Why the church doesn’t “get” mental illness

Editor’s Note: May 1st-7th has been designated as Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and Thursday, May 4th is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. In today’s post, Dr. G looks at why far too many churches overlook or deliberately ignore the needs of families impacted by mental illness during a time when intentional ministry with persons with disabilities and families is rapidly expanding.

Why does the church struggle so much to minister with persons with common mental illnesses and their families? I suspect that mental illness isn’t easily compartmentalized into the understanding held by many church leaders of body, mind and soul.

Scripture very clearly instructs us to be intentional in serving persons with disabilities and including them in the life of the church.

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 Luke 14:13-14 (NIV)

In recent years, the church has made great strides in growing ministry with persons with physical disabilities. The Bible is very clear teaching that disease and bodily decay is a consequence of living in a fallen world. Healing the sick was so central to Jesus’ earthly ministry that he found himself continually monitoring the potential for his healing to become a distraction from his teaching.  

Jesus challenged the prevailing view of disability in his day and made clear that disability can and is as means through with Christ seeks to build his kingdom.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

John 9:1-3 (NIV)

I suspect that much of the church’s struggle to “get” mental illness, and in turn to minister effectively and compassionately with persons with mental illness is rooted in our understanding of how much control we have over our thoughts and our behavior.

From the founding of the church, pastors and theologians have wrestled with the concept of free will – the extent to which we are able to make choices free of coercion. The Apostle Paul struggles with this idea in Romans 7.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.

Romans 7:14-25

Mental illness forces us to wrestle with the concept of moral agency – an individual’s ability to make moral judgments based on some notion of right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions. Most children and adults with common mental health conditions have the capacity to know right from wrong and are fully responsible for their choices, but they may need to devote significantly more cognitive resources and intentionality to managing their words and behaviors than persons without an identified mental health diagnosis.

Special needs ministry has experienced dramatic growth in the past two decades. The explosion of children and teens identified with autism has been one catalyst to growth. Improvements in medical science have resulted in the survival of many children with severe developmental disabilities and genetic disorders who wouldn’t have survived twenty or thirty years ago. But I’d argue that churches have an easier time embracing ministry to children and adults with severe intellectual or developmental disabilities because church leaders recognize their limited capacity for moral agency.

When someone appears to possess the capacity to know right from wrong and exhibits actions or behaviors that the Bible clearly recognizes as sin and carries with them a mental health diagnosis, many church leaders are all too often inclined to view their mental health condition as a rationalization as opposed to a disability. This is especially true when the persons affected appear to have some capacity for controlling their words and actions.

We are all too quick to forget Paul’s teaching. All of us fall short of God’s standard. While it is undeniably true that through the power of the Holy Spirit within those who have come to faith in Christ are a new creation and available evidence suggests that spiritual practices common to the Christian life help to enhance self-control, none of us will be perfected on this side of Heaven.

Do some mental health conditions result in a greater predisposition to sinful thoughts, speech and behavior? Unquestionably. Is anyone with a human brain and a human mind –  a mind that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think and feel – capable of living a sinless life and saving themselves. Nope. Do children and adults with mental illness need Jesus any more or any less than anyone reading this blog? Nope.

The truth is that we’re all “disabled” when it comes to our ability to avoid sinful thoughts and actions. The sooner we embrace that reality, the sooner we can be about the work of sharing the love of Christ and making disciples among children, adults and families impacted by mental illness.


shutterstock_291556127Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families on mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.

Posted in Advocacy, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What if Mom is depressed?

Consider the ways children may be impacted when a parent is depressed…

According to an Institute of Medicine report, 15 million children in the U.S. are living with a depressed parent at any given point in time.

Having a depressed parent is a significant risk factor for depression in kids. Kids are three times more likely to develop depression when they have a depressed parent. That observation seems intuitive, but research suggests that genetics only contributes 30-40% of the risk of depression. Other factors clearly come into play…the availability of the child’s other parent, the temperament of the child, the interplay between environmental influences and genetic expression, birth weight (lower weight conveys greater risk), age of menarche (early puberty associated with greater risk), the nature of parent-child interactions, family systems issues and exposure to adverse life events. Risk factors also work both ways…the experience of having a child with special needs may increase risk of depression in parents.

Children of parents with depression (especially boys) are also at greater risk of developing other internalizing disorders (anxiety), externalizing disorders (ADHD, disruptive behavior disorders), cognitive delays, medical problems, lower than expected academic performance and social delays.

Another interesting aspect of our discussion about depression involves the research suggesting that church attendance results in a significant decrease in depression symptoms among children and youth, and in turn, church attendance among adults appears to significantly reduce their risk of depression as well. The research findings examining the relationship between faith, spiritual practice and depression are very complex and probably merit several posts upon completion of this series. But for the sake of this discussion, it appears that in examining depression as a specific disability, regular involvement of either the child or the parent with depression at church not only produces spiritual benefits, but actually helps reduce the risk for the condition itself.

Therefore, an argument can be made that it’s very important to get the entire family to church if any member of that family is affected by depression. So, what can the local church or individuals from the local church do to help mom (or dad) and the entire family?

Be proactive about inviting friends and neighbors to church (with their families) who are struggling from depression and the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that frequently accompany the condition. Given the numbers of persons being treated for depression…over 20% of women in the U.S. regularly take medication for depression and nearly all of us are likely to know several friends or colleagues being treated for depression.

Establish inclusive weekend ministry environments where the children of parents with depression can experience the love of Christ.

Be on the lookout for families who are irregular attenders, or families who have been regulars but are absent for weeks at a time. Follow up with them. Just be with them. Offer to serve them. Avoid the mistake that Job’s friends made in assuming that his condition was related to punishment for sin or some lack of faith.

Support the involvement of organizations and ministries that offer care and support to families impacted by depression. Mental Health Grace Alliance is an outstanding organization offering a variety of support groups and resources to promote mental health recovery. Fresh Hope is an international network of Christian support groups that help participants live well in spite of having a mental health challenge because of the hope found in Christ. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has an ongoing outreach to faith communities. Research indicates that many persons with chronic depression may have been experienced negative interactions with church leaders when seeking help for their condition. The church may need to go above and beyond to restore relationships in light of past hurts.

Isn’t it possible, if not likely that God uses afflictions such as depression to draw those he loves into a closer relationship with him. The church should help persons suffering from depression through pointing them to Christ and demonstrating Christ’s love for them in tangible ways.

KM_ForFamilies_Logo_Color_RGBKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!

Posted in Depression, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are you prepared to encounter your rooster?

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”

Matthew  26:32-34 (ESV)

The events of our past decade have been very unsettling to me and many of my friends. I‘ve been stripped of the belief that my family and I live in a “Christian” country by the lack of pushback against agendas seeking to undermine the ability of some with traditional beliefs to live out their faith in the public square.

While Christ-followers in 21st century America don’t experience the hostility and dangers faced by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, especially Muslim-controlled countries, my experience in identifying trends and patterns in the culture suggests to me that our religious liberty as we have known it throughout our adult lives in America may be coming to an end. Traditional Christian teachings regarding the family, marriage and sexuality have come under relentless assault by the champions of sexual liberty without guilt or consequence. Our institutions (large corporations, government, academia) are squarely on the other side in the culture war. You will be made to care.

As we celebrate the Easter story, I’ve felt drawn to the story of Peter and his denial of Christ. On the one hand, Peter had reason to fear for his life when the servant girl asked if he was a follower of Jesus. On the other hand, Peter followed Jesus for three years as a member of his inner circle and was witness to the miracles Jesus performed during his earthly ministry. If he was unable to resist the temptation to deny Jesus, how will I do when the time comes?

I worry that my own faith and the faith of many of my fellow Christians is a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s one thing to profess one’s faith in front of a room filled with like-minded people. It’s another thing when there might be a price attached to that profession.

The Denial of Saint Peter by Simon Bening. Courtesy of the Getty Museum

In the future, persons who require a government-issued license in order to work will be especially vulnerable. I worry about my daughter who plans to apply to med school in the fall. What will she do if she’s required to assist with or perform abortions in order to graduate from med school or her residency program? What if she’s required to assist her patients in committing suicide? What would I do if the government demands I do something that represents a major violation of conscience? In all likelihood, we won’t find ourselves sitting by a fire in fear of our lives when we confront our “rooster.” But we may be sitting in the office of a school administrator, the human resources director or a state licensing board when our rooster is ready to crow.

I have lots of thoughts about what our churches need to be doing to better prepare our people for the time when living out one’s Christian faith will lead to adversity, but they’re beyond the scope of today’s post. But it’s absolutely clear that for us to stand firm in the face of hostility, we’ll need the power of the Holy Spirit, and we’ll need the encouragement and support of one another. That’s why we need to do a better job of welcoming all who would seek to worship to our churches.

  • How is the shy or socially awkward teen going to be prepared to handle the challenges to their faith they’re likely to encounter at college if they don’t have a church to fall back upon?
  • How will the young counselor or psychologist respond to a client seeking help in turning away from an alternative sexual lifestyle when supporting such a client may represent a career-ending decision without a Christian community to support them?
  • How will a parent with no savings, kids in college and a mortgage respond when their employer strongly suggests they affirm a practice that conflicts with the teachings of the Bible?

Let’s celebrate Jesus’ resurrection today with our families and our fellow Christians. But let’s not forget that we don’t have any more time to waste if we are to be sufficiently prepared to follow him faithfully in the years ahead,


KM_ForFamilies_Logo_Color_RGBKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!

Posted in Key Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Autism resources for ministry leaders and families

Key Ministry has developed an array of resources for pastors, church staff members, volunteers and families interested in supporting kids with autism spectrum disorders. We encourage you to share these resources freely with church leaders or families that would find them helpful.


My Son’s Autism Changed Everything – Even the ChurchSandra Peoples from our Key Ministry team authored a wonderful article in Christianity Today  in which she discusses the challenges her family faced when their son (James) was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, how the church in which her husband served as senior pastor rallied around their family, and how the response of the church to families of kids with special needs is changing.

Blog posts:

Fitting in at church…by Anonymous: A wonderful, first-person description of attending church written by a college student with Asperger’s Disorder.

Ten truths for parents of kids with autism…Colleen Swindoll-Thompson: Colleen shares the lessons she’s learned after nearly twenty years of parenting her son (Jonathan) with autism spectrum disorder.

481-EmilyColsonMax.jpgEmily Colson…Becoming still: The best-selling author of Dancing with Max shares her personal witness of how God has used her son with autism (Max) to bless so many lives.

I had no plan…Jeff Davidson: A reflection from an accomplished pastor, disability ministry leader…and the father of a 15 year old son with autism.

What families of teens and young adults with developmental disabilities need from church: A look at the results of a two year project of families in Tennessee from the Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center with adolescents or young adults with developmental disabilities focused on “faith and flourishing.”

One Family’s Journey in the Bible Belt…guest post from Stephanie Prosser: A mother and autism advocate describes her family’s experience of searching for a church in Abilene, TX where she, her husband and her son would be able to regularly attend church as a family.

BPCA Success Story From My Church: A story from Bay Presbyterian Church in Ohio is a reminder of the difference inclusion ministry done well can make in the lives of the families served.

“Doing church” when kids struggle with social communication: A look at the challenges someone with difficulty picking up on body language, common rules of social behavior or the tone and inflection of speech if they started attending your church.

The relationship between ADHD and autism: This post examines some possible connections between ADHD and autism and examines how better understanding the overlap between the two conditions may lead to better intervention and support at church.

Church: The Friendliest Place in Town? Mike Woods: A special needs ministry leader who is the father of triplet sons, all with autism spectrum disorders examines the role of the church in creating a community of people willing to develop and nurture friendships with people with special needs.

Blog Series:

Micah in tree 1Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development: Co-authored by Mike Woods, Director of the Special Friends Ministry of First Baptist Orlando and Dr. Steve Grcevich of Key Ministry.

Dave Lynden…Spiritual Autism: A senior pastor and respite care advocate takes a closer look at how his understanding of God has been impacted by his experiences as the parent of a son with autism.


Do I have to have surgery to open my heart to Jesus? In this interview from Inclusion Fusion 2012, Dr. Cara Daily discusses strategies for discussing abstract spiritual principles to children and teens with autism spectrum disorders. This presentation will be of interest to children’s ministry, student ministry and special needs ministry leaders.

Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development: In this presentation from the 2012 Children’s Ministry Web Summit, Dr. Steve Grcevich discusses strategies for churches to use in including and ministering with kids and teens with Asperger’s Disorder and their families.

Sticks and Stones, Clicks and Phones: Solutions for Preventing Bullying at Church: Katie Wetherbee and Rebecca Hamilton tackled the issue of bullying at church in this presentation from Inclusion Fusion 2012. Pastors, children’s ministry leaders and volunteers need to know how to proactively prevent bullying, because sadly, this kind of behavior can—and does—occur in churches. In this presentation, They share practical strategies for changing the social culture of Sunday mornings.

Emily Colson…Dancing with Max: Emily Colson shares a story…amazing stories of what God has done through her son’s life. God wrote HIS story all over the lives of Emily and her son (Max), now in his 20s and diagnosed with autism. In this presentation, Emily encourages other families to share their stories of how God has been at work through their experience of disability while being honest about the “tough stuff.”

Katie Wetherbee interviews Chuck and Colleen Swindoll: In this two-part interview from Inclusion Fusion 2011, Chuck Swindoll and his daughter (Colleen Swindoll-Thompson) spoke at length about the impact of having a grandson (Jonathan) with autism on their family, how his presence in the family has been a blessing, and how Jonathan has helped Chuck become more effective in his ministry to people with disabilities.


Sandra Peoples (Key Ministry’s Social Community Director) is sharing 30 Days of Prayer for Our Kids on the Spectrum for Autism Awareness Month 2017 on her personal blog. Here’s a video with Sandra and her son (James) introducing her devotional series…


Posted in Autism, Key Ministry, Resources, Sandra Peoples | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Benedict Option


I’ve been a follower of Rod Dreher’s blog for a long time. Rod’s a journalist who writes extensively about religion in the public square. He has written and served as an editor for the New York Post, the National Review, the Dallas Morning News, and other publications. I’ve found him to be an astute observer of cultural trends, especially the rapidly evolving threats to religious freedom and increasing hostility toward Christians who maintain traditional views regarding sexuality and gender. Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option is the featured story in this month’s Christianity Today.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rod last month when he was in Northeast Ohio to lecture at Malone College.  I came away from his talk with the impression that disability ministry is likely to become a defining feature of churches and communities of Christians who choose to pursue his recommendations for growing in faith while faithfully witnessing to an increasingly hostile culture.

I’m not surprised that Rod has received lots of blowback about his book. He’s been very pointed in his criticism of churches and church leaders who have failed to communicate the essentials of the faith to a “lost generation” who fail to think and act differently than non-Christians in the surrounding culture, claiming that the church “no longer forms souls but caters to selves.”  He’s been skewered by progressive Christians including Rachel Held Evans, and criticized by evangelicals (unfairly, in my opinion) who claim he is advocating a withdrawal from culture.

Here’s an excerpt from Rod’s feature in this month’s Christianity Today that introduces the overarching themes addressed in his book…

I brought up the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that Western civilization had lost its moorings. MacIntyre said that the time is coming when men and women of virtue will understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who want to live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as St. Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.

I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

Today, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture and, increasingly, in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the sexual revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream—has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church, and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about his writing. His message is a difficult one for us to hear. He’s not calling for Christians to isolate themselves from society. He is calling us to become far more intentional and serious about cultivating spiritual maturity in the context of Christian community. He is encouraging Christians to embrace our “exile in place” and to form a vibrant counterculture.

Rod does encourage and promote…

  • Pursuit of a spiritually disciplined life.
  • Intentionality in building Christian community.
  • Abandoning hopes of changing the culture through political power while focusing on the preservation of religious liberty.
  • Making the church the center of your life.
  • Special efforts for racial reconciliation.
  • The creation of a Christian academic counterculture.
  • The centrality of sexual integrity to Christian life.
  • The importance of protecting ourselves (and especially, our children) from the dangers of technology.

Why do I see disability ministry as central to the Benedict Option? Quoting Rod…

The state will not be able to care for all human needs in the future, especially if the current projections of growing economic inequality prove accurate. The sheer humanity of Christian compassion, and the image of human dignity it honors, will be an extraordinarily attractive alternative-not unlike the evangelical witness of the early church amid the declining paganism of an exhausted Roman Empire.

Ministry to persons with disabilities fits perfectly within the Benedict Option. We put our faith into action by doing. Doing ministry forces us to train ourselves to face the inevitable adversity associated with efforts to restore Jesus’ Kingdom on Earth and compels us to seek one another out for encouragement and support.

With every passing day, we’re likely to encounter more and more victims of a spiritually impoverished culture…

  • The children who need someone to care for them because of drug-addicted (or dead) parents.
  • Victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse
  • Children with disabilities from families lacking the means to escape underperforming schools
  • Kids and adults who struggle with gender discordance who continue to experience hopelessness and suicidal ideation after hormonal treatment or surgery.

There’s something remarkably countercultural about the willingness of a couple to volunteer their time offering respite care to parents in crisis when everyone else around you expects someone else to help. It’s just the church being the church.


KM_ForFamilies_Logo_Color_RGBKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!

Posted in Book Reviews, Controversies, Key Ministry, Spiritual Development, Strategies | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Is past experience of church a barrier for persons with mental illness and their families?


I’ve been wrestling with the idea of revising a chapter in the book I’ve been writing on how churches can welcome and include individuals and families affected by mental illness.

In the book, we explore seven barriers to church attendance and participation for children, teens, adults and families impacted by mental illness.

  • Social isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Social communication
  • Self-control
  • Sensory processing
  • Stigma
  • Family members with mental illness

I suspect that past experiences of church may be a major barrier to current church involvement for many adults with a history of mental illness or parents of children or teens with significant mental health conditions. There’s not an enormous amount of research to support or refute that hypothesis. Matthew Stanford’s group at Baylor reported a sizable number for adults who approach their churches for help as a result of a mental health condition have such negative experiences that they report either a weakening of faith or an end to their church involvement. When we offered our Inclusion Fusion Disability Ministry Web Summit in 2014, a survey of conference participants reported that 61% of our attendees with a disability or a family member were unable to attend church at some point as a result of that disability.

I have three questions for readers of our blog with personal experience of a mental health condition, or a loved one with a mental health condition. Please post your responses below in the “Comments” section, especially if they might serve as an encouragement to others or might be helpful to churches seeking to offer more effective ministry to persons impacted by mental illness.

Have you (or someone you know) had an experience related to a mental health condition impacting either yourself, a family member or a friend that led you (or them) to stop attending church?

What happened that was so hurtful? 

What would a congregation have to say or do to get someone who drifted away because of their experience with a mental health condition (or with a loved one with a mental health condition) to consider giving church another try?


KM_ForFamilies_Logo_Color_RGBKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!


Posted in Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Stories, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What the church can learn from a basketball game

Photo credit: Canton Repository

Photo credit: Canton Repository

A couple of years ago, I introduced our readers to “Downtown Nate” Manko. Nate is a young man who plays the drums in the praise band at Martindale Christian Fellowship in Canton, OH, where his father (Steve) serves as Senior Pastor. Because of brain trauma at the time of his birth, Nate experiences significant spasticity in his left arm and leg. When he was younger, he experienced very frequent seizures that were poorly controlled by medication. Dr. Ben Carson ultimately performed surgery on Nate, removing a portion of his brain in order to stop the seizures. Despite the residual impairment Nate experiences from his neurologic condition, he has followed in his family’s tradition of athletic excellence through playing a key role for the Royal Knights, one of Stark County’s Special Olympics basketball teams. The Royal Knights practice in the church’s gymnasium and are perennial contenders for the state championship.

When Nate was a student at Louisville High School, he was an active participant in the school’s marching band and the pep band that performs during varsity basketball games. Nate was befriended by the varsity basketball coach who followed his play with the Royal Knights closely. During Nate’s final year of high school (two years ago) the varsity coach  and the school administration thought Nate deserved a “senior night” where he would be honored in a similar fashion to other varsity athletes. The administration approached Nate’s parents and the Royal Knights with the idea of hosting one of their regular season games in which the varsity cheerleaders and pep band would perform and Nate and a teammate attending the high school would be recognized. The Louisville community rallied around the idea, and Nate’s “senior night” was a bigger draw than any home varsity basketball game that season.

img_2135The game was such a success that the school and the Royal Knights decided to make it an annual event. This year, my schedule finally allowed me to attend Nate’s “home” game at Louisville High School. Nate’s older brother flew in from Minneapolis to attend his first “senior night” game, and I had the pleasure of meeting Nate’s neurologist for the first time and joining him and many of Nate’s family members in seats behind the Royal Knights’ bench. I’m glad I arrived early…the gym was packed! Nate raised his game in response to the crowd and the presence of local media. He scored a career-high 23 points, including three three-pointers, and went 6 of 8 at the line, setting a standard for free throw shooting that we hope will be matched by a certain member of the Cleveland Cavaliers who wears Nate’s number! That’s the two of us on the right, with the final score in the background.


Photo Credit: Canton Repository

Nate shared the spotlight that night with Rocco, a teammate with great flair and charisma who clearly captured the love and admiration of the home crowd. During the player introductions, with all the lights in the gym off except for a single spotlight, Rocco whipped the student section into a frenzy and rewarded them by tossing t-shirts into the crowd after his name was announced. After the Royal Knights came from behind in the second half and took control of the game in the fourth quarter, Rocco was given an opportunity to score in front of his hometown fans and classmates. When he nailed an arching jumper from behind the three point line in the final minute of the game, the crowd, student section and bench exploded as if they had just won the seventh game of the NBA finals!

The event has been such a big success that other school districts in the county represented on the Royal Knights are making plans to host “home games” celebrating their current students and graduates who play on the team. The idea is so simple that I’m surprised that other school districts haven’t embraced it.

What was most remarkable about the game was the radical demonstration of how Nate and Rocco are valued by the community in which they’ve grown up. The expressions of the fans and players in the pictures from the featured story in the local newspaper capture the authenticity of the love and support experienced by all in attendance that night. What would our churches look like if we valued the gifts and talents of all of our members and celebrated the work accomplished by the Holy Spirit through them in the way that Louisville High School demonstrated to two of their athletes?


KM greenKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!

Posted in Inclusion, Key Ministry, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeff McNair: Eight Questions to Guide the Next Steps for Your Disability Ministry

shutterstock_516724222-copyWhen someone thinks about “next steps” in ministry they have come to recognize that where they are is no longer where they want to be. Perhaps they have visualized a different place they would prefer to be. They desire to move in the direction of their new vision.

Leaders are often unsure of exactly where they are because they have not fully fleshed out their vision. They may not know what questions to ask as they think about taking next steps. In order to see where one is and where one might go, some form of evaluative criteria is needed. Answering the right questions often provides the vision for what is next.

The answers to questions about next steps in growing disability ministry will be different for every church. Some churches have not sought to include persons with disabilities. Some churches serve only a few persons with intellectual disabilities. Others have developed what might be referred to as “silo” ministries…stand-alone disability ministries that operate independently of other vital ministries of the church.

Here are eight questions leaders might use as a guide for determining the next steps in the development of their church’s disability ministry:

  • Is our church welcoming persons with disabilities and their families?
  • Who are we welcoming and what specifically are we doing to offer welcome?
  • Are persons who attend our church integrated into all aspects of church life?
  • What is the evidence they are fully integrated?
  • Is the gifting of all people, independent of their personal characteristics, being used?
  • How are we providing a platform for the expression of everyone’s gifting?
  • What expectations are we placing on regular church members to love their neighbors with disabilities?
  • What is the evidence that each of us within the body are doing the difficult work of loving our neighbor?

These eight questions will help you to determine the next steps in inclusion of persons affected by disability in the local church. A more extensive list of questions is presented in an article I published with Dr. Marc Tumeinski, (available here for download)  “What Would be Better?” The self-examination questions and criteria were designed to help ministry leaders to reflect upon the current state of the disability ministries they lead. With that understanding in mind, the article simply asks readers to consider the question, “what would be better?”

What does our shared vision of Christian community look like? Who is present in our biblical vision of community? How can the inclusion of vulnerable people better reflect the Gospel vision and therefore strengthen our church community? How can we more closely approach this vision here and now within our church? Given the actual makeup of our membership, might we unintentionally or unconsciously be putting some groups of people outside of this vision? What would be better?  (p. 18)

I would invite readers considering the next steps for their ministry to use the questions posed in the paper as a guide for advancing disability ministry in their local church. I would like to leave you with one final thought.

I once saw a billboard advertisement that said, “Better has no endpoint.” Whatever stage we are at in our ministry work or our own walk with Christ, we recognize we are on a continuum. Minimally, each of us has the ability to assist others seeking to get to the place where we are. I may be gifted at integration while you are gifted at biblical instruction. We should seek to provide assistance to each other as we work to more fully emulate the vision for the church as the Body of Christ.

fullsizeoutput_237fDr. Jeff McNair serves as Professor of Education and as Director of the M.A. in Disability Studies program at California Baptist University. He also serves as Director of the Policy Center of the Joni and Friends Christian Institute on Disability and volunteers with The Light and Power Company, a group that includes adults with developmental disabilities at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Redlands, CA. He blogs at Disabled Christianity.

Posted in Inclusion, Key Ministry, Leadership, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

We’re starting a new group for leaders in mental health inclusion ministry

shutterstock_291556127-copy-2Our crew at Key Ministry is starting a Facebook group for leaders interested in advancing the cause of mental health inclusion ministry.

Modeled after the Special Needs and Disability Ministry Leaders forum, the new group provides a platform for Christians interested in ministry with children and adults with mental illness. We seek to help churches launch intentional mental health inclusion ministries and provide a forum for discussing “best practices” for mental health inclusion, including outreach, education and support.

Membership in the group is limited to individuals serving in a leadership/staff position in a local church or parachurch organization, or volunteers with a demonstrable interest in launching intentional mental health ministry through a local church. Persons interested in joining the group may be invited by an established member or group administrator, or may register (subject to the approval of an administrator) by completing the form available through this link.

We look forward to the group serving as a catalyst for the rapid growth of mental health inclusion ministry. You can help us through sharing this post with anyone you know with interest in joining this rapidly growing ministry movement!

The Mental Health Inclusion Ministry Leaders Group is sponsored by Key Ministry, in partnership with OutsideIn Ministries.



Posted in Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Leadership, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

YOU Want ME to Run the Special Needs Ministry? Cindi Ferrini


His diagnosis was still as fresh as the day we heard it three years earlier. Now, at age 5 I continued in the throngs of potty training for the 3rd year. (Not 3rd week, 3rd year.) So when asked that question from someone at my church, I spared not a breath in saying, “This just isn’t a good time for me to take on this huge, wonderful, and what would be for me overwhelming ministry opportunity.”

I’m a “go-getter” and get a lot done; sort of that “Ever-ready bunny” type. So I suppose it wasn’t a stretch to ask me, but where that rubber band would have snapped is at home. There were so many responsibilities in caring for one with cerebral palsy, seizures, mental challenges, and at the time – no verbal skills. None. Most of my day was a guessing game like trying to get to the end of the board game; I didn’t care if I won, I just wanted to finish. So, for me, while I might have seemed a good fit for the job, it wouldn’t have been good to add something of that magnitude with all we were still adjusting to at home. It simply would have been too much.

BUT, if your church is considering getting a Special Needs Ministry off the ground, here are some things to consider for choosing the right person to get that ministry going:


Having a supportive church staff who’ll support one who can head up this ministry is step one….then……

  • Don’t start by asking a parent caring for one with special needs. They really could use “the break” from caregiving. IF they volunteer, that’s a different story…sign them up!
  • Look for a person who is grace filled, merciful, and having administrative skills would be a plus, but mostly it’s the kind and caring person who has a passion for a caregiving ministry that will fill the bill.
  • Be sure this person can delegate so they’re not doing everything alone. It’s not humanly possible.
  • In delegating, this leader needs a “team” to make things work and work well.
  • Encourage this person, support their ideas, and help them emotionally – also physically and spiritually. They’ll need a well-rounded “way to go” team spirit group of people behind them.

While I would have loved heading up a ministry to special needs families, the timing just didn’t align with other things happening in my life at the time; and that’s OK, because when we have to say no, it allows others to step forward, it allows us to be ministered to, and it gives us the break we desperately need when someone else will take time with our children.

But there are times we can be of great help…stay tuned for Part TWO next month!


newferriniJoe and Cindi Ferrini are authors of Unexpected Journey – When Special Needs Change our Course who enjoy speaking on topics that will encourage men and women to make a difference in their sphere of influence by being all they can be for the Lord, their families, and themselves. They speak nationally for FamilyLife’s Weekend To Remember Get-a-Ways and are on associate staff of CRU. Make sure to check out their blog. Today’s blog was written by Cindi Ferrini.

Posted in Key Ministry, Parents, Special Needs Ministry | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment