Five years ago, God ushered me into the world of disability ministry. I admit that I felt very unqualified and assumed it was temporary. During the job interview for my current ministry role I was asked to share my experience in disability ministry; I was forced to admit that I had none (I assumed the interview would end there). I have five children, none with a disability. None of my extended family or close friends have a disability. Upon accepting the job at Joni and Friends, I had no experience in disability ministry. In over 15 years as both a children’s and youth pastor, I had kids come through the doors with disabilities and I cared for them as best as I could…but never considered the idea of a fully inclusive ministry to individuals affected by disability.
I can now say, five years later, that God clearly called me to this role and to advocating for families and individuals affected by disability. And I have come to learn, it is more about ministry and less about disability. I do not mean that understanding and providing every reasonable accommodation for people affected by disability is not important. Rather, if we can see each person as an indispensable member of the body of Christ, then the goal of the church must be more about ministry. How do we serve, love, embrace, welcome, and celebrate everybody? How do we focus more on someone’s abilities than their disabilities? How do we begin to see people for their gifts and strengths rather than what they might seem to be lacking?
Many people, including pastors, are convinced that they need specialty training and experience to engage in the world of disability. I have learned quite the opposite. I continually invite people into disability ministry…no experience required. The fruit is not necessarily seen in understanding autism (is this truly possible?), diagnosing disabilities, or providing medical advice. While these are important in certain contexts, within the body of Christ it must be about loving people well, celebrating their life, and providing space for them to shine with their gifts. This does not require experience, it requires the heart of a servant willing to learn and love.
After five years, I would not qualify myself as an expert in disability ministry. However, I believe I’m gaining a grasp on ministry that happens to serve individuals affected by disability. In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus reveals a powerful truth of His kingdom. Greatness and leadership do not come through the typical means of power and control; instead, God’s kingdom is identified with a heart of service and preference for others above self. I do not see a qualification in His teaching that limits this servanthood only a small group of people who all look and talk alike. True servanthood is about the marginalized, the displaced, the ignored, and the outcast. It seems for Jesus, that true servanthood cannot be dependent on what I might receive back, but is truly about loving others.
By God’s grace, I have learned much on this journey. Probably my greatest lesson has been that it is not about me. It’s about loving God and loving others. I know that phrase can be cliché, but it is true.
If you had asked me five years ago what the probability was of me entering disability ministry, I would have told you that I do not even know what that is. Now, I am blessed to have friends with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and physical impairments. I have learned so much by seeing them do life with steadfast faith. I am challenged and encouraged by my friends to see God in all situations. I am in a better place today because Joni and Friends took a chance on hiring a man with no experience in disability ministry. God has enlarged my heart, expanded my vision, and extended my influence. What has happened to me personally is happening in churches across the country in much the same way. This is the fruit of disability ministry…no experience required.
Mike Dobes has been in pastoral ministry since 1997 and is currently the Manager of Church Relations for Joni and Friends.
The original version of this blog appeared on Special Needs Parenting. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.