Thursday, June 20, 2013

Privileging Disability through Mission, Vision and Value Reviews

I am grateful for churches who have developed special needs and disability programs.  In the last decade more have come into being, although not nearly enough.  But a caution to ministry leaders -- just because you have developed something, do not let it wither.  Strategic reviews are periodically necessary to ensure that it is still meeting the need of your community and the mission of your church.  If you do not intentionally look for your blind spot, someone else will find it for you. A great church in Southern California, with a successful disability ministry, missed something and has been called out on it publicly.  Be proactive and do not let it get to that point.  If Jesus could take time to wash the disciples feet, then we can take time to let our programs be subject to the personhood of people with disability.

So how do you avoid this?  By privileging disability.  Ensure that an intentional attempt is made to put those with disability in our line of sight.  Author Thomas Reynolds argues for this in his theological work Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality.  A simple purview of the New Testament will show that Jesus spent much of his public discourse with those who were either disabled in body or socially disabled within the community.

What does this look like in a church or pastoral staff meeting?  Every decision should be examined from a standpoint of disability. (Notice that even in my language here I did not privilege those who are unable to stand - ablist attitudes are unconsciously  interwoven into our thought and speech). Mission, Vision and Implementation statements should clearly welcome those with special needs.  Sermons, programs, and budgets should match the vision.

How can churches practically do this?  Here are just a few ideas.

  • Put the special needs information in the bulletin or on social media on a regular basis - do not hide it under layers of other ministries.
  • Assign a pastor, board member, or key congregational leader as the person with oversight and input -- and publicly identify them.
  • Feature disability prominently in your public mission statement - (example: Orchard View Alliance Church in Janesville, Wisconsin.
  • Ensure that persons with mobility needs are including in discussions of facility priorities.
  • Allow people with special needs to be fully included in all areas of the church -- even governance.
  • Invite a person with a disability to minister from the pulpit.

Privileging those with disability will allow us to embrace God's entire picture.

    Wednesday, June 19, 2013

    Disability in the Hebrew Bible

    Language Matters.  Those who have taken the R-Word pledge understand the disabling effects of words.  In order to adequately develop theologies of disability, attention must be paid to both the social context in which Biblical passages emerged and to the very words themselves.

    In Disability In the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences, Saul M. Olyan (PhD – Harvard), professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island, investigates the earliest textual representations from a philological perspective.  By examining the words and their related cognate forms in other languages, he articulates some insight into how disability obtained meaning in ancient writings.

    The study begins by examining the physical characteristics that mark either beauty or ugliness in the ideal male and female and then relates the contrast between blemish and perfection.  While there is major overlap, the categories are not exclusively congruent, particularly in the Wisdom literature.

    Olyan examines blemish further and proposes there was another broader taxonomy inclusive of disability based in weakness, vulnerability, and dependence.  He discovers that mental disabilities and some physical disabilities did not fall into the blemish category, but all shared marginalization and stigmatization as evidenced by surrounding textual information.  He acknowledges that much of the prophetic utopian vision uses persons with disability to demonstrate YHWH’s purpose and power.  While some of the text indicates continued marginalization, there is a strong thread that also shows the opposite.  Those with disabilities, both ambulatory and non-ambulatory, are welcomed back from exile, into worship, and made beautiful in their disability.

    Olyan refocuses his attention from persons with blemish to the relationship between wholeness and holiness.  The same stigmatizing language used for people were also utilized for building materials and sacrifices deemed unsuitable for the temple.  He concludes his work by examining how the Qumran community actually broadened the category of defect and increased marginalization, prohibiting any from entering the community assembly.

    Olyan accomplished his purpose of reconstructing disability taxonomy through the analysis of the text.  The philological method utilized in this book is an important key in reshaping our contextual notions in the interpretation of certain passages from the Hebrew Bible.  The limits of this method are acknowledged -- it is impossible to determine motive behind the textual fragment.  Isolating text can give insight, but also removes it from the larger context of the Biblical tradition and redemptive history.  His work does, however, demonstrate that the religious trajectory has been more exclusive than even the original writers intended and is in specific contrast to a line of prophetic utopian envisioning which seeks to privilege disability.  Further scholarship, particularly in the eschatological passages, will be welcomed.

    Disability In the Hebrew Bible is relevant particularly to those engaged in Hebrew Bible or disability studies, as well as those seeking to understand the Judean context into which Christ spoke and performed healings.

    Wednesday, June 12, 2013

    Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities

    Book Review

    The integration of disability theology and ministry is a relatively new field of study with most attention focused first on de-institutionalized adults in the late 20th century and then on the inclusion of children with special needs in the first decade of this one.  Children naturally grow towards adolescence and emerge into the natural chaos of youth groups.

    Benjamin T. Conner (PhD-Princeton), Associate Professor of Christian Discipleship at Western Seminary in Holland, MI, draws upon a twenty year experience of youth ministry and his training as a missiologist to inform Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities.   Having both offered and received ministry from numerous youth across a wide ability spectrum, he articulates a missional paradigm of friendship-based, inclusive youth ministry in this very accessible 116 page practical guide.

    Conner’s key concepts are reflected in the title: As the faith community needs to hear all prophetic voices in order to bear full witness of Christ, the role of the youth minister is to ensure that those not normally respected must be given opportunity to fully participate and be heard.  He takes a practice centered approach, advocating the creation of appropriate environments and welcoming spaces for faith to be nurtured by the Spirit.  Recognizing that many with development disabilities have difficulty keeping up with the pace of youth culture, he challenges the notion that faith development and human development are in strict tandem alliance.

    Conner urges fellow ministers to seek the Visio Dei – seeing life through God’s images.  That approach peers beyond impairments and gives new imagination in doing relational ministry of friendship.  He continues by exploring the Imago Dei, asserting the face of God is more about encountering Him through friendship than conceptualizing Him through reason.  Similarly, as agents of Christ, we are called to be sacramental by developing intentional grace filled friendships as opposed to instrumentally utilizing people to fulfill ministry responsibilities.  He challenges our incomplete understanding of the Missio Dei – the role of the church in participating in God’s redemptive story .  We must allow those with profound disabilities to transform our faith and witness by offering them a place to appear.  He concludes by articulating the Opus Dei – the work of God – as it relates for mutual ministry with adolescents with disability.  Here he turns from a theoretical structure and outlines practical steps for implementing changes in youth groups and their hosting congregations.

    Conner’s work engages the best in current evangelical and pentecostal scholarship. Those within the reformed tradition will feel especially at home.  Those outside that tradition will only need to extract the intentions behind his analysis of the sacraments and redesign the application to fit their communities. 
    Amplifying Our Witness is an excellent readable resource for any minister or lay youth worker and should become an essential supplemental text in any introductory youth ministry course.

    Sunday, June 09, 2013

    Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality


    Over the years repeated studies of the social habits of persons with disabilities and their related families have been done. The one constant, despite changing attitudes in education and employment, indicates that families remain isolated outside of community and the church due to perceived differences. Thomas E. Reynolds (PhD.-Vanderbilt), the Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Canada seeks to chart a path towards inclusion that does not begin with self-sufficiency but human vulnerability. Reynolds writes VulnerableCommunion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality not only as a theologian but also as a father of a child with significant disabilities. His ideal audience is neither the typical lay disability minister nor family of persons with disability, but pastor theologians responsible for creating local church community.

    This 256 page book delves deeply into theological and social constructs yet remains rooted in the real experiences of theologian as father. While the focus is certainly not on his family’s story, the occasional vignettes shared lend credence to critical thought within the work. It is in part this passion that provides an impetus to reconstructing a theology of disability that begins with vulnerability – thereby offering inclusion to all humanity by privileging disability and culminating with hospitable community. This prophetic beam into the cult of normalcy illustrates redemption through the paradox of Christ’s power in weakness.

    Reynolds begins his discussion by summarizing the current progress of disability theology, quickly discarding the medical model and clearly articulating that while impairments may be physical, disability is a social construct. He pushes beyond the sticky answers of theodicy questions by arguing that theological understandings are held sway by that same construct and must be re-examined through the lens of privileged disability. He grounds his hermeneutic of disability within the larger redemptive narrative, arguing that all persons in their vulnerability co-exist in God’s presence.

    Rethinking disability must begin by challenging the cult of normalcy, Reynolds asserts. He defines true community as the place where personhood of all is welcomed and allowed to flourish with purpose within a structured framework. He argues that all social cultures create a sense of normal which imposes control on those that are abnormal while acknowledging that dominant Christian understandings of holiness (wholeness) has contributed to the overarching pejorative social norms. Reynolds rebels against this construct due to his rejection of its fundamental premises. Normalization does not equate to independence, free choice, and utility; those are subsets of yet deeper holistic goals. He argues against society’s reasoned perception by which personhood is determined through the participation of the free, equal, and independent. He continues by illustrating the faults inherent within the productive imperative – the societal pressure which promotes consumerism by creating efficient capital – which further marginalizes those with disabilities.
    Reynolds posits an alternative ideal, drawing upon redemptive hope that lies within the relational embodiment of welcome and the moral embrace of love. He sketches out a new anthropology, illustrating an economy of exchange, not based on body capital but upon gracious gifts of God distributed throughout Christ’s body. All beings are therefore incomplete and vulnerable – wholeness and personhood is only found through coexistence within Christ. Vulnerability necessitates all persons are at times needy and endure suffering, facilitating genuine bidirectional, enabling, welcoming, and available love.

    Reynolds reexamines God’s continuing redemptive loving relationship towards his creation. His analysis of the creation story yields that all created beings are welcomed as good, despite what human economies might attribute. Furthermore, he asserts that the creation story illustrates the interdependence and vulnerability of creation upon itself. It is this vulnerability which attracts the ensuing shadow of tragedy in which God too suffers. Yet it is through this suffering that the culmination of the redemptive story is enabled.
    Reynolds presents the providential grace that upholds the created order as the antidote for the cult of normalcy. He argues that the image of God signifies that humans have the capacity to share in relation, creation, and the agency of God’s work. Sinfulness disrupts this capacity, but the redemptive suffering of Christ, sharing in our vulnerability, allows for reconciliation. It is this redemption that transforms vulnerability into communion with God – foreshadowing the future eschatological glory. This Reynolds states, validates his thesis – disability bearing the image of God, perceived as part of creations vulnerability and not as a deficiency, is an affirmation of God’s redemptive love.

    Reynolds concludes his work by seeking to empower the church (ecclesia) as a hospitable place – a vulnerable community. The task of the local church is to work out this new anthropological economy living out as the body of Christ by means of embodied relationships. It is in this space that genuine healing takes place through the welcoming of the weak and vulnerable hiding within the margins of society. Church growth occurs as welcome leads to welcome. In essence, the church can only become a redemptive space by empowering those with disabilities to find a welcomed place at the table.

    Reynolds successfully articulates his position that the paradox of the cross and vulnerability are the nexus of community. Some may justifiably find his identification of market capital enterprise and the rise of eighteenth century reason as the locus of continued marginalization untenable, as persons with disability were not privileged prior to that time either. Yet his point resonates within the lower echelons of society and is vital in his juxtaposition of the powers of this world with the frailty of humanity.

    While Reynolds navigates deep theological and philosophical threads through the majority of the book, the transition towards a hospitable communion of love seemed ragged. It was here that he turned away from a reasoned arguments towards a narrative approach derived from his personal experience, classic Dostoevsky literature and both Lukan and Pauline biblical theology to explain how love transforms perceived deficits into welcoming hospitality. His return to the idea of a new economy within the body of Christ that had been introduced earlier could have been explored further. He briefly touches on the impact that vulnerability could have on the Christian response to the alien, stranger, and others in the margins but never completely develops those thoughts in this work. His conclusions, though valid, appeared to be underdeveloped as compared to the rest of the book. Perhaps that is where the role moves from the theologian to the pastor.

    Vulnerable Communion is an important foundation for local church leaders. Rather than explaining why disability ministry should occur, it successfully remembers the fact that all are disabled and all have gifts. Only in the mutuality of shared vulnerability can the household of God affect the world. If the concepts illustrated in this book are implemented in the local church, all modes of ministry will look radically different.

    Saturday, June 08, 2013

    Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities


     Persons with disability have co-existed within culture in a parallel universe – only recently have these two domains collided with each other. Normalization and inclusion have slowly advanced in many social and education settings, but grind to a mere crawl for many persons by early adulthood. A crucial bridge is needed to anchor the transition into adulthood to guarantee full participation in the community. The answer which Erik W. Carter posits in Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities may lie in the one social institution even more resistant to change – congregational communities. This work develops a prophetic picture of the ideal – a mutual interchange between social service providers and the church as community. Seeing this book as a practical guide, Carter drifts from his role as a recognized special educator and emerges as an aspiring practical theologian.

    This Best Special Needs Title 2007 awarded by Exceptional Parent Magazine, captures the essence of Carter’s desire to integrate traditional special education transitional services alongside faith communities. Carter, (Wheaton College, PhD-Vanderbilt), a former high school transitional specialist and now Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College/Vanderbilt University approaches this 236 page volume from the perspective of one who was brought into a faith community through the witness of a person with intellectual disability. His approach, therefore, immediately places social valuation on the effectiveness of the contributions of persons with disability in the larger dominant domain and never looks back. He examines the symbiotic roles both religious institutions and social service providers can mutually undertake and highlights the changes each institution will need to undergo in order to exponentially expand the integration of persons with disability into the larger community.

    Carter intends for this book to be used as guide map for a congregational journey towards full inclusion. He clearly states the problem – only an insignificant percentage of people with disabilities are active in faith communities. The following seven chapters and two in depth appendixes of resources provide clear markers on where to go and what to do.

    For those unfamiliar with the developments in recent disability history, Carter offers a brief recap of the rise of disability rights and education in the 20th century and the remaining barriers persons with disability have to gain full inclusion. He then turns his attention to what signals a welcoming congregation through the lens of a person with a disability. In a convicting taxonomy, he establishes a metric for congregations to measure their progress in developing an inclusive church and then suggests systems and procedures that can propel a congregation in forward movement through critical reflection and response.

    Not content to just challenge a congregation, Carter spends the next three chapters developing resources, questions, and proposing solutions for the three main arenas of church life: corporate worship services, personal religious education, and daily fellowship and support. He asserts that congregations who think they are welcoming may not be perceived in that manner. He advocates that deliberate and targeted intentionality be added to mission statements, greeting programs and outreach events. Multiple sample surveys and vignettes are provided in order to help develop a vision team which assesses the congregation’s readiness and willingness as well as examining what potential partnership resources already exist in the larger local community. Lest participants think everything can be program driven, he issues a key admonition – focus on prayer and people. An important reminder is also given – as congregations tend to change over every five years, successful implementation of cultural change will need to take place over the long term during several cycles for positive integration.

    Carter moves his focus from the facility and corporate culture of the church to that of individualized personal religious action programs and plans with a focus on equipping lay volunteers. He cautions that a program which merely segregates students at ability level does not take advantage of the mutuality of the richness of community – the most important faith lessons, he asserts, occurs in the relationships that develop between teacher and student. He suggests that religious education workers receive professional development and insight from public school and social service professionals on appropriate curricular accommodations and modifications within the faith goals of the congregation. Inversely, he recommends that the separate domains of Sunday school and public school be bridged – inviting religious workers to request observation time of the student in a daily educational setting.

    Recognizing that people’s faith journeys do not occur only on the Sabbath, Carter spends extensive time looking at how the church can help during the other six days. Many families and adults touched by disabilities live in a realm of artificial paid supports and services. Carter asserts that natural lifelong supports already existing in the congregation have the potential to develop enduring relationships and real friendships within the community. For this to happen, however, requires an intentional effort on the part of the congregation and a change in visitation polices in pastoral care guidelines. He further recommends that congregations seek ways to develop vocation – meaningful work and service – in the lives of people with disabilities and urges them to lead by example. He advises a congregational review of every weekday ministry the church sponsors through the lens of disability. He offers numerous ideas on how congregations can develop spiritual and emotional support at major life transition times as well as through common respite events. After systematically tearing down objections to potential ministry, Carter concludes with a final prophetic injunction – the congregation must respond personally in some way.

    Carter, writing from within the social service tradition, does not lay all the blame for lack on inclusion at the foyer of the church. He knows all too well that the service provider industry has not traditionally taken steps to facilitate the appropriate spiritual growth of its clients. He takes to task and then challenges those within the profession to invest the time with their clients to find out their desire. He liberates providers and addresses their reluctance head on by pointing to research that indicates persons with disabilities with spiritual supports have more meaningful expressions and relationships in the other domains for their lives. He provides numerous resources: surveys, person center planning approaches, revisited policy statements and new best practices guidelines that can aid service providers in crafting a different support approach.
    Carter concludes his book by melding both sectors together. He recognizes clearly that future success at true inclusion and integration will only come about through established partnerships between the social service sector and the local congregation within a broader community network. He recommends a process of strengths based community mapping which identifies current assets and focuses on networking them together. He also recommends that congregations create mutual disability gatherings – working together to transform the community. It is through these collaborative efforts, Carter believes, that persons with disabilities will be able to become fully integrated and included in the local community.

    In authoring this book, Carter brought an important witness to bear in the larger Christian community. Without question, he appropriately identified one of the largest hidden social justice issues in the contemporary Christian community today; moreover, he offered a practical solution. The author accomplished his stated intention – providing numerous reproducible resources and a flexible framework to assist any local congregation in developing a collaborative effort for mutual integration.

    Furthermore, it was written in an easily understandable fashion without falling into the trap of over using either theological jargon or clinical language. That asset, however, may have been one of its weaknesses. While it is clear Carter writes from a Christian religious perspective, it is also evident that he approaches this interfaith textbook from a clinical lay persons eye; he remains an outsider without inclusive access to clergy. While service provider and educational institutions are required to implement and often embrace best practices fairly quickly, congregational dynamics make change tediously slow. His arguments resound within the disability and service provider community, but they do not tend to convict congregations whom remain convinced they already do too much. Unless one is already attuned, his prophetic notes fall flat without a deeper exposition into contemporary expressions of theology. The Christian community becomes moved through narrative and testimony, connecting a daily spiritual experience within the larger scope of covenant history and redemption, yet very few connecting vignettes appeared outside of the introduction. This approach is undoubtedly due to the editorial requirement of the publisher rather than the actual experience of the author.

    After grappling with the issue and solution presented in this book, pastor leaders should be able to rethink their role and must let it affect their life prior to proclamation and presentation. This is not a task to be entered into lightly, as it will serve as a cultural shift in a congregation’s missional strategy. Nevertheless, it remains a critical book for church leaders to comprehend as the onus of deciphering this into the language of faith lies squarely upon the local church pastor.

    Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families,& Congregations. Erik W. Carter. (Baltimore, Md.: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co., 2007). 236 pp. Paperback, $28.00, ISBN: 978-1-55766-743-4