By / Apr 19

Ten years ago, we sat in child-sized chairs in a storage room/office at the elementary school across the street from where we lived in Pennsylvania and heard these words from a psychologist, “We believe your son has autism.” We had walked in that morning knowing something was different about James, and we walked out with a diagnosis, a binder of resources, and the promise someone would call with our next steps. 

I wasn’t new to the world of disability—my big sister has Down syndrome. But my experiences as a sibling and my experiences as a mom were different. Honestly, everything was different after that day. How we spent our time was different. We now had therapy appointments to go to and books to read. How we spent our money was different as we paid for behavioral therapy and occupational therapy. Our relationships with friends changed, as their kids grew and matured through stages James wouldn’t reach in the same way. Our relationships with family members changed, requiring them to adjust their plans around his needs. My plans to homeschool James changed as his preschool teacher held his hand and walked him into the big elementary school when he was just three. 

Changes to our church 

One more thing had to change—the church my husband pastored. Even though I had grown up in a church that welcomed my family and many other special needs families in our small town in Oklahoma, making accommodations and having a culture of inclusion, it hadn’t occurred to me that our church at the time of James’s diagnosis wasn’t ready to welcome special needs families. I looked around and didn’t see kids or teens on the autism spectrum, with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or any other disability. In most school districts, 13% of their student population is in special education. But that number wasn’t reflected at our church. 

In the parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14, we hear Jesus speak of another time a portion of the community was excluded. The master of the house invited many friends and neighbors to his banquet, but they had excuses about why they couldn’t come. So he instructed his servant to “‘bring in here the poor, maimed, blind, and lame.’ ‘Master,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, and there’s still room’” (vv. 21b-22, CSB). 

The master may have looked around his home, his table, and noticed who was missing, much like I did when I looked around our sanctuary the Sunday after James’ diagnosis. Kids like James were missing. Adults like my sister were missing. And our mission was clear—invite them in, and make them welcome. Then, we’ll experience the truth of what the servant told his master—when we make room for those who need accommodations, those who are often neglected, ignored, or ostracized, we realize there is room for everyone. When James pulls up a seat at the table and joins them at the banquet—when they actually see him—the entire church culture can change in miraculous ways. 

When our church sees James, they see the image of God in him, and they learn to see the image of God in everyone they meet. We once had an older church member tell us, “I was at the grocery store and saw a boy flapping like I’ve seen James do, and I knew why!” They learn, like the disciples did in John 9, that disabilities aren’t the result of sin on the part of the parents or the person with a disability. Jesus said, “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him” (v. 3b). They see the work of God through the life of James, the life of every member that makes up our church body, and the life of every person they meet in our community and beyond.

When our church sees James participate in corporate worship time and group Bible study because of the accommodations we’ve made for him, they make room for other children and teens with autism, with sensory processing disorder, and with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And as they meet his needs—as they make the gospel accessible to him—they know they can meet the needs of the 6-year-old with ADHD, the 9-year-old with visual impairment, the 15-year-old with Down syndrome, the 32-year-old with social anxiety, and the 73-year-old with dementia. 

When our church sees James use his gifts to build up the body, they know they are needed and valued too. They see the truth in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 and step into their place of service, “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different activities, but the same God works all of them in each person.” They know it isn’t just the pastor on the stage or the teachers in the classrooms who are equipped to serve, but that everyone has a role. 

And when our church takes these steps, they are able to see themselves more clearly. They don’t have to say they are doing fine Sunday after Sunday, because they see that perfection isn’t a prerequisite for belonging in our church family. They see strength, perseverance, and faith lived out right in front of them, and they ask God to produce those qualities in themselves as well. They see their need for the good news of the gospel each and every day.

I’m so thankful for how our church in Pennsylvania responded to James’ needs after his diagnosis. I’m thankful for how our church here in Texas welcomed him and our family a few years ago when my husband became the pastor, and overnight they had to build a special needs ministry. I’m thankful for the churches I communicate with each week in my role as the special needs ministry consultant for the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention. And I’m praying for the day that people with disabilities have a seat at the banquet table in every church in our world and that their absence is noticed and missed. Because when my church sees James and your church sees members with disabilities, we reflect God’s purpose for the church and the beauty of heaven.     

By / Apr 12

Lamar Hardwick was 36 years old when he discovered he was on the autism spectrum. As a pastor, his diagnosis prompted a journey of considering how the church treats its disabled members. Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion is a practical and theological exploration of the church’s responsibilities to the disabled community. Often disabled persons are overlooked, pushed away, or made to feel unwelcome. Hardwick insists that the gospel affirms God’s image in all people and offers practical strategies to build stronger faith communities that better include disabled brothers and sisters. He shared his valuable insights in the interview below. 

Disability and the Church is not only pastoral and theological, it is personal as well. Why did you decide to write it?

In December of 2014, after years of silently struggling with social anxiety, sensory processing challenges, and a host of other challenges, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s). I was 36 years old at the time of my diagnosis. Although I had already been in pastoral ministry for several years, my discovery led me to examine the difficult journey that I had into pastoral leadership and many of the ways that autism had apparently impacted my experiences with the church. I realized that among all of the success that I had experienced, there were still significant barriers that I had to overcome. A large part of my calling to serve the church is to help the church understand how it can become more accepting and inclusive of the disability community, a community that is often not represented well in local churches.

What were the circumstances leading up to your autism diagnosis?

Although I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, I always knew that I was different as a child. I began to understand that there were significant differences between me and other children around the age of 7 or 8 years old. The best description that I can give is that it has always felt like the world was in on an inside joke that I didn’t understand. In 2013 when I was transitioning into a lead pastor role at a church, I hit a proverbial wall. I was really struggling with making the transition socially, and I had begun to hear stories of people reporting having negative interactions with me. 

Until that point, my ministry had primarily been serving the youth and young adults of the church. I like to joke that all teenagers are socially awkward, so socialization wasn’t as much of a struggle for me. Eventually, I had to ask myself the difficult question, “What do people experience when they experience me?” It was a tough question to ask, but I knew that I was missing something, and I needed to find the language to articulate what I had been struggling with my entire life. I would eventually seek help from a professional psychologist who would diagnose me with autism spectrum disorder.

How did your autism diagnosis impact you? How did it impact your ministry?

My autism diagnosis actually provided me with much-needed clarity as well as confidence. For the first time in my life, I understood myself in a way that made sense and that helped relieve me of the pressure to be someone that God did not create me to be. I had spent my entire life trying to be the type of person that everyone thought I should be, which was extremely difficult to maintain. When I was diagnosed, I felt a sense of relief. I finally accepted my humanity and became more confident in God’s plan for my life. I actually spent approximately two years with the therapist that diagnosed me working on unraveling the very complicated history of living so long without a diagnosis. As a result, my ministry actually begin to flourish. As time moved on, I began to gain a greater sense of what God was calling me to do in service to his church. For me, getting a formal diagnosis made my life, ministry, marriage, and parenting much more enjoyable.

You titled your introduction “A Love Letter To The Church From An Autistic Pastor.” What do you hope the church understands after reading your book? 

My prayer is that the church understands the profound love that the disability community has for the local church. The disability community has long been knocking on the church’s doors not just because we need the church, but because we love the church. 

How does the biblical theme of table fellowship speak into conversations about disability and the church?

In Luke 14, Jesus attends a dinner party where a man with a disability is also invited. Upon seeing that the party hosts only invited the man to exploit him and to trap Jesus in a Sabbath day controversy, Jesus heals the man and dismisses him from the dinner party. Jesus later tells a story at the dinner party about how to build a banquet. The banquet, or table fellowship, was an analogy for the kingdom of God. In both his address to the party hosts and in his parable, Jesus prioritizes the disability community as the community that is first invited to the table. In inviting them first, Jesus demonstrates that building his kingdom and his church begins with inviting and including this community that is often pushed out on the margins. Unfortunately, we continually build the banquet (the church) backward because we don’t prioritize the disability community first. 

What advice would you give to individuals with disabilities who would like to serve in the church?

The church has been a difficult place to navigate for disabled persons. I know this struggle well. With that in mind, I believe that persons with disabilities have incredible insight, wisdom, and gifts to offer the church, and I would encourage them to contend for their faith by finding ways to contribute those gifts. As a Christian, belonging to and serving in the church is a part of their birthright, and it is time that we help the church grow by offering our service to the church Jesus is building. It may be challenging to find just the right opportunities and location to serve, but don’t give up. The church needs you. 

How are individuals with disabilities overlooked in conversations about diversity and inclusion? How can the church amend this oversight?

The disability community is actually the largest minority group in the world. Around 20% of the world’s population identifies with some form of disability. To have a robust and honest conversation about diversity, we must turn our eyes to the largest and often marginalized minority group in the world. As the church continues to push the boundaries for becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, we need to zoom out and pay attention to a much broader definition of diversity.  If we can address the issue of disability within the diversity conversation properly, it will empower the church to become much more efficient at addressing issues of racial and ethnic diversity. 

What are ways that the church can advocate for and champion disabled persons?

I often say that you can discern an organization’s commitment to diversity by evaluating who it allows to lead. If the church truly wants to champion people with disabilities, we must become more intentional about placing disabled persons in leadership positions within our churches. Their voices will be crucial in shaping the future of our churches and will assist us with the necessary learning needed to strengthen the church’s commitment to this community. Without the voice of leaders with disabilities in the church, there will always be a void of disabled people in the church. 

What are some unique lessons the church can learn from our disabled brothers and sisters?

One of the primary images of the life of faith found in the New Testament is the image of the ongoing contest between flesh and the spirit. The Apostle Paul writes about it often. In many ways, persons living with disabilities know this contest well. Our bodies often make decisions for us that we do not choose, many times leaving us with only our faith to help us forge forward into a world that is not always accommodating or understanding of the challenges we face daily. In many ways, people with disabilities model the contest between flesh and spirit in very practical, everyday, ordinary ways. Our bodies are in constant competition with our hopes, dreams, and faith in a better, brighter future. In that reality, I believe the church can learn from the disability community about the role of faith in a Christ-follower’s life. 

You can purchase Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion here