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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pastor of "Disability ministry"

Part 1:  What would be the role of a full time pastor of disability ministry?

A major part of the job would be to change the environment around individuals with disabilities, in other words, the church.  The starting point might be to create a place where people are included, however, the goal would be to remove exclusion from existing programs and structures.  There is a huge philosophical difference between these two activities.  One says that a person doesn't fit in because of their characteristics.  The other says that a person doesn't fit in because of the characteristics of the enviornment.  Typically the expectation is that the individual will change to better fit the enviornment.  They will develop better social skills, etc. such that they would be accepted by the larger enviornment, the social setting.  There is not a lot of impetus on the environment to change.  However, it is largely the enviornment that is in need of changing, even more than the individual who has the impairment.  The church environment should be one that to the greatest extent possible does not reflect the socially constructed notions of disability that are reflected in Wolfensberger's 18 wounds.  If the enviornment has wrong notions about people with impairments which are reflected in practices typical of society, then the environment needs to reflect more correct notions of who people with impairments are and reflect those notions in their practice.  Imagine if a white woman went to a predominantly black church or a black woman went to a predominatly white church.  Upon her arrival, the ministry staff approached the woman and said, "We are so glad you are here!  We have a ministry specifically designed for women who are your color!  All the people who are your skin color meet over there in the 'Your skin color' ministry."  You would respond that this is ridiculous and you would be right.  Skin color is an irrelevant characteristic when it comes to teaching people about the Bible and engaging in faith development.  A segregated ministry for women with a skin color different then the majority of the women in the church reflects more about the flawed thinking of the church then it does about the relevance of the skin color of the woman.  Sure there are things that have become relevant about skin color because of the way people of certain ethnicities have been socially constructed.  People have experienced privilege and discrimination on the basis of their skin color.  However, once you enter a church, you shouldn't experience privilege or discrimination on the basis of your skin color.  The same holds for individuals with disabilities.  My life in society will be different if I experience a bodily impairment of some kind.  However, the socially constructed perceptions of my disability shouldn't find their way into the doors of a Christian church.  I shoudn't experience discrimination in a church on the basis of disability.  The fact that I do, implies the degree of change that needs to occur within that environment.  That environmental change should be a major, perhaps THE major focus of the pastor of disability ministry.  They should be agents of change above all else.  They should be living out, teaching about, advocating for a replacement narrative, based on the Bible to replace the socially constructed, pervasive narrative about who people experiencing physical impairments are.

A second area of emphasis related to the first, is integration, friendship development and the changes the personal involvement and shared lives bring.  If people were truly interested in supporting devalued people, if church members were looking for devalued people and bring them into the church, into relationship, then there might not be the need for a full time person.  The fact that there is a need is somewhat of an indictment of rank and file church members who are NOT developing friendships, NOT seeking out devalued people, NOT advocating changing church structures such that people with disabilities would be included in the larger Body of Christ.  If we were doing that, there wouldn't be the need so much for paid staff.  Kathi and I recently spoke to the elder board at our church.  We actually asked about the possibility of hiring a full time pastor of disabiltiy ministry.  One of the elders in the course of the discussion, asked whether we were training another couple to take our place should we move or be incapacitated to do the ministry.  At first, I thought "You don't look to the women's pastor or the junior high pastor or the college pastor to find a person within the congregation whom they can train as their replacement.  Why would you look to us to do that?"  Whether his comment was intentionally related to the naturalness of our "ministry" staffed entirely by volunteers as a perhaps better model, I am not sure.  But it has since given me pause.  We wanted a full time pastor because of the committment that funding implies on the part of the church.  However, perhaps there are other ways churches can make a committment to ministry without hiring a full time pastor.  A part of me thinks that the hiring of of full time pastoral staff to some degree simply removes the responsibility of the average congregational member from doing many of the things they should.  Additionally, if a full time pastor of disability ministry was the one doing all the work of ministry to people experiencing disability within a church, it would be another example of a person who is only in the lives of a person with a disability because they are paid to do so (see Wolfensberger's wound #9) only in this case it is for the cause of "ministry."  At least the hope is that this paid person would recognize the critical need for natural friendships and facilitate those within the social environment of the Church.  From an evaluative perspective, if indivuals with disabilties attending a church do not have natural friendships with members of the church, the pastor of disability ministry is arguably NOT doing their job.  If the only interaction that individuals with disabilities have with the larger congregation is the once per week chance meeting on Sunday morning with no social interaction outside of the church setting, then the pastor of disabiltiy ministry may be doing their job, but they are NOT doing a very good job.  This aspect of "disability ministry" is hard because if people wanted relationships with persons with disabilities they would have those relationships.  That they do not have such relationships communicates that they do not see those relationships as desirable or necessary TO THEIR OWN LIVES.  The understanding of the Body of Christ, and of love among other things are then the foci of efforts of the pastor of disability ministry.

So thus far, we have described the most critical aspects of ministry and we haven't cracked a Bible with a person with a disability.  Should someone not be able to understand the scriptures as presented to the larger congregation, the next critical work would be to facilitate Biblical study, faith development and teaching of that group of people.  This will imply the development of a subenvironment within the church for people with this pedagogical need.  Pastors of disability ministry should know what they are doing from a faith development perspective, understand what the goal is for a particular person with an intellectual disability for example and be discipling that individual to move forward in their faith.  They should know what to do for an autistic child, or an adult with severe intellectual disabilities, or mental illness.  In each of these cases, the approach for faith development would be different.  To a large degree it would be inclusive, but to some degree the faith development approach might be different.  The pastor should understand the samenesses and differences and develop those, constantly second guessing himself when segregation occurs in any form.

More to come.



Anonymous said...

"They should know what to do for an autistic child, or an adult with severe intellectual disabilities, or mental illness."

Expecting a lot, McNair but thankfully there are people who are already trained to do that - occupational therapists. Seriously consider recommending faith-filled Christian OTs for the job of disability minister.


Asipe928 said...

I believe that “the church” does need to contribute more to the disabled. Christian people have gotten so caught up in the “worldly” ways that disabled people are looked down upon. The disabled are also easily forgotten when they should be equal to everyone else, who is so called “normal”. A question a person has to ask himself/herself is, Are the disabled worthy of becoming saved? Do they not have a soul as well? I believe Christians overlook this aspect and do not evangelize to the disabled, but will evangelize to people who do not even speak the same language as them. The disabled NEED to hear the good news just like everyone else. They have a soul and how dare the Christian community overlooks them.
I believe that the disabled should be in the church and hear the message that a full time pastor has created for the church. However, it might be confusing to them and they might have questions, like everyone else in the Christian community. This is when I feel the need is to break off into small groups during the week and talk about the message that was taught the past Sunday. This way questions can be answered and things can be cleared up. The disabled and the community will get the best of both worlds by being with each other, making friendships, and the disabled will be to ask questions in their own small group.
This is how I feel about the disabled community and “the church”.

Erika said...

It shouldn't be needed but if Disabled people arnt in the church your average member isnt really going to be willing or know how to get it going. Sometimes you need someone to open the doors and demonstrate how it can be done then once people know this can be scaled back.

Once the environment is right and theres a willingness from everyone to make it work I really belive it can happen.

Anonymous said...

Hi i am disable. But having operations to save sight. I want to study as s united church minister in canada. But at times people in my church look at me as if i have twi heada. They listen to me. Pat me on my head. I have money to do unversity...only with some student loans. I also know people wilk say stay home. We do nit need you. ....and so on. How come it is hard for any one who is disable . ..to their calling or hear their call song. While normal people make it harder. I have finish college. Cooking school . Traveled in my own loosing my sight. . Hoe come churches make it worse for disable students. People do their calling. I do not want to leave my church to follow my call........help myham@hotmail.com lorraine b buckingham.

Priscilla141 said...

Hi. I'm disabled physically with a genetic disease ( Ehler's Danlos III, ) unfortunately susceptible to frequent injury. For example, recently I was very involved in my church in Bible Study, Worship services, Choir, and WMU. Then, As the result of an accident, I tore a meniscus in my knee. Because of this, I've had to miss church and other activities. ( Finally, I persuaded my doctor to do an MRI, and am now doing PT. So, the knee injury is healing, but it will take some months to get well. Surgery is Inadvisable.
However, I've been unable to attend church, .bible Study, choir, etc., since I was having problems walking and won't be able to drive for some months. My church family doesn't seem to understand. They are hesitant to allow me to participate in ANYTHING now, since I'm so disabled. This has made me feel excluded.
However, God has used me in the past. I'm aware of my spiritual gifts, and actually had a Counseling private practice for many years devoted to using Scripture and witnessing. Presently, I'm working on more equipping for a Biblical Counseling ministry ( for online.). My previous pastor ( gone now,) had given me approval to do that. The program I've selected is approved by our Southern Baptist Association.
Yet, when I explained the above to a couple of ( present ) church leaders, and asked for their opinions of the program I'm training in, I received NO response. I'm trying to do the right thing and eventually start a para church ministry ( including women like me, who are really disabled. ). However, I feel like my church family does not want my involvement, if I cannot come all the time.
Does anyone have any suggestions? This has been VERY hard for me. I know there are others at my church going through the same thing. I did love my church, and was very regular, until this injury happened. I feel I'm being penalized for the disability.

WereBear said...

I am disabled and I just thought I would share some of my thoughts, and experiences on the church experience from the perspective of a disabled person.

I love the idea of a disability ministry. I have never been to a church that has had one though. Most churches around here don’t even have a church van ministry. This makes it impossible to attend for many of us.

I can’t drive anymore, and I have been able to afford a vehicle since I have been trying to survive on a disability check. Not only am I not able to even get to some church functions, but sometimes when I go I can’t afford to participate in some activities or events because I just don’t have the money.

There are so many things most people just don’t think about because they don’t struggle with a disability, or have someone close to them that does. For me, transportation and money are huge issues. To be fair before I was disabled I never really thought much about stuff like that either.

One other thing that really hurts my heart is the way people act sometimes. Most people are nice enough to me in church, but in over 20 years I have never been invited over to someone’s house for dinner, or just to hang out…

Another reason the church van ministry is so important is that most people are not reliable enough to count on to come get me regularly, and some people have special needs getting in and out of a vehicle also. Most people aren’t equipped to handle that.

Another thing is that I want to serve God too! I just want to be able to help. I just want to be on the team. It always seems like me helping takes so much more effort than whatever help I can give so I am left out there also…

A few years back a couple guys really took me under their wing and made sure I could help. It was awesome! It was awesome, while it lasted. I loved it, I got to go to most things, and help out and be a part of the team. The church leadership didn’t support them in their efforts, and myself and a couple other disabled people were no longer able to attend regularly.

A church needs to back this 100%! Yes, it will cost money, and yes it will take people’s time. Is it worth it? To me it was. It meant the world to me. Just to be able to serve, and be a part of the team. The “costs” weren't worth it to the leadership though…

I think the church needs to be accessible to disabled people. Things like ramps, bathrooms, seating, and many other things like that are important to address. Attitudes about people with disabilities need some serious enlightening. Creating ways for us to serve and use our gifts and talents to contribute need to in the action plan as well. Remember disabled people can’t do everything the same way as most people.

The church needs to grow spiritually to handle a true disability ministry. Accepting people as they are and understanding them are not the same thing, and many people do neither particularly well. The truth is there are so many people out there with disabilities that need to be helped and even more so, need to be loved and accepted, and where better than a spirit filled church?