By Ryan Wolfe
God is writing a story of transformation at Ability Ministry.
Richard Rohr wrote, “Transformed people transform people.” It is a simple yet profound statement. An outward transformation in the world must start with an inward transformation.
This was the case in September 1981 when Sam Stone, then editor of Christian Standard, went to visit his parents at Mount Healthy Christian Home in Cincinnati. Sam surely never realized the transformative work God would begin that day.
At that senior housing facility, Sam met resident Marjorie Broxon, who had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair. She spoke slowly.
“You know I like it here,” she said. “There are good folks operating the home. But all the other residents here are a lot older than me and I don’t have a chance to do many things I’m able to do and want to do. I wish our churches provided a home to help handicapped people.”
“Well, yes, that would be nice,” Sam agreed, “but you know it would take a lot of money to build a facility like that.”
Without hesitation, she responded, “It took a lot of money to build Mount Healthy Home, too.”
Those words stuck with Sam. He knew firsthand the challenge of helping people with disabilities. His wife Gwen’s youngest brother, Greg, also had cerebral palsy. As Sam considered Marjorie and Greg, he thought of the people affected by disability in the churches at which he had ministered. These people, along with Marjorie, all shared the same need: a place of belonging.
The Start of a New Ministry
Long story short, Sam Stone acted on this conviction. He began meeting with several other Restoration Movement church leaders. After long periods of prayer and consultation, a new ministry was announced in the January 29, 1984, issue of Christian Standard.
The Christian Churches Foundation for the Handicapped (CCFH) soon launched a residential ministry for adults affected by disability. And it was triggered by an interaction Sam Stone had with Marjorie Broxon, who desired to see her circumstances altered. Sam’s willingness to listen to God’s promptings helped to transform his worldview from the inside out.
Dr. Jim Pierson became CCFH’s first executive director. Under his leadership, the first resident moved into Riverwood Christian Community in Louisville, Tennessee, in August 1986. The ministry grew, and a second home was added to the Riverwood campus in 1993.
Over the next 20-plus years, CCFH provided residential care with an unmatched level of excellence and Christian love. And to this day, Riverwood continues to transform the lives of 28 adults and their respective families.
A New Name and New Vision for the Future
In January 2009, CCFH welcomed Gary Spangler as its new executive director. Gary’s business background was needed because of CCFH’s financial situation. Gary quickly learned that providing top-notch residential care faced two financial hurdles: (1) CCFH accepted no government funding, and (2) the ministry relied on church and individual support.
After several months of worrying about the organization’s finances, Gary’s wife, Becky, bluntly told him, “You know, it’s not your ministry. It’s God’s. I’m sorry, but you are not the focal point of whether this ministry succeeds or fails. It’s God’s decision.”
Gary sought the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, and after several years, the ministry’s finances stabilized.
Under his leadership, the organization was renamed the Christian Churches Disability Ministry (CCDM). And while CCDM continued to achieve good results, Gary again felt the stirring of the Holy Spirit. It seemed to him like something was missing.
Gary knew CCDM was helping transform the lives of 28 adults and their families, but the world has more than 7 billion people. Far more people with disabilities needed Jesus. Gary felt the burden to expand CCDM’s ministry, but wasn’t sure where to start. He knew that if he changed nothing, nothing would change. So, Gary prayed that God would guide him.
That’s how Gary and I came to meet. At the time I was full-time disability ministry pastor at First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio. I shared some statistics and thoughts with Gary:
- More than 1 billion people in the world live with a disability, making it one of the world’s largest unreached people groups and the only mission field that exists in every community around the world.
- Fewer than 10 percent of churches in America have an intentional outreach to their disability community . . . more than 350,000 churches have no such ministry.
- The Bible is not silent on disability ministry. Jesus commanded the religious leadership of his day to actively reach out to the disability community (Luke 14:21). Paul boldly stated that people affected by disability are indispensable to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:22). God is the author of disability (Exodus 4:11, 12). God allows disability for a divine purpose (John 9:1-3).
The Holy Spirit confirmed for Gary the need to move forward as an organization to reach the 1 billion-plus people in the world who live with a disability. Jesus told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Luke 10:2), and Gary very much identified with that statement.
He knew he could not tackle this task alone. He offered me a position in the ministry in September 2017, with the understanding I would eventually become president. Upon accepting the offer, I was charged with transforming the organization.
Transforming the Organization
CCDM leaders consider residential ministry to be its heart and soul—it gave birth to the ministry and will always remain. Rhonna S. McBride leads the ministry’s Riverwood and New Hope communities with an unmatched level of excellence.
Having said that, for CCDM to expand beyond its 28 residents, it needed to focus all its energy on building something new. In late 2017, CCDM again changed its name, simplifying it to Ability Ministry. The name change came with a new focus and a total ministry rebrand.
In just 12 months since then, Ability Ministry has witnessed God’s transformative power at work around the globe. Its victories include these:
- The ministry is providing free consultation and training to almost 100 churches and organizations, with some training resulting in baptisms.
- We are creating resources that are being used worldwide: a devotional study book (My Friends, My Teachers) designed to organically launch disability ministry outreach through small groups; partnering with Joni & Friends to publish Helping with Life Transitions; creating an online church locator tool; and creating 12 months of curriculum for teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
- Ability Ministry’s curriculum is being used in America, Canada, South Africa, Europe, and Australia.
- Ability Ministry is influencing the leaders of today and tomorrow; its representatives speak at multiple conferences and also guest teach at Johnson University.
With an eye fixed on reaching the 1 billion-plus people worldwide who live with a disability, Ability Ministry has many exciting plans for this year, including: centralized training for multiple churches; launching new children’s ministry curriculum; releasing a new adult sermon series for churches; expanding its church locator tool; building out its free resource library for churches; and expanding its residential ministry.
Ability Ministry wants to help churches transform their view and outreach to the largest unreached community in the world. If churches won’t reach out to their communities, who will?
Jesus wasn’t selective when talking to the religious leaders of his day in Luke 14. He issued a command for all in church leadership. It wasn’t a command just for megachurches.
Ability Ministry is passionate about equipping and empowering churches to reach their disability communities for Christ. This ministry outreach is exciting and like no other. It needn’t be feared. It isn’t complicated. It may be the most fun you will ever have in ministry.
Ability Ministry is so determined to reach the plentiful harvest, that we will work with your church for free, offering consultation.
If your church is one of the more than 90 percent that currently don’t have any intentional outreach to the disability community, you should contact Ability Ministry today at www.abilityministry.com/consulting/.
Ability Ministry president Ryan Wolfe is passionate about equipping and empowering churches, organizations, and individuals to reach their disability communities for Jesus.