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

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Leadership in ministry to people with cognitive disabilities

Who should be in leadership of Sunday School classes or groups for individuals with developmental disabilities? Typically it is people without disabilities although there may be a few leaders among those with disabilities in the group. Perhaps someone in your group witha cognitive disability immediately comes to mind. Perhaps we have people on the leadership team, some with specific roles. Others participate in leadership meetings because their input is valued, but one could ask why they are participants any more than anyone else. I think we need to be sure that leaders are in leadership positions. I am also confident that we could hurt feelings if someone was not invited to be involved in leadership because we felt they were not leaders. For example, there are those who would feel that they should be at any and every meeting and that her comments are essential to the functioning of the group. Others, might feel they are just missing out on a good time. But if the meetings are for purposes of discussing the future of the group, truly leadership meetings and not just social outings, there will be exclusion.

Because some of our group at my church have cognitive disabilities, and I am in a position of leadership in that group, I do not have a problem excluding them from the leadership meetings, as their disability on some level limits their contribution there. That is a judgment on their leadership skills, and their cognitive abilities which would imply that they are not gifted for participation in leadership, or teaching, for example (Ephesians 4:11). Obviously, I do not say there was no place for those people, only that their options could be limited by their disabilities and that would be a determination made by people with and without disabilities. I for one, have never been asked to sing before the church, or to have involvement in financial matters of the church. I have no problem with someone telling me that I am not gifted for those activities of the church because it is true, I am not. I also do not feel the need to have people with cognitive disabilities present in leadership meetings simply for reasons of political correctness. There are those with cognitive disabilities that I love dearly, and that I enjoy long conversations with, however, they will not be holding a position of leadership in our group. People with cognitive disabilities have very much to offer the church, but because of their cognitive or other disabilities aspects of their service may be limited.

Another basic aspect of the disabled/nondisabled dynamic is that people with cognitive disabilities cannot help but look to people without cognitive disabilities for leadership. Every cognitively disabled member of the group at my church looks to a non-cognitively disabled person for leadership in areas such as finances, travel, work, relationships, spiritual issues, etc. I have no problem with that as well. That is our responsibility as those without cognitive disabilities toward our brothers and sisters in Christ who experience cognitive disabilities. It is, however, a fine line to try to walk.

In our group, we have in the past and will do a better job in the future, communicated that all of those without cognitive disabilities are in leadership, if only informally. We need to note that, support that and praise that. That aspect has been one of the greatest points of growth in our group, for example, over the past year. I want people to be considered leaders in the class because of the positive impact their informal leadership has on members of the group. Others have a very quiet role in the group, but are leaders nonetheless through the way they come alongside of many people to talk and encourage them, love and support them. Those without disabilities are often totally invested in the group, and I think would do just about anything we could ask for the group. In that way they are an important part of the leadership. We, as those without cognitive disabilities, are responsible to help those who are cognitively disabled. Those without, or with less severe disabilities enjoy the group for themselves, but they also see it as a ministry role in a much different way than those with more severe disabilities typically see their involvement. I want to encourage the ministry view without disparaging the attendance view. I mean, I participate in groups where I am largely the recipient of ministry and that is fine. The key is that all should have the opportunity to be on both sides of the ministry equation (givers and recipients) although leadership in ministry might not be available to all.



assistive technology said...

It's a shame that the nature of cognitive disabilities often holds them back from mentoring each other. It's a fallacy to believe that people are completely stupid simply because of their disabilities, but unfortunately many people see these inabilities as stupidity.


Arthur Seale said...

I do not agree that being non-disabled in itself would put someone in a leadership position over an individual with intellectual disabilities. It may put them in a position of being able to serve, to provide, but not necessarily leadership. A volunteer and provider doesn’t automatically make a leader. Leadership involves mentoring, knowledge, commitment, not necessarily merely greater abilities or “normalcy”. In our disabled adults ministry, we have had the experience of a non-disabled individual whose “helping” created many problems and ended up getting involved in member’s family conflicts, taking an individual of the opposite sex to lunch on a week day alone then wondering why he followed her around and stared at her. She also got into conflicts with members. When we have caring people trying to do the right thing for the cognitively disabled individuals, many times we end up with people working with little information about the consequences of their efforts (McDermott & Varenne, 1995, Culture as Disability, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 26(3), 324-348).
I know I said that the issue was closed, but I hadn't read this post.