People with disabilities are an important part of God’s body of believers, but churches often overlook their gifts and are unaware of the visible and invisible barriers that can limit or exclude their participation.
Four Christian Reformed congregations and one Reformed Church in America church, all from Northwest Iowa, recently committed to working together over a 13-month period to make their churches more welcoming and accessible for people with disabilities.
“The beauty of a cohort is that congregational leaders learn from each other. There’s synergy when churches commit to doing better together,” said Elaine May, Ph.D., who oversees the Thriving Practices cohorts for Thrive, an organization of the Christian Reformed Church.
Thriving Congregations is made possible through a grant from Lilly Endowment. The program involves a leadership development component called Thriving Essentials and a church cohort component called Thriving Practices.
This Accessible Church Cohort is a collaboration between Thrive’s disability work, RCA Disability Concerns, and Hope Haven, a nonprofit based in Northwest Iowa that provides services for people with disabilities.
Rev. Dan DeVries is the regional disability advocate in that region, serving CRC and RCA churches as he recruits and supports disability advocates in local churches.
“After participating in a church cohort about discipleship,” DeVries said, “I wanted to do something similar to help churches do a better job of welcoming people with disabilities.”
DeVries and his colleague, Rev. Missy Dokter, are chaplains at Hope Haven and ordained in the RCA. DeVries and Dokter planned this cohort with staff from the CRC and RCA.
The Accessible Church Cohort is helping congregations learn to model hospitality and equity by learning from people with disabilities and then developing practices that anticipate and reduce barriers.
Lynn Wielenga, disability advocate at Bethel CRC in Sioux Center, said, “I’ve learned to listen to what people with disabilities are saying about their experiences and not to just assume they need or desire assistance in the ways I might imagine.”
Each church has a team of people with and without disabilities leading their church into a more accessible future. Rev. Deb Rensink, an RCA pastor, connects with the teams between meetings to talk through their action plans and to help them solve problems.
The cohort kicked off in January 2023 when May trained cohort members and church leaders in Thriving Essentials, a program designed to help churches grow in mission, discipleship, discernment, and leadership.
In March the group hosted a meeting that included a session on defining disability and a panel of people with disabilities sharing their church experiences. In May congregational representatives shared with each other what they were working on in their churches. Attendees also learned about the five stages of disability attitudes—a tool created by Dan VanderPlaats, a longtime volunteer of Thrive’s disability and accessibility efforts.
Calvin CRC of Le Mars has been considering what modifications could be made in their church building to make the pulpit area accessible. They also have completed a congregational survey about accessibility.
“I think we've been learning to think more broadly about different barriers that church members and visitors might face in participating in our worship and realizing that more people are affected than we originally thought,” Pastor Brian Hofman said.