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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Universal mature ministry criteria

I was in a meeting the other day where the topic of ministry maturity came up. One comment was made that each church is so different there could not be criteria across all churches. I was just listening into the meeting so didn't comment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just to prove that point, here are a list of some criteria I came up with, just off the top of my head, that would be applicable to any church, that they could use to measure their own ministry's growth toward maturity. These could also apply to one's church generally.

Maturity criteria
  1. Friendships developed with persons with disabilities
  2. Persons with disabilities present in all church social activities
  3. Persons with disabilities present in the regular worship service
  4. Persons with disabilities present in men’s groups, women’s groups, senior’s groups, etc.
  5. Pastor addressed issues related to disability from the pulpit
  6. Persons with disabilities integrated into regular Sunday School classes – children and adult
  7. Persons with disabilities sought out and invited to church – children and adults
  8. Church membership offered to persons with disabilities
  9. Integrated ministry which includes persons with disabilities
  10. Persons with disabilities provided opportunities for service (greeters, children’s ministry, security, etc.)
  11. Persons with disabilities are in leadership
  12. Homes where persons with disabilities live are visited
  13. Church network supports persons with disabilities with employment opportunities
  14. Church network supports persons with disabilities with living opportunities
  15. Persons with disabilities invited to recreational opportunities (ball games, concerts, etc.)
  16. Church culture changes such that persons with disabilities experience integration
  17. Church reflects on traditions to determine whether they are discriminatory towards persons with disabilities
  18. Helps ministries developed for persons with disabilities living in poverty
  19. Parents of persons with disabilities are offered respite on a personal level
  20. Persons with disabilities are invited to family activities like Thanksgiving dinner or children’s Halloween activities as adult observer
  21. How a persons with disabilities is doing in her personal life (friendships, finances, other needs) is known and addressed.
These are only a start, but EVERY church could be engaged in growing in these areas.


We are not teaching our pastors/leaders what to do

I have visited and read about many different ministries for persons with various disabilities. Often these ministries are not integrated. That is, they are separate from the larger congregation. They do their own thing almost entirely separate from the rest of the church. Occasionally representatives from the ministry will perform a song or intersect with the congregation in ways that are comfortable for the congregation. I could write another whole post about these opportunities which have a large downside. The ministries themselves do good work in attempting to help those with various disabilities come to understand the things of the Lord related to the plan of salvation, Bible memorization and Christian behavior. All of these are good things. But as I look on these kinds of ministries it is clear to me that they are not fully addressing what disability is. Disability is not just something housed in individuals who have some type of impairment. It is also a characteristic of the environment. It is also a form of discrimination. But I don't think that leaders of ministries or church leaders/pastors understand this.

I had an interesting conversation with a church leader recently. In that conversation it became clear that aspects of disability ministry aimed at changing the culture of the church in terms of its acceptance of persons with disabilities down to simple things like trying to facilitate their being chosen as friends was not something that she had thought about. She was about sharing the Gospel, and helping those with disabilities to come to faith in Jesus; both really good things. However, the response of the congregation to those with disabilities in terms of loving and accepting them wasn't something she had really thought about. When I shared about the social isolation often experienced because people are not chosen as friends, it caused her to pause as if this was a revelation. Almost as if this was not something that should or could be expected of people. Do you get that? The expectation from the leader was that there would not be social interaction between those with and without impairments. Perhaps we in ministry have taught congregations and leaders that fact by the way we have designed ministries, or perhaps our ministries reflect the fact that we have bought that lie. Either way, we cannot continue to do ministry in that way. We need to choose a different path that will no doubt lead to confrontation if only in a confrontation of perspectives.

We might hear things like, "I thought you wanted it this way!" reflecting the way in which we have segregated those we claim to serve.
We might hear things like, "We can't do that because that is not the way things are done!" reflecting our discriminatory traditions which we have chosen not to confront and are therefore complicit in.
We might also hear something like, "You are absolutely right. I feel like I need to come to repentance (see previous post). Can you help us to move in that direction.

Our leaders, I believe, really don't know what they should be doing in large part because we have not had the confrontive, in a positive way, conversation about the cultural change that needs to happen. Our being complicit in segregation does not facilitate the change in church culture that is desperately needed.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"I feel like I have been brought to repentance"

In my work with the Joni and Friends organization, I have been given wonderful opportunities to travel and teach about disability, ministry to and with persons with disabilities and the Bible and theology as it relates to disability. In most situations the folks are like the proverbial "deer in the headlights." They have lived their lives as Christians, attending church, perhaps attending Bible college or seminary. But, sadly, they have not heard the kinds of things we share.

This past Spring in Singapore, we were hosted by a wonderful pastor. Brilliant young man with a heart for those with disabilities, but no real training in the area. He described himself as a kindergartner when it came to these issues. He attended all the sessions, even doing some himself. He remarked that to him it now seems that most of the Bible is talking about perhaps disability, if not devaluation of persons. At the close of the conference, he said "I feel like I have been brought to repentance." He related that it was like he was doing something wrong but he didn't know he was. But now he understands and hence the desire to repent.

Later during the Summer, we spoke to leaders for World Vision's WASH program (a really wonderful program, look it up!) from 7 countries in Southern Africa. The leaders were pastors, WV country directors, state agency workers and folks with disabilities. We shared similar information to that that which we did in Singapore. When a time for feedback was provided to the leaders, one man, a wonderful, older pastor said, "I feel like I have been brought to repentance." The exact words we had heard in Singapore. He related many of the same observations as did others in the group that people related to the information in Singapore. Once again it was so exciting to be a part of this.

I have had similar experience to these in other places in the world. A powerful one was once in Ethiopia. I shared about how the church has excluded people. The translator translated, I then said "God forgive us!" She translated, then the 100 pastors and leaders in the audience boomed out "GOD FORGIVE US!"  It was an incredibly powerful moment.

I hope the same kinds of feelings are happening in the US. I have often said that the starting point for disability ministry is repentance. We begin by going to people and asking for forgiveness for how we have treated them, how we have excluded or segregated them. After that, we can ask if they will be involved in ministry with us.

Finally, I once spoke at a conference in Melbourne, Australia. It was a group of about a hundred folks. Wonderful people and a challenging time. In the midst of one presentation, I said,
"I really have no right to say this to you, but I would like to apologize to any of you who might have been excluded or not treated as you should have been because of disability. Please forgive us."
Immediately there was this woman who just started crying and weeping uncontrollably. Once she regained her composure a bit she said, "I have been waiting for this!  I have been waiting for this apology!"

A true Biblical understanding of people, particularly people who have been devalued even unintentionally, should bring us to repentance.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Woman removed from her social network by a caseworker

Well it happened again...
A woman who attended our Light & Power Company ministry, living in a local group home was moved by her case worker to a different group home about 20 miles away. The woman who was moved was very sweet and very connected to a variety of people at church. I have mentioned her in the past in this blog as someone who I could count on to pray for me. Although she had severe intellectual disabilities, we were beginning to teach her to use her gifts of praying which brought her great delight.

When we asked the group home owner why she moved, the response was basically just that her caseworker decided to move her to a different home in another city. I will be attempting to contact the caseworker to inform her that if she was actually interested in the welfare of those she claims to serve, she should take notice of the social supports someone has developed rather than just unilaterally moving someone.

This happened once before to a dear friend who was moved to a different apartment. His caseworker once again just moved him without any effort to interact with his social network in the community or the church. He was cut off from people who loved him and enjoyed being with him. For him to interact with those folks changed from a walk down the street to a long walk to public transportation leading to several hours of travel if he wanted to meet with friends.

If you are a social worker or some other caseworker for persons with disabilities who are attending a church, you should talk to the people in the social network. Persons with intellectual disabilities like my friend who just moved can be very easily led but those who really know them will have a better understanding of their likes and dislikes.  The gal who was moved loved going to church, loved the women's activities she participated in as well as the other parties and activities we facilitate with our group. I am confident in her new placement there will none of these options if only because of the somewhat limited opportunities for persons with severe disabilities to attend church. I am confident she will experience the social isolation that comes from living in a typical group home.

This points out potential problems with human services where they can be absolutely out of touch with the social network benefits of church participation. Church participation should actually be a significant aspect of what they are trying to facilitate in the lives of persons with disabilities rather than short circuiting it as was done in this case.


Monday, October 02, 2017

"Guard dogs who cannot bark"

Dr. Timothy S. Laniak's While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks: Forty daily reflections on Biblical leadership is a wonderful resource, using the world of shepherding as the metaphor for understanding leadership. One of the reflections I particularly liked is entitled "Dogs." Here is an excerpt from that section which is particularly relevant to our work in facilitating the inclusion of persons with disabilities in local churches.  It begins by quoting Isaiah 56:10.

Isaiah 56:10 "Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark."

"Israel's watchmen are "all mute dogs that cannot bark." While the prophet's condemnation of a particular generation of leaders is negative, he presumes a positive role for spiritual watchdogs. Perhaps Isaiah had in mind the ruling elite here, but the metaphor of a guard is especially suited to prophets. Ezekiel, for example was appointed explicitly as a "watchman for the house of Israel." Prophets were heralds of coming judgment, sounding an alarm when the community drifted from its covenant obligations. They "barked" when they sensed danger. Though typically unpopular, prophets told the truth about the present and the future. In contrast, false prophets were more interested in popularity and superficial peacekeeping. They slept while danger approached.
...I've reflected often about the marginal role of prophetic watchdogs, perhaps because I've found myself sounding a continuous warning that others decided was misplaced. They saw peace and I saw trouble. But I've also ignored dogs whose warnings were grounded in irrefutable facts; the truth was just too inconvenient. God gifts the church with prophets who "see what's coming," but I'm afraid the majority of us resist the caution and tire of the incessant yapping. History has exposed a church slow in responding to warnings about racism and materialism, to name just two threats.
...Has God called us to make noise about a specific issue? Has our intensity waned because of a growing reputation that we bark too much? The destiny of a prophet is to sound the alarm when necessary, and for as long as necessary. Often alone... The community cannot be left with...guard dogs who cannot bark." (p. 147-149)

Partners in ministry, many of us have been "barking" for a LONG time. For myself it seems like almost every conversation I find myself in somehow revolves into a discussion of the critical place of persons with impairments in the church and community and how they have experienced exclusion. I am confident people tire of me and that subject. But that's ok. I am responsible for my "bark" as are you. To be satisfied with the way things are when you see they are not as they should be, is to be in need of being awakened to the injustice. Have you ever wondered why you see the injustice when others do not? That question alone should make you pause. Why do you see it? I am confident that you see it because you are called to attempt to do something about what has been revealed to you. Please don't tire of your work! Keep barking!!