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Disability Workshop for Adults: Engaging the Images We Use in Worship
Disability Workshop for Adults: Engaging the Images We Use in Worship
Disability & Accessibility

Workshop Overview


Music Committee, Worship Committee, Worship Associates, Minister, Religious Educators


Twenty years ago, when we confronted images in our hymns that left out people with certain perceived identities, we wrote those images out of the hymnal.  That was not without controversy.  And, it infringed on the intellectual property of the composer.

Today we have learned from that experience.  We have also learned that the more included a historically marginalized group of people are in the life of the congregation, the more credible the assertion that an image is “just a metaphor.”

This workshop seeks to engage those who plan and deliver worship services in conversation about the images that we use.

Goals and Learning Objectives

  • To raise consciousness about the power of images; learning to unpack what assumptions are bundled with our images.
  • To examine how images include/exclude:  “othering” people.
  • To recognize ways to have helpful, not hurtful, conversations.  When is “it’s just a metaphor” not helpful/not very true?
  • To reflect on how our congregation will engage in this examination of images.  The point isn’t about throwing out or rewriting our favorite hymns.


You will need a chalice, a flipchart and markers or other way to post for the group, and copies of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, if possible.

Parts of this workshop are designed for journaling.  Provide paper for participants.  Also, provide a journaling alternative—a quiet space where someone may dictate if they have their own technology or to dictate in confidence to a facilitator, for example.


  • Suggested Reading
  • Read the workshop plan and explore the suggested readings.  Decide how you might want to alter or augment the workshop.
  • Activity 1 is similar to, but not the same as, Activity 1 in the workshop Making Meaning of Disability.  Be mindful to distinguish that the journaling exercise is about an experience of non-inclusion (exclusion), while the dyad exercise is about inclusion.
  • For Activity 2, decide if and how to use the exercise on images of God.
  • Post the prompts for the activities on newsprint or slides.
  • You may want to make a handout of additional resources for people who want to do independent reading after the workshop, and/or email the additional resources to interested participants.

Preparation:  Read the Handout Extending the Conversation

This workshop uses worship as the context to frame the discussion.  In addition to the worship planning team, those who plan and deliver religious education programming and those who produce publicity and communication materials frequently use images and metaphors in their work for the congregation. 

In addition to the groups’ observations, consider using some of these questions to fuel conversation and/or create your own:

  • What might becoming a Disability/Ability Action Certified Congregation mean for the worship life of our congregation?
  • What calls us to do this work?
  • Was there something that came up in the workshop that made you uncomfortable?  That you thought might make “someone” uncomfortable?  What does it mean for us as a congregation to embrace discomfort?

Spiritual Preparation

Set aside time for journaling, reflection, or other form of contemplation, using the following focus questions:

  • Consider a time when you felt excluded.  What was the feeling like?  How did you respond to the feeling?
  • Consider your own reaction to exclusionary metaphors and images.  What images do you tend to respond to as “just a metaphor”?  What images have left you feeling excluded?  How do you respond when you realize you have used an image or metaphor that is exclusionary or reinforces a negative stereotype?
  • There may be varying levels of experience and comfort talking about identity, stereotypes, and exclusion among the participants.  Do what you can to prepare so that you can allow discomfort in the room.

Workshop Plan

Welcoming and Entering

Chalice Lighting

We kindle this light in the chalice of our community, that all may worship here.

Opening Reading

Introduce this workshop with the following fable from Aesop about perceptions and images.  Explain we will be exploring these ideas in this workshop.

Two travelers, walking in the noonday sun, sought the shade of a widespreading tree to rest.  As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a Plane Tree.

“How useless is the Plane!” said one of them.  “It bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves.”

“Ungrateful creatures!” said a voice from the Plane Tree.  “You lie here in my cooling shade, and yet you say I am useless!  Thus ungratefully, O Jupiter, do people receive their blessings!”

Moral:  Our best blessings are often the least appreciated.


Activity 1:  Being “Other” (25 minutes)

Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

Sometimes the gifts we bring may go unrecognized or unappreciated, like the plane tree.  We don’t fit the model.  Often when someone doesn’t fit it, most people don’t notice.  Or pretend not to notice.

Invite the participants to think of times in their life when they felt not included, apart from the group, uncomfortable in a community.  What in their experience signaled to them that they were not included?  Invite them to write or draw in their journal; provide a journaling alternative.  Allow 10 minutes for reflection and journaling.

Post the following prompt:

  • When you felt not included, what cues did you notice from other people?

Ask the group to respond and record their comments

Post the following prompt:

  • “I know I am included when…”

Invite the participants to turn to someone near them and respond to the new prompt.  Allow 8 minutes for discussion.

Gather the larger group together again.  Ask them to discuss the difference in feeling between included and excluded.

Activity 2:  Metaphors and Exclusion (40 minutes)

Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

Images matter in worship; they convey bundles of meaning, evoke responses, and are often remembered.  We use images for the divine, for what is sacred.  We use images for what it means to be human.  We use images for justice and for freedom and for what is valuable. 

If God images in general are problematic in the congregation, consider skipping this exercise.

When we use images for the divine, we are intentionally gender-inclusive.  When we started doing that, we also broadened the attributes ascribed to God.

If you have enough copies of Singing the Living Tradition, ask participants to turn to #23, “Bring Many Names” as an example.

Ask participants to consider other ways to re-image God, by asking the following:

  • If we are all made in the image of God, then God is blind and deaf, quadriplegic, with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, just to name a few.  What might it be like to use images of a powerful and disabled God?  What attributes of the divine might this highlight?

Introduce the next exercise on unpacking images and metaphors with the following or similar words:

In our culture, disability evokes images of weakness, incompetence, dependence, and suffering.  The names and descriptions of physical or mental disability are ubiquitous as metaphors for what is evil or bad or ineffective.  For example, we equate an unwillingness to listen with being deaf, a lack of compassion with being blind, a lack of resolve with being paralyzed, and a point of view contrary to our own with having a mental illness.

There’s a three-part process we can use to analyze an image or metaphor.

Post the following prompt showing the three-part process used to analyze an image or metaphor:

  • What is this metaphor capturing?
  • What is it missing?
  • Are we being misled?

For example:  equating uselessness with a plane tree.  Because the plane tree does not bear fruit, this captures the notion of being unproductive, a waste of resources, and uselessness.  It is missing the fact that the tree provides useful shade.  We are being misled to think that plane trees are useless and that usefulness is the same as producing fruit.

Divide the group into groups of three.  Ask them to use the three-part process to analyze common images and metaphors that equate disability with negative qualities.  Participants may work with those images enumerated above or others they introduce.  Allow 10 minutes.

Gather the larger group together again.  Ask them to report back what they noticed in this process.

Introduce the next exercise with these or similar words:

Worship services abound in embodied images.  We stride, walk, stand, and march for justice.  We dance our relationship.  We speak truth to power.  We see the holy, or each other’s best selves, face-to-face.  Image after image of positive qualities equated with typical minds and typical bodies.

Invite the group to remember their reflection on feeling not included from Activity 1.  Allow a brief moment for reflection.  Then proceed with these or similar words:

It may be tempting to say that the images we use in worship are “just metaphors” and we don’t mean them literally; everyone’s included. 

40 years ago, most congregations used images of God that were only male, and “mankind” was created in his image.  They were “just metaphors” and we didn’t mean them literally; everyone was included.

Ask the group how our use of gender images has changed and continues to change.

Listen for use of female god imagery, non-stereotypical imagery, and movement away from gender binary; add if not raised by the group, ask why?

Listen for inclusivity, relationships, justice.

Activity 3:  Inclusion and Intellectual Property (10 minutes)

Introduce this activity with these or similar words:

One tool that Unitarian Universalists have used when existing imagery became confining was re-writing readings and hymns.

In 1979, the Unitarian Universalist Association published a volume entitled 25 Familiar Hymns in New Form from Hymns for the Celebration of Life.  The preface reads, in part:

We seek to move beyond gender in the language of our worship.  The old patriarchal forms are contrary to present needs and ideals.  If any portion of a congregation feels excluded by words sung or spoken in unison, the words fail to express the intended community.  If religious language perpetuates views of the divine or the human in purely masculine forms, it runs contrary to our best understanding.  Just as in the past Universalists removed hell and Unitarians eliminated the Trinity by recasting old hymns, this brief collection provides changes that should make many hymns more appropriate for our time.

This approach was continued in our current hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition.

The practice of re-writing hymns has changed in the intervening years, in recognition of copyright.

Invite the group to consider what we can do as worship planners to use images more inclusive of people living with disabilities.  Record their responses.

Listen for:  balancing hymns with able-bodied images with other hymns, finding and securing permission to use hymns outside the hymnals, commissioning or composing new hymns, using inclusive images in spoken text, attending to other liturgical elements and the liturgy as a whole, attending to inclusion prominently throughout congregational life.

Activity 4:  Case Studies (30 minutes)

Divide into small groups.  Give each group a case study to work on.  Allow 20 minutes.

  • Case Study 1:  Among the most powerful acts of resistance to injustice have been Rosa Parks keeping her seat on the bus, lunch-counter sit-ins, and sit-down strikes by labor.  Yet contemporary justice hymns rely on the image of standing.  Rough out a liturgy for a social justice worship service where only some of the hymns refer to marching, walking, or standing.
  • Case Study 2:  Many contemporary hymns and readings refer to “brokenness” and the notion that we are all “broken.”  These have sometimes been accompanied by projected images of people or animals with visible disabilities.  What is the difference between “brokenness” and disability?  How can we use “brokenness” in an inclusive way in worship?
  • Case Study 3:  A worshipper asks you why you said “rise in spirit and/or body” when you announced the hymns – how do you respond?
  • Case Study 4:  It’s Saturday night.  There has just been a mass shooting somewhere in the country (not in your community).  The media have quickly labeled the shooter “deranged” without any knowledge one way or another about any mental health disability.  You are aware that there is no statistical correlation between violence and mental illness.  Do you acknowledge this event in tomorrow’s Sunday service?  How?  When?  What might you say or not say?


Offer participants the opportunity to call out something from today’s discussion that intrigued them or that they are taking home.

Give thanks for the participation, and for the promise that this knowledge has brought to the congregation.

Extinguish the Chalice

We extinguish this light, and carry it with us to light our way.

Additional Resources

Resources on Copyright

Resources on Metaphor and Image

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