Years ago when I was in seminary, I worked at a residential home for adults with intellectual disabilities. I was impressed with the way the facility ensured many areas of the participants’ lives were taken care of—physical, social, emotional, recreational, etc.
But one obvious aspect was missing: their spiritual lives were neglected.
So I offered to drive a van through the grounds every Sunday morning to pick up whoever wanted to go to church with me. It was a beautiful thing to see so many of them waiting outside their residences, all dressed up, and ready to go to church, many for the first time.
The church I was attending at the time was not sure what to think of this large group that came in, sat in the front row, and sang their hearts out for Jesus (often loudly and off-key). But they were accepting, and the group continued to grow. Every time the pastor would mention the Apostle Paul, this group of adults with special needs would give me a wink, a thumbs up, or pat me on the back as if I was the “Paul” he was referring to! I learned quickly that there was a lot of teaching that needed to be done.
Fast forward 15 years, and I’ve now been a pastor for individuals with intellectual disabilities for the last decade, first at a different residential facility and now at Willow Creek. It’s still a fairly unique position in mainstream churches, but many are beginning to see not only the need but also the impact that having a pastor to shepherd this population can have.
I see my role as a shepherd over a very important flock—a shepherd that protects the sheep from wolves, a shepherd that has to guide the sheep to water and sit with them there while they drink, and that water, of course, is the Word of God.
One of the most exciting parts of my job at Willow has been developing classes for our teens and adults to go deeper into their relationship with God. One of my favorite classes has been a Communion class. Many teens and adults have never taken Communion, and most of them weren’t sure what the bread and wine were all about, but, I began receiving questions about wanting to take it together during church services. I developed and taught an interactive class with them, where we learned about each element of Communion and practiced taking it together.
At the next Midweek service, we went as a group and took Communion together. It was beautiful to see this group of teens and adults with intellectual disabilities come to a deeper understanding of this important tradition that the church practices frequently and is part of the spiritual development of any Christ follower. It was yet another step towards the Special Friends being fully integrated into the life of the church.
I have seen this same impact with Baptism. When Baptism opportunities come around, many teens or adults ask if they can participate. I teach a class with them that ensures they understand the meaning of Baptism, and in this class, we check out the Baptism pool to help them get acclimated so that there are no surprises. Sometimes, it’s too much to be baptized in front of thousands of people. In those cases, we set up a special time for them to be baptized in front of their friends and family at Willow in the same baptismal pool as everyone else—we just modify the surroundings to help support their individualized needs.
And that’s perhaps the reason individuals with intellectual disabilities benefit from having a pastor dedicated just to them—so they can belong to the same body of Christ that we all do.
I love my role as their pastor. It brings me great joy to see our kids ministry learn about Jesus in an environment created around their learning style; to see our teen community continue to meet together and create connection even after the Penguin Project performances are over; and to see our adult community rally around each other in times of pain and sorrow as well as in times of celebration.
The volunteers and leaders in each of these areas are incredible. They are truly what makes this ministry work. These volunteers come from all walks of life, men and women, kids and teens—all just showing up and coming alongside our Special Friends.
I believe all are created in the image of God and I take seriously the responsibility of my calling to help individuals with intellectual disabilities develop their own personal relationship with the God that created them on purpose for a purpose.
(And I’ve cleared up any confusion between me and the Apostle Paul!)
I pray you would join us this weekend as our Special Friends perform Mary Poppins Jr. I believe you will be moved by their incredible, God-given abilities—and your presence and support will bring them encouragement beyond what you can comprehend.
Willow Creek's Special Friends ministry will perform a musical production of Mary Poppins Jr. this weekend, July 21/22 as part of weekend services.