MTIOPC Course on Disability and the Church

Judith M. Dinsmore

The new MTIOPC course avoided the trendier title “Disability Ministry” on purpose, instructor Stephen Tracey explained.

New books and big-church conferences on the topic will usually use that term, and it comes with one big problem: “Disability Ministry” can imply that some members of the church dedicate some time to help other members who have disabilities. For small churches making wise decisions about requesting volunteers or allocating funds, such an “extra” ministry may seem impractical even if desirable.

That’s just the wrong lens, Tracey said in August 2021 at the MTIOPC intensive training held at the church he pastors, Lakeview OPC, in Rockport, Maine. “The whole church is to seek to serve the whole person with the whole gospel.” Undergirded by readings that approached the topic of disability from a Reformed perspective, the intensive training was packed with practical insights for Sunday school teachers and church officers on what it means to make ministry to those with disabilities a “complete, normal, and essential” part of the church’s life rather than “a” ministry.

Insights for Sunday School Teachers

How do you include a child whose dyslexia causes him to feel frustrated and to act out in Sunday school? Or a child with autism whose behavior is throwing VBS storytime into chaos? The details of interacting with kids were addressed at the training by Suzanne de Boer and Sonja de Boer (who may be known to readers as the daughter and granddaughter of late OP minister John Galbraith). Suzanne de Boer, whose field is special education, explained that children diagnosed with a learning disability such as ADHD or dyslexia do not have a “deficient brain.” Rather, she said, “it’s an inefficient brain. It’s handling its information inefficiently.” Teachers can learn how to present the lesson in a way that can be received and remembered by an inefficient brain.

Sonja de Boer, a behavior analyst and expert in Autism Spectrum Disorder, opened the door to a world of strategies to better teach a child with autism. (She is quick to caveat that each child on the spectrum is different—if you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.) Some strategies dovetail well with longstanding Reformed convictions: children with autism need clear boundaries, she said, and thrive on knowing the rules. “Hello, I’m Ms. de Boer, I have five rules in my classroom, and today we’re going to learn about rule number one,” de Boer will say at the beginning of a class. She’ll put painter’s tape down on a shared classroom table so that each child knows their physical boundaries and, if appropriate, what space is “theirs” to keep clean.

Other strategies are more counterintuitive to church culture. “As Christians, we have this concept that if you don’t hear from me, you’re doing the right thing,” de Boer explained. But kids with autism need more immediate feedback when they do something right: it helps their brains to build the pathways needed to then repeat the correct action in the future. Relevant research indicates that “kids with autism need four-to-one praises to criticisms.” De Boer also challenged the propensity to lay down the law for every activity. Offering choices instead gives the child with autism some measure of control inside the teacher’s boundaries. “‘Because I said so’ will never make sense to a kid with autism,” she said. If it’s time to sing, de Boer illustrated, say: “We’re going to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Psalm 23.’ Johnny, which one would you like to sing first?”

Insights for Deacons

In a tour of Lakeview OPC’s church facility during the MTIOPC training, Tracey pointed out accessibility improvements they have made or hope to make: an outdoor ramp (then a ramp extender when one member noticed that frost heave caused a two-inch bump from the parking lot to the ramp that was problematic for a wheelchair or a walker); a lift to the basement; and widened doorways. The basement has a sensory processing room; the room at the back of the sanctuary has a bin of sensory toys. They plan to add cup dispensers beside drinking fountains.

Every change to the building, of course, comes with a financial cost—and displays the second big area, along with accessibility, for diaconal consideration. The financial costs to families of those with disabilities can be great. Doctor’s visits, procedures, medications, therapies, and special equipment may all be straining a family’s budget. A private diagnostic assessment for autism by a qualified provider, for example, can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. Deacons may be wise to ascertain whether families are foregoing recommendations from their doctors due to tight finances.

Caring for a child with special needs also places a huge emotional strain on the parents, on their marriage, and on any siblings, de Boer pointed out. (Tracey mentioned that these siblings are sometimes called “glass children”—because it is so easy to look “through” them and only see the child with the disability.) The church might pay for a few hours of respite care each week or each month, so that the parents can go on a date or have a day off with the typical siblings.

Insights for Pastors and Elders

In the training, Tracey gave down-to-earth descriptions of Lakeview’s practices that could easily be applied to other OP churches—from bulletin inserts on disability etiquette to a buddy system for church members. He explained that “ministry to those with disabilities” is on their docket at each session meeting. A member once requested to bring in director’s chairs for their family, because of a medical condition that made standing up from the pews difficult. Tracey happily agreed. Later, at the session meeting, the family’s request came up in the discussion under the docket item, “ministry to those with disabilities.” As they discussed, the session realized that other people attending probably had a similar problem. Now, rather than makeshift seats in back, chairs with arms have been interspersed among the pews, so that those who need them can participate in worship more fully.

Also addressed at the training was the need to be sensitive to issues of identity. Some people prefer person-first language—for example, “the boy with autism.” Others gladly self-identify—for example, “autie” or “aspie.” What is always helpful is focusing on who we are in Christ.

Tracey urged pastors to consider the sheer numbers of those affected by a disability for whom attending a church event may seem difficult or impossible. If you know an interested person who may have difficulty, “make sure they’re welcome,” he said. “Call them. Say, ‘We’d really like you to be there. What can we do to make it easier?’” Once that person or family finds help in your church, they have a whole network of relationships with other families and caregivers whom they will tell. Word will get out that your church welcomes. 

OP pastor Chip Hammond, who attended the MTIOPC training and has written on cognitive disability and the image of God, agrees. He wrote the following about those with cognitive disabilities, which can be applied to all church members with disabilities: “Rather than a ministry to such people, the church should foster within itself an attitude of ministry with such people, that is, a ministry that is inclusive of such people. . . as much as possible, those with cognitive disabilities should be included in the overall life of the church” (It Has Not Yet Appeared, 222).

The 2022 course will begin on February 1, 2022, with online reading and writing assignments and will conclude with a mandatory in-person intensive training in Rockport, Maine, May 17–19, 2022.

The author is managing editor of New Horizons. Photo: Participants in the summer 2021 MTIOPC intensive training in Rockport, Maine. The “Disability in the Church” course will run again in spring 2022.