“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Make disability ministry a priority

I am aware of a ministry to adults with developmental disabilities that has been in existence for nearly 40 years. My wife, Kathi, and I were involved in the ministry for 5 years ourselves, nearly 20 years ago. Housed in a large church in Pasadena, California, the forward thinking woman who started the ministry is retiring from it, and as a result, it is at risk of no longer being in existence as no one, including the church leadership, has stepped forward to take her place.

At what point in the life of a ministry will a church embrace and adopt that ministry to the point of investing in it with resources, a pastoral position, etc.?

I wonder whether the ministry at my own church would survive if Kathi and I were no longer involved in it? This question about ministry survival goes to the heart of the church, the priorities of the church and what it is willing to invest in. Nearly any church will have singles ministry, and children's (non disabled children's) ministry, and ministries to singles and seniors. Very often there will also be pastoral positions linked to these ministries. The hiring of a pastor is a statement on behalf of the church that this area of ministry is a given, a priority. Such churches don't expect or depend exclusively on lay volunteers to make such ministries go. They don't wait for a lay person to step forward to make a commitment to the ministry before they will start it. The church leadership (pastors, elders, etc.) have decided that the particular area of ministry is a priority to them and they make it happen.

For example, my own church recently made the decision to commit resources to beginning a "Spanish language" ministry to persons living in the town who are largely Spanish speakers. They invested in buildings, hired staff, including a pastor, and have devoted significant energy to the project.

My question is not to doubt that the "Spanish language" project is worthy, but rather to ask why disability ministry is so often dependent upon lay people, and so infrequently an idea of the church leaders to be pursued as an important area for ministry development to the point of hiring staff to ensure it happens?

Can it actually be that after nearly 40 years of ministry, the Pasadena church will now refuse to support the ministry and ensure that it will continue? I can recall that there were many Sunday mornings where 60 or more developmentally disabled adults would participate in the church's activities. They lived in the apartments and group homes from all around Pasadena. Some folks we picked up, some rode the bus, and some were brought by their care providers. Very few were brought by church members, other than those working in the ministry.

Sometimes I think about going to a church other than the one I have attended for the past 14 years. Not that I am in some way dissatisified with my church. But more I wonder whether the 14 years that Kathi and I have invested in disability ministry there have made any difference in terms of the priority such ministry would have at the church if we were no longer there.
"Its too bad Kathi and Jeff left. We had a pretty good program going
on there for 14 years. Oh well . . ."

Church leaders, YOU should be taking the lead in ministries to persons with disability. YOU should ensure that such ministries are occurring at your church. Maybe put off your building program and hire a pastor to persons with disability instead. Make a statement to the community about the degree to which you are willing to go to serve others, rather than making another edifice to comfortable worship.

Earlier in this blog we discuss the Catholic Bishop statements. Statement number 9 (January 9)says,
"Our pastoral response is to become informed about disabilities and to offer
ongoing support to the family and welcome to the child."
At least the Bishops see the role of their clergy is the development of ministry, if only becoming knowledgeable about disability in order to offer support. It is a good starting point.



Ligia Ayala-Rodriguez (EDU 541) said...

After reading what you had say I can almost say with complete confidence that most likely your church and the one you previously attended will discontinue the programs and ministries you have worked hard to put together. I hope not, but most likely. I’ve seen it happen all too many times at my church. The church will find new projects that will take priority. I remember a time at my church, back in the 80’s, when we had all sorts of ministries and programs. We had Sunday school, we had Ladies ministries, seniors’ ministries, ministries that visited the sick, youth groups, young adult groups, marriage encounters, engaged encounters, retreats and so many more, yet no ministry specifically for the disabled. Slowly as the lay people that ran these ministries left or passed away so did the programs they organized. Now we have nothing. The church numbers have dwindled due to more emphasis on the Spanish and Vietnamese speaking communities, which most likely have a multitude of ministries and programs that cater to them and their needs. But the English speaking community had been cut back to one mass on Sunday (the earliest mass) and one late mass on Saturday; we no longer even have Sunday school for children! Children have to attend regular mass and are, sadly, bored out of their minds, they don’t understand what is going on; it is not geared towards them. So forget it that there would be any programs or classes for our disabled brothers and sisters.

We’d all like to think that the church implements programs and ministries based on sincerely (and whole-heartedly) including everyone, wanting everyone to hear the word of God and spreading the Good News, but it is a matter of “squeaky wheels” and the demographics of the community surrounding the church, they want to get as many people into their pews because that means more donations to make their church grander or pay settlement in lawsuits. Am I being a little too critical? Maybe, but lately I have had some issues with my church and have been in the process of trying to figure out where to go.

However back to the issue at hand of churches putting more priority and money into Spanish speaking programs might have something to do with the fact that seminaries and wherever else pastors get their theological training do not cover an Exceptional Persons course. (Is this too simple of an answer?) Maybe they don’t know how to minister to the disabled or they don’t care to know either deliberately or naively, thinking there is not big enough of a need. I don’t claim to be an expert in what is taught at the seminary or in theological schools of thought but that is the only reason I can think of that would cause the pastoral community to neglect the disabled.

I hope what I have to say is not discouraging but my thought is: that we as individuals are responsible for ourselves and what we do with our lives. We are the ones who need to answer the question what can I do? Have I done all I can for others? Have I lived my life in a way that I am an example of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for man? So if we can answer positively than that is what matters. Hopefully other will be moved by our works and continue what we have started and that is unfortunately all we can ask for.

Michael Tatum (Edu 541) said...

I believe that church leaders should make commitments to having ministries for all people, even if that particular need is not there. For example, at my church, one lady felt led by God to start a college and career ministry group. It was apparent to her that there was a children's ministry, a youth ministry (which normally adheres to the needs of junior high and high school age students) an adult ministry and a senior ministry. As the college students stated, we were a void inbetween the youth and adults. We are at the stage where we are still trying to decide what to do with our lives, while either going to college or starting a career etc. Sherry saw the need, talked to the pastors and began the ministry. However, she feels that it is her time to step down for a while (she might return). Now that she has stepped down, The Refuge, as we were called is finished. No one else stepped up to keep the ministry going.
It seems to me that most leaders in the church (as many people are) are resistant to change. I haven't seen many new ministries start at any of the churches I've attended. I guess when enough people notice that there should be a change, is when something happens. That should not be the case. In current times, we are trying to be prepared for the worst of many situations. Buildings are being built to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters. Our government has a system so that in worst case senarios, the country will still be strong. Why can't the church be like that? Church leaders should have someone available for any possible ministry. God has called us to spread the gospel to everyone and last time I checked, everyone excludes no one.
Some may argue that God did not call them into a certain field and I'm not one to argue with that. However, I do think that with all the spiritual gifts and positions that christians can have, God has a place for people with disabilities. It is unfortunate, but true that the church has been neglegent and ignorant in this area. Chances are, unless the church leaders put a priority on every type of ministry, specific ministries will die after the person in charge steps down. It would be nice if more than one person helps out in establishing ministries and running them. That way, when someone leaves, the ministry will continue.
One example of that from my church is with Bible quiz. Bible quiz has been around for the children/youth for years and years. Joann Collins ran it for a long time, but when she stepped down other Bible quiz staff stepped up. Lenda Mancino was next to head up that ministry, but about a year ago, she and her family moved away. While Lenda was in charge, there wasn't much staff around to help her. My friend Karen and I were Lenda's helpers. There were no other adults ready to take over when Lenda moved away, but Karen took the leadership role (under Joann's supervision...sorta) and we both became coaches for Bible quiz, keeping the ministry alive. Not to toot our own horns or anything, but I believe that had Karen not stepped up, Bible quiz would have died after Lenda left.
The church leaders need to get together and put an emphasis on ministries to all people or at least be prepared to have a ministry. Lots of times, I'd bet that someone would say, "well if we had many people with disabilities, we would make a ministry" or something to that effect. How are they supposed to get to church unless the church makes an effort to reach out? My church is going through changes right now and reaching out is a big reason behind these changes. Hopefully, we will take steps toward ministries to everyone.

Jackie Walker said...

Response: Make Disability Ministry a Priority
The focus for the Exceptional Child class is on the church and its’ ministry for disabled people within the community and congregation itself. I must admit I never thought about a specific ministry to attract or include disabled people, I always thought of this as a natural characteristic because of my personal relationship with Christ. From the information shared in the classroom about our churches and the pastor’s perspective regarding a ministry for disabled people, I was dismayed by the reports. I must also conclude the idea of a ministry specifically for disabled people is needed within the church. However, I believe this is an opportunity for someone with this gift to come forward and be an advocate for this ministry within his or her church. According to Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Just as Paul learned to his surprise that non-Jews seemed more receptive about the news of Jesus, the church is following the same pattern in being less receptive about the inclusion of disabled people, not just a few classified as normal individuals. It would appear as if this is the invisible population that dwells among us. The state supports the disabled according to laws, but laws will not answer the judgment day call when we, as Christians, must give an account of ourselves. I must state I firmly believe if one is not called to this ministry, it will be a disaster and could do more harm than good. I think pastors can be leaders in voicing their support for this ministry, as well as trying to seek individuals with the qualifications to ensure its effectiveness. I believe that some pastors do not consider this as a specific ministry because there are so many people without disabilities that need to hear and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. I see one-dilemma miracles can create for those that witness them; inability to draw attention away from the miracle itself and appeal to the spiritual need of the person. Very few people count the cost of total commitment to becoming a Christian and following Jesus. However, when we know and apply our gift of the Spirit, we are empowered to fulfill our ministry. Will it hurt to focus on starting a ministry within the church for disabled people? No, but it will be more effective to have someone who is qualified (by God would be preferred) that can implement the criteria and train others to help in this area. The funds should be made available to support this ministry (pastor and staff, including training). Matthew 28:19 states, “Go ye therefore, teach a ALL nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Once we have accepted the commission, we need to remember it is our Christian responsibility to educate and equip people through active evangelizing, starting where we are, using what we have, doing what we can in order to make a difference in the lives of ALL people that we are privileged to encounter along this Christian journey.