Karen Roberts on Moving from Inclusion to Belonging
First Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Illinois, is on a journey from being a congregation that includes people with disabilities to becoming a place where people of all abilities belong. A sermon series on the ten dimensions of belonging helped them take another step.
Karen Roberts is pastor of disability at First Presbyterian Church in Aurora (metro Chicago), Illinois. The congregation is a member church of the Circle of Congregations, a program of All Belong, a nonprofit catalyzer for inclusive Christ-centered communities. Before that, she served for eight years as academic studies and church engagement manager at Joni and Friends Chicago. In this edited conversation, Roberts describes a sermon series on belonging that she developed with All Belong peers.
What life experiences prepared you to help First Pres become, as your All Belong sermon series post says, "a church where people of all abilities belong, worship and serve together"?
Decades ago, I earned a master's degree in music education for special learners. After completing a doctorate degree in worship studies, I taught in the areas of worship and theology as an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary and Northern Seminary, where I got my master's in worship studies. Disability was always part of my ministry but not my special focus until my job at Joni and Friends Chicago. A Joni and Friends family retreat helped me experience the body of Christ in a way I never had. Shortly after that experience, I joined their staff, where I wrote curriculum, led trainings, and taught online to equip and connect churches with disability ministries and institutions with academic courses that formally included disability. Several trips to Ethiopia to train pastors opened my eyes to how hearts change when pastors see what the Bible says—that people with disabilities are on God's heart.
My work with Joni and Friends brought me into collaboration with the late Barbara J. Newman and All Belong. Barb and I did two accessible worship symposiums, a collaboration among Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, All Belong, and Joni and Friends Chicago. I spoke on a universal design panel at the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
Has your view of disability ministry changed over the years?
Yes. I've shifted from ministry "to" (inclusion) to ministry "with" (belonging). I lead the disability ministry of my church with the end goal of belonging in mind. That shift in perspective impacts not only people with disabilities, but the whole church. I believe this is a movement of the Holy Spirit taking place in many churches and ministries in recent years. Our congregation is on this same journey from inclusion to belonging.
Can you describe the ability spectrum in your congregation?
Our congregation of 300 people includes children and adults with a wide range of disabilities, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, and cognitive, physical, and mental health issues, such as anxiety. We have a good team of buddies who come alongside children as they participate in worship and Sunday school. We also have 20 very involved adults with disabilities. Though some have physical disabilities, many have cognitive disabilities. Because they are active in our Friendship Bible Club, they've helped us meet people from group homes.
Before the pandemic, we had 30 to 50 individuals coming to Friendship Bible Club. We began to realize that many adults with disabilities in our community do not have a church home. Our church could be that place of belonging. Yet, although our Friendship Bible Club is a wonderful ministry, we wanted to find ways that people with disabilities could be more a part of congregational life and worship. We've also been talking with our deacons about how to identify and respond to age-related disabilities.
What does belonging look like in worship?
In February 2020, before the pandemic lockdown, our congregation experienced “All Belong worship” at our morning worship services. The service was led by people of varying abilities, according to their giftedness and what they enjoy in worship. We included songs led by our regular choir combined with Friendship vocalists. Friendship autoharp players led worship with guitarist and keyboard players from our worship team. We gave opportunities for those who enjoy proclaiming scripture. Individuals who enjoy using ASL (American Sign Language) led the congregation by signing as the congregation sang.
The director of worship remarked after these services that he'd like to see people of varied abilities participating and leading worship as a consistent part of our worship. It was a taste of what we hope will happen on a regular basis.
Why did First Pres decide to do a seven-week "The Family Table: the Place We All Belong" sermon series?
In April 2020 I participated in an online conversation of the Circle of Congregations. Dr. Erik W. Carter, an All Belong board member, shared how his research revealed that people with disabilities and their families identified ten dimensions of belonging in community: being present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed, and loved. Erik’s presentation struck a chord with me. As I was listening to him, I started thinking of scripture passages that correlate with each dimension. The idea for a sermon series was birthed from that conversation. A sermon series would engage the entire congregation.
I shared the vision for the sermon series with Barb Newman and Victoria White, now All Belong's director of church services. They both were interested and supportive. Next I called Erik Carter to explore this new collaboration between my church and All Belong incorporating the ten dimensions of belonging into a sermon series. I then shared the sermon series vision with our senior pastor, Jeff Moore, who enthusiastically embraced the idea. He had traveled with me to Ethiopia so had seen how people respond to the biblical case for belonging.
How did you frame the series so it wouldn't get dismissed as seven weeks devoted to disability, which some people see as a side issue?
The aspect of belonging is universal to the Christian experience, similar to the question of why God allows suffering. Sermons about belonging and suffering speak to families that live with disability—but everyone can relate. It's an example of universal design learning.
Our senior pastor had the idea of putting his family dining room table on the platform during the series. It has been in their family for generations. It was set with their family's dishware and table linens and served as a visual reminder that we are all invited to the heavenly banquet. We led parts of worship, including monthly communion, from that table.
Did you preach all seven sermons in the series?
This sermon series was intended to help our whole congregation take the next step on the journey to being a church where all belong—and our whole staff supports that goal. So our senior pastor preached four times; our associate preached once; and I preached twice. Having multiple pastors preach during the series helped the congregation see this as a topic important to everyone instead of just Pastor Karen's area of ministry.
How did your congregation respond to the series?
I often find that resistance to universal welcome, inclusion, and belonging is just because of fear and lack of experience. We did the sermon series online because of the pandemic. The worship services included videos of scripture proclamation and stories by people with varied abilities. People told me they found the videos helpful. One person said, "Her physical appearance was probably a barrier for me, but now that I've seen her speak, I think I'd like to get to know her."
Thanks to the family table image—and leading communion from that table—we think our church has a deeper perspective of what it means to set the table and invite people to God's heavenly banquet. We're also talking more about practical physical access to communion, such as having a gluten free option or distributing the elements to individuals who aren't able to come forward to receive the sacrament.
How was Circle of Congregations involved in developing the sermon series?
The Circle of Congregations has been involved from the beginning. As our church developed the series, the Circle provided feedback on the sermon outlines. They have provided valuable input on what this series might look like in their own congregations and strategies to bring this series to pastors and worship leaders. They're also giving me ideas for an accompanying study guide I'm writing.
What do you hope will happen because of the sermon series and study guide?
So far, this series has only been presented at my church. Our next step will be to pilot this series in other churches. We look forward to seeing how God uniquely leads each church to present this series. We will learn from one another. My accompanying study guide will include elements to use with children, youth groups, and adult small groups of varied abilities.
My hope is that through this series other congregations will grow in their awareness and understanding of what it means for the Church to be the place we all belong. God created each person to be in relationship with him and then with one another. The desire for belonging is universal. Our welcome to others begins with God’s welcome to us.
Watch First Pres Aurora's seven-week series, "The Family Table: the Place We All Belong." Use All Belong's belonging worship resources to develop your own series or a stand-alone worship service. Learn how to use the concepts of vertical habits and universal design in inclusive worship.