Livability has launched a new guide and training resource called ‘More Than Welcome’, to help churches support the participation of disabled people in church and community life. In the process, we’ve been reflecting on how important welcome feels as the beginning of that journey. Corin Pilling shares a personal story.
My story begins with my parents’ house move a few years back. As active members of various churches for all of their married life, regular worship was a central part of each week. Life was also changing as my father’s disability progressed and simple pleasures and familiar patterns became increasingly important.
Church has always been important for my father. His quiet faith was inherited from my grandparents ‘hands-on’ approach to Methodism, growing up in Lancashire. We still have ‘the pledge’ of sobriety my grandfather signed as a young man. I’m sure my father isn’t the only one who describes himself as a drinking Methodist. As my father’s disability has progressed, I’ve seen him draw from the patterns and traditions he grew up with. Hymns and prayers offer a chance to connect and the physical space of church with others offers comfort. When the house move was complete, and the boxes were unpacked, a key priority was finding a church.
Church number one didn’t fair too well. It was a modern building, but it was unclear where a wheelchair might fit. The welcome team seemed unaware as my mother started to shift obstacles to find a spot for my father. It wasn’t clear where a wheelchair should go. Not a great start, but they gave it a few weeks before they left.
I asked my mother why they’d moved on. ‘We just didn’t feel welcome.’ I wondered what would’ve helped. Her response: ‘Simple things, really. If somebody on the welcome team had been briefed to look out for people who might need extra assistance, that would have helped us to know we were welcome. Also, it’s pretty clear that we have a lot to manage – a conversation from the minister to actively welcome us would have helped too. We don’t expect hands-on help, but it really helps you feel supported when the person in leadership takes time with you.’
Would church number two fare any better? A smaller, older church with fixed pews, it didn’t look great from the outside. The car parking was tricky without obvious access from car to building. After the previous experience, we were all nervous of how it would play out. However, the outcome was very different.
My mother was enthusiastic: ‘From the moment we came in the door, we were made to feel extremely welcome. We were shown exactly where we could sit – they’d chosen to remove the front row of pews to make room, so there was no confusion. After the service one of the congregation made extra effort to help us gain access to the hall for coffee.’ The welcome continued. Even though there is no full time minister, the congregation have been proactive in offering support, and from the beginning it seemed there was a willingness to understand the challenges they faced.
In a small congregation such as this, expectations have needed to change concerning pastoral support. My mother is realistic: ‘I’m aware we can no longer expect regular pastoral care from a minister – they’re just doing too much in leading other churches. Instead, I’d encourage every church to think about how they can build a team to check in on those who might have extra challenges. A monthly phone call or a visit would make a huge difference, particularly when we can’t get to church.’
It’s clear that the biggest barrier to creating a welcome is time. Churches and their leaders have many competing priorities, and exclusion is usually unintentional. Yet it is important we spend the time considering ‘what makes a welcome?’ if we expect to see our congregations reflect our communities. Every experience of disability is individual, and requires an individual conversation. But asking ‘How can we help you to be fully part of church?’ is a great start.
A small effort seemed to go a long way for my parents to feel fully part of this worshipping community. There’s no guarantee that Dad won’t nod off during the sermon, but there’s every chance he’ll be singing along with Wesley’s hymns as long as he’s able.
More Than Welcome is a resource to guide churches in how to deepen relationships with disabled people and build a church where everyone belongs. Based on the idea of a journey – it’s designed to help churches go through three important stages, from a place of welcome, to inclusion, to participation. The resource provides inspiration, guidance, stories and tips of things to work on to see people fully taking part.
Corin Pilling is Assistant Director of Community Engagement at Livability.