For Ashley Belknap, life’s pieces had fallen neatly into place. As a young woman, she had clearly discerned God’s call, which meant she knew who she was, why she was here, and how she fit in God’s big-picture plan.

While still in college, Belknap felt drawn to women’s ministry — to disciple the church’s moms, daughters, sisters, and aunts; to blend theology into the everyday lives of godly women. Year by year, God opened doors, blessed her ministry, and showered her with affirmation. She served as the director of women’s ministry at First Presbyterian in Jackson, Mississippi, led Bible studies, spoke at conferences, participated in panel discussions, and met gifted people — including Steph Hubach, director of MNA’s special needs ministry.

The biggest challenge isn’t programs, she explains, it’s relationships. So often, families with disabilities are isolated. So the biggest gift a congregation can give is friendship.

The two women became friends. They traded ideas and brainstormed together. They visited in one another’s homes. So naturally, when Belknap’s son, Griffin, was diagnosed with autism, Hubach was her first call. “Steph walked with us through the early years,” Belknap says.

After Griffin’s arrival, the Belknaps retreated from church activities. Ashley and her husband, John, needed time, and they needed to figure out how to live with circumstances they never expected. “But Steph assured us that God wasn’t through using us,” Belknap says. “She knew that this was only a pause.” And that it came as part of God’s plan and loving purpose.

Gaining Insight and Empathy

Belknap is well-educated and possesses wisdom beyond her years, but there was plenty she didn’t know about disability.

She now admits that before Griffin was born, “I may have had the assumption that families whose lives were touched by disabilities just weren’t trying hard enough.” She had noticed how they disappeared from the church services and weren’t involved in midweek activities. They just didn’t seem committed. “But now, our foundation was rocked. We were that family. Suddenly, we were ushered to the fringe.”

But Ashley and John wanted back into the life of the church. They wanted to teach Sunday school classes, go to picnics, and be there for the suppers, classes, and conferences. Yet, they were crashing head-on into every obstacle that keeps families like theirs on the sidelines.

New Calls and Fresh Directions

As the Belknaps recalibrated their lives, Hubach heard the first murmurs of a new call. After 10 years in disability ministry, Hubach sensed God leading her to explore deeper — researching, writing, and speaking more broadly about the intersection of faith and disability. But she couldn’t abandon the ministry she founded. She prayed for a qualified and trusted successor. Belknap appeared to be God’s clear answer.

Looking back, God’s providence couldn’t be clearer, Belknap says. “John and I were unexpectedly thrown into the life of disability. We came to understand what loving parents were going through. We learned how churches struggle to enfold members with disabilities.” When God called John and Ashley to be Griffin’s parents, He called them down a surprising new path.

The Next Faithful Step 

Belknap estimates that roughly 9 percent of PCA churches have a disability ministry; some are to one family, some are to 20 families. About half of the 9 percent, she believes, minister only to children. “So, there’s room for growth,” she says. “The fact is, every PCA church has someone who’s been touched by disability.”

Even so, pastors and pew-sitters should know that you don’t “overcome” this problem. “You can’t solve disability,” Belknap says. “There is no formula.” When Presbyterians know what to do, they act; they can manage an orderly process. But with disability, the needs of every family are different, and those needs change day by day.

Belknap is quick to point out that nobody needs a guilt trip. “We simply need to find the next faithful step. We want to start with the families who are in the congregation. Let’s start with their needs and talk about how the church can accommodate them.” Belknap insists that churches don’t need another silo of new programs. It’s simply about weaving one or two members into the life of the church — figuring out how to include them in worship, discipleship, and fellowship.

The biggest challenge isn’t programs, she explains, it’s relationships. So often, families with disabilities are isolated. So the biggest gift a congregation can give is friendship.

Belknap is thrilled when another child greets her son — especially, she says, when they’re friends and the relationship develops naturally. “When you see that, you see body life in a new way. For most moms, a hug is just a hug,” Belknap says. “But when your precious son is so different, a hug brings you to tears.”

To learn more about the Engaging Disability Ministry, visit  pcamna.org/engaging-disability. If you’d like to contact Ashley Belknap, email her at abelknap@pcanet.org.

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