Ellen Stumbo is a rising star in the field of disability ministry and the founder of Disability Matters. She is a writer and speaker who focuses on sharing the real -sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly – aspects of faith, church, disability, parenting, and adoption. Ellen is a pastor’s wife, and her husband, Andy, leads a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. Ellen’s writing has appeared on Focus on the Family, LifeWay, MomSense, Not Alone, Mamapedia and the Huffington Post. Ellen blogs at ellenstumbo.com and you can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. We interviewed Ellen in anticipation of her upcoming Inclusion Fusion presentation.
C4EC: Can you tell us a little bit about the importance of disability ministry at your church (Orchard View Alliance Church)?
ES: Disability Ministry at our church is best described as simply doing life together. We don’t have an established disability ministry, mainly because we are a micro church (50 or less people), yet we are somehow defined by disability. We have adults with disabilities, children with disabilities, and many caretakers. As a matter of fact, over 50% of our congregation is impacted by disability in some way. As we meet on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, or special occasions, we make disability fit in as an organic way of doing church. We don’t have the people to staff new ministries, so we look at each other and say, “We are not alone,” and together we do the messy of life, and we celebrate the good, and we laugh and cry and support one another.
C4EC: You’ve developed an interesting model for including families impacted by disability into community. Can you tell us about it?
ES: First, we believe that we are all made in the image of God, and that we are all valuable members of the body of Christ, all of us. We need each other. We all give, and we all take, it is part of human interactions and relationships. We also look at our church as a family. About half of our kids in our children’s ministry have disabilities, which also means that most of the typical kids have a sibling with a disability, so these kids naturally help out, or they are awesome at ignoring behaviors. Nobody makes a big deal about noises, or steaming, or speech that is hard to understand.
If a mom is sitting in the foyer with a child, we make sure that mom is not sitting on her own, because what is the point of going to church if you sit alone in the foyer trying to keep your child calm from the overwhelming stimulation of church? Sometimes, some of the best conversations happen in the foyer, or walking around the church parking lot pushing wheelchairs. We share openly, honestly, we are willing to be vulnerable because we desperately need those close relationships.
And we take turns, we don’t have the people to run Children’s Church, so we gladly take turns with the kids.
C4EC: What advice would you give to other small churches in which persons with disabilities represent a disproportionately large part of the congregation?
ES: Trying to establish a new program or ministry with already overworked or limited volunteers is intimidating, daunting, and perhaps not even doable. But including disability as a normal part of church makes it attainable. Back when the Christian church began, believers did life together. They gathered often, they helped each other, they had no established “ministries.” So the question would be, how can your church include disability organically? Can adults with disabilities help as greeters, ushers, or help with small, easy tasks? Can the special needs parents connect with each other and be supported by the rest of the church members?
C4EC: How did you find the resources to make your church facility so friendly to kids with disabilities?
ES: One Sunday we found ourselves with 16 kids, and eight of them had a disability. We have kids in wheelchairs, non-verbal kids, kids with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy. And many of them have sensory issues. Church is a hard place to be for many kids with special needs. So one of the moms said, “We need a sensory room.” And another moms said, “I have a swing I could donate.” and it went from there. Eventually, this idea grew and we saw the benefit it had for the kids we have (as not all of them can be in a Sunday School class because of their needs and the overstimulation). My husband and I visited a church in Illinois (Rockford First) and we toured their sensory rooms and special needs ministry. It was amazing! From there, we saw how we could combine a sensory room with Children’s Church. We made a list of what we would need, looked at our space at church (we have a large building) and came up with the cost. Then we raised the money. We knew God was in this when it took us only three weeks to raise $5,000.
C4EC: How can a small church make a big impact for the Kingdom through ministry to families impacted by disabilities?
ES: When we built our sensory rooms, we planned on making them available to the special needs community. Our idea was to have “open hours” so parents could bring their kids and use our facility. We have therapy equipment, and lots of sensory items that can be beneficial to children with disabilities, yet too expensive for most families to purchase and have at home. The local respite program heard about what we were doing, and they contacted us asking if we would consider hosting their program. To us, this was an answer to prayer, another confirmation that this was from God. Every week, we have a moms group gathering, while the kids have a special activity, and every month we have dozens of families drop off their kids for respite. Our church might be small (micro) but we are making a difference in our special needs community. We are the church that embraces disability.
It also helps that the senior pastor (my husband) has two children with special needs!
C4EC: You’re personally embarking on a new ministry adventure. Why did you launch Disability Matters?
ES: Disability Matters was the result of a long drive back home to Wisconsin from Montana. I had written a blog post about Church and Disability as a response to many stories shared with me from special needs parents and adults with disabilities and their experiences at church. The response from that post was overwhelming, with more and more stories making their way into my inbox or the comments section on my blog. After reading all those stories my husband and I began asking, what can we do to encourage every church to embrace disability? So I took out a notebook and we started brainstorming. When we got home, we had the main concept for Disability Matters, with a mission, vision, and plan of what we wanted to do and accomplish. Our mission is to encourage every church to embrace disability. We are not talking a new program or ministry, but a way of doing life together, because disability is a normal part of life.
C4EC: What will you be sharing with everyone who joins us for Inclusion Fusion?
ES: I will be sharing about Disability Matters, about doing life together, about how people are searching for meaningful and real relationships and how those relationships should happen at church. I will also be sharing about our model of small groups, and how established small groups can become great support groups for everyone involved, not only those impacted by disability.
Find out more about Disability Matters at whydisabilitymatters.org. ***********************************************************************************************************
Join keynote speaker Joni Eareckson Tada, Chuck Swindoll, Emily Colson, Barb Newman and 20+ leaders representing the scope of the disability ministry movement this coming November 12-13 for Inclusion Fusion 2014, Key Ministry’s FREE, worldwide disability ministry web summit. Engage in interactive chat with many of our speakers and watch each presentation at the time of day that works best for you in the environment in which you’re most comfortable. Click here to view our entire speaker lineup and register for Inclusion Fusion 2014.