Guest commentary by Evelyn Worth McMullen
Meet Kendra, a 14-year-old with limited verbal skills who was brought by her caregiver to the Unlimited Special Needs Ministry of Mount Paran Church of God in Marietta, Georgia. Jillian Palmiotto, director of the ministry, shares Kendra’s story: “Kendra had been attending our program and worship for about a year when she let us know that she wanted to be baptized. The pastors wondered how we would know that she understood that Jesus was her Savior. I had a conversation with Kendra, in her own way, about her faith. I asked her where Jesus lived and she pointed to her heart. After her baptism Kendra’s joy was evident to all who met her.”
My first response to this story was, “Wow! Kendra shares God’s love through her presence.” My second thought was, “I hope that Presbyterian congregations don’t insist on kids like Kendra being able to articulate their faith verbally.”
Do the confirmation programs of Presbyterian churches make cognitive tasks the gate through which young disciples must enter? Do we fit the teenagers into the program or design the program to help the disciples claim God’s call for their lives?
In this article I offer stories and reflections from several ministry leaders who are encouraging their congregations to adapt programs and practices, welcoming young people with special needs into the Body of Christ. A common theme is strengthening relationships within the Christian community.
As confirmation planners, we decide what young disciples need to know and experience in order for them to make a profession of faith, responding to God’s call as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Many congregations include mentors in the process and have found that relationships with maturing Christians have enriched the experience. For mentors of young people with developmental disabilities, it’s important for the relationship to begin well beforehand.
Ben Conner, author of “Amplifying Our Witness,” underscores the importance of relationship-building with young people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD). “Time spent with people with I/DD outside of structured church, moving at their pace, learning about how they communicate, joining with them in things that they enjoy, being sensitive to their gifts and needs will make for a very different confirmation experience.” Conner writes, “While doctrine may be too complex for them, they can participate in the practices of the faith that are shaped by (and shape) our doctrine. The practice of forgiveness has deep roots in the liturgy and is central to any confession of faith. The practice of hospitality is represented at the table, and the invitation … is being affirmed in words. Couldn’t we enact this?” (Also, see Conner’s post on Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry blog, “Don’t disable your youth ministry.”)
There are many ways that the confirmation experience can be built around the gifts/witness of these young disciples rather than fitting them into a cognitively-focused program. When I was coordinating confirmation every year, I remember what a privilege it was to be present when teens made those connections between the words of faith and their lives as disciples. However, the program was more or less the same every year. Confirmation leaders may not see the need to change a program that has been successful with typical teens. It takes work to intentionally adapt it for those with special needs.
First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham in Michigan is an intentionally inclusive church. Joanne Blair, associate pastor of inclusion and pastoral care reported that they began with individual plans for the kids with disabilities in confirmation class. Now they email the parents and confirmation partners ahead and give them specific concepts and adapted assignments. This year they had three boys with disabilities in the confirmation class. “Their statements of faith were varied depending on their abilities … one even did a photo statement with a voice-over.”
Here are some suggestions for “adaptive confirmation.”
Sacraments. Make these lessons tangible – water, bread, cup.
Doctrine. Important points can be made visual or physical through images and enacted practices, as Ben Conner suggests. For example, if the concept is incarnation, consider how students have experienced vulnerability. Students with disabilities live with vulnerability; they may be surprised to learn of the invisible vulnerabilities of “typical” kids. Relationships are strengthened as the gift of “God with Us” is demonstrated.
Mission. Ask young people about their experiences of giving and receiving help. And then practice both in an appropriate setting.
Congregational profession of faith. Move beyond the expectation that all will be verbal to “universal design.” Invite each confirmand to create a profession of faith in a chosen medium. Peers could help a person who is nonverbal to select pictures or music which expresses their Christian faith and their life as a disciple. Each profession of faith is unique; the person with a disability is not the exception.
Let’s return to Kendra’s story. Palmiotto continues, “After her baptism, Kendra became so excited about coming to church that her mom and sister were moved by her response. Kendra’s family practiced Buddhism, so they were still reluctant to come see what church was all about. After about a year her mom and sister began coming to church, gave their lives to Christ, rid their home of their Buddhist artifacts and asked one of our pastors to come and consecrate their home. Don’t underestimate the mission/ministry power of a person who is nonverbal!”
Theologian John Swinton’s “Becoming Friends of Time” has helped re-frame my thinking about the way people with very limited cognitive abilities belong in the Body of Christ. Swinton reminds us that in the gospels, the disciples responded to Jesus’ call before they fully understood who he was. “Coming to know things about Jesus … came as a consequence of being with Jesus, not as a prerequisite for discipleship. … The apparent ‘foolishness’ of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities may be wiser than human wisdom, and the perceived ‘weakness’ of such lives stronger than human strength. Faith seems more like trust than like propositional knowledge.”
Young people with disabilities belong in the Body of Christ. Belonging moves one step beyond inclusion. Just because a young person is present in confirmation class doesn’t guarantee a sense of belonging. It’s up to us as confirmation planners to demonstrate the importance of building relationships with one another and with Jesus Christ.
Evelyn Worth McMullen has more than 30 years of experience in Christian education ministry, with a special focus on reaching out to the special-needs community. She developed Bright Threads Ministries, an organization that shows churches how to weave people of all abilities into the fabric of congregational life.