Baptizing a Person with a Cognitive Disability
A blog’s reader posted the following question on The Inclusive Church’s Facebook page earlier this week:
“Does anyone have good baptismal liturgy resources for people who will never be able to answer for themselves? Normally when you baptize someone who can’t answer for themselves (say, a baby), the parents or sponsors promise to raise them in the Christian faith until they can answer for themselves. But tomorrow I’m supposed to baptize an elderly woman with dementia. I’m trying to figure out the right questions to ask, and what to leave in and what to keep out.”
To answer this question, I contacted Dr. Gary Fenton, Pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Having served as a senior pastor for more than forty years, Dr. Fenton has baptized a number individuals with intellectual impairments and communication differences. Dr. Fenton answered this question from the perspective of a tradition that observes baptism as a symbolic follow-up to a person’s profession of faith. While other traditions may administer baptism (and other rituals) differently, I think Dr. Fenton’s insight can be applied across many denominations and church settings:
“Our church has and does baptize individuals with special needs. The minister baptizing the individual may adjust the language during the Baptism to ensure that the participant can understand the words and phrases they are hearing. However, we are not significantly changing our introduction or the liturgy. In addition, we do not require a public response from the individual during the baptism.
We have learned that the most important thing we can do is to make sure that the minister and the individual participating in the baptism are familiar with each other before the event. Meaningful before-hand conversation ensures the person’s understanding for their baptism. In addition, the preparation builds a sense of familiarity and comfort between the participant and the baptizing minister. Like any new experience or setting, Baptism can be a stressful event for a person with special needs. As a result, when we baptize anyone with a disability, we arrange for a friend or family member to stand in the baptismal water along with the minister. It is in these situations that we are reminded that the relationship is ultimately more important than the ritual.” – Dr. Gary Fenton
Dr. Gary Fenton is the Senior Pastor of Dawson Family of Faith in Birmingham, AL. To read more of Dr. Fenton’s own writing see his Character Path Blog. ~Yes, Dr. Fenton is my father and I’m a very proud daughter!~