Inclusion has been 25 years in the making at Calvary Church, and as Judi Warner, director of special needs ministry, says, “Like every church, we’re still on a journey”.
A former church consultant at CLC Network, Judi began at Calvary Church four years ago with a vision to bring inclusion to the 4,000-member Grand Rapids congregation. The church had a well-established special needs ministry for kids and adults that grew out of Calvary’s belief that each individual has a place in the community of believers. Building on this foundational value, Judi and her three-person team have helped the children’s, youth, and adult ministries receive the gifts of persons with disabilities in an inclusive and interdependent environment by focusing on each person’s gifts:
“[From what I learned during my time at CLC Network], first and foremost, you look at the individual first and you ask, ‘What are their gifts? What are their weaknesses? What are some of their challenges?’ You focus on the gifts and what their desires are to serve, be served, and serve alongside. It all begins with getting to know that individual first,” shared Judi.
Paving the Way with Children’s Ministry
In such a large church environment, the natural place to begin inclusion was with the children’s ministry.
“It began with me sharing the vision that God put on my heart to see all of his kids included together. And I began asking, ‘How could special needs ministry become more ‘one’ with the children’s ministry (with special needs staff being the support piece)?’ In a beautiful way, God made that gradually happen as parents had their kids included at school and expected the same at church.”
Though they met with initial hesitancy, Judi and her staff consulted often with the children’s ministry staff, parents, and kids to make sure everyone felt supported and equipped.
Through this gradual process, the children’s ministry has been transformed. This fall, Judi’s dream for a unified children’s and special needs ministry will come true with combined staff personnel and training for staff and volunteers. The efforts to unify the ministries are a reflection of the impact inclusion has had on kids. Judi notes,
“It’s an amazing thing when you talk to kids in a classroom and you try to bring awareness about a child with a disability. The kids ‘get it’. It’s like they’re not even different.”
Focusing on Youth Groups
But inclusion doesn’t stop with the children’s ministry at Calvary Church. The middle and high school youth groups focus on identifying the gifts and needs of students with disabilities and placing support structures around those students. “One of the more significant challenges is sensory overload. The youth group spends lots of time in large groups and the room itself can be over stimulating. The special needs ministry staff works with the youth group staff to accommodate or adapt different portions of the ministry.”
Because teens are used to inclusion at their West Michigan Christian and public schools, it was natural to have teens with disabilities in the middle and high school youth groups.
“The high school staff has done a great job of identifying [typical] students who can offer support to a student when needed. And if the staff needs us, then our team jumps in to offer assistance. It has been fun to watch the youth group staff and students take ownership of it. And if inclusion is difficult for an individual, then we invite them to worship and participate in Go-Getters, our adult program.”
Creating Interdependence among Adults
Go-Getters, which began 25 years ago as a self-contained program for kids with disabilities, evolved to serve adults as its attendees grew. Today the program offers worship services, activities, classes, and faith mentoring for more than 130 adults with disabilities and their families.
“God paved the way for each of these individuals to be part of a community within themselves. Our challenge now is to allow the entire Calvary Church community to learn and benefit from one another,” shared Judi.
The adults are taking steps toward serving together in various ministries. If a member of Go-Getters wants to join a class or church activity, Judi meets with the individual to learn about their gifts and challenges and then matches them up with the right small group or activity. Judi and her team will offer assistance as needed to the leader and participants so that everyone feels equipped and informed. Through small groups, church baptisms, congregation-wide meals, and worship services that are open to everyone, full inclusion is gradually happening among the adults at the church.
“It’s a journey,” Judi acknowledges, with the hope that as kids and teens grow, they will become adults who view inclusion as normalcy. “And that’s what gives me so much hope for God’s vision of it all. These kids will be the adults of tomorrow who will welcome and embrace people with disabilities because ‘why wouldn’t you? These individuals have been part of my life growing up and they’re part of God’s creation just like I am…there’s no setting them apart.’ I look forward to the day when the majority of adults with and without disabilities serve alongside one another in the church.”
Providing Options for Families
The special needs ministry staff recognizes that an inclusive environment does not work for everyone all of the time. While Calvary Church responds graciously to distractions during the worship service, Judi knows that a large worship environment is not always the right fit. She acknowledges the importance of providing people with options and helping each one find their place in the Calvary community.
“We want to provide an opportunity for people to worship the Lord, and for their kids to be well cared for and to share the love of Christ. If that means a separate classroom for a time, then we provide them with options,” said Judi.
Though Calvary Church is still on a journey, their story serves as a testament to God’s faithfulness and desire for each of His children–regardless of their level of ability or disability–to worship and serve together.
Judi’s Advice: Don’t Say “No”
She encourages congregations of all sizes to make a place for each person in their community, “Get to know that individual and their family. Embrace them, welcome them. Have an opportunity very shortly after you meet them to interview them (and their family) and visit their home. Use that information to put together a profile on that individual. Don’t say, ‘No’, instead say, “We’re glad you’re here. We want to get to know you.”
Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.