Did you know that a church that has a disability ministry with state-of-the-art facilities, well-equipped volunteers, and staff-leaders with special education experience can still be un-welcoming to individuals with disabilities and their families? As a disability ministry leader, this reality is both scary and humbling. And I think it has something to do with control. I can work on systems, advocate for resources, and spend time polishing the program (relatively in my control), but I can’t make our congregation buy in (out of my control). It is, after all, the welcoming greeter, the servant usher, the hospitable pew-sitter, and the genuine and gentle leader – the whole congregation – who inform the culture of welcome.
So, how do I spend more time on that? I know it’s not in my control, but is it at least in my influence?
One of the most helpful tools that I have found to frame this conversation, while giving clear and Biblical vision, is The 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes. It is an assessment continuum addressing worldview/attitudes toward persons with disabilities and has been the most formative tool in trying to create an ‘all-abilities-welcomed-and-valued’ culture at our church. Here’s a quick run-down.
1. Ignorance: Those who either purposely or inadvertently do not engage with persons with disabilities, perhaps because they’re uncomfortable or because they simply lack awareness. There are also those who might fit into this category that may be aware of disability, but have a worldview that is destructive and ill-informed.
2. Pity: There are others who don’t positively engage with persons with disabilities, but they have an awareness and perhaps even a ‘heart-tug’ for them. It’s a passive engagement, they are often just grateful that “it’s not their child.”
3. Care: Then there are the good people who want to take those feelings of compassion (usually paired with conviction) and put them into action. Care is anything that one does for or toward an individual with disabilities. Let me pause to say that there’s nothing wrong with care – it’s a wonderful thing! It’s just that there’s more… The “one-way street” of care can be less than dignifying (i.e. you have all these needs, I have all these assets). It’s possible to give care to someone without really knowing them.
4. Friendship: This is where it gets radical and transformative! This is where time is spent with a person who has disabilities and there is a willingness to learn, no agenda or pride getting in the way. In this stage, the two parties are on the same level and each is understood by the other more deeply than before (strengths, weaknesses, joys, hurts, skills, passions, hobbies, interests). This genuine relationship gives dignity and gets toward the heart of belonging.
5. Co-Laborers: Finally, there are those who live into the full kingdom-vision of God and know that people with disabilities who belong to Christ are co-laborers in His kingdom. Anyone who belongs to Jesus is part of the body (1 Corinthians 12) and has a vital, indispensable role to play. Is this not the vision we have for every member of our church? Every person we refer to as a disciple? Disability does not change this vision. It is for all who belong to Christ!
So, my encouragement to you…
1. Assess. Where are you personally? Where is your congregation?
2. Influence. How can you take one step forward, individually or as a church community?
Vinnie Adams is the Reflectors Special Needs Ministry Director and Campus Worship Leader at Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana. he and his wife, Kate, currently live in Crown Point, Indiana with their sons, Jakob (4) and Josiah (1).