Disability Ministry in the Christian Church

By Jim Pierson

For 25 years, the Christian Church Foundation for the Handicapped has influenced the disability ministry world. While CCFH’s influence has spanned faith groups, I wanted to determine its impact on Christian churches. 

Established in 1983, the ministry’s board developed two goals: to provide residential care to adults and to develop disability ministry materials for churches to meet the spiritual needs of people with disabilities. I will discuss the influence of the disability ministry materials.

In the 1960s while directing the East Tennessee Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, I researched what churches were doing to minister to people with disabilities. I was pleased to learn most faith groups, including Christian churches, were doing something. The First Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, had a special class, and two churches in California—Eastside Christian Church in Fullerton and the Crossroads Christian Church in Corona—had good disability ministry programs.

Since then many more congregations have begun these important ministries.


North American Christian Convention

The influence of the Christian Church Foundation for the Handicapped has been the result of collaboration.

Our first collaborator was the North American Christian Convention. Leonard Wymore, who then served as NACC director, was present at a Johnson Bible College Homecoming session where I made a speech about ministry among people with disabilities. Afterward, Leonard asked me how many NACC sessions I would need to tell people how to start a ministry. Since those three workshops in Cincinnati in the summer of 1968, other presenters have joined me over the years in doing workshops at the NACC. Several churches started programs as a result of those sessions.

In the 1960s and ’70s churches with such programs likely had a special class for students with mental retardation and signed services for the deaf. The NACC workshops stressed the importance of Christian education, outreach to the family, and work in the community.

That influence is probably seen in the growing number of churches that have well defined disability ministries. Today disability ministry in our churches offers a broader approach. Here’s a sampling of typical components found in Christian church disability ministries:

• Believing that people with disabilities are worthy of God’s love and should be a part of the body of Christ, many churches have made their Sunday school programs available to learners with disabilities. Students are paired with an assistant and are placed in regular classes. If the needs are too intense, a separate class is available. Some churches provide in-home services if the student is not able to come to the church building.

• Another facet is ministry to the family, with churches providing informal respite care. Using trained volunteers, a church offers activities for the children, and often their siblings, which allows the parents time together to shop, dine, or enjoy a movie.

• People with disabilities are encouraged to be a part of the life of the church. Evangelism in the disability community is a growing emphasis. After they become a part of the life of the church, believers with disabilities need a place of service; for example, greeting, doing office work, caring for the church lawn, or working in the nursery.

• Churches are involved in the broader disability community. Members volunteer for Special Olympics and the Down syndrome Buddy Walk; churches sponsor SibShops. Church members serve on boards of organizations serving the disability population.

We’ve listed several Christian churches offering disability ministries today. Let me tell you about some of them.

• Cicero (Indiana) Christian Church started Mephibosheth Ministries (www.mm-abilities.org). Sponsored largely by the congregation, the agency offers day services, training in life skills, and an accessible garden. Directed by Becky Moore, the program is now working on a residential program for higher functioning adults who want to live independently.

• Jesus Prom at Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky (www.southlandchristian.org), was started by Brewster McLeod, the disability minister. McLeod noticed that people with disabilities did not attend the spring prom, so he organized the community to assist the church in changing the situation. Formal wear businesses arranged for tuxes, long dresses were donated, hairdressers volunteered their services, and food was provided by local restaurants.

From a good beginning the program has grown to 1,500 people and volunteers. Another successful version is Prom of the Stars, sponsored by Farragut Christian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee (www.farragutchristianchurch.com).

• Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana (www.socc.org), has a disability ministry with the usual components. In addition, the church sponsors the Learning Tree Preschool. Children with a variety of learning difficulties are taught by a licensed teacher. Jon Pinney administers this fine program.

• Even though it is not affiliated with a particular congregation, I must also mention Hope House (www.ahome2come2.org) in Marshing, Idaho, a residential/education program for children and adults with disabilities. Founded and directed by Donna Velvick, the ministry received a Points of Lights Award when George H. W. Bush was president.


Standard Publishing

Another valuable collaborator with CCFH is Standard Publishing. For many years I served as Standard’s consultant in special education/disability ministry. I did workshops at Christian education conventions across the country.

Standard published five of my books on disability ministry. The first one was in connection with a series of teacher training seminars called IdeaShops. Then followed Reaching Out to Special People. A children’s book, Just Like Everybody Else, taught children how to react to people with disabilities. No Disabled Souls and Exceptional Teaching: A Comprehensive Guide for Including Students with Disabilities are the two most popular. Both are out of print but are available at www.ccfh.org. No Disabled Souls stresses the humanity of several people with disabilities.

Exceptional Teaching is a one-of-a-kind manual designed to assist the Sunday school teacher who wants to include a student with a disability. It has enjoyed wide usage. It explains in understandable terms what a teacher needs to know to include a child with a disability in the classroom.

CCFH has put much of the material online under the name Exceptional Teaching Online. The titles of the videos suggest their value as training tools:

Steps in Beginning a Disability Ministry

• Designing a Christian Education program

• Creating a Classroom Environment to Accommodate a Disability Ministry

• Planning to Include People with Disabilities in the Life of the Church

• Planning a Ministry with the Family Experiencing Disability

• Planning for Community Outreach


College Connections

Still another collaborator is Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee. Johnson offered the first-of-its-kind college training program in disability ministry. I have taught at Johnson since 1960. I came to the college to teach English and speech, but my focus changed when I started graduate work in speech pathology. In the early days Johnson sponsored a nationwide seminar in special education for churches that attracted more than 100 people.

Even though Johnson no longer offers the disability ministry specialty, its Distance Learning Department offers the Certificate in Disability Ministry. Students take four courses that help them begin and maintain a disability ministry in a church. Currently, I have students from California, Minnesota, Georgia, Indiana, and New Jersey.

For 17 years I taught special education courses at Milligan College. I continue to meet former students who now have disability ministries in their churches.

Other brotherhood educational institutions have joined in promoting disability ministry. Of the 41 schools of higher learning listed in the 2008 Directory of the Ministry, I have taught special education classes or made special presentations at 17 of them.


Outside Christian Churches

CCFH is well known in the disability ministry world. One of my favorite places to do workshops is at the annual Disability Summit sponsored by the McLean (Virginia) Bible Church. McLean has one of the largest disability ministries in the country.

Jackie Mills-Fernald, director of access ministry at McLean, has been an enthusiastic partner with CCFH in ministry to those with disabilities.

As I anticipate retirement, I am pleased that Gary Spangler will become president of CCFH Ministries. He has served on the board for several years and has a passion for disability ministry. Meanwhile, as president emeritus, I will continue to develop materials for the ministry.





Jim Pierson retires next month as president of Christian Church Foundation for the Handicapped in Knoxville, Tennessee.



Churches with Disability Ministries

The author knows about the disability ministries in each of these congregations, but we know there are more. We’re glad to update this list on our Web site. Please tell us about your disability ministry.




Central Christian Church 

933 N. Lindsey Road

Mesa, AZ 85213

(480) 924-4946




Crossroads Christian Church

2331 Kellogg Ave.

Corona, CA 92881

(951) 737-4664



Eastside Christian Church

2505 Yorba Linda Blvd.

Fullerton, CA 92831

(714) 871-6844



LifeBridge Christian Church

10345 Ute Highway

Longmont, CO 80504



Christ’s Church (Mandarin Christian Church)

6045 Greenland Road

Jacksonville, FL 32258

(904) 268-2500




Savannah Christian Church

55 Al Henderson Blvd.

Savannah, GA 31419

(912) 925-9657



Sherwood Oaks Christian Church

2700 E. Rogers Road

Bloomington, IN 47401

(812) 334-0206


Cicero Christian Church

1715 Stringtown Pike

Cicero, IN 46034

(317) 984-4653



First Christian Church`

4544 Old State Road 261

Newburgh, IN 47630

(812) 858-5000




Southeast Christian Church

920 Blankenbaker Parkway

Louisville, KY 40243

(502) 253-5000


Southland Christian Church

5001 Harrodsburg Road

Nicholasville, KY 40356

(859) 224-1600 




Mountain Christian Church 

1824 Mountain Road 

Joppa, MD 21085

(410) 877-1824



Central Christian Church

1001 New Beginnings Drive

Henderson, NV 89011

(702) 735-4004



Parkside Christian Church

6986 Salem Road

Cincinnati, OH 45230

(513) 231-9482



Christ’s Church at Mason

5165 Western Row Road

Mason, OH 45040



Bux-Mont Christian Church

400 Jacksonville Road

Ivyland, PA 18974

(215) 322-1732



First Christian Church

200 E Mountcastle Drive

Johnson City, TN 37601

(423) 232-5700


Woodlawn Christian Church

4339 Woodlawn Pike

Knoxville, TN 37920

(865) 573-6721


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