Coronavirus, church and the “least restrictive environment”

Ever since we started contemplating all the implications of the coronavirus, I’ve been wrestling with the impact of health and safety restrictions on the incredible progress the church has made in disability inclusion over the last ten years. Two months ago, I shared data describing the increased vulnerability of large segments of the disability community to serious medical complications associated with COVID-19. With most churches across America shut down for public worship over the last 6-8 weeks and the shift to online services, Bible studies and small groups families impacted by disability have pretty much been in the same boat as everyone else. But as churches focus on reopening their doors for worship services in the weeks and months ahead, the disabled are again likely to find themselves on the outside looking in.

Earlier in the week, I came across these guidelines issued by the state of Tennessee for gathering together in houses of worship during COVID-19. This paragraph jumped out at me:

A phased approach to resuming in-person gatherings is recommended. Vulnerable populations (everyone 65 years and older, people with disabilities, people with serious respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and others) and children’s activities/nursery programs should not gather in person until a later time.

The reality is “until a later time” may be a very long time! According to research out of the University of Minnesota, the virus may continue to represent a substantial risk to persons who are medically compromised for another two years.

Borrowing a concept from disability law (specifically, IDEA), what might represent the “least restrictive environment” in the church for our older members and those with disabilities or other medical conditions that place them at increased risk in worship services until the danger from COVID-19 has passed?

According to Rick Warren, there are five main purposes of the church that are derived from the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: Worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and mission. From where I sit, the leaders of our churches probably place the greatest emphasis upon worship. It’s the most public of Warren’s five purposes and the purpose for which the church’s most senior leaders are directly responsible. The corporate worship experience is what most people associate with “church” and resumption of large group, weekend worship events has been the highest priority of church leaders since the cancelation of services in mid to late March.

Our ministry’s mission is driven by the the idea that welcoming and including individuals and families impacted by disability into the church is critically important because it’s through the church that disciples are made. If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, the church has been struggling for a long time with spiritual formation. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working for too many people. COVID-19 is providing the church with an opportunity to consider how we can help everyone to grow deeper and stronger in their faith and use their gifts and talents to honor God wherever they’ve been placed. Worship as a way of life, to quote Louie Giglio from one of my favorite books.

If our focus in is on inclusion at intergenerational worship services and all of the other “stuff” that takes place at church on Sunday mornings over the next 12-24 months it will feel like the disability ministry movement is in full retreat. From an inclusion standpoint, large group worship services don’t represent the “least restrictive environment” for many persons with disabilities and older church members with chronic medical conditions because attendance fails to support their physical health needs. The least restrictive environment needs to be consistent with the welfare and safety of the individual.

Maybe what the church needs to be looking at over the next 12-24 months is how do we do a better job practicing inclusion with all of our people – both with and without disability – into practices and activities that help people grow in their faith, become more connected to one another, share their faith with others who don’t yet know Jesus and use their gifts and talents in meaningful service to others? Maybe we learn that our online worship services are actually a blessing in disguise for many families impacted with disability (such as Isaac’s family as described below – link to the video doesn’t work), especially those with social communication or sensory processing differences?

Might we become more intentional in our outreach to persons in our community with social or sensory issues that have precluded them from being part of church up to now through sharing our online church services with them??

Sandra Peoples wrote a wonderful piece for our ministry a few years ago describing what families of kids with disabilities really want from their churches.

They need to know they are safe and they need to believe they are loved.

“Inclusion” during this time may mean doing what we need to do to ensure that our friends with disabilities are safe while demonstrating to them that they’re loved. What does it look like for a church to love a family during a pandemic? This is taken from a post I saw from a Facebook friend in my feed yesterday morning.

Yesterday afternoon, I was overcome with joy and gratitude. A beautiful begonia plant and a handwritten note with a very lovely Mother’s Day message was left at my front door. This gift is from BPC ( Bay Presbyterian Church) from the Special Needs Ministry.

This ministry is a blessing to all special needs families. Prior to quarantine, my son Ryan attended the adult special needs Sunday “In His Image” class…. however now on Tuesday and Friday afternoons at 4pm a Zoom gathering is scheduled. He, along with his friends visit with one another, partake in a Bible lesson, and sing songs. Yesterday, the song was ” This Little Light of Mine”… Ryan was happily singing it until he dozed off to sleep last night. A blessing!

Shortly after quarantine, a BPC Special Needs Parenting Group on Facebook evolved…it is a great place for parents to check in with one another, ask for prayers, share stories, get creative ideas… it is where we special needs parents are reminded that we are not an island… even thoug we have been quarantined, it certainly does not mean that we have to be socially isolated from one another. A blessing!

BPC Special Needs Ministry offers special needs families with quarterly Respite events, a wonderful opportunity for parents to have a night out while their children are safely enjoying an evening of fun and festivities. A blessing!

Recently, this past February , BPC hosted Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine Prom. My husband and I were amazed and deeply moved at how beautiful the ballroom looked…the volunteers were truly happy to be there, each one smiling and ready to be of assistance in any way. Parents and caregivers were treated to a special night of our own in a separate room, dinner, socializing, and wonderful gifts… It was a spectacular evening for all! A blessing!

Whether it is a Sunday class, Zoom or Facebook Group, Respite Event, Prom, each blessing has lots of love woven in. An abundance of blessings!


Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a COVID-19 resource center for churches and families. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.



About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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