Some Practical Suggestions for Parish Ministry To People With Special Needs

By Fr. Stephen Plumlee

[Updated, Department of Christian Service, 2015]

I. Introduction

All Orthodox agree that people with special needs should have the opportunity to be full members of the Church, for we believe it is the way to eternal life for everyone. We don’t really do much, however, to make the Church available to such people. One reason is the tendency to equate special needs with disability and to assume that disabled people have limitations that the rest of the parish cannot effectively deal with. Another reason is the belief that people with special needs are few in number and usually not to be found in our communities. Both of these perceptions are false. About six million intellectually impaired persons live in the United States; over one percent of the population, or about three million people, suffer from schizophrenia in our country; even larger numbers of people are afflicted with neuroses and character and personality disorders to a debilitating degree; and many thousands endure the physical disabilities of deafness, blindness, and other physical impairments.

Yes, it is clear that people with special needs are widely dispersed throughout the population and that almost every Orthodox parish has several. However, the extent of the problem often remains hidden. It is not unusual to see persons with an obvious physical or mental problem at services, but their presence is often taken for granted and the special ministry they need is not given to them. In many cases families of people with special needs have stopped attending worship because of the problems with transportation, poor access to church facilities, and the burden of looking after their family member during services. And of course there are many people with special needs who do not have families and live isolated from contact with the Church at home or in institutions.

II. Find people with special needs.

How is the parish to go about finding those with special needs in its midst?

Several suggestions are

A. A search and planning team composed of:

1. The pastor, who takes the lead in looking through the parish register for absentee families, members he and the team do not know, or simply as a reminder of active families with members who have special needs;

2. Several committed parishioners whose main qualifications are commitment and perseverance; and

3. One or more helping professionals, such as a special education teacher, nurse, or social worker, if possible. That person can be helpful even if not a parishioner.

B. The team begins its work with one or more sessions for rethinking the parish person-by-person and family-by-family, being alert to any special needs.

C. A meeting of families with special needs can be called and those families asked to invite others they know of.

D. A visit to the guidance counselor or special education department of the local school will often produce helpful information without violating the school’s requirement of confidentiality.

E. The team asks parishioners to be alert for neighbors with special needs who are unaffiliated with a church or whose church does not provide for these needs.

III. Help the parish be aware.

To sensitize parishioners to the special needs some people have is essential. This can be done in several ways.

A. Simple, non-technical, but adequate flyers are readily obtainable from local and state groups, such as the state schizophrenia or mental health foundations.

B. Brief talks by team members, professionals from the areas of special need that have been identified in the parish, or family members at coffee hour and adult education sessions are effective.

C. Understanding that to have special needs does not mean to have fewer needs is basic to the ministry. For example:

1. The intellectually disabled need to exercise their capacities as much as the non-disabled do.

2. A person who has muscular or neurological impairment that impedes clear articulation is not necessarily unable to understand and think and therefore should not be ignored.

3. The congenitally disabled, such as the blind and deaf, do not have much of the stimuli available to others. Communication from sighted and hearing people and stimulation of their other senses can help make up for that deficit.

4. Moderately unusual behavior by those with special needs does not have to be disruptive if it is understood and anticipated by other parishioners.

IV. Administer the program to those with special needs.

As the stages of search and sensitizing parishioners are going on, the team must also be preparing the program of ministry. What the final shape of it will be depends on the special needs that are discovered in the parish and the resources of money, facilities, and volunteers that are available. However, some guidelines are pertinent for all ministries to those with special needs.

A. Gloria Durka (“Special-Needs Children and Their Families,” Family Ministry, ed. by Gloria Durka and Joanmarie Smith. Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1980) suggests two premises:

1. Everyone has certain physical requirements for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care;

2 everyone requires spiritual and mental nourishment to meet their needs to be:

a. wanted, valued, accepted, and given a sense of belonging;

b. attended to, cared for, and protected;

c. educated and guided toward social capability and moral responsibility;

d. given opportunities for useful work and creativity.

B. The team approach is useful to connect people who have special needs that the parish becomes aware of with appropriate social services and therapists.

C. The team approach is also the most adaptable for meeting special needs in the worship, educational, and recreational activities of the parish.

1. People with special needs should be enrolled in the mainstream of parish activities whenever possible. However, some special projects will be needed. Examples are someone who will provide spoken explanation to the blind and sign language for the deaf of what is happening during the liturgy. Modified activities will be needed for the physically disabled.

2. Team work is the best way to minister to parishioners with special needs, but the specific interventions will often be one-to-one. For example, one person is needed as a companion to a an intellectually disabled or psychotic person during services; one driver or escort is required to bring an isolated, elderly person for a social activity at the church. If several people fulfill these functions on a rotating basis, they do not become a burden for anyone and the spiritual fellowship is enlarged for the person with special needs, those giving assistance, and the other parishioners.

3. The resources that are not church-related should be found out from local, city, and county social service agencies, and utilized. Once-a-day hot meals for the homebound are readily available, for example, as well as ambulette transportation.

4. To pool the resources of several parishes within a deanery or across jurisdictional and church lines is practical and enhances fellowship among Christians. Parishes of the Orthodox Church in America are often numerically small but rich in members with talent, training, and capabilities for leadership. To initiate cooperative efforts with neighboring parishes releases those energies and puts them to work for the glory of God. A well-functioning example of inter-parish cooperation is a group of churches which has a weekly Bible study and recreation time on Thursday evenings for intellectually disabled adults. Car pools and rotating escorts for public transportation get them there; program leaders have learned to use stories and themes that are appropriate to the cognitive level of the participants; and recreation with other intellectually disabled persons is a stimulating pleasure for them.

5. People with special needs can often use their own energies to meet the special needs of others. A blind person can read Braille texts aloud and tell stories to a class of physically disabled persons, and a schizophrenic individual whose disability is controlled with medication can be a real help as teacher’s assistant in a children’s church school class.

A very moving case in point is a an intellectually disabled teenager who is companion to a physically disabled man during church services. She wheels him into and out of the church and to the chalice for Holy Communion, stands beside him during services, helps him readjust to more comfortable positions occasionally, and goes to get a family member if he indicates a problem has arisen. A bond of affection and respect has developed between the two of them, and the young woman has a permanent sense of self-respect and value because she is needed and able to give something needed. A warning note is that to use a disabled person simply to perform chores that others find distasteful or that are too demanding for them is not acceptable.

6. Each parish should carefully re-examine its architectural features and make the alterations necessary to allow access to its worship and fellowship for more people with special needs, including the elderly.

V. Conclusion.

The ministry of the parish to those with special needs does not require that everyone involved have elaborate education or resources. The steps are fairly simple, but they must be thought out carefully, put into effect deliberately and consistently, and reconsidered and re-evaluated as the ministry goes along. If the parish discovers its own resources and shares them with others, avoids trying to solve all the problems of its parishioners who have special needs, and maintains its ministry consistently, the effect will be a deepening experience of being God’s own people and sharing the life of Christ.

Fr. Stephen Plumlee is a psychotherapist and is attached to St. Mark Orthodox Church (OCA) in Bradenton, FL.