The Rev. Leslie Neugent of Wayzata Community Church discusses service meant to empower
It’s another busy Sunday morning at Wayzata Community Church. Members of the congregation, which has grown to more than 2,700, file in and out for the church’s four Sunday services.
In the church’s Wakefield Chapel, the Rev. Leslie Neugent robes up just after 10 a.m. as a buzz of noise and activity – all uncharacteristic of most Minnesota church services – begins to swell. The name of the service is Parables, and it’s a liturgy that can only be found at Wayzata Community Church.
“This service is all about empowerment,” Neugent said.
Parables, which Neugent created in 2013, is an interactive, special-needs friendly worship service. Neugent said the idea was sparked after a young church member with special needs began to sing “Jesus Loves Me” during a sermon.
“And of course, in the Western world, we freak out because that’s not on the bulletin,” Neugent said, recalling the young man’s father whisking him out of the sanctuary.
“That was the holiest moment of the hour,” Neugent said she remembers thinking. “How did we miss it?”
Neugent said she knew what the church needed: A worship service of complete and total inclusion.
The early stages included a group of five families, which then grew to 10 families, who worked together to build Parables. Neugent said it was decided early on that the services would be built around attendees with special needs and would be set in an interactive environment that welcomed participation.
“We decided that they were going to run the majority of the service, so it was much very much a collaborative effort,” Neugent said.
After a month of preparing with the core group, services were opened to anyone and everyone interested in attending.
“There are quite a few people who attend that don’t have any personal ties to this community, but just really feel fed in here,” she said. “It’s not just for families with kids with special needs. It’s for anybody who wants to celebrate people with special needs. That’s the key.”
Neugent, who travels around the country speaking at conferences and facilitating workshops on how churches can start their own special needs ministry, said it’s rare to come across a service like Parables.
“Generally, I’ve not found one that’s every Sunday morning and every week,” Neugent said, explaining that her goal for Parables is for people to feel like it’s not being hid away.
“We don’t want this to be in a basement somewhere. We want it to be side by side with all our other services. … We’re just going to be who we are and we encourage everybody to come, but come on our terms. Instead of us having to mold to fit what you want, come in and let your hair down a little bit,” the reverend said.
Neugent’s path to Wayzata Community Church follows a career in advertising, which she left in the late 1990s to raise her two sons, Ryan and J.J., with her husband, Chris. While raising her family, she attended United Theological Seminary in New Brighton and received her master of divinity degree in 2012 before being ordained as an associate minister at large at the church.
Neugent said it was her son J.J., who has Down syndrome, who was a large inspiration in getting Parables up and running.
“He’s had quite the spiritual journey, but he’s tough and he’s a lover of life,” Neugent said. “He’s been a huge inspiration and a shaper of my life.”
Neugent said while attending seminary, she was also inspired by the writings of Catholic priests Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanierv.
“They have written about the special needs community as teachers and so it was really putting some skin on the idea of how do we learn from people who are innately filled with love and innately gentle and innately caring and compassionate and noncompetitive and nonjudgmental?” Neugent said.
Today, those with special needs and their families account for around 120 of the church’s members.
Among these families are Allie Henley and her mom Betsy. Allie, 24, is a Wayzata High School graduate who has been an active member of Parables for the past three years.
“We grew up in a Lutheran church and I didn’t really have a lot of friends there,” Allie said. “They just didn’t understand people with disabilities. I couldn’t really sit still or be quiet.”
Over the years, Allie has become an ambassador for the Special Olympics as well as a gold medal winner in bowling. At Parables, Allie helps distribute communion each week, acts as a mentor for her peers and has even given sermons for Parables and the church’s larger services. She was also recently asked if she wanted to become a deacon at the church – an offer she plans to explore.
“I’m just going to give it a try,” Allie said. “If I like it, great. If not, it’s okay, I’ll just be glad I tried.”
Another regular is Sam Pederson, who has attended Parables since the service began.
Susie Pederson McCoy, Sam’s mom, said Parables has become a regular part of their lives, noting that if the service wasn’t available, there’s a good chance they’d be skipping church altogether.
“It’s awesome. He looks forward to this no matter what,” Susie said. “When he’s here, it just centers him. … He can come in here and just have peace. It’s amazing.”
Sam, like Allie, is also not shy about getting up in front of the church to speak. At the Parables service April 9, he was quick to volunteer to lead the service in an opening prayer – one that Sam said came from within himself.
“It came from the heart,” Sam said.
Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]