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

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A few comments on leadership

Throughout the years of writing this blog, I have at times complained about leadership within the church. In my Feb 4, 2006 entry, I spoke about the late Rev. Dennis Kingsland who told me that pastors were a bottleneck in the attempt to open churches to people with disabilities. Since that time I have often reflected on his statement. But there is more to the impediment issue than just standing in the way of ministry to all of God's people.

Leaders also need to set the example, from the pulpit. Perhaps pastors have not been congregational members for a long time, but a whole lot of congregational members listen to what the pastor says. They listen to what he says and what he doesn't say. That is why a periodic mention of individuals with disabilities is an important thing for pastors to do to recall these individuals to the congregation's mind, and to reinforce that they are valued members. In addition, brief comments can guide the congregation in their interactions, tell them how to interact.

In our group, the Light and Power Company, we have very loving dedicated people with and without disabilities who are involved in ministry to each other and as participants. Periodically, I remind all of us of what our standard is for the group. So I say to those who can be counted on to be involved in the ministry things like,
"Remember, we are always about acceptance."
"It is more important that people have access to me as the leader than it is that they sit quietly"
"We need to recognize that people are here for different reasons, and at times our focus will be the reason why others are here, and perhaps not the reason why you are here"
"We want to avoid shushing people and telling them to sit down or we will be spending all of our time doing that. Let's grow in our acceptance of people with social skill differences."
We also recognize that the class will not always be quiet, that conversations may be going on during a lesson, or during prayer which we learn to tolerate. We state that there is pretty much nothing that anyone could do in our group that would cause them to not be welcome.

I make these statements to the group to remind us why we are here, what our standards are, what we expect from each other in terms of forgiveness and tolerance and acceptance. If those who have to a greater degree committed themselves to such ministry need this type of reminder periodically, what about the regular congregational member?

One of my students shared in class the other night that she is the parent of a child with a disability and her famiily attends church. She related sadly, however, that every time she arrives with her family, it is almost as if everything stops while the people all look at her and think, "Here comes the Jones family." She wishes that just once her family would be welcomed like any other. To me that is a leadership thing. I think the pastor who must be aware of the feelings of this family and the larger congregation regarding this family should just say out loud, "I recognize that little Sally Jones can be noisy and disruptive. Rather than staring at her, how might we make the Jones family feel loved and accepted the next time they arrive at any meeting?" By addressing such issues head on, we not only communicate to the congregation that the pastor, the leadership wants those people accepted, but also to the Jones family that their acceptance is a priority for the leadership.

Imagine your pastor starting off a Sunday service someday saying something like, "We believe that this church should include all people with disabilities. That is one of our core values. Thus the rest is just logistics. We may not be able to do things the same way we always have, but we think that having people with disabilities among us is more important than maintaining our traditions." You know what? I would almost guarantee to you that the congregation would rise to its feet and give the pastor a standing ovation. You see, I as a congregational member am waiting for that sermon. I have probably been waiting for that sermon for the better part of 40 years. I pray someday I will hear it.



C. Merrill Kittelson said...

James 2:1-9 clearly speaks about this type of partiality. The ESV subtitle is "The Sin of Partiality". May all of us in this type of ministry make the committment to bring this passage to our elders, pastors, denominational leaders, Sunday School teachers and fellow congregants!

Mark said...

I'm waiting too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you very much about how congregational members listen very closely to pastors. This is a very true statement and I believe that pastors and leaders should take a stronger stand in preaching to the congregation that God loves all people. Not only should they preach about how God love all people, including the mentally and physically disabled ones, but he also wants to word of God to be shared to all people. One of the quotes that I liked very much as you put in your blog was “It is more important that people have access to me as the leader than it is that they sit quietly”. I like this because it shows that people shouldn’t discriminate against anybody and that the word of God should be spread to everyone and anyone, no matter what their disability, race, gender, age, and size. We should accept different peoples’ disabilities and adjust around them to make them feel more accepted in church. A way of doing this would be not shushing them during lessons, prayers, or sermons. I believe that it really is the pastors responsibility to make the congregation more accepting and loving toward people with mentally and physically disabled people.

Anonymous said...

I want to simply respond by saying that I “like” and “agree” with this article, but I can’t bring myself to just “not touch” on what I’ve been wrestling with since I started this class. What I read in this blog touches me personally, and holds me severely accountable, as I have been in some form of vocational ministry since July, 1998. Currently, I am a bi-vocational pastor who is in the middle of a “life dilemma” in wondering if God is: 1. Making my bi-vocational status a permanent thing that I need to use for His glory, or 2. Transitioning me out of vocational ministry and into teaching in public school for His glory. Since I am not fully immersed into choice #2 (yet?), I again feel accountable to a blog like this, as well as to Dr. McNair’s passion as he teaches at CBU.
What I have been “wrestling” with basically, is the fact that as a church leader, I have not been conscious of how the mega-church I used to work for, nor the church plant that I am now a part of, have been purposeful in ministering to disabled persons. I have stated to others that through all of my six-years on staff of a large church as a youth pastor, or now as the lead pastor of a very tiny flock, the topic of “how to” minister to disabled people has simply never come up.
I find myself sounding defensive when my thought process stops there, and then begins again with something like, “But it’s not like we’ve discriminated against them either.” I am a Hispanic American, which is to say I am someone who is familiar with discrimination and racism in America, so I feel like I would know if this was happening in either of the church settings I have worked in.
The point I’m making by starting with all of this, is that I don’t feel that the men I worked with at any stage (including the seminary stage), have been intentional at ignoring, or being mean to, or rude to, or biased against, or bothered by people with disabilities. SO, WHEN I READ something like this blog entry, or hear Dr. McNair thunder in the classroom, I want to feel guilty for “the wrongs” I’ve committed, but I can’t place a finger on myself to cite an instance of doing so. I think I have a decent understanding of sinning by omission, but I don’t think literally forgetting to (and thereby neglecting if looked at negatively) acknowledge how little “Sally Jones’” family might feel is somehow the church “dropping the ball.”
I will say this, part of the wrestling I am doing is good wrestling. I’m wrestling with, “Now that this has been pointed out to you, what are you going to do about it?” So I’m asking God for help. I’m asking Him for help and direction. And to anyone angry at me for posting this honest blog reply, I’m asking for your grace toward a “church leader,” and for your prayers.