Big Questions

Just listen: Joni and Friends

Posted May 14, 2024

by Margaret Fipps

Joni Eareckson Tada founded Joni and Friends in 1979. Photo courtesy of Joni and Friends’ website.

A ministry that reaches out to people with disabilities, Joni and Friends began not with triumph, but with tragedy. At the age of 17, Joni Eareckson Tada dove into Chesapeake Bay and injured her spine, forever altering her physical life and emerging from the water with a ministry life that continues to this day.

Soon after, Tada appeared on the Today Show, inspiring many with her story, according to the Joni and Friends’ website. This prompted dozens of responses from other people with disabilities.

“Joni and her friends were sitting around the table, writing responses to people who were writing to her, saying, ‘I need hope. I need help,’” said Wally Ziolo, a ministry relations manager for the Ohio region of Joni and Friends.

As Tada realized the need, the ministry grew, eventually extending through the United States and around the world, according to their website. One of Joni and Friends’ primary missions is to equip the Church with resources to create disability ministries.

Ziolo’s role is to meet with churches, train volunteers and provide respite to families serving their disabled family members daily, he said.

“Unfortunately, in our world, families say, ‘We were asked to leave a church,’” Ziolo said. “They were too messy, too noisy, too this, too that.”

Often, a church’s mission statement incorporates some variation on the theme ‘open to all,’ or ‘welcoming family.’ However, Ziolo said most church members do not understand the invisible barriers for people with disabilities and, consequently, fail to uphold their statements of inclusivity.

“Families are looking for that heart,” Ziolo said. “It shouldn’t be, ‘You're down the hall. You're separated out.’ It should be, ‘Come, and be a part of this whole body.’”

Inclusion does not necessarily translate into pouring money into an entirely new disability ministry, Ziolo said. Ministering to those with disabilities starts with listening.

“We encourage the church to start with hello, then, have a conversation with the individuals of the family that's coming into the church,” Ziolo said. “What are their needs? How can we best meet your needs? What kind of accommodation do you need?”

Ziolo comes alongside church leaders to provide training for disability ministry volunteers, he said. His training sessions often result in paradigm shifts, opening people’s eyes to the different needs of the people around them.

Ziolo described a church in Pittsburgh that recently attended his disability etiquette training.

“Members of that church have been there for a long time,” Ziolo said. “They were not aware of one lady who sat on the right side of the church because she heard out of her left ear, not her right ear. People were blown away. So, by talking about disability, you realize there are needs in everybody.”

The keys to a thriving disability ministry at a church are the keys to any thriving ministry: a heart to know people and serve accordingly, Ziolo said.

“It could be as simple as having some sensory items or maybe a space where if somebody's having a behavioral issue they can step out of the sanctuary and go to a room beside the sanctuary,” Ziolo said. “It's looking at these unique ways to meet the needs without going out of your way to add a whole lot of expense to the church.”

Joni and Friends also provide respite care to families living with disabilities through family retreats, a week tailored to alleviate the stress points of daily care for their loved ones with disabilities, Ziolo said.

Family life retreats provide respite for families and fun for everyone. Photo courtesy of Joni and Friends’ website

“The dads get to go to a cookout and play games and eat steak and hang out with other dads — and know that they're not alone in leading their families,” Ziolo said. “We give the moms a pampering day where they’re loved on and their nails are done and their feet are rubbed, and it just relaxes them.”

Often, Joni and Friends’ camps and church ministries go hand in hand. Ziolo said a church he partners with in Kent is a great example of taking the principles of disability ministry and integrating them into their church’s identity.

“At Joni and Friends, we like to model disability ministry so other people can replicate it — and that's exactly what happened at this church,” Ziolo said. “Many of the families that they served at the family retreat are attending their church, and they've gone a step further and offer respite events once a month on the weekend, so that the mom and the dad can take a break.”

Joni and Friends emphasize whole family support, something Ziolo said is often neglected by churches.

“To gain trust is to show that your statement of faith is exactly what you're portraying to the families,” Ziolo said. “If you expose your heart, then they're going to trust you, and they're going to feel like a part of that body.”

To include people with disabilities, they must thrive in all functions of the church, including serving, according to Joni and Friends’ website. A ministry to people with disabilities can start small; all the church must do is listen.

“Are they welcomed into the body of Christ to fully contribute with each person's God given gift, and are they able to utilize those gifts in the body of Christ?” Ziolo asked.

Family life retreats serve those living with disabilities, their parents, and their siblings. Photo courtesy of Joni and Friends’ website.

Renee Dollenmayer interned with Joni and Friends for three and a half years, ministering in their call center, and recently served at the Ohio office for Joni and Friends’ family life retreat. Dollenmayer lives with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

“My muscles are very, very tight,” Dollenmayer said. “If you stretch a rubber band and you have that resistance, that's how my body feels like at a resting position.”

Dollenmayer uses a power wheelchair to move and depends on part-time caregivers. However, she said the biggest way her diagnosis changed her life is how she relates to Christ.

“I really think day to day my disability makes me depend on the Lord,” Dollenmayer said. “I can't live out my calling fully if I am not depending on the one who created me.”

Dollenmayer’s calling currently is her ministry, ‘Even If,’ which she said is a community group for women living with a disability or chronic illness. She ministers with women around the world and gets to hear their stories of redemption through disability and pain.

“For all of us, the most broken parts of our story and the things that we often want to run from are the very things we look back on and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that was so crucial to my walk with Jesus,’” Dollenmayer said. “I always say my disability is my healing because although I'm not physically healed, it healed my heart and it led me to the cross.”

As Dollenmayer moved in Christian circles, at conferences, concerts and churches, she often encountered invisible barriers in even the most welcoming environments. She pointed out that people often emphasized her disability as a problem to be fixed.

At a concert, Dollenmayer said a lady walked up to her and said “Wouldn’t it be so cool if you got up and walked in front of everyone?” Dollenmayer said it was uncomfortable, but she tried to shift the conversation.

“I also want to tell (her) my story and explain to (her) how the Lord has worked through this,” Dollenmayer said. “The whole time she just stared at my legs, and then when I was done talking she looked me in the eyes and she said ‘Well, let me pray for you to walk.’”

Dollenmayer said she felt frustrated.

“Did you just miss everything I just told you?”

Dollenmayer said this is just one of many invisible barriers that people living with disabilities face.

“Our churches in 2024 have become very production-based at times in the sense of the big lights, the sound, all of those things,” Dollenmayer said. “What we do have to keep in mind is people with autism or people with epilepsy, those can truly affect their experience. It is unsafe for some people.”

She said that even missing pieces from the stage can send a message to those in your congregation.

“A lot of churches that I've either spoken at or been in contact with don't have a ramp or an accessible way to get onto their stage to speak,” Dollenmayer said. “Right there, that is signaling the message that disabled people aren't worthy or welcome to preach the word of God.”

In her time at her local church, Dollenmayer observed slow changes over the years, celebrating automatic door openers or more awareness from the staff. However, she said there are even more ways for churches to serve people living with disabilities.

“The next step is, once a year, having churches hire someone with a disability who loves Jesus to come in and speak on the biblical truth of disability,” Dollenmayer said. “ If you're hearing it from a pastor who is not disabled themselves, they're only going to be able to share what they know.”

Dollenmayer distills her perspective to this.

“If we believe as Christians that every single human life is made in the image of God, then why aren't we living that out with the people we serve?” Dollenmeyer said. “If we’re saying every life is valuable, but we're not making our churches accessible, then we're missing the mark.”

Margaret Fipps is a junior Journalism student at Cedarville University and the editor-in-chief of Cedars Magazine. As a journalist, she wants to revive beautiful writing with a purpose: to engage communities in conversations with each other. As a former pastor's kid, she deeply cares for The Church and loves seeing Jesus proclaimed through his bride.