs made him tremble. He is very Fireworks exploding against a black sky bright, but no explanation of what was happening could settle him. Before the finale he was crying, shaking and screaming uncontrollably. I brought him back to the car and waited until the fireworks were over. He calmed a little, but still reacted to every loud bang. A later visit to a neurologist made the diagnosis and he entered occupational therapy.

     My son entered a pre-school intervention program at age three and was such an outstanding success that he was a helper for other students. He was happy and self-confident. But then we moved. He entered kindergarten in a school district that was a fraction of the size and had a fraction of the budget. Negative behavioral reports began immediately. He was being disciplined for non-compliance and "rude" behavior. So we made an appointment to speak to the teacher.

     The kindergarten classroom was filled with clutter from more than ten years with the same teacher. There was a three foot wide paper-mache spider hanging from the ceiling. There were stacks of carpet squares in the reading area. There were stuffed animals and displays all around the classroom. There was constant background music. We knew immediately that his behavior was an anxious reaction to overstimulation. Unfortunately this teacher would not make accommodations for him and his self-esteem plummeted. The bright, successful, happy boy who completed the pre-school program never returned.

     So what does this have to do with the church? Quite often our classrooms, fellowship and aquarium with bubbles, greenery, and small fish worship spaces become visually and/or auditorially cluttered. Snacks can be too smooth or too crunchy. Videos can be too bright or change too quickly. These things can be overwhelming to a person struggling with sensory overload. Sometimes our spaces are too distracting for persons without this disorder.

     Does your congregation desire to be a place where all people can hear the message of God's grace? Are you willing to make changes in order to be more inclusive? Do some research regarding sensory triggers and consider what can be modified in your building or program. Create a place for persons who are overstimulated to de-escalate. 

      indoor tent made with boards and fabric, pillows inside Ideas include having a reading tent with soft pillows or bean bag chairs as a safe place. An aquarium can help a child calm and center himself.  Replacing fluorescent lights and keeping clutter behind curtains or cupboard doors decreases overload.  Consider having an occupational therapist evaluate the classroom and provide suggestions for how to be more sensory-friendly.  See the resource section below for more ideas. 

Submitted by Rev. Jackie Burgess, DisAbility Ministry Committee member and representative from the Northeastern Jurisdiction. 

Top of Page                            Sensory tent plans available here.
Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Barbara J. Newman, available through Faith Alive Resources

"Engaging Children and Families with Special Needs" 11/18/14 webinar sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship featuring special educator Elizabeth Christie will be archived on the GBOD Website

"Ideas and Tips to Create an Inclusive Environment" from the Access Ministry's All Access blog

Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations, by Eric W. Carter, published by Paul H. Brookes.
Book cover for Starting you Messy church with paint spash image under the words Messy Church

"Inclusion, Family Style" by Katherine Bolduc, reprinted in EP Magazine.

Messy Church resources which include downloads and a newsletter.

Starting Your Messy Church: A Beginner's Guide for Churches by Lucy Moore and Jane Ledbetter, BRF Online (also available from US on-line resources).

"The Full Belonging and Active Inclusion of Children with Disabilities and Their Families, in Messy Church Groups and Activities" article by Christine Gangemi, downloadable 18 page pdf article.

"Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly"  - Guidelines by Ann Memmott based on a longer document written for the Church of England. 

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowitz, available on-line.

Highlighted resource: 
The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities by Kathleen Deyer Bolduc, author of Autism and Alleluias and other books about her experiences and growth in faith as she raises a son with significant disabilities, was just published by Judson Press. Written to provide spiritual nourishment for parents, Bolduc invites the reader to share a cup of tea as she applies vignettes and lessons from her life and those of other parents to a two-fold process. She likens coming to grips with disability as learning to see the beauty of broken Book cover showing  mosaic of family next to tree: the trunk is a cross with deep roots pieces and to put them together into a mosaic that represents a new view of wholeness. The five sections teach steps in a process that can lead to acceptance of the life that no parent asks for!  Each of the 21 short chapters ends with a spiritual discipline and reflective exercise that can help mothers and fathers stay grounded in faith and empowered to make it through trying days. 

See also:
UM Disability Pinterest board: Sensory Rooms.  See our board for practical, low-cost ideas for creating your own sensory room.  Check out the Inclusive Sunday School Ideas board as well.


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       We hope that something in this issue will inspire you to push for a change or two in your congregation. Can you think of a safe space for a sensory retreat for children and adults who get overloaded from all of the sounds, lights, and activity that goes on in our churches? As the percentage of people on the autism spectrum rises, a safe space will help make participation possible for a number of us.  We would love to hear about your creative solutions!

        May you have a blessed Advent!  



    DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church 

Contact any of us through the Committee email address.