Ministering to People with Disabilities and Special Needs

For there is no respect of persons with God. – Romans 2:11 (ASV)

In 2009, many people with disabilities find themselves overlooked in mainstream society.  This exclusion can even occur in the church.  However, April’s featured church, the Society for Helping Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is working to include all people in worship, especially those who have disabilities.    

Rev. Dr. Repsie Warren founded the Society for Helping Church in 1976 in her home near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Pastor Warren, who taught deaf students for over 30 years, realized that this population was often excluded from worship experiences and church activities.  While some churches used sign language in worship, she knew of no church that actively incorporated deaf people into the entire worship service.  Therefore, Pastor Warren sought to include deaf members throughout the worship service.  At Society for Helping, both deaf and hearing members serve on the church’s diacorette (deacon board), as lay leaders, and as choir members. 

In addition to including deaf members in worship services, Society for Helping provides educational opportunities for its members, including Sunday School classes, sign language classes, and summer enrichment programs for the deaf and hearing.  Deaf parishioners serve as teachers and aides, and deaf students are mainstreamed into classes with hearing students. 

The Society for Helping Church does not limit its ministry to members of the church.  Pastor Warren and the church have been influential in acquiring sign language interpreters for other churches.  The church’s deaf choir ministers at events throughout the community.  Also, the church participates in disability outreach programs, with members of the church volunteering to help others in the community that have disabilities. 

While Society for Helping has received grants and donations, the church operates primarily from tithes and offerings.  Moreover, many of the church’s programs are run with the help of volunteers both within the church and from the community.     

The Society for Helping Church has lived up to its motto, “Doing what we are saying; saying what we are doing—HELPING” for over 30 years.  This mid-size church with a BIG IDEA is faithfully living out its call to help people with disabilities.

If your church or community is interested in developing or expanding programs that assist people with special needs, the following national and community organizations may assist with your project:

  • Aging and Disability Resource Center Locator
    List of locations by state

  • American Association of People with Disabilities Interfaith Initiatives
    Ginny Thornburgh, Director>
    (202) 457-0046 ext. 34

  • FISA Foundation
    Grants for People with Disabilities
    (412) 456-5550

  • Joni and Friends International Disability Center
    (818) 707-5664
    TTY:  (818) 707-9707

  • National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
    TTY: 1-800-437-0833

  • US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Disability
    (202) 401-5844
    TTY: (202) 205-8280

  • Churches with special needs or disability programs:

  • Society for Helping Church
    1323 W. Susquehanna Avenue
    Philadelphia, PA 19122
    (215) 236-1250
    TTY (215) 236-4414
    Pastor Repsie Warren

  • Beltway Church of Christ
    6000 Davis Boulevard
    Camp Springs, MD 20746
    (301) 423-2320
    Pastor Varner Webb

  • First Baptist Church, Inc.
    4000 Wallace Road
    North Brentwood, MD 20722
    (301) 277-4742
    Pastor Perry A. Smith, III
  • Books

  • The Church and the Exceptional Person by Earl Palmer
  • Creating the Caring Congregation:  Guidelines for Ministering with the Handicapped by Harold Wilke
  • Disability Advocacy Among Religious Organizations:  Histories and Reflections byAlbert A. Herzog
  • Missing Persons:  Ministry with Persons Who Have Special Needs by Oliver Ohsberg
  • New Roads to Faith:  Black Perspectives in Church Education by James Jones
  • A Service of Worship for Access Sunday by Jan Robitscher
  • Sustaining Presence:  A Model of Caring by People of Faith by Earle E. Shelp and Ronald H. Sunderland
  • That All May Worship:  An Interfaith Handbook to Assist Congregation in Welcoming People With Disabilities –Produced by the Religion and Disability Office of the National Organization on Disability


    2013 Units