Ian Silk reflects on the catalytic effect of a Livability seminar and the journey that lead to an amazing congregation of disabled people which formed as a result.
Ian has been in ministry at St George’s Church Lincoln for 23 years. His experiences of building relationships with people with complex and hidden needs began in his own congregation. A number of children with special needs had grown up as part of the congregation and now attended regularly as adults.
Ian found that getting to know this group was a vital source of joy and encouragement for him as a minister. He says:
“Here they are, a beacon of something very fundamental about what church is, fully a part of us, yet with complex needs that we don’t always understand.”
In addition to these experiences Ian also began to deliver assemblies in a local special school and became chaplain to the local Sea Cadets, discovering the amazing work that a number of the qualified special needs leaders were doing to enable kinaesthetic learners among their young people. Spending time with people with learning needs had become a large part of his week.
While Ian was reflecting on these experiences he attended the Livability seminar on autism and Asperger’s’ syndrome at Greenbelt in August 2013. He had never been to a seminar on the subject before and was struck by the culture that was created.
“It was led from the ground up rather than the top down, there was no expert at the front. The facilitators modelled the lived experience of being a family into which others could come and participate. There must have been at least 200 people there.”
The most significant aspect of the seminar for Ian was hearing the stories of people who had autism spectrum disorders themselves. “Hearing the struggle of trying to express yourself in a church that doesn’t understand you.”
Coming home from Greenbelt, Ian felt he needed to take this further and create the same kind of shared journey he had experienced at Greenbelt for others in his city. He decided to host a day conference on spirituality and special needs in June 2014 and invited people with learning disabilities, church leaders, teachers, care organisations and congregation members to come and share.
70 people with mixed abilities attended the conference and the day was a great encouragement to all involved. Prospects led the worship, beginning a strong partnership with the charity. Following the conference, a team quickly gathered and in December 2014 the church began a monthly meeting, supported by Prospects.
Founded in 1976, Prospects is now the leading Christian organisation for people with learning disabilities and their families in the United Kingdom. A major part of the work is now equipping volunteers from churches across the UK to offer accessible worship and Bible teaching to people with learning disabilities in locally run ministry groups.
Jennifer Rowlands, Mission Development Coordinator at Prospects, explains more about their relationship with church like St Georges:
“We’re always thrilled when a new group is formed and joins the 200 plus already running across the country. We do all we can to help as the local church may have lots of questions as they consider organising a meeting specifically for those with learning disabilities. Prospects offers a variety of resources including lesson plans and worship CDs, DVDs and sheet music, as well as training and ongoing advice and support. We are also keen to raise awareness within church congregations of the special contributions and needs of the disabled, and to help make churches more accessible and welcoming – going beyond building a ramp!”
Prospects St George’s is an inclusive space in which everyone gets involved, the 30-40 members are aged from 16-85 and worship together with songs, prayers, drama and story. Ian explains some of what the Prospects resources add:
“In our monthly services we use a video produced by the national Prospects team for one of the worship songs… [it] has excellent singing and signing and shows a community really enjoying worshipping together!”
The St George’s group is thriving and have just celebrated their first full year by holding a party that included a ukulele band.
In May this year, as part of an ongoing commitment to widening service delivery, growing impact and building engagement with the cause, Prospects joined the Livability Group in an important new chapter in both charities’ causes. Placing the lives of the people supported by the charities at the heart of everything, the new partnership will combine strengths and expertise to deliver a broader portfolio of commissioned care, church and community work around England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Ian is excited and positive about the development:
“We and our sister Prospects congregation at Fiskerton, just north of Lincoln, are feeling very well supported. The Prospects-Livability partnership is such good news for everyone.”
Livability’s Community Engagement team is available to work locally in your region or to work with your church to consider issues of inclusion and how you can make everybody welcome. Chat to one of our team at firstname.lastname@example.org