“Shepherd the flock of God among you,” says Peter to pastors (1 Pet. 5:2). Similarly, Paul exhorts those in ministry to “Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12). If we pastors want to be faithful in shepherding the flock and equipping the saints, we must know our people…including those not like us.
The flock of God is made up of various abilities. Some are able-bodied and neurotypical, while others are physically disabled or neurodiverse. Even among the physically disabled and neurodiverse, there is a spectrum of people who have varying cognitive and physical abilities. How might pastors equip the saints to minister to people with disabilities and their families, so that they might build up the body of Christ?
Shepherding Those with Disabilities
As a pastor and parent to a little boy with Down syndrome and Fetal alcohol syndrome, this discussion is near to my heart. What I offer below is far from exhaustive but is a place to begin as pastors and churches rethink how to minister to people with disabilities and their families.
1. Reaffirm the imago Dei
If churches are going to lovingly minister to people with disabilities, they must have a robust understanding of the image of God. A deficient understanding of image-bearers too easily opens the door for deficient treatment of image-bearers. By reaffirming the image of God through preaching and discipleship, pastors can train the eyes of congregants to see people with disabilities as God sees them.
This is more important than it may first appear. Traditional understandings of the imago Dei locate the image in the cognitive, relational, and functional characteristics of people. For example, Millard Erickson describes a common understanding of the image as “some definite characteristic or quality within the makeup of the human.” This understanding is widespread but quite problematic for people with disabilities. An articulation of the image as a capacity within humanity risks excluding those whose cognitive, relational, and functional abilities are non-typical or non-existent.
Jason Whitt helps us see the problem: “When we locate the imago Dei in some distinctly human capacity or ability, the image becomes a particular possession of (some) humans. Those who cannot claim possession of the defined qualities must therefore be deemed either less than or other than human.”
There is good reason to understand the image not as a capacity or ability, but as a royal status, graciously gifted by God to all of humanity. Psalm 8 describes the creation of humanity using royal language: “Yet you made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).
Although we cannot make the argument here, this understating of the imago Dei is consistent with the cultural context of the ancient near East. Pastors should joyfully affirm and teach that the imago Dei, in the words of Michael Bird, “…is a sovereignly and divinely bestowed status by which we become royal sons and daughters of our heavenly Lord, and it is universally true of every person irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, or ableness.”
This understanding of the imago Dei not only teaches the church to see people with disabilities as God sees them but also provides an opportunity to consider the wisdom of God. The question is not whether the disabled bear the image of God, but what we might learn from God’s rule and reign on earth being represented by people with intellectual and physical disabilities.
2. Exercise humility and teachability
It is easy to have preconceived ideas about people with disabilities. These judgments often come from a place of ignorance about the person and the nature of their disability. Humility and teachability are valuable characteristics churches can exercise to correct these ideas. Depending on an individual’s situation, the church should seek to learn as much as possible from the person with disabilities. In the case of younger children or people with intellectual disabilities, the church should seek to learn from the parents or caretakers of that child.
This may mean modifying our low view about a person’s ability so that we might speak to and treat them as independent individuals who are free to make their own choices about their inclusion. It would be unfortunate to assume that a person’s physical disability automatically meant an inability to serve or participate in worship.
We might also humbly learn about people who are neurodiverse. For example, many people with neurodiversity have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). According to Barbara Sher, “A child with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon certain information received through the senses. Typically, our nervous system receives messages from the senses, such as the sounds we hear and the food we taste, and we turn them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.” While most people will simply process the sensory input and respond appropriately, those with SPD will “under-respond, over-respond, or seek/crave sensory input.”
Pastors and churches should become familiar with Sensory Processing Disorder, because the likelihood that someone has SPD in their congregation is high and because so many of the people who have SPD can look typically developing. Unfortunately, this leads to misidentifying a child’s struggles as misbehavior, and most hurtful, thinking the behavior is the result of poor parenting. Attempting to reprimand a child’s sensory struggle with discipline will not only be ineffective, but it will discourage parents already living among so many people who simply “don’t get it.”
This past summer at VBS, we had a young man who would run constantly, stomp his feet, and move aggressively when redirected. At first, many assumed he was misbehaving, but it didn’t take long for my wife (a speech therapist) to recognize that he was simply over-stimulated. With the consent of his parents, we were able to come up with an appropriate action plan to help him process the input appropriately. He responded well, and his parents were grateful to leave their child with someone who “got it.”
Another way churches can exercise humility is by expecting and not reacting to needed movement during worship services. For example, it is unlikely that a child on the autism spectrum will sit quietly during the service. Pastors and congregants can create spaces that invite movement! If the movement of a child with autism “distracts” a congregant, it is the heart of the congregant and not the child that is the problem.
The exercise of humility and teachability allow Christians to practice cruciformity in the footsteps of our Lord. It was the humble and sacrificial death of Jesus that led Paul to say, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phi. 2:3)
3. Encourage Friendship
People with disabilities often have consistent relationships, but not the ones typically developing and able-bodied people are accustomed to having. After their parents, it is very common for the primary relationships to consist of therapists (play, speech, occupational, physical, behavioral, etc.) and other professional caregivers. These are important and necessary relationships, but they are not the only relationships needed for people with disabilities. As Has Reinders has noted, “…these kinds of relationships are very important for the disabled person, but neither can establish the one crucial good that disabled persons long for: being chosen as a friend.”
Church members should seek friendship for the simple joys that friendship brings. To learn from Hans Reinders again, “…one cannot reap the fruits of friendship if one’s friendship is a means to another, external goal. Friendship is its own reward.” This is not to say there are no additional blessings when friendships are pursued. An able person may very well bless their new friend, but the able person might also receive blessings, such as a deeper understanding of God, humanity, and life in the world.
4. Provide respite care for parents
Raising a child with a disability brings a lot of joy, but it also comes with unique challenges that can mentally and emotionally tire parents. From day-to-day care to navigating behaviors in public, parents often end up with feelings of fatigue, frustration, and failure. Those of us who identify as pro-life should be especially sensitive and conscious of how challenging these experiences can be.
Sometimes the best way a church can love families is to provide needed rest. This can happen at both the individual and corporate levels. Church members should build the necessary trust needed to make parents feel comfortable about leaving their children with a friend for a night out.
This can also happen at the corporate level. Many churches now provide a “parents’ night out” for families raising children with disabilities. We are brainstorming such a ministry at Hermon that we hope can begin soon. Ideally, this ministry should be relatively frequent and offered for free. This type of ministry allows church members to provide not only rest to parents but a safe social environment for the children to interact with peers.
5. Point them to the crucified and risen Christ
The ultimate source of comfort for those to whom pastors minister will not come from ministry initiatives or friendship, but from the crucified and resurrected Christ. Our savior is not aloof and distant from the troubles of this world. His resurrected body bears the scars given to him on the cross (John 20:27).
Jesus, more than any pastor or parent, is sufficient to minister to the spiritual needs of the disabled. The perfect image of the invisible God, Jesus’ resurrected body retains scars. We can’t expound on all that might mean for our resurrection bodies, but what we can say is that Christ is able and ready to minister to us because he shared in our human flesh and suffered bodily (Heb. 2:14-18). To those able, talk and meditate on the humanity of Jesus, his suffering on the cross, and the glory of his resurrection. Find hope and comfort in that his resurrected body is still marked by the victory of Calvary which assures that one day, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
As pastors, we can’t shepherd the flock of God that is among us if we overlook persons with disabilities. By reaffirming the image of God a church can think God’s thoughts after Him and see persons with disabilities as God sees them. This orthodox doctrine provides the necessary foundation for faithful orthopraxy. As a place to begin, the church can exercise humility and teachability, encourage friendship, provide respite for parents and point them to the crucified and risen Christ. May the Lord build up the body of Christ for our edification and His glory.
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 Jason D. Whitt, “In the Image of God: Receiving children with special needs” Review and Expositor Vol. 113 205-216 (2016).
 Ibid., 21
 Hans S. Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 5.
 Ibid., 349.