Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

You Are Not Alone! Resources for Inclusive Ministries and Spiritual Supports


Rev. Bill Gaventa is Coordinator of Community and Congregational Supports, and Assistant Professor, at The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, New Brunswick. He serves in volunteer roles as the Executive Secretary for the Religion and Spirituality Division of AAMR and as Co-Editor of the Journal of Religion, Disability, and Health. He may be reached at gaventwi@umdnj.edu.

Assumption #1: You are reading this article as a provider of disability services, advocate, family member, layperson, or clergy who has seen a need to address the spiritual and religious needs and hopes of people with developmental disabilities. Assumption #2: You perhaps have tried some things in the past, not had much response, had trouble finding resources, or, even worse, encountered attitudes or outright actions that were apathetic at best or intensely painful at worse. Or, you may have helped some good things to happen, but you are not aware of others who share both your joys and struggles. Where to begin when you feel like you are starting from the ground up?

First, know that whatever kind of support you can imagine for and with people with developmental disabilities within the faith community, somewhere, someone is doing it already. That includes worship, religious education, recreation, advocacy, housing, circles of support and friendships, respite care, service to others, and many more. It can be done and someone is doing it. Second, know that there are growing numbers of resources that can be a support to you. Let’s look at some.

Principles of Practice

In both religious networks and service systems, there are clear rationale and foundations for inclusive spiritual supports. In “secular” and “public” health and human service systems, there is increasing research and practice that points to the importance of addressing spiritual needs and preferences as part of holistic services and supports. In the developmental disabilities field, researchers and practitioners are beginning to articulate ways that effective spiritual supports are connected to effective services, person-centered planning, cultural competence, and self-determination. The recently adopted policy statement on religious freedom and spiritual supports by the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) is an example (available atwww.aamr.org under “Policy Statements”).

The sources of principles that form the foundation of inclusive religious practice, though, are clearly within the religious community. In recent years, national religious organizations such as the Catholic Conference of Bishops, National Council of Churches of Christ, and Union of American Hebrew Congregations have adopted new or updated position papers or statements on ministry and people with disabilities. A number have national resource offices whose portfolio of responsibilities includes resources, networking, and guiding congregational supports with people with disabilities. One of the strongest recent policy statements, titled “The Accessible Church: Toward Becoming the Whole Family of God,” comes from the many faith groups who are members of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Councils of Churches (it can be found atwww.masscouncilofchurches.org/docs/accessibility.htm ).

Thus, as you get started, find out what the leading-edge practice in your profession is and what the national bodies with whom you are connected have already done. You can find others who are paving the way.

Ecumenical and Interfaith Resources

As you research the resources within your own faith community or that of a congregation with whom you are seeking to collaborate, a second major group of resources are ecumenical and interfaith organizations specifically focused on strengthening ministries and spiritual supports and services with people with disabilities and their families. These include two that are interfaith, connected to professional and advocacy organizations, and a number of ecumenical organizations:

  • American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) Religion and Spirituality Division. An interfaith network of 300 people sponsoring national conferences, resource collections, a certification process for religious caregivers, and a newsletter.
  • National Organization on Disability, Religion and Disability Program. Sponsor of “That All May Worship” conferences around the country, and leader of the Accessible Congregations Campaign.
  • Consortium of Jewish Special Educators. A network of coordinators of special services in Jewish education agencies, federations, and community centers.
  • National Council of Churches, Committee on Disabilities. A committee connecting resource offices and programs within a number of mainline Christian denominations.
  • National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry. Primarily Catholic, but also including other traditions, it focuses on developmental disabilities and inclusion within congregations.
  • Christian Council on Persons with Disabilities. A network composed primarily of evangelical congregations, denominations, and para-church organizations and ministries.
  • Networks that focus on inclusive religious education, including the Network for Inclusive Catholic Education, and Friendship Ministries. Again, while based in particular traditions, their resources are used in a number of Christian denominations.

So, how are these helpful to you? They can connect you to resources that are already developed and to people engaged in similar forms of ministry or service. Some offer a formal process for individual congregations who want to explore and strengthen inclusive ministries and supports. And, the national conferences and leadership of these organizations can assist you in your community by helping to sponsor or lead workshops that bring together religious networks and service providers.

Regional and State Resources

In a number of areas around the country, regional and state initiatives are developing new strategies for supporting congregations and disability service providers. They include:

  • Interfaith coalitions and resource offices, such as the Interfaith Disabilities Network in Atlanta , the Center for Spirituality and Disability  in Philadelphia, and Pathways Awareness Foundation in Chicago.
  • Area-wide ministries and programs that provide a variety of supports and services that connect communities and people with developmental disabilities. One example is Bridge Ministries in Seattle, which has programs that include counseling, adaptive equipment, circles of support, guardianship, and more. The Bridges to Faith committee  in Massachusetts recruits “Faith Companions” to help include people with developmental disabilities within the congregations of their choice. Metro area Jewish federations and centers for education, and organizations like the Council for Jews with Special Needs  coordinate a number of projects that support initiatives within individual synagogues while also guiding collaborative projects. In many places, chaplains who formerly served primarily as pastors within the world of an institution are increasingly focused on supporting inclusive congregational ministries.

“That’s nice, but we need money”

Sources of financial support for inclusive congregations include religious organizations, state offices on developmental disabilities, Developmental Disabilities Councils, private foundations, the Faith in Action Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and reshaped or redirected chaplaincy services. There may be other forms of public funding available under new “faith-based initiatives” at the federal and state levels. For initiatives within individual congregations, a new publication from the Alban Institute and the Religion and Disability Program of the National Organization on Disability titledMoney and Ideassummarizes the creative initiatives of 50 congregations.

But, do you really need money? It is also crucial to recognize that most forms of inclusive ministry and spiritual supports involve the determination and will to include, rather than a first expenditure of funds. You don’t have to start with a “program.”

Putting It Together

Making this work in your congregation, agency, community, or state is certainly not a given, and, as you know, depends on effective planning, partnerships, training, and organization. It may first depend upon families, advocates, and people with disabilities summoning the courage, and overcoming past wounds, to approach and ask their faith community once again. Most creative initiatives in this area began around individuals.

Consultation, collaboration, friendly competition, and creative coaching are all words that get overused but are crucial in the development of these initiatives. Think, for example, in creative ways about planning: Have spiritual assessments and supports been part of IEP, IHP, or person-centered planning processes? When was the last time a representative from someone’s faith community or tradition was invited to participate? Think about training. To help clergy and congregations, you are going to have to go where they go, meet them on their ground. To help agency staff and professional staff, include spirituality and spiritual supports in preservice and inservice training. Think of how the gifts of individual agency staff can be used to support initiatives in this area, no matter what their job description, and/or how congregations can use the skills and knowledge of professionals and families within their congregations to train and coach others.

Help Us All Learn!

As you work within this area, let others know what you are doing. Connect with national networks and their newsletters. Write about what you are doing, and the resources or models you develop. Consider writing for theJournal of Religion, Disability, and Health; we need the same kind of intensive, systematic, and disciplined research and writing in the area of faith and developmental disabilities as is happening within other areas of health and human service. The spiritual needs and gifts of people with developmental disabilities have too long been hidden. To help them help us, don’t hide your light under a bushel!