At the recent Enabling Church Conference, I was asked if I had any thoughts or recommendations regarding the issue of disability and leadership. From my understanding the question was posed both in terms of being about how best to encourage disabled people to best participate to the fullness of their potential in Church leadership as they are called and equipped, and also regarding how a leader who might be considered “abled” might go about leading those who are disabled within their faith community.
I don’t have a straightforward easy answer, and I haven’t seen much in the literature on disability and Church/theology regarding this issue. It is approached in Tony Phelps-Jones’s excellent book, “Making Church Accessible to All” ( a good starting point of thinking about varius aspects of working with and for disabled people in Church life), in which he and others strongly contend for an honest seeking of true, every-member, ministry. This is ministry where the gifts and callings of each person (for of course, first every person must be seen as exactly that, a person, beloved and cherished of God and whom we too are called to love) are encouraged to flourish. It might seem that the ministry of people who are weaker, or less able can only be managed, or facilitated by those who are more able, but in fact this would raise a key question for me: on whose terms is ministry in Church, and participation in Church life, being undertaken? If it is on our terms then the first issue that we have to address, I would suggest, is whether thsoe terms themselves need to change, whether our vision of what it is to be a part of the body of Christ, a leader in it to whatever extent, is too small.
If you want to encourage every-member ministry, I think it should be feasible to make it happen, on the provisio that:
- You have good relationships with those who you are leading and they are keen to be led by you, or by your team
- Out of those good relationships, you are able to discern, with each other and with God, what that person is called to be and to do. This might require some humility all round. It might require the leader or leadership team to let go of an aspect of community life, so that someone else is able to flourish. As James Lawrence suggests in “Growing Leaders”, we are all leaders, because we lead our own lives, if nothing else, and most of us actually lead more than jsut our own lives if we stop and think. It semes to be human nature to make things hierarchical and to submit to authority. Even people who say they don’t submit are instinctively aware of where power and influence lie and react against it.
- The last key aspect of this part of things, I would contend, is to have a wide enough vision of what a person offers. Many people who don’t have the ability to communicate, or have the potential for self-awareness, or self-determination are able to lead people into the very throne room of God, simply through even a smile or a joyful glance. If only we’d let them. As we live in, to coin John Swinton’s phrase, “a hyper-cognitive age” so I think we run the risk of rendring the whole concept of Christian community and life together a pipedream by living as if only certain people, or types of people, are capable of offering us anything which speaks of God. In practice, this might prove difficult, as we are built to expect Church and Church life to look, sound and feel a particular way. But what if God, in forcing us to embrace the diversity of the hear and now, the joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams, suffering and everything else that we see before us, is actually challenging us as a body of Christ not just to be more inclusive and participatorily open, but to have our visions of who He is blown wide open.
If we are committed to every-member ministry, the flourishing of the ministry of disabled people will follow. Each person seen, as they are through the eyes of God, can be encouraged in the direction which best suits them, and the needs of the people. God did it with Moses, with Nicodemus, with Mephibosheth and others throughout Scripture and Church history. He can do it with us and the people that he has called us to lead. I say again, I don’t actually think it is an issue of , necessarily, building a programme, or a plan for the “integration” of disabled people into leadership, or such as this, as much as it is about being willing for God to challenge our views of what Church is, who He is, and what the purposes of our communities of faith are.
I realise this isn’t very practical. If you’re looking for practical stuff, here’re a few quick thoughts.
Most practical considerations can be overcome with some willingness, careful consideration and forward planning. Think ahead and communicate well.
Seeing a “weak” person involved in public leadership is a powerful signal for a community, particularly those who don’t consider themselves disabled. If a Church never receives ministry from a person who they know to be impaired this may well have subconscious effects that we would not seek, such as Christians growing in to the belief that only the strong can lead. Again we only need to look at Moses to see that people who had profound difficulties as far as the world was concerned were able to accomplish much when submitted to The Lord. Churches need to be given the opportunity to grow in their awareness of the vitality of the breadth of creation, and, perhaps controversially, to prepare for the time when they themselves might struggle and suffer. Seeing the presence and blessing of God in those who are disabled could be argued to be an important step in the growth of Christian maturity. We as a Church, exist to glorify God in the world and to prepare for the return of Christ, the Disabled God, to complete the glorious task set before Him by the Father, as the Kingdom is finally and ultimately victorious. In order to get to this point, Jesus made Himself ultimately weak for us. Even if He knew exactly what He was doing and was going to win all along in the resurrection and ascension, the weakness was real, and is something of the patten of how we are to live as His followers. Not necessarily to the ultimate extent of death or martyrdom, but we are to be ready to lose face, wealth, honour or whatever, to consider all of this and more foolishness in the face of the grace of Christ. We are to know Jesus, and in whatever way, to know the fellowship of His sufferings. Too many of us aren’t willing to do this. We want a nice, polished, comfortable, financially viable faith. Hardly anyone in the New Testament got this, so it seems odd that we should expect it, and live like that is our aim.
So how can we see more disabled people in Church leadership? I have no idea. But God calls and He equips. It’s for us to hear and put His call into action, not place barriers in the way of what He is already doing. Affirm the disabled people you already know as beloved, cherished, welcome, crucial to the life of your Churches. Let them minister to you simply by their presence. If they are to take on more formal roles of leadership, or to be trained for “professional” ministry, remove all the physical and attitudinal barriers you can, and encourage every step of the way. A Church in which disabled people are either not present or in which they are only ministered to, is impoverished. Play a part in bringing about the nourishing and flourishing of the Church. It’s what we’re all called to do.
Throughout society, we are seeing that, if a disabled person has the aptitude, the determination and the supportive environment necessary, there is absolutely no reason why anything which is sought cannot be achieved. How much more should this be the case in the Church, called as it is to proclaim the coming of The Lord? I have said time and time again that the Church has the imperative to be a primary actor in the cause of social change in this country, showing the way in welcome and full participation for all. Our vision of victory cannot and must not reach only as far as middle class suburban comfort and being “real” men and women of strength and success. Jesus inaugurated a new way of life, one whose economy requires that the first end up last and the last first. Let’s build Churches which live out this principle, where we don’t seek strength and flee from anything which looks weak, different or scares us, but instead rejoices in the gifts and offerings of all, whatever they are.
These are extremely embryonic thoughts. I don’t even really think I’ve answered the question I was posed. I’m still thinking about it! Please do come back to me for more, for clarification, or just to start a conversation!