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Victoria White on Inclusion in Circles of Congregations

All Belong will keep helping congregations become welcoming communities for people of all abilities, especially through its innovative Circle of Congregations for Teaching and Learning program.

Victoria “Tory” White is director of church services for All Belong, a nonprofit leader in catalyzing, creating, and maintaining inclusive communities for persons of all abilities. Based in Wyoming, Michigan, All Belong works primarily in North America, but its resources reach around the globe. White partners with All Belong’s other church consultants to share best practices for creating congregations of belonging. In this edited conversation, she discusses the future of All Belong’s Circle of Congregations now that her mentor Barbara J. Newman has died.

What has changed at All Belong since Barb Newman went home to God?

Barb Newman meeting Jesus face to face means joy, sorrow, a halting, and yet a moving forward. She spent years formulating relationships, connecting people, beginning conversations, and teaching people.

All Belong and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship have embraced ideas such as the Member Church program and Circle of Congregations. So I can say with absolute confidence that Barb’s legacy of supporting churches with best practices will continue.

Barb planted many seeds, watered them, and taught us to water them because she always wanted a team of people to do the work she was so good at. Her parting words to “go and use your gifts to serve” force us, in a good way, to step up and equip churches to welcome individuals of all abilities.

"God is not done with the work Barb was doing, even if she is. We took time to grieve the loss of our dear friend and dynamic leader, and now God is showing us the steps forward."

-Victoria White

We are launching exciting changes that Barb was eager to see happen. We pray that these changes will bless each participant and congregation in All Belong’s Member Church and Circle of Congregations programs and then spread to other congregations.

What is the difference between All Belong’s free online resources, Member Church program, and Circle of Congregations?

All Belong’s extensive website offers free resources for churches, such as a church survey, order of worship resources, handouts, videos, and COVID-19 toolkits. Any church may sign up for All Belong’s Member Church Program, which gives access to even more resources, support, consultations, online coaching, and soon Friendship Ministries curriculum. We began that program in 2019 and have more than thirty Member Churches. That same year, John Witvliet, Barb Newman, and I cooked up Circle of Congregations for Teaching and Learning, a two-year project for innovative churches to learn from and teach other.

How do the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and Circle of Congregations learn from and teach each other?

CICW hosted our first Circle gathering in November 2019, convening twenty-seven congregations at Calvin University in November 2019 for two and a half days. We learned together through breakout sessions, mealtime discussions, networking, and field trips to communities of belonging for persons of all abilities. Next we formed interest groups around topics such as ministry with adults, trauma, and challenging behaviors. Those groups were sorting out ideas and meeting monthly online when COVID interrupted life, ministry, and bandwidth. We started weekly online meetings so we could just connect and discuss life and ministry in our various locations. In those sessions, we brought in experts in trauma, challenging behaviors, and belonging.

In October 2020, we began to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts after Barb’s passing and to reimagine our interest groups. CICW helped us with our virtual Circle of Congregations gathering in November 2020 and, Lord willing, will again host us in person in October 2021. CICW provides staff support to Circle of Congregations through Satrina Reid (worship planning), Kai Ton Chau (music and Asian cultural perspectives), and María Cornou (multicultural aspects of disabilities ministries). Also, Barb Newman was a CICW program affiliate.

What are some current Circle of Congregations projects?

We still have online Member Meetups to meet needs of people in different time zones. These let congregations connect and pick up ideas from All Belong consultants, other experts, and each other. Rather than meeting as interest groups, Circle of Congregations members now join one or more collaborative projects, such as:

  • a sermon series on ten dimensions of belonging, along with study guides;
  • an online worship conference designed specifically to welcome persons with varied abilities into worship;
  • supports for inclusive worship within the cultural contexts of African American churches, Asian American churches, and Latin American churches;
  • living out one of Barb’s dreams by creating a training module to equip small groups and house churches to welcome vulnerable adults, such as adults with challenging behaviors or disabilities that require significant support;
  • studying best practices for belonging at denominational and multi-campus levels to maintain continuity among a church’s multiple campuses or a denomination’s congregations; or
  • ensuring that all the projects listed above properly address trauma and mental health challenges.

Your November 2020 virtual gathering included John Swinton, a Scottish theologian, minister, and professor who is also a registered mental health nurse.

Yes, we were honored to hear from him. John Swinton founded the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Some of us have committed to giving him feedback on his new book, Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges.

It used to be that disability access in worship focused heavily on physical access to buildings and worship spaces, and we encouraged atmospheric access—access to the conversation that is worship. John asks why mental health is not at the forefront of ministry, highlighting a role we believe is important: a mental health liaison who is familiar with resources. Barb Newman’s specialty was autism, and All Belong’s resources encompass a variety of disability topics.

It sounds so difficult, especially for small congregations with small budgets, to know how to welcome and engage worshipers of any ability or disability.

It’s best to start with who’s already there and meet the needs you already know about. Be willing to open doors to those you don’t yet know. Each church will find its niche. Some churches may develop a ministry with people who have hearing disabilities. A congregation near a counseling center may draw people with mental health challenges. Any church can use a three-step framework that doesn’t have to cost much:

  • a perspective that each person belongs and has gifts as well as struggles;
  • A desire and some strategies for all to participate; and
  • a willingness to plan around some individual needs.

Can you share an insight from your partnership with CICW so far?

CICW support for the Circle of Congregations is incredible. Their passion to see churches learn, grow, and share their learning with others is contagious. Like CICW, All Belong hopes to keep learning, innovating, and sharing practical strategies to serve and inspire ministry leaders. When congregations work together to build belonging, it creates healing that drips across denominational barriers and divides of many sorts. If we say that all belong, and if we are actively pursuing communities of belonging and how to strengthen them, it just doesn’t leave room for spats about our differences. Each embodiment of church has beauty, gifts, variety, and flavor. I’m eager to learn more about cultural contexts of how churches struggle, use gifts, and find support for including people with varied abilities.

How will Circle of Congregations share learning beyond its two-year cohort?

At our October 2021 gathering, we will present what we’ve created and describe projects that will emerge through conversations between now and then. I hope we’ll be presenting not only to our current Circle, but also to a new set of congregations. I’d love to see the Circle model continue in two-year cycles so that already-involved congregations have opportunities to teach congregations eager to learn. All Belong will also format this learning, doing, and teaching into resources to share with congregations everywhere. CICW will share the learning through its online resources and events.

LEARN MORE

Check out All Belong’s free resources for churches. Read Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges, by John Swinton. Barb Newman and Victoria White developed a three-credit online course, Disability Smart: Creating Congregations of Belonging, for Christian Leaders Institute (CLI). You can view Disability Smart course descriptions if you log in as a guest. Students who’ have taken the course have called it “life changing” and “encouraging” because of its perspective that “we all have gifts and all have areas of challenge.” CLI offers free online biblical and Christian ministry training to students around the world.

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