She Never Water Skied Until She Joined First Baptist

September 8, 2011

Inclusion Strategies

Tracey Seyler, a 50-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, had never shot a paintball gun before joining First Baptist Concord Church.  She had never water skied, zip lined or ridden in a hot air balloon.  But Sonshine Ministry at the Farragut church has given her and others with developmental disabilities the opportunity to do all these activities.

Three times a week, Seyler puts together mailers, organizes materials in pews and otherwise serves the community through Helping Hands, another program within Sonshine Ministry. It provides social interaction and a way to build self worth.  She has a safe place to worship on Sundays.

Robert Benintende hugs a costumed panda who came to visit during a recent Rejoicing Spirits service at Lenoir City Central United Methodist Church.  “I get to know God more and the fellowship of people,” said Seyler, who has lived with her mother and stepfather in Farragut for six years. “I have enjoyed my life since moving to Tennessee. Between the church, Helping Hands and Sonshine Ministries. I am doing all the things I couldn’t do as a kid.”

Many Knoxville churches do not have programs like First Baptist Concord’s to serve their special needs population, said Rhoni Standefer of Joni and Friends, a national organization that helps churches cater to people with disabilities.  “Our churches have not been very welcoming,” said Standefer, who works out of a regional office in Knoxville. “It’s not because they are mean or don’t want to (be welcoming). They just don’t know how.”

With the divorce rate of parents with special needs children around 80 percent and the majority of them not attending church because there’s not allowances for their child, these families need help, she said.  Since she began working in Knoxville six years ago, the number of churches in the area with disabilities ministries has grown from about five to more than 40.

Tracey Seyler, who has cerebral palsy, holds a paintball gun during a Joni and Friends Family Retreat this summer. Many people with disabilities and their families from First Baptist Concord Church in Farragut attended the retreat.  “But when you consider there are more than 700 churches in the area and we know of 40 that actually have an established program, you can really see the need,” Standefer said. “A church without a disability ministry is a disabled church. These people and their families have gifts the church is missing out on.”

Overcoming fears.  The first time the Rev. Dawn Chesser led Rejoicing Spirits, she was terrified.  Rejoicing Spirits is Lenoir City Central United Methodist Church’s monthly worship service for people with developmental disabilities.  She had no idea how to work with the population, so she talked to a special education expert at University for Tennessee.

Her fears subsided the moment she began working with the special needs congregation.  “It was so stupid for me to be nervous,” said Chesser, who served as associate pastor last year. “They are so much more affirming and less judgmental. Preaching on Sunday is much more intimidating.”  She said leading the worship service for a year changed her life.  “This population embraced me,” Chesser said. “They noticed every time I changed my hair. They are willing and wanting to love you.”

Educating people about others with disabilities is key, Standefer said. Most ministers receive no seminary training, even at the doctoral level, in how to lead people with developmental disabilities.  Emily McSpadden enjoys ice cream after a recent visit to Mayfield Dairy. First Baptist Concord and its Sonshine Ministry sponsored the trip for people with disabilities and their families.

Rejoicing Spirits, like Joni and Friends, is another national organization that helps churches. Central United Methodist began offering the service every third Tuesday of the month in 2006.  People at the service worship however they want. They can lay on the floor, dance or yell. The majority of worshippers are from Adult Community Training, a Lenoir City organization that works with adults with disabilities.

“We assume because they are disabled, they are not spiritual, but they are very spiritual,” said Ron McKean, chief financial officer of Adult Training Community. “I’ve never talked to a client who is not a believer.”  About 100 people, including caregivers and supporters, attend.

People begin showing up 30 minutes before the 11 a.m. service to socialize, said senior pastor Micah Nicolaus. While singing, people pass around maracas and tambourines. Then, everyone prays together and Nicolaus reads scripture.  Rejoicing Spirits always ends with a lively rendition of “Rocky Top.”  “You can tell something significant happened,” Nicolaus said. “They are not picking up their stuff to leave right at the end. There’s a ‘long goodbye.'”  He said the program has changed “the DNA” of his church. Everyone is more accepting.

Providing a place.  Ginger Forbes has met many parents of children with disabilities who have been asked to leave church because of their “disruptive” child.  Forbes, director of children’s ministry at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Farragut, said they find a place for these children in their Sunday school classes.

They don’t offer a specific program but determine the needs of the child and develop a specialized worship and Bible study for each child involving parents, schools and church volunteers, Forbes said.  The church serves about 12 children with autism, epilepsy or other disabilities.

“Jesus loves all children,” said Forbes, who has a background in special education. “One child is not more important than another. That’s what the Bible teaches.”  Christ Covenant moved into its building six years ago, and Forbes helped design the children’s wing to better accommodate children with special needs.

They created the “Good News Grill” where children with disabilities can take a break from regular Sunday School classes or play as a reward for good behavior.  “We tried to make it so kids of varying abilities could use the building, could learn the truths about the Bible, the lessons of Jesus,” Forbes said.  Some kids stay in the “Good News Grill” room for all of Sunday School while others move in and out of the regular Sunday School classes. Some have volunteer buddies who follow them.

Forbes said the classrooms are flexible.  “The whole point is to adapt to the child,” Forbes said. “So many of our churches are teaching like in the ’50s, around the table with a workbook. It’s difficult to teach all kids that way.”  Sometimes it requires letting a child with autism listen to headphones or play Legos.  Forbes said it is also important for the church to provide respite for families.  “Parents need to be able to worship and learn the Bible truths themselves without having to worry about what their child is doing,” she said.

Beyond worship.  First Baptist Concord began its disabilities ministry more than 15 years ago when several special needs children outgrew their Sunday School classes.  Since then, the church has developed Sonshine Ministry, which encompasses several programs for people with disabilities.

Steve Peek, a pastor at First Baptist, said the church serves about 30 to 40 families.  “We feel we have a responsibility to minister to this group of people,” Peek said. “They are different, but in many, many ways they are the same as you and I. They need to be loved. They need to feel they make a difference.”

Every Sunday, Sonshine provides a Bible study group for adults and then they go to church with the traditional congregation at 10:30 a.m.  Peek said the group sits in its own pew. They wear name tags and pass out bulletins, bring up the offerings and usher people.  “They sit there and sing,” Peek said. “They’re listening. When the pastor asks a questions, you’ll usually hear an answer from that section.”

About 10 years ago, the church developed Helping Hands after a church member asked for help with her adult daughter, who couldn’t work.  In Helping Hands, adults with disabilities do volunteer work for the community.  Helping Hands participants, like Seyler, have to be 18 or older and function at a certain level. However, they do not have to be a member of the church.  The group meets Tuesday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to work, cook and socialize. They also go on field trips.

Computers, kitchen appliances and a handicap-accessible bathroom in the Sonshine Ministry suite were donated by church members, she said. The church was able to give the disabilities ministry its own suite when it moved to a larger facility.  The church is starting a children’s program called 4 Kids Buddies, which pairs children with special needs with a buddy during their church time.  Monetary donations have allowed Sonshine Ministry to take trips to Dollywood, make parade floats and attend a Joni and Friends Family Retreat, where Seyler shot a paintball gun and water skied.

This spring, Seyler visited Concord Christian School to teach students about people with disabilities.  “They might not be able to talk, but you can talk to them,” she tells student.

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


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One Comment on “She Never Water Skied Until She Joined First Baptist”

  1. Michael De Rosa Says:

    I came across your site while searching for Disability Ministries and am amazed at all that is happening for the Kingdom of God in this area! I know that our churches still need prayer to see God’s vision for them when it comes to reaching out to the disabled community.

    My passion is to help others realize the stigmas that have been placed on this community are not just hurtful towards those with disabilities, but for those who stereotype as it stops them from encountering some pretty wonderful people who just might be able to help them, and it blocks them from sharing the love of God to others.




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