Preparing Your Ministry to Receive Individuals with Disabilities

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Kids at churchBefore you know it, school will be starting and your children’s and youth ministries will be starting again. How can you prepare your church to welcome the magnificent variety of God’s children into your community this ministry year? Director of Church Services Barbara J. Newman shares four tips for preparing your ministry to receive individuals at all levels of ability this year.

1. Offer a preview on your website.

“Something I’ve been recommending to many churches lately is to utilize your church website to give a preview of what visitors can expect at your church,” said Barbara J. Newman. “Similar to checking out hotel photos and your seat on an airplane prior to a trip, some individuals will benefit from photos or a video of what they can expect when they come to your church, church school class, or youth group.”

What does worship look like at your church? What kind of music can one expect? Who are the key people a child or teenager might meet? What does the building look like? Consider including photos, video, or music snippets on your website for potential members to use in getting to know your church. We share other items to consider on your website in this post.

2. Work with parents to create an information story.

Church Welcome StoryUsing elements from your website above and more personalized photos, create a story about what MAY happen when this individual comes to your church or a specific ministry. (For a pre-written story with customizable pages, consider the Church Welcome Story by Barbara J. Newman.) You can show details such as where they might pick up snack during children’s church, where they may stand when they sing in the choir, some of the friends they may meet on Wednesday night, and other details of their time at the church program.

“It is important to include words such as ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘probably’ in your preview so that if the order or details change, your story is still accurate,” shared Newman, “Also, try to stay away from giving specific times, and instead provide a sequence of events. Some individuals get upset if you are off by a minute or two if the specific time is listed.”

3. Ask the right questions.

The information you collect about an individual during the intake process can help you and appropriate leaders understand their gifts and needs, and use this information to create an environment where they are included and supported.

As you’re getting to know individuals and families at the beginning of the year, consider asking them to complete a survey to help you get to know God’s handiwork in their son or daughter. (Don’t worry, we have already created the survey for you — you can download it for free here)! This survey asks questions such as:

  • What activities does your family member enjoy doing the most?
  • Tell me a bit about your story. What has your journey been like over the last few years.
  • What are your goals and dreams for your family member as it relates to the church environment?
  • What is your biggest concern for that type of environment?

We invite you to use the information collected on this survey to create a confidential “welcome page” to share with appropriate leaders so that they can get to know God’s knitting pattern in this individual and create a place for him or her to grow in Christ.

4. Be equipped with the right tools.

“The furniture, seating options, toys, writing instruments, and other environmental factors can tell you a lot about how a school or church thinks about children,” said Newman. “I encourage children’s ministries to have a variety of seating options and attention tools (think wiggle cushions, carpet squares, thera-band and exercise balls), writing tools (such as fidget pencils and various pencil grips), and reading tools (like highlighter tape and EZC Readers) to accommodate for a variety of learning and attention supports that children need.”

Inclusion Tool KitWhen parents are determining if a church or program is the right fit for their son or daughter, the ministry setting helps them know if a church is open to a variety of individuals. “At CLC Network, we wanted to make it easy for churches and schools to try out different attention, writing, and reading tools, so we created the Inclusion Tool Kit. The kit contains tools with instructions and websites to create or order more. I always recommend that anyone that works with kids give these tools a try!” said Newman.


Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is the director of church services and a teacher consultant at CLC Network.

photo credit: 20120801-519 via photopin (license)

Meet Chris and Heather-Lee Wysong

The Wysong Family

The Wysong family, from left: Conner, Heather-Lee, Chris & Pierce

Back in December, Chris and Heather-Lee Wysong challenged CLC Network donors and friends to help send CLC Network’s message of inclusion to church leaders around the country. Chris shares, “Too often, group leaders, volunteers, and pastors lack the training to effectively welcome persons with disabilities into church life. Inclusion and understanding of disabilities needs to be the norm, not the exception.”

Chris and Heather-Lee offered to match all gifts to CLC Network, up to $2,500, on Giving Tuesday (December 2) in order to send Barbara J. Newman to church conferences this spring, to speak about inclusion in churches and provide practical advice to church leaders. Donors responded by giving more than $3,800!

“I was thrilled to be able to introduce the idea of inclusion from a Christian perspective to pastors, church staff, and volunteers who may not have thought about it before,” shares Newman. “This information is so needed by many leaders, and I am grateful to CLC Network donors for helping me make inroads into so many new communities while also supporting communities already welcoming individuals with varied abilities.”

The Wysongs got to know CLC Network and Barbara J. Newman through Zeeland Christian School, where their son Pierce attends and is included socially and academically. At their church, they hoped for the same level of inclusion for Pierce, who has autism spectrum disorder.

“We attend a large church with someone designated to help those with special needs,” explains Chris. “Even with that commitment from the church, getting one-on-one help so that Pierce can participate in all the activities such as Sunday worship, summer camps, and overnighters, is almost an impossibility.” Since Pierce’s disability is more hidden, church leaders, such as volunteer group leaders, often expect him to act in a “normal” way. Instead, Pierce acts as a person with autism spectrum disorder will — from his own unique perspective. As a result, his behavior is not often managed in a helpful way.

“I wish that our church leaders, both pastors and lay people, would seek out the training that Barb offers at these conferences and through CLC Network. This is NOT just for the volunteer who is designated for special needs!” Chris reflects. “That’s why we are excited about supporting CLC Network. We don’t want to see kids drop through the cracks at church.”

While Pierce no longer attends youth group with his peers, missing out on the opportunity to build friendships and causing the other children to miss the chance to be “Jesus with skin on” for Pierce, he has found a way to contribute to the life of the church. He persistently asked to help with the younger children. Today, he volunteers to help every other week during the service. In addition, he helps out other kids who have special needs.

Chris explains, “We are sad that Pierce isn’t participating in youth worship and at camp, but there just isn’t the support for his needs. Hopefully Barb’s training for pastors and youth leaders (parents and volunteers) will open more eyes to kids in congregations who are different.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 “Inclusive” newsletter

Elizabeth Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network. 

Making Lent and Easter Meaningful for Persons with Disabilities

Graphic: Making Lent and Easter Meaningful for Persons with DisabilitiesPart One: Get to Know the Individual

Easter and the Lenten season are a time to reflect on the sacrificial and redeeming love of Christ. For some individuals, however, this season may be confusing, unimportant, and even scary. How can you help make this a meaningful time of reflection and celebration for a person with a disability?

Accessible Gospel, Inclusive WorshipThe most important place to begin is by getting to know the individual’s strengths and areas of struggle. Each person — regardless of their level of ability or disability — is handcrafted by God with gifts and areas of interest, as well as areas where they need the assistance and grace of others. As you consider this individual, it’s important to ask: what CAN this individual do? When you focus on what the person enjoys, it’s easier to think of the tools, approach and opportunities to include in that environment where you can help the person grow closer to Jesus.

The following information is adapted from “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship”, a book I recently wrote to help parents, friends, teachers, volunteers, and pastors create an environment where they can introduce the gospel and foster faith formation in persons with disabilities. I invite you to read this book to find practical ideas, stories, and encouragement that will help you make this important introduction.


Important questions to consider about your friend:

How does the individual take information in?

It’s important to know how people best process information so that we can align our strategies with that person’s best way of taking information in. Some people do function well with words. Others prefer pictures or objects. Others may need sign language, Braille or large print.

How does the individual get information out?

Do they use photos? Do they need special equipment? Find out how this person communicates and what ways you can enter that conversation together.

What movements can the person do?

Can he walk or run? Can she operate her own wheelchair? Can he sit in a chair on his own? Can she wave a praise streamer? While your friend may have many movements that work well, for those individuals who have limited mobility, find out what tools, equipment, and safety issues impact the individual’s ability to interact with the environment.

Does he or she have any sensory sensitivities?

Does he or she have an over or under sensitivity to sound or sight? How about balance or smell? Some individuals can have several differences. She might be over-sensitive in one area and under-sensitive in another.  Also think about what tools are helpful for regulating that particular sensation. Is a sound blocker, tinted glasses, or a mini trampoline helpful?  “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship” has a helpful chart that outlines what sensitivities in these areas and more might look like, as well as an explanation of sensory sensitivities that I invite you to check out.

We encourage you to write down your answers to these questions, and even to discuss and brainstorm with other adults in this persons’ life. As you get to know this individual, think about how you could use this information to foster an environment where they can grow closer to Christ.


Part Two: Accessible Gospel

Now that we have a good understanding of our friend, it’s time to apply that knowledge to creating an environment where we can share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Young children in a classroomWhile the content is important, how we present that content may require some creativity and prayerful consideration. We may first need to learn to speak that individual’s language, to find out that person’s story and what that individual really enjoys. Perhaps we need to find that person’s “expert” or “guide” so we can better form a safe and productive relation­ship. Have we considered creating a team that may include intercessors, or perhaps purchasing some items that would be well received by that person? Do we know what phrases to avoid with this individual? Particularly around Easter, it’s important to make sure the invitation focuses on the compelling love of Jesus Christ, rather than items that may appear scary to your friend (like nails, death, and blood). Though Jesus’ death is crucial to our salvation, it’s important not to scare your friend into following Jesus.

You Try It

Begin with your answers to the questions in Part I above. Focus on the gifts, strengths, and interests of that person. As you think about their strengths and interests, can you think of a way to use this to make an introduction of the good news of Jesus Christ?

During Lent, would it be meaningful for your friend to have a daily reminder of Jesus’ love? Perhaps this could be a chair in their house draped in a purple cloth? Or an illustration of Jesus welcoming the children? How about a picture they’ve colored? Consider how your friend receives information, and combine that with something that meaningfully communicates Christ’s love to them.

Jesus birthday cake

One variation of the cake from the Happy Home Fairy:

Their gifts and joys will often be the activity to house the message. If your adult friend enjoys baking, then you might make Easter rolls. When you break them open, they are hollow inside. You could find a recipe for a resurrection cake where each layer and part represents what Jesus has done for us. Turn the baking environment into an introduction to Jesus.

Perhaps you are a parent. If your child is talented at playing and running, you might create a fitness course where each station tells a part of the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you are a grandparent and your grandchild enjoys playing board games with you. If that’s a strength of your grandchild, how could you adapt his or her favorite board game to represent the parts of the gospel message?

Next, focus on the ways your friend takes information in. Do you have notes from Part I about the importance of using pictures or keeping it short due to attention span? Can you use books with words or would you want to use music? How a person takes information in will help you choose the content for the activity. For example, if you are doing the Easter cake baking, should you have a word recipe or picture recipe to describe the gospel layers of the cake?

As you look at ways your friend gets information out, this will be the way you can check for understanding. For example, if your friend can pull you to a particular place and you are doing the fitness course, you could ask your friend to take you to the place that shows us Jesus is alive. If your friend can point to a picture or object and you are doing a board game, have that person point to someone that Jesus loves in order to move forward 4 spaces.

As you plan your environment and activity, make sure to factor in movements, sensory sensitivities, safety issues, and equipment needed.

As the activity begins to form in your mind, consider constructing the content so that you can repeat it and review it.  Creating something lasting allows you to come back to it and learn from it many times over.

Person prayingAt this point, if nothing comes to mind, ask another individual to brainstorm with you. Remember to cover this process with prayer. God hand-crafted this individual and knows this person from before birth. Ask Him to highlight a path. Remember, you create the environment for the introduction to Jesus and His love for this individual, and watch God do the rest!

Remember, we are not the one who saves, that’s God’s part. But we are called to set up an environment where we can arrange an introduction. It is our hope at CLC Network that these tips and ideas have helped you to think of some ways to help a friend with a disability in your life reflect on and celebrate Christ’s love this Easter and Lenten season.

Additional resources:Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship

All of the material above was adapted from  “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship”.  You will find many more stories and ideas in the book available from CLC Network for only $10!

The Easter BookIf you are still looking for some printed resources and more ideas, I had the chance to write a book called The Easter Book for Friendship Ministries. While this book is part of a larger set of materials, it contains many activities you may be able to use, especially with adults. You can find The Easter Book at or at

cross photo credit: Christian Cross 11 via photopin (license). Adaptions by CLC Network.

Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is a church and school consultant at CLC Network and a special education teacher at Zeeland Christian School. She is the author of numerous books and a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches.

“Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship” – New book from Barbara J. Newman

Accessible Gospel, Inclusive WorshipBarbara J. Newman, an author and contributor to more than 20 books and resources relating to disability ministry and inclusion, offers practical ideas and advice to churches worldwide in her latest book, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship. The 128-page book, published by CLC Network, encourages churches to introduce the Gospel and nurture faith formation within children and adults with disabilities.

“I heard the mother of a child with autism ask a well-known speaker how she could introduce her daughter to God several years ago,” said Newman. “The speaker replied, ‘God is too hard for people with autism to understand.’ and it broke my heart.”

“I’m often asked questions similar to this in my work with parents and church leaders around the country,” continued Newman. “In fact, these questions were part of the impetus for starting the Church Services division of CLC Network eight years ago. Though we’ve published resources on inclusion and specific disabilities, I wanted to give readers of diverse denominations and roles a way to think about how each person in their congregation can use the gifts God has given them to grow in their relationship with God.”

Barbara J. Newman photo

Newman offers readers practical tools and ideas to cultivate faith formation in persons at all levels of ability in this recently published work.

Using the Vertical Habits framework developed by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), Newman provides ideas to foster faith formation among everyone in a congregation through creating an inclusive worship environment. The Vertical Habits framework is a process to connect words used in relationship with people to words used to express emotions to God. There are eight Vertical Habits, including: Love You, I’m Sorry, Why?, I’m Listening, Help, Thank You, What Can I Do?, and Bless You. Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship gives readers a set of tools to get to know a person with disability and an in-depth guide to integrate the eight Vertical Habits into their faith practice.

“People of all ages and with all kinds of complementary abilities and capacities who immerse themselves in the practices described in this book will find themselves growing in grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ,” said John D. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Thanks to the contributions of Betty Grit, former CICW Worship Renewal Grants Program Manager, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship is the first published resource to use Vertical Habits.

“Since 2005, more than fifty schools and churches across North America have adapted the Vertical Habits into their corporate worship,” said Grit. “This resource will provide communities with the tools to create a place where all believers can learn and practice the habits together.”

The book is based on Newman’s thirty years of experience in special education at Zeeland Christian School and consulting with congregations across North America.  She has created and contributed to more than twenty books and resources, including: Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, and Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive Community. Newman frequently speaks at national church and educational conferences on autism spectrum disorder, behavior management, inclusion, and much more.

“This book was made possible by an anonymous donor who values the relationship between a Christian school, church, and family,” shared Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski, CLC Network advancement director. “We are grateful for their support and their love for God’s children at all levels of ability and disability. This donor’s deeply rooted conviction that all children are covenant children is a blessing to each individual who receives this book.”

Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship can be purchased from the CLC Network Online Store at  Thanks to a generous gift from CICW, this book is available at the reduced rate of $10.00 per copy.  Attendees of CICW’s Symposium on Worship on January 29-31, 2015 at Calvin College will be invited to receive a free copy of the book when they visit the CLC Network exhibit.

Join Us for a Training this Spring!

Phil Stegink, CLC Network director of educational services, presenting at a Woodcock-Johnson IV training in Fall 2014.

Phil Stegink, CLC Network director of educational services, presenting at a Woodcock-Johnson IV training in Fall 2014.

We travel quite extensively throughout the school year to train educators, pastors, church leaders, and volunteers to welcome children and adults at all levels of ability into their congregations. This spring, we’ll be traveling and presenting from the west coast to the east coast and many places in between.

We invite you to listen in on a presentation or stop by our exhibit booth at one of the events below!

Note: Some events require registration and are only open to specific audiences; check each event website for more information.

January 19: Christ Memorial Church (Holland, MI)

Barbara J. Newman will be presenting on Autism Spectrum Disorder and inclusion within the church setting

January 21-24: Children’s Pastors Conference – East (Chattanooga, TN)


January 29-31: Calvin Symposium on Worship (Grand Rapids, MI)

Presentation: “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship: Vertical Habits In Action” with Barbara J. Newman and Betty Grit

February 4-7: Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (Baltimore, MD)

Presentation: “Let Me Try That!: Learning from Churches Including Persons with Disabilities” with Barbara J. Newman

February 7:  Northeast Ohio Special Needs Conference (Bay Village, OH)

Barbara J. Newman is a featured speaker at this conference.

February 12-14: Lutheran Educators Association National Administrators Conference (Orlando, FL)

Visit our exhibit booth for inclusive education resources!

February 15: Christ Memorial Church, Contemporary Christian Life Issues Class (Holland, MI)

Presentation: “CLC Network – How Its Work Assists Churches in Cultivating Communities of Inclusion” with Jacki Sikkema

February 16-19: Children’s Pastors Conference – West (Ontario, CA)


March 4-6: National Christian School Association Annual Convention (Atlanta, GA)

Visit our exhibit booth for inclusive education resources!

March 13: Christian Schools International District IV Training (Oostburg, WI)


  • “Three Key Ingredients to Effective Teaching” and “100+ Strategies for Effective Teaching” with Pam Maat
  • “Creating Individual Goals for Special Needs Learners” and “The Basics of Phonological Awareness” with Becky Tubergen
  • “Universal Design for Learning and Assistive Technology” with Elaine Kappers and Becci Zwiers

March 14: St. Mark Missionary Church (Mishewaka, IN)

Presentation: “Including Children with Disabilities in our Faith Communities” with Barbara J. Newman

March 20: That All May Worship (Virginia Beach, VA)

Presenting: Barbara J. Newman

March 19-21: Northwest Ministry Conference (Seattle, WA)


April 17-18: Accessibility Summit (McLean, VA)


  • “Tips, Tweaks, & Tune-ups for Sunday School Curriculum and Classrooms” panel discussion, including Barbara J. Newman
  • “Autism and Your Church” with Barbara J. Newman

April 19-20: Seventh-Day Adventist Church Disability Ministry Training (California)

Presenting: Barbara J. Newman

May 26-30:  Summer Institute on Theology and Disability (Atlanta, GA)

Presenting: Barbara J. Newman


Schedule Your Training

Invite a member of our team to speak at your upcoming conference or event by calling 616-245-8388. Visit our website for a list of potential topics for educators and churches.