Special Gathering: Ministry Fills Spiritual Need for Disabled
A UMC.org Feature
By Renee Elder*
Like many Christians, Kevin Flower struggled to know how to serve God.
He longed to be a church leader, but wasn't sure how because of his disability—he is mentally challenged.
"For a long time, I just lost all hope of my dreams coming true of serving the Lord," says Flower.
Today at 30, Flower is a church deacon. He proudly takes up the offering during services and occasionally delivers the sermon for the Special Gathering, a worship ministry designed for Christians with mental disabilities.
"We believe that the church needs the gifts of all its members," says the Rev. Richard Stimson, an Assemblies of God minister who founded the Special Gathering in 1981 in Cocoa, Fla.
The Cocoa ministry, which meets in the chapel at First United Methodist Church, has almost 100 members. Some 50 area churches contribute money and in-kind donations of transportation and other services. Meanwhile, eight other Special Gathering ministries have sprung up in Florida and South Carolina including one in Walterboro, S.C., where Flower lives. Together, the ministries serve nearly 500 people.
The Special Gatherings fill a spiritual need, says the Rev. David McGaffic, pastor at First United Methodist in Cocoa.
"These are people with mental handicaps, and although some are high functioning, often they don't fit in," he says. "Here they can have the opportunity to spend time with each other and get a Christian education."
The Special Gatherings refer to themselves as "chapels" and defer to pastors of local sponsoring churches to administer sacraments such as baptism and marriage. Some Special Gatherings meet on Sunday mornings, while others choose another day or time to avoid conflict with family church attendance.
Fern Brandt, who initiated the South Carolina Special Gatherings, advises anyone considering the ministry to visit other gatherings, especially Stimson's Cocoa and Titusville congregations.
"I spent a week shadowing Richard Stimson, and it helped me so much," she says. To gain experience and practical information, Brandt also turned to community organizations and volunteered at one local agency working with the disabled.
In Walterboro, about 50 people worship on Sunday afternoons in the fellowship hall of a Lutheran church, while the Summerville, S.C., Special Gathering brings together about 30 regulars on Tuesday evenings at Bethany United Methodist Church.
Keeping the pace lively and the material simple are key considerations. "We do a lot of overhead projections so they can see the words," Brandt says. "Trouble with fine motor skills means many don't do well turning pages in a book."
Many gatherings also focus on music. The accomplished Special Gathering Choir from Cocoa, which sings from memory, has wowed congregations throughout the region.
Stimson strives to make his sermons relevant. For example, when preaching about Lot and Abraham choosing to go their separate ways, he framed it as an opportunity to reach for a challenge. "Some say it was a test, to see what Lot was made out of," Stimson says. "Lot flunked that test. He took the easy way."
He elaborated on the Bible story with a simple example.
"Even though you might be working at a part-time job, when you go to McDonald's with your parents, you expect them to pay," he told the congregation. "Yet, if we want our parents to treat us like adults, we've got to act like adults. Pick up your wallet and buy dinner for your parents sometime, and your parents are going to see you differently."
In Cocoa, before the chapel service, small groups meet for 30 minutes to discuss issues relating to the sermon.
"We use materials produced by Southern Baptists, a special education curriculum, and then we'll do our chapel program around the same topic," says Stimson, who also recommends the "Friendship" curriculum designed for people with cognitive disabilities and published by the Christian Reformed Church.
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries' Disabilities Concerns office offers resources to leaders working directly with physically and mentally challenged people.
Flower always attended traditional worship with his parents until Brandt started the Walterboro chapel in 2002.
"I listened to my pastor and Sunday school teacher, but no one really explained to me about how to study the Bible," Flower recalls. A turning point came when Brandt presented Flower with a Basic English, easy-to-read version of the Bible. "That Bible helped me considerably. I really started to understand," he says.
In addition to giving him biblical knowledge and understanding, Special Gathering has helped Flower grow socially and gain empathy for others.
"It's helped me grow as a person and as a Christian and has taught me how to interact with people," he says. "Now I know how to listen to others when they tell me their troubles instead of worrying about my own."
*Elder is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.
This resource was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church. It was originally published May 27, 2005.