1. News
  2. /
  3. Clearwater

Clearwater’s Grace Lutheran Church accommodates disabled with special service

The church’s pastor said traditionally churches haven’t always provided a ‘warm welcome.’
Pastor Jefferson Cox delivers his sermon on Oct. 27 during Grace Lutheran Church's adaptive worship service that caters to people with disabilities and the elderly who otherwise would not be able to attend a full service. Accommodations made in the adaptive service include seating for those with wheelchairs and walkers, Braille and large-print church programs. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Nov. 5
Updated Nov. 5

CLEARWATER — It breaks Virginia Ruf’s heart to see how people with special needs are treated sometimes — inhumane, ridiculed or as if they are contagious and will spread their disability like it’s a disease.

She swore that would never be her son’s reality.

Unfortunately, it still happens at times.

Her son, Chris Ruf, 40, has Down syndrome and at age 12 was diagnosed with autism.

Often when the two dine out, people act like Chris does not exist or cut in front of him in line.

But when it comes to church service, her worries are over thanks to Grace Lutheran Church’s new adaptive service designed for people with disabilities.

“It’s wonderful that other people accept my son, and they don’t treat him like a mistake,” Virginia Ruf said. “Sometimes you go places and people shy away from you, but here you’re a human being like the rest of us.”

Jefferson Cox, the pastor at Grace Lutheran, has a close family friend who works with people with disabilities and is aware of many of the challenges and rejection they face.

He also found that in Pinellas County, 10 percent of the population under age 65 live with a disability, according to data collected from the U.S. Census.

So when he interviewed for his position in 2015 and was asked what he could do to better connect the church with the community, his first thought was to create a service catering to people with special needs.

One that was welcoming, flexible and accommodating.

Traditionally, churches haven’t always provided a “warm welcome,” Cox said, so there’s a hesitancy to get connected to a church. Many drift away.

“Churches can sometimes get into the habit of looking for people that already look and sound like they do,” he said.

Cox hopes to change that.

“Just by being humans, we tend to be comfortable around people like us, and for people that are different, it can be difficult for them to get connected to our community," he said. "But the gospel cuts across that, and it calls us to be more inclusive and more welcoming than our human instinct would encourage us to be.”

Normal Lutheran services have a lot of standing up and sitting down or kneeling and bowing when singing hymns, worshipping and receiving communion, For those with disabilities, that can be uncomfortable or difficult to keep up with.

In the adaptive service, attendees are not obligated to stand. Instead, the pastor and ministers serve them communion in their seats.

Paster Jefferson Cox and Deacon Iris Saxby deliver communion to John Domoulin and Carolyn Leisure, and allow them to remain seated during Grace Lutheran Church's adaptive worship service that caters to people with disabilities and the elderly on Oct. 27 in Clearwater. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Grace Lutheran also has a braille bulletin for the blind or visually impaired and offers Bluetooth hearing devices and ear protectors connected to the church sound system for those who are hard of hearing or sensitive.

Bluetooth hearing devices help attendees with disabilities to hear Pastor Jefferson Cox, who delivers a shorter sermon at Grace Lutheran Church's adaptive worship service in Clearwater. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

The adaptive service is similar to the main service, with four stages: the gathering stage, the word stage with lessons and the message, the sacrament stage with communion, and the sending stage where church leaders prepare to send attendees out into the world.

The adaptive service starts at 11:15 a.m. and lasts only 30 minutes, which is later and shorter than the church’s usual 9:45 a.m. service.

“It’s not dumbed down,” Cox said. “It’s got the most essential parts of the service. I preach the same sermon but in a way that it’s shorter in time.”

Grace Lutheran Church holds an adaptive worship service on Oct. 27 in Clearwater. It caters to people with disabilities and the elderly, who otherwise would not be able to attend a full service. Accommodations include Braille and large-print church programs. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

And unlike some traditional church services, Grace Lutheran’s adaptive service welcomes casual attire and a relaxing atmosphere.

Chris Ruf wears shorts and occasionally a baseball cap.

For his mother, it’s a relief after sampling various churches with services for the disabled, including St. Paul United Methodist Church, which hosts a “Handicapable” Bible study on Wednesday nights.

She enjoyed Handicapable but it lacked communion and it was a little further than she was willing to travel. But there she met Cox, who attended the Handicapable Bible study to get ideas and learn from other churches before launching his idea at Grace Lutheran.

Now, she thinks she’s found a church home for Chris and herself. She can relax and pay attention to the sermon without worrying about him.

“I don’t have to keep poking Chris to behave or to sit still,” Virginia said. “I go to other churches, and he falls asleep, and (they) don’t like it if he falls asleep. But here, it’s 'that’s just Chris.’”

Contact Monique Welch at or Follow mo_unique_


  1. The Pinellas County Commission moved closer Tuesday to granting a total of $20.6 million to three museums: the Salvidor Dali Museum (top), the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center (bottom left), and the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Photos courtesy of Pinellas County
    The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg Museum of History and Tampa Bay Watch are on track to receive bed tax dollars for expansions.
  2. Morton Myers, 40, is an entrepreneur, a lifelong Clearwater resident and now a candidate for mayor who comes from a family of Scientologists. He says he is not a practicing Scientologist and is running to bring change and representation to all residents. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Morton Myers says he’s not an active member. But with family on Scientology’s staff, he says he’s uniquely positioned to find middle ground with the church.
  3. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    An SUV crossed over the center line on S Fort Harrison Avenue and caused a head-on collision. The 70-year-old driver died at the scene.
  4. Northwood Plams Boulevard in Wesley Chapel has been closed for six months for sewer repair, and residents are ready for it to reopen. After a couple delays, Pasco County expects the project to be complete by the end of the week. Times File
    A Wesley Chapel reader wants to know when Northwood Palms Boulevard will reopen.
  5. A special garbage truck services an Underground Refuse System bin in Kissimmee. Clearwater recently bought six bins and a truck to service them, and will install the receptacles at the city's world-famous beach. City of Kissimmee
    “You don’t get to be the number one beach in America without taking care of business like this.”
  6. Spanx founder and Clearwater native Sara Blakely will be the keynote speaker at the Synapse Summit 2020 innovation convention, scheduled for Feb. 11 and 12 at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (Times file photo)
    Organizers say the Clearwater native is a game-changer for the event on Feb. 11-12 at Amalie Arena. It is expected to draw more than 6,000 entrepreneurs.
  7. Students make their way to new classrooms on March 18, 2019 at Melrose Elementary, which received $26 million in improvements recently. The school is home to the Center for Communications, Journalism & Multimedia Studies, which will welcome families for a Discovery Night at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Times (2019)
    News and notes about K-12 schools and colleges in Pinellas County.
  8. Students performing original rap songs with visiting Bible Rap artist Matt Barr at the first Kesher session in August. Rabbi Danielle Upbin
    An upcoming session will focus on Jewish values of positive speech.
  9. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has sued Odessa-based Adams Arms, a gun manufacturer that sold more than 300 AR-15s to the agency. Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
    The agency recalled 309 rifles from Odessa-based Adams Arms and demanded a refund of more than $300,000.
  10. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Visitors head to Florida's Old Capitol building on the first day of the annual sixty day session, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a joint session of the Florida Legislature Tuesday in Tallahassee.  SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    It’s no wonder why Clearwater would prioritize the issue.