Making Space in Church for People With Disabilities

Pastor Clay discovered Universal Design for Worship and All Belong's resources at the Calvin Symposium on Worship in 2019. That encounter sparked something in him that has given him a different lens through which he sees the church. By partnering with All Belong to lead his congregation and begin an initiative in his regional synod, Pastor Clay is fueling that spark with actions and resources. He shares his story hoping that others will be sparked, put on fresh lenses, and join the initiative to build belonging with people with varied abilities.

“Where are all of the people with disabilities?”

That’s the question that kept coming to my mind over the years. Where are the people with disabilities at the grocery store, the mall, the movie theatre, or at work? As the pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Holland, Michigan, I wonder where they are at worship and other congregational activities. While our church does have a few members with disabilities, I know there are many more who are unseen or not present. I know the same is true at the other congregations within our synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ECLA).

After years of wondering and dreaming, the Holy Spirit prompted me to speak with my bishop about creating a disability ministry that would serve every congregation of our church’s synod. Thanks be to God, my bishop was delighted to hear my thoughts and ideas, and now I chair the Disability Ministry Task Force of the ECLA.

The Disability Ministry Task Force seeks to serve as a resource and guide for congregations that are awakening to the need to be equipped for ministry with people with disabilities. The Task Force equips congregations to do ministry with people with disabilities, regardless of their size or the number of people with disabilities.

I am also thankful for Victoria White, the director of church services at All Belong, who accompanied me on the journey from having questions, thoughts, and dreams—­to beginning the ministry. I wouldn’t have begun this venture without the Disability Ministry Task Force’s membership with All Belong. We count on All Belong’s guidance, wisdom, and advice.

I used to see disabilities as an illness that either needed to be healed or pitied, and I felt sorrowful for people with disabilities. Now, I am learning that healing is not necessarily desired—that a disability can be an essential part of a person’s being, shaping who they are and how they see themselves. Pity has been replaced by compassion where appropriate, and complete and simple acceptance of the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

As a Christian and a pastor, I believe there are both people who are ‘seen’ and people who are ‘unseen’ within the Church. The people who are seen are the people who are actively and easily involved in church life, serving their neighbors, participating in worship, and in Bible studies. The people who are unseen are those who are more ‘anonymous’, those who aren’t as easily able to participate in the life of the church. These congregants are often isolated or alone. People with disabilities are too often unseen and not by choice. I hope that the unseen people, the people with disabilities in the congregations of my synod, will be seen: belonging fully to the fellowship of Christians, our joy made complete at last.

Clay Bates

Clay Bates serves as the pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, in Holland Michigan.