Earlier this month, I participated in a well-planned training webinar called, “Faith, Spirituality and the DSP: Strategies for Promoting Meaningful Inclusion in Faith and Spiritual Communities.” It’s a bit of a mouthful, to be sure. If you wish to bypass my commentary and jump straight to watch the webinar recording, click on the image below.

Screenshot of Faith, Spirituality, and the DSP

Deborah (Debby) Fisher, Psy.D. leads the training as an independent consultant on strategic change. She is on the Executive Committee of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ Religion and Spirituality Division, who collaborated with the Direct Support Professional Interest Network on this training.

You can learn more about the AAIDD here or check out the Religion and Spirituality Division website at aaiddreligion.org for more information.

Challenges and opportunities

I was struck by Debby’s opening story about someone with an intellectual disability who attended all group choir practices at his church. This sounds wonderful until we find out that he never actually makes it to church on Sunday to participate due to staffing challenges! The team that supported him had never taken the time to find other options.

Unfortunately, this example stood out to me not because it is so paradoxical (which it is), but because it is such a common challenge working in the field of developmental disabilities. When we informally surveyed the top challenges of supporting people in their spiritual goals and desires, staffing and transportation made the top of the list.

Now, thankfully, we also have many creative DSP’s and team leaders who are willing to put in the work to find solutions despite lack of funding for additional support staff. This is not only a challenge for social service agencies, though. This is a challenge to faith communities as well. How far are we willing to go (sometimes quite literally) to make sure people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are fully included in, and have meaningful opportunities to contribute to, their community?

Meeting real need

When we talk about “need” in this context, we often focus on the needs of people with developmental disabilities. It’s true, the need is significant. Some stats Debby shared from the Collaborative on Faith and Disability:


Now, there is still a gap between the percentage of people without disabilities that say their faith is important to them and those who attend a place of worship. Not everyone who says faith is important attends religious services. The gap isn’t nearly as significant as when we consider the gap between people who experience disabilities who consider their faith to be important and those that attend places of worship, however. This implies that there are a large number of people with disabilities who would like to be more involved in faith community participation.

Most developmental service organizations, whether due to legislative requirements or genuine interest, have a commitment to some form of “holistic support” which includes meeting spiritual needs along with other areas of need. Self-determination is another significant priority that shapes spiritual engagement. In this way, then, making sure people are able to fully participate in their faith and cultural communities is a crucial priority and meets a real need.

Faith communities have needs, too!

There’s another side to this need, though, that isn’t talked about as often in developmental service settings. In an increasingly secular culture, faith communities of all traditions have challenges engaging and attracting participants. This trend isn’t confined to millennials and younger; it is observed across demographics. Research such as Joel Thiessen’s The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age or that of the Barna Research Group bear this out.

Faith communities need volunteers and committed participants. Indeed, the Flourishing Congregations Institute points to diversity and hospitality as two fundamental traits of flourishing churches.

Direct Support Professionals, then, need not feel that efforts to welcome and engage the gifts of people they support are one-sided endeavours. Certainly, faith communities may need to be reminded of the rich contribution of people with intellectual disabilities. The best way to learn this is by genuine, full inclusion of people who experience disabilities and their families. Faith communities are not immune to the instinct to marginalize people who we feel are different from us. We must remember that there are deep theological and practical reasons for faith communities to actively confront these barriers and “othering” instincts.

Strategies for inclusion

Back to the webinar. Debby highlighted a number of practical strategies for coming to understand the spiritual needs of each person DSPs support. Spiritual life must never be reduced to a checklist or something that is brought out only once a year as part of a personal plan or ISP process.


We must be clear and specific regarding responsibilities. Effective communication with everyone involved, whether the faith community, the person’s family, or the staff team goes a long way.

As part of this communication, education and raising awareness of the interests and needs of people with disabilities is key. Debby emphasizes that, as plans take place and start to be implemented we may have to

“Help [faith communities] understand that we are focusing on participation, inclusion, and belonging as a way to empower, not pity. That we want people to develop roles that make them important and valuable to communities. So we’re looking for connections, not avoidance, for support, not stigma… They have many many gifts to share.”

Finding belonging

The bulk of the webinar is only about 40 minutes, followed by time for questions and answers. it dives into the importance of accessibility and relevant issues and supports through end-of-life care with people with intellectual disabilities.

An important point that Debby makes is that we must not assume that we know what people want. She encourages DSP’s to ask the people they support – let them tell you. This is at the heart of self-directed care.

I would just add that someone “telling you” may look different depending on that person’s abilities. Some people find it much easier to communicate what they don’t like using verbal and non-verbal cues. Sometimes trial and error are necessary to find what a person is looking for. Perhaps they haven’t discovered the faith community that best meets their needs yet! Back in 2014, we highlighted a video from Mills Community Support in Almonte, Ontario about Moe and Ann finding belonging as part of a church community. It took dedication and involved visiting and reaching out various locations, but it was worth it! You can learn more and watch the video in our post, “Moe and Ann find belonging.”

Moe from "Moe and Ann find belonging"

Moe was looking for, and found, a faith community that welcomed him and his God-given gifts.

Did you watch the webinar or participate when it was live? What did you think? What strategies have you found helpful in overcoming barriers to belonging in faith community? Let us know in the comments or send us an email!

Don’t forget to check out Christian Horizons’ church engagement page and EveryBody Belongs campaign for more resources.