As the Program Chairman for Inclusion Fusion, I very much enjoy the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the work of very humble and very faithful people who seek to serve others and build God’s Kingdom with no expectation of recognition and reward. Ann and John Holmes certainly fall into this category. I’m honored that our team can introduce them to you through this year’s Inclusion Fusion, where they’ll be speaking on the topic: A Restoration Church.
John and Ann are a ministry team. They have served churches in SC, AL, VA and PA. They have started a church in Pittsburgh focused on intentional, inclusive, embracing church worship and community for families and individuals with special needs. John has an MDiv. from Columbia Theological Seminary (Atlanta, GA) and a DMin. from Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia, PA). John and Ann have two married sons and seven grandchildren.
John and Ann were gracious to answer some questions about their experiences in establishing A Restoration Church as a place where intentional outreach and ministry to kids and adults with special needs and their families fulfills the mandates of scripture…
SG: What led the two of you to start a church specifically to welcome persons with special needs and their families?
AH: There were two startling “watershed” experiences during the last 30+ years in ministry that God used to draw our hearts toward this mission. John briefly describes both in our interview with Katie (Inclusion Fusion presentation). In a nutshell, these two experiences (and others less dramatic) brought us to the realization that there is a significant “sub-group” in our culture that has been largely ignored by the institutional church – individuals with special needs and their families.
In addition, we have personally experienced “hidden disability” through a number of personal medical issues that seriously impacted us as a couple and as a family. Our own pain gives us a unique perspective into the world of special needs.
JH: I was not aware of any other churches – going back 6-8 years when this vision really began to crystallize – planting churches or being a church with a core value of being welcoming and discipling (mentoring) to special needs individuals and their families. It just seemed like both a call from God and a huge need in the Body of Christ!
We were already in the process of planting A Restoration Church when our son met and fell in love with the mother of a daughter with Down Syndrome. God gave us a granddaughter with DS. What a wonderful “hug from God”! She blesses us and gives us a special window into the lives of families with special needs.
We have a new understanding of the Biblical mandate for this kind of ministry. Luke 14:12-14 and other passages make it plain that this is God’s priority for His forever family. It is the primary focus of Jesus’ years in ministry prior to the cross. Scripture is clear that it is not an option to reach out to the special needs community. It is an imperative!
SG: How is pastoring a church composed primarily of persons with special needs different from pastoring a more “typical” church?
AH/JH: There are so many people needs that it is almost overwhelming at times- especially when there are many more needs than there are willing hands and hearts prepared to step up to support those needs. There isn’t a defined template for this kind of ministry. There is support and there are resources available to encourage such a ministry as A Restoration Church. Finding them is the challenge. One way to find resources is Twitter and other social media. The number of friends connected to special needs ministries we have found on Twitter and Facebook is so supportive and such a blessing! One reason we are so excited about Key Ministry is the encouragement we are receiving. Walking with others on this particular ministry path is invaluable! Thanks so much!
We are still figuring out how to “market” this vision to build a church committed to ministry to special needs individuals and their families. We have done some of this right as we are finding our way. We have made mistakes. There is a two-pronged focus of welcoming special needs individuals and their families while also reaching out to more “typical” individuals and families. In our culture it is difficult to sell more “typical” parents with more “typical” children on what a huge blessing participating in a church with this vision can and will be. Just being part of a church like A Restoration Church has great value for more “typical” families in teaching their children and youth to love unconditionally and sacrificially. This isn’t just a ministry we do. It’s a mutual ministry of serving and receiving encouragement! Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:14-27 it takes inclusion to be the REAL Body of Christ before the watching world!
There is a fear factor both for leadership and for individuals and families who catch the significance of this type of ministry. Getting past that barrier is very much a difficult challenge. We can all be entirely too wrapped up in both image and what we perceive success to look like. “Selling” the vision for planting and building churches with a core value of including special needs individuals and their families is both daunting and challenging as well as incredibly rewarding!
The fact that many of our people do have special needs also means that their commitment to consistency in attendance and contribution of energy and resources fluctuates rather dramatically. It helps to always keep in view that this is God’s work and that He just chooses to use us to build His Kingdom. The temptation to measure “success” by nickels and noses is a false standard. Only God can build this kind of ministry. It is amazing to watch what He does with “broken” people, including us. He loves to take “the weak” and to be strong for them/us.
There are many adaptations to a more “typical” ministry style when the focus is being welcoming and supporting to special needs families: such as,
- Issues with music
- Traditional components of worship like prayers, creeds and even the sermon (tho’ the more relaxed atmosphere accepted in many churches makes this particular challenge easier to address). Sermon length and presentation needs processing through a different spectrum as do many other aspects of a more traditional church.
- All the accommodations to special needs…like hearing assistance. We have hearing devices of several different kinds available in our welcome area, large print bulletins, access issues and even language adaptations. One example of a language adaptation… when there are people who present in wheelchairs it is a barrier to say, “Stand.” Reconditioning the worship leader’s expression to “Rise with me in your hearts as we sing………… is a retooling challenge. Another challenge is signing for the hearing impaired – finding the right person to fit our people.
On the other hand, one HUGE blessing in this ministry focus is the opportunity to participate in people’s lives in the midst of their personal pain, developing deep relationships and making a difference. The memories and life impact are amazing! The stories are compelling and provide a wonderful backdrop for us at A Restoration Church as we promote and live out this vision.
In the area of practical considerations there are some wonderful stories as well. One example is putting our internet skills together with the need for an accessible van for one individual. “We found” a van advertised for an amazing price. It was a fluke, because the headline for the ad said nothing about the van being accessible. In the eBay bidding process we were able to secure the van for less than $4,000, including licenses and registrations. The van was located in another city. When we were making arrangements to pick up the van and introduced ourselves on the phone as the person who bought the accessible van, the seller said, “You mean the person who stole my van?” We got the van for the price we bid and God was so obviously in the details!
Pastoring A Restoration Church has both huge challenges and huge blessing. The main thing is walking closely with God, depending on His strength, spending a lot of time on our knees and trusting Him to do “His thing”!
SG: How have you seen God at work through the ministry of A Restoration Church?
AH/JH: God works through simple and practical ways – like an accessible van at an unbelievable price making it possible for a person – who would be confined to her small apartment otherwise – to get out and to build relationships and participate in the ministry of A Restoration Church. She even allows her van to be used by and for others with accessibility issues from time to time.
God works through even mistakes and difficulties to stretch and challenge us in the process of planting A Restoration Church. One example is that we were able to begin this mission with some significant funds that came from the sale of two properties. Those funds are mostly depleted now so we are both working for separate paychecks (sales for John and teaching Latin for Ann) so our personal finances and needs aren’t a hindrance to the ministry of A Restoration Church. Actually, this difficulty is a blessing in forcing us to rely on God’s provision rather than what we can actually see in the bank. Having other resources for our finances also allows us to participate significantly with stewardship of our own finances. Then there are the contacts we make at both jobs that either make people aware of A Restoration Church or draw them into A Restoration Church. Both of these results happen.
God builds relationships in surprising and unexpected ways. At A Restoration Church there is more of a spirit of acceptance, forgiveness and grace than we have seen in any of the other pastorates we have had in our years in ministry (even tho’ that includes some pretty wonderful people and churches). The mentality of being success driven or image driven just doesn’t exist at A Restoration Church. When the people you spend most of your time with and who are your closest friends have special needs, there isn’t the same level of expectations/demands that we have encountered in more “typical” ministry venues.
Because we know very well how broken we are, our hearts are tenderized toward others who share our brokenness both in obvious and hidden ways.
There are so many wonderful people stories. We have produced a booklet with some of those and it’s time to do a sequel. We just desperately need willing hands and hearts to come alongside so we can do more.
We have opportunities to reach out to other churches in Pittsburgh to encourage them as they develop their own special needs ministries.
SG: What advice would you give to someone else experiencing a call to plant a church like A Restoration Church?
Be sure your calling is from God as you will need His approval, blessing and strength! There will be delays and discouragements along the way. It is HUGE to know that this is God working to build His Kingdom! This is a team effort – God and His servants working in tandem. There is no place for personal kingdom building in this kind of ministry focus.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Make use of resources available in special needs ministry. There are increasing resources as more and more churches participate in this Kingdom-building movement.
It is essential to build a strong core group of like-minded people who understand the vision to be a church for and to individuals with special needs and their families.
It would be very helpful to have a supporting parent church or denomination willing to undergird a ministry like A Restoration Church. We have found a lot of fear in the institutional church about nickels and noses related to this kind of ministry. It is a very different model that requires people with commitment and vision to participate in this wonderful, life-changing opportunity!
Join Ann, John and over 30 leaders from children’s, family, youth and disability ministry serving as faculty for Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s second annual Special Needs Ministry Web Summit. Inclusion Fusion is made available FREE OF CHARGE to pastors, church staff, volunteers and families everywhere from November 12th-16th, 2012. For an up to date list of speakers, topics, links to speaker blogs and a link for free registration, click here.