How Community Partnerships Started For Us.


The birth of our Disability Ministry as we know it almost never happened. I think back to 2009 when I was the Family Ministry Pastor at First Christian Church in Canton, OH. God was challenging me and many on our staff at the time. We were working through Reggie McNeal’s book “The Present Future.” (This is a must read for anyone thinking about reaching their community.) We were part way through the book as a staff when I received a phone call from a friend. My friend Tom attended First Christian and worked in the community at BVR (Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation). Tom said, “Ryan I just heard of a great opportunity that you and Melissa should consider.” I was all ears! I’m always up for a good deal. Tom continued, “I know how you and your wife love baseball and the special needs community. Well… there is a league for kids with disabilities called Challenger Baseball and they need some coaches.”

This was one of those opportunities that God drops in your lap to test your faithfulness to Him. God was saying Ryan if I could shout in your ear with a megaphone and say “walk this way… here is the sign you have been waiting for all your life you just don’t know it.” Hindsight is 20/20, but the time however all I saw was an opportunity that I did not have time for. My wife and I had a 3 year old and a 1 year old at home. I was a full-time Pastor at a church that was about to fall off the cliff alongside the Great Recession, a Campus relocation, and multiple Senior Pastor transitions. My response to Tom was quick and it was clear. “Thanks but no thanks… I’m just too busy. I’m a Pastor you know…” I remember hanging up the phone and feeling that conviction in my gut. I just said no to an opportunity that lined up directly with what we were reading in Reggie McNeal’s book “The Present Future.” But due to my tunnel vision that many Pastors get stuck in I was able to block it out and keep working because Sunday is coming!

I thank God today that Tom called me back. Not long after I told him no he called back and said, “Have you given any more thought to coaching?” I knew that I could not say no this time as the Spirit worked on me. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it on one condition… My whole family coaches with me.” We were a young family but we were all feeling the tension of being torn into too many directions. Tom said yes and with that God swung open the door to what would become the greatest chapter of ministry that I have ever been a part of.

We didn’t know it but we just entered into the first step of what would become our Disability Ministry at First Christian Church.

We were the only coaches in the entire Canton Challenger Baseball League (over 200 kids) that did not have a family member or child on their team. We stuck out like a sore thumb! We heard repeatedly this question from parents, “Why are you here?” We learned quickly that the Disability Community often times is a closed community. It is a community that takes care of their own. For an outsider to break in takes an investment time. Trust must be built. Too many times people within the Disability Community have been let down and trust has been broken, especially when it comes to the local church. Our response was simple. “We just want to be a blessing, no strings attached. We want to coach so you don’t have to. We want to coach so you can just be a fan.” People were blown away and great relationships were formed over our first two seasons even though we never saw anyone come to our church.

As the Challenger Baseball League grew so did their need of fields to play on. Not only was Challenger growing but so were other Little League teams and Traveling Teams. There quickly became a shortage of fields to play on. The Challenger League simply didn’t have the resources necessary to rent fields to both play on and practice on. League leadership was talking about the field shortage one night after a game and I remember walking into the conversation and making a statement that came out of nowhere. It was one of those moments that you look back and you wonder where it came from and why I let it slip out of my mouth. I opened my big mouth and said, “What if I build you a baseball field on our church Campus?” Instantly they were ecstatic at the idea.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had never built a baseball field before. I had no money to build a baseball field. I had no building permits. I had not even asked church leadership if it was okay.  

This idea was clearly from Spirit. I quickly learned that if God ordains something He also provides a way for it to happen.

I quickly got the okay from church leadership on one condition. That condition was a big one however… I had to raise all the money. Our church had been greatly affected by the Great Recession. The drop in offering combined with the drop in attendance following a Senior Pastor transition had forced us to lay off nearly 2/3 of our staff over a period of time. We had no money to give to the project even if we wanted to fund it.

This forced me to turn to the community for help. I began writing every community agency near and far presenting the need and asking for funding. I had never written a grant before. Surprisingly I got some very quick responses. The first donor that we got to sign on and be a part of our project was The Cleveland Indians. Once I had their blessing other organizations seemed to want to get on board. We quickly raised $50,000 in less than 12 months and build a first class baseball field for Canton Challenger baseball.

This experience opened my eyes to how beneficial community partnerships can be.  We began to live on mission and God began to open doors we could have never imagined in the world of Disability Ministry. After several years of serving our community “no strings attached” we began to see families start attending our church. We didn’t have to beat anyone on the head with a Bible. Our lives were our testimony.

We got a taste of fruitful community partnerships could be and we wanted more. We began to ask the question who else could we partner with in the community? What were the greatest needs in our community? How could we make a difference? We were well aware that we didn’t have the resources we once did, but that didn’t matter. God holds all the resources. If we were able to create partnerships with other organizations possibilities could be limitless.  

We decided we would ask one simple question to community leaders. Here it is:

“What can we do to be a blessing to the community… no strings attached?”

You actually have to mean it. You can have no hidden agendas. You also cannot go into these meetings with community leaders assuming you know what the real needs of the community are. Be open to where the Spirit guides you and be obedient. Often times God create opportunities that you couldn’t have come up with on your own.

We decided the next person we needed to talk with was the Superintendent of the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Bill Green. We figured he could point us in the direction of the greatest need in the Disability Community and how we could be a blessing, no strings attached. Since our conversation with Bill Green it has been a whirl wind. God has taken us places we could have never imagined.

To find out more about the current Disability Ministry at First Christian Church in Canton, OH click here.