Tag Archives: resourcing event

Creating Space for All of God’s Children

By Jerrell Williams, Associate for Leadership Cultivation

Autism specialist Stacy McGowan

On June 13 I had the opportunity to attend a workshop offered by Franconia Conference on Sensory Sensitive Sacred Spaces, resourcing people on how churches can create space for those within their congregations who have autism. The workshop was organized by Pastor Chris Nickels of Spring Mount Mennonite Church who recently completed his Master’s Thesis on this topic, in conjunction with Heather Gingrich, Children and Youth Minister at Plains Mennonite Church. Led by Autism Specialist Stacey McGowan from the North Penn School District and Candy Nixon of Joni & Friends Greater Philadelphia, we spent a lot of time not only getting facts about how autism affects the people around us, but also receiving practical tools on how our churches can become more inclusive of those who are autistic, as well as their families.

Stacey McGowan spoke first on the facts about autism and how it affects our communities. We were informed that autism now affects 1 in 88 children. McGowan also mentioned that of the children who have autism, 40% of them cannot speak. These numbers helped me to realize that autism affects more children then I had imagined. McGowan then went into detail on how autism affects each child differently. Some children have meltdowns when there is a sensory overload with noises. Some children need to have toys or blankets to keep their minds busy. Some children need to be able to see colorful visuals to learn effectively. 

McGowan also showed us several tools that she uses within her own classes. We circled around the back of the room as she passed around different items that we could use within our churches with children with autism. There was a wig for children who like to touch and pull hair. There was a weighted blanket and vest for children who like to be bundled and wrapped up. There were even items such as silly putty and slime for children to use. McGowan suggested that we create a box in the back of the sanctuary where these items could reside, for children to use .

Candy Nixon of Joni & Friends Greater Philadelphia

Candy Nixon then helped us tear down some of the common myths around children with autism. Nixon called on us to eliminate our stereotypes and to replace them with different teaching practices. She gave us more practical tools that we could use in our churches that will help to engage children on the autism spectrum. She suggested visual schedules, visual parameters, having children act out Bible stories, etc.

I am happy that I had the chance to attend this workshop. I always advocate for inclusivity within the church, but have fallen short when thinking about how to include those with disabilities. As the church, we must realize that there are those within our congregations that have disabilities that affect them in different ways. We must be open to trying new things so that they are getting the opportunity to participate in worship as well. Whether that be using better visuals while preaching or adding motions or signs while singing hymns, we must be willing to be flexible and figure out how to include all people. As Candy Nixon said, “It takes someone with a willing heart and hands who has the love of Jesus to share.” May our hearts be willing as we try to create space for all of God’s children.

Joni and Friends provided participants with a set of 10 small books to educate and aid in caring for families with disabilities. The Conference office has a limited supply available to anyone interested in having a set for your congregation. If you are interested please email office@FranconiaConference.org. These will be distributed on a first come, first served basis. The Conference will also have one set of the books in our library, available for anyone to sign out.  


Deeper Understanding Through God-Centered Decision-Making

by Bobbi Smisko, spiritual director and member of Methacton Mennonite Church

In hopes of expanding my understanding of our Anabaptist leanings in decision-making process, I attended Franconia Conference’s God-Centered Decision-Making Workshop held on April 21, 2018 at Swamp Mennonite Church. I was certainly not disappointed in the program that day. I found Sherill Hostetter to be an excellent presenter. Her information was meaty and extremely useful, her presentation was well-planned and delivered professionally, yet with a personal touch, and her use of both small group interactions and sharing in the larger group helped the attendees to discuss and practice the methods she presented.

There was a friendly buzz of conversation in the room during breaks that gave testimony to the relationship-building that was taking place. If this group of people moves into their decision-making process with the same generosity of spirit that they welcomed each other and me, a newcomer in their midst, I believe there is high hope for fruitful choices in future days. Surely, this was helped by the welcoming environment provided by the hosting congregations and the tasty snacks and delicious lunch provided by Franconia Conference.

If adopted and internalized, the material Ms. Hostetter presented will certainly help make God-centered decision-making possible. She presented such helpful information that I wish we could continue with monthly round-table discussions using her material. Not only did she talk about how to accomplish making decisions in group settings, but also she explained how folks from different backgrounds and cultures view conflict. For instance, most people do not see conflict as an opportunity but rather look at it as something to solve or manage. She pointed out that folks from some cultures come with evasive methods of interacting and others are more direct. Such differences can cause deep divisions and misunderstandings, so initially working with a group on understanding each other helps the process be more successful.

Ms. Hostetter also emphasized the fact that good planning for the decision-making process is essential for group unity, and added that unity and uniformity are two different things: unity is the Spirit among diversity (we are not all called to be alike, but we are called to be one, prays Jesus in John 17). Hostetter explained the challenge: Conflict is a visible sign of human energy. The greater the interdependence, the greater the potential for conflict; the greater the concern for inclusion in joint decision-making, the more tension is generated by the drive for harmony. For such reasons, preparation ahead of time is of great importance.

Discernment is integral to this process, so a main focus was helping people learn how to move into the spiritual practice of listening prayer. Spending time in silence and opening ourselves up to hear from God helps move people to connectedness in spirit. Ms. Hostetter suggested a book, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Factor for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton, as a resource for this practice. She suggested other spiritual practices, such as storytelling, sharing faith stories, using silent prayer throughout discernment meetings, and listening and responding to Scripture readings.  In our roundtable group sharing time, we had an opportunity to practice listening prayer and felt the move of the Spirit as we shared what we had “received” in our silent moments of being vulnerable to the voice of God. Sharing from our hearts brought a deeper level of understanding to a group of people who barely knew each other before meeting on that day. We entered the workshop as strangers and left as friends.  How could that not be good for any family, leadership group, or congregation?