Faith and Flourishing: Equipping Your Church to Reach Out to People with Disabilities

The TASH Amplified logo: a line illustration of a desktop microphone with the TASH Möbius strip inlayed

Season 1, Episode 4 — 24 March 2016

About this episode

Rev. Peter McKechnie, the director of the Knoxville, Tennessee regional office of Joni and Friends, talks about his upcoming workshop at TASH’s Faith and Flourishing conference. He will talk about why faith is important to full inclusion for people with disabilities and cover the five steps congregations need to take to be equipped to evangelize to people affected by disability.

This is the first in a three-part preview of our upcoming conference, Faith and Flourishing: Embracing Inclusion for People with Disabilities, Their Families, and Congregations to be held on April 22nd in Nashville, Tennessee.

Promotional image for the TASH Nashville Faith and Flourishing Conference, the Nashville riverfront and skyline at dusk. The buildings are lit and their lights are reflected in the river.

About the presenters

Rev. Peter McKechnie has spent 15 years as a pastor in Presbyterian churches throughout the South. His first introduction to disability ministry came as a teenager volunteering for and then joining the staff of The Brookwood Community, a residential/vocational campus for adults living with disability, forty minutes outside of Houston, Texas. For the last two-and-a-half years he has lead the Knoxville office of Joni and Friends, whose mission is “…to communicate the Gospel and equip Christ-honoring churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple people affected by disability.” His workshop at the Faith and Flourishing conference will be Start With Hello! Introducing Your Church To Special Needs Ministry!

A portrait of Donald Taylor, a man with a medium smile and a mob of curly dark hair in a black collared shirt against a pattern of a blue pained wrought-iron gateDonald Taylor is the Membership Manager at TASH and the producer of Amplified.


Announcer: You’re listening to TASH Amplified, a podcast that seeks to transform research and experience concerning inclusion and equity for people with disabilities into solutions people can use in their everyday lives.

Today’s episode is the first part in a three-part preview of TASH’s upcoming conference, Faith and Flourishing: Embracing Inclusion for People with Disabilities, Their Families, and Congregations to be held on April 22nd in Nashville, Tennessee. We are talking with Rev. Peter McKechnie, the director of the Knoxville, Tennessee office of Joni and Friends. He’ll tell us about his workshop, Start With Hello! Introducing Your Church To Special Needs Ministry!

Donald Taylor: Peter McKechnie, please introduce yourself for our listeners.

Rev. Peter McKechnie: Donald, thanks for having me. I’m a second-generation ordained pastor by vocation. I’ve spent fifteen years serving the local church all throughout the South. And I’ve come on board here at Joni and Friends in Knoxville as the area director, serving this ministry for two years now.

My introduction to disability ministry actually came in high school when I volunteered at an incredible residential and vocational site thirty minutes outside of Houston called Brookwood. So I’ve always had disability ministry in my heart. I think God really gave that to me and all throughout my life, even through seminary, and like I said, through serving the church, I’ve had this magnetic draw towards folks with special needs. And so now, being called out of the church and into full time disability advocacy — it’s just been an amazing journey. And I feel like looking back on my life in the rear-view, I can obviously see where the Lord’s hands kind of led me to where I am today.

Donald Taylor: Tell us about the work you and Joni and Friends do regarding faith and people with disability.

Rev. Peter McKechnie: Joining friends really was born out of an accident. Joni Eareckson Tada (biography at Joni and Friends | Wikipedia) was 17-years-old and back in 1967 she and her sister went out to the beachhead of Chesapeake Bay and swam out to a dock. Joni climbed up — she’s vivacious, winsome, came from a very athletic family. It was just a picture-perfect July afternoon and she dove in. She dove in headfirst without checking the murky water below and she snapped her neck, floated to the top a quadriplegic and thankfully her sister was there to put her face up so she could breathe. And Joni had given her life to Christ before this event. And so the whole ministry was really born, Donald, out of the question, What now God? What in the world am I going to do now? So back in 1979 Joni and a few friends got around her kitchen table and started officially this ministry called Joni and Friends.

Our mission statement is simply “to communicate the Gospel and equip Christ-honoring Churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple people effected by disabilities.” So throughout the course of the year — and this goes across all of the 25 Joni and Friends offices, including obviously Knoxville — we do year-round disability trainings, we host quarterly disability workshops were churches doing disability or churches thinking about disability can come and share, be encouraged, enjoy best practices, challenge each other and most importantly, get their network set up to reach as many people with disabilities as they can.

Also, the 25 offices are connected to ministries outside the United States. The Knoxville office is connected to Guatemala. Every year we put together a mission trip called Wheels for the World and we collect wheelchairs here all throughout Tennessee and have them shipped to Guatemala. We populate a team of occupational and physical therapists and mechanics here in the States. And then we go over every October, meet our in-country partners and — Donald we look like a rock band on tour — but we caravan out into the country side of Guatemala and over the course of the week we do three different wheelchair distributions. And we not only give away the free gift of mobility, but we also partner with local pastors in-country to present the Gospel. And last October, 2015, we custom fit 221 wheelchairs — that’s pediatric to geriatric. We saw 47 folks accept Christ as Lord and Savior. And we hosted our first ever disability conference where 72 pastors and lay leaders from local area churches came. And we just had a day of talking about why disability ministry is so important.

But we also do an incredible family retreat. Ours is going to be in Dayton, Tennessee in late July. And we welcome in families with disabilities. And it’s the only camp that we know of, Donald, that welcomes in the entire family. It’s not just for the child or individual with a disability, but for the sibling, for the mom or the step-mom, the dad or the step-dad — however that family is fashioned: we put on camp for them. So that when that week is done they can then return to their community, looking for opportunity to to grow in their faith, to give away a renewed sense of peace, a renewed sense of faith a renewed sense of family. So those are the ways that we always, always work, day in and day out to to really come alongside the church.

Donald Taylor: Share with us a little bit about what you’ll be talking about at the Faith and Flourishing conference.

Rev. Peter McKechnie: And I’m super-excited to be asked to be leading a workshop on how to start a disability ministry in the local congregation that really goes back to why we exist: equipping the local church. The title for the workshop itself is called Start With Hello! Introducing Your Church to Special Needs Ministry. It’s really going over five steps that all of us can kind of work through. And it’s not rocket science; there’s no magical incantation that gets it all done; we don’t have a one-size-fits-all recipe. But what I’m going to be talking about is five things: asking, listening, planning, training and launching disability ministry.

You know, there are only two things that people with disability want out of a church: accessibility and acceptance. And I think if the local church will open its arms and go back to its own mission statement they will quickly see that people with disability are within that mission statement already.

Joni and Friends as an organization just launched an incredible new website called I hope all your listeners will go to that website today and have a look. I’ll certainly be talking more about it at the TASH conference in Nashville. But what we’ve done is create a web-based resource for churches all over the world which really highlights best practices in local churches, it has wonderful, fresh and free resources, whether that academic or study guides or even forms that a church can download and use their local congregation. It’s really a way to network everybody, not only in the United States but across the world, to come together and have a place where folks can learn, hey, I’m doing disability: I want to do better; or, you know, I’m a congregation that’s just thinking about it and, frankly, it makes me nervous; how do I start?

And like I said, really going through these five steps:

  1. Asking God, asking the leadership, asking families with disabilities: what do you need out of the local church? What can we be doing?
  2. And then listening: listening to the leadership of the local church.
  3. And then planning. Planning small. What can we do as a local church? What are we set up to do? What’s our unique flavor in our community?
  4. And then of course training: training, training, training. You can never get enough of training our volunteers, training the leadership of the church. But also training the congregation to be open to people with disability.
  5. And then of course launching. And having a plan. Having a sense of metrics and understanding for how we’re doing.

So that would be the workshop. I hope we can get done in an hour, but I’m very excited about.

Donald Taylor: Why is it important for people to consider faith when dealing with disability rights and inclusion?

Rev. Peter McKechnie: Donald, I believe we’re not just human beings having a spiritual experience here on planet Earth: I really believe that we are spiritual beings having a human moment. And it’s my theology that says that all of us are born body, mind and spirit. And I think that dignity is for everyone; I think that rights are for everyone, particularly people with a disability.

In the USA Today of Friday, July 31st of this last summer there was a wonderful article [Jennifer Calfas, “CDC: 1 in 5 American Adults Live with a Disability“, USA Today, 31 July 2015] that said 1 in 5 U.S. adults has a disability — 1 in 5! And the C.D.C., the Centers for Disease Control, came out with some really amazing data that really was in tandem with the 25th anniversary of the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the study says that the vast majority of people — adults, just adults — with disability live in the southern states: Alabama, number one; Mississippi; and then, you guessed it: Tennessee: 31.4 percent of the population of Tennessee has a disability. So when we talk about legislation, when we talk about accessibility, it’s very important that that we look at the whole person, again not just body, but mind and spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit works through not only the church, but as the Bible tells us, it blows where it wills. So I believe that anything put to paper that would advance and include people with disability has a touch of holiness to it.

You know, our whole ministry really got started in looking at scripture. And Luke 14, the parable of the servant and the master and the banquet is key for us. In that parable Christ, who plays a role of the master puts on this incredible banquet, as you may recall. And he tells his servant, look, I want you to go and invite all these good folks and in short order the servant comes back and the RSVPs are in the negative column and the servant relays all the reasons why these people can’t come. And then Jesus, as a master of the banquet, says, now go out again; I want you to go into the alleyways; I want you to go to the byways and the highways; and I want you to go quickly. And I want you to compel. And then, if you read the scripture you see that Jesus actually lists out a couple of key disabilities. Compel these people with disabilities, he says. And then he says, fill my house. And at Joni and Friends we really see Luke 14 as the lost commission. That Jesus’s full kingdom is not complete — incomplete — until people with disabilities are welcomed and included and involved and equal in the body of Christ, the local congregation.

Donald Taylor: Peter McKechnie, this has been a great preview of your upcoming presentation. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. About what you’ll be doing, come April

Rev. Peter McKechnie: Thank you I’m excited for what TASH is about and excited to be part of that great community.

Announcer: You have been listening to TASH Amplified. For more about the series, including show notes, links to articles discussed, a complete transcript and a schedule of episodes updated as they become available, visit You can subscribe through iTunes or your favorite Android podcast app to have the series delivered automatically to your device so you never miss an episode. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please leave a rating for us on our iTunes page.

Our three-part series in anticipation of our Faith and Flourishing conference will continue next week with Amy Fenton Lee discussing what faith leaders and families of people with disabilities should know about each other and how to repair relationships that got off to a wrong start. We will conclude in two weeks with Bill Gaventa talking on how congregations can support their members with disabilities beyond Sunday mornings. You can learn more about these three workshops featured in Amplified, plus the eleven additional workshops of the full Faith and Flourishing conference, and register to attend at TASH thanks the following partners for their sponsorship of the Faith and Flourishing conference: The Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Anthem, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and SRVS.

TASH is a values and research-based advocacy association located in Washington, D.C., with local chapters coving 18 states. In 2015 we celebrated our 40th anniversary. We offer organization, advocacy, collaboration, scholarship and education for people with disabilities, researchers, educators, service providers and family members. In addition to this podcast series, we offer a scholarly quarterly, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, a popular magazine, Connections, a series of conferences. You can learn more about TASH at You can receive updates from TASH on this podcast and our other activities by following us on Facebook or on twitter at @TASHtweet.

This has been a sample of the colleagues and conversations available through TASH. It is only because of the excellent work that our members do that we can bring you this information. For more resources such as this and to become a member, visit

We’ll hear from another outstanding advocate again in two weeks.

This interview was originally recorded on 18 March 2016.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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