Disability and Leadership – Some Tentative Thoughts

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!


Enabling Church: First Reflections

This past Tuesday (June 3rd) I had the immense privilege of speaking at the Enabling Church Conference at The Bethel Centre, West Bromwich. Later, I will post the text of my talk from the conference, as well as audio links to the two deliveries of the talk from the day. I’ll also be blogging in the next few days exploring a couple of key questions and themes which arose for me during and as a result of the day In the first of my reflections, I want to offer a few general thoughts on the day as I experienced it.

Firstly, it was an incredibly exciting and privileged thing to be a part of. To arrive at the venue first thing on Tuesday and find queues into the car park to get in is quite nice as an ego massage for a speaker at a conference (I was by no means at all the main draw, but still, it’s a nice feeling!) It was also indicative that the subject of disability, God and the Church is being taken increasingly seriously in this country. Throughout the day I met people and heard stories of situations where Churches are engaging in the work of moving towards being more welcoming, inclusive and participatory for those with impairments and disabilities of all types. There was so much wisdom and experience, so much passion and enthusiasm in the conference centre. It really felt like a moment in Christian history, as Cristina Gangemi suggested. As she often says, the time is now for disability issues to play a key theological role in the life of the Church. Gone are the days when a ramp, a hearing loop and a toilet are sufficient. A Church which does not refer to weakness or impairment, which seeks to live only in victory and strength, cannot stand. On Tuesday we had the inspiration of 400 people gathered to commit themselves and the Churches they represented, to continue the onward motion and the coming of this aspect of the kingdom.

It was a great pleasure to hear the Bishop of Lichfield speak with such verve and determination to see his diocese lead the way in this work. Roy McCloughry spoke with his customary vigour and insight in inspiring the delegates to seek for greater participation for all at all levels of Church life, including leadership. John Swinton gave a fantastic presentation on personhood and discipleship, particularly in relation to those with dementia or who lack self awareness, showing that knowledge and the ability to articulate oneself is not required for salvation.

Following from this, I took part in the Disability stream, along with some people who were much more eminent, articulate and knowledgable than myself (!). I enjoyed speaking, or rabble-rousing, twice during the afternoon, on identity and disability in Christianity. As I’ve said I will add links to the content of what I said, and explore the themes in more detail, later.

Following my talk, Ann Memmott gave a clear and insightful presentation on Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Church life. Ann is a good communicator and speaks with real candour. I have always enjoyed seeing her open the eyes of audiences to the joys and the concerns of ASD and Church. She has a huge gift at making a complex subject intelligible. Jonathan Edwards was next. He currently works for Prospects, having previously been a senior figure in the Baptist Union. I would love to go to wherever he preaches every week! He spoke with real fire about a Christian response to welfare reform in the UK, in a highly practical fashion exhorting the Church to take its role as the social leader of Britain seriously. The sessions were concluded by an audience feedback slot, led by Cristina Gangemi, Disability Advisor to the Vatican for the Catholic Church (perhaps now you can see why I felt a bit overawed!) where once again it became clear, both times, how much wisdom and experience there was in the room. Roy McCloughry chaired the gathering, and Tim Wood facilitated us all expertly.

As we were running our stream throughout the afternoon, I didn’t get to hear any other speakers, but the theme of the day was clear: The Church is God’s. It is for all, not some. Every Church, every Christian, can do something so that the ultimately enabling faith of Jesus Christ can be accessed by all who seek Him. What an inspiring hope. It was enthralling to see a little way in to the future as the day drew to a close and to imagine how far, with the help of God, we might have journeyed along the road in a few years time.

I am hugely grateful to Gordon Temple, Tim Wood, Churches for All and Through the Roof for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful event and to participate in it. It’s truly humbling for me, as a relatively inexperienced speaker, to work and minister alongside so many people whom I look up to.

So, an Enabling Church? What might one of those be? I believe it is a Church which understands the call to abundant life that is offered to all by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe it is a Church which lives in such a way that that life is made available to all, from participation in which none are excluded except by their own choice. An Enabling Church is one from which the love and grace of Jesus Christ pour out in acts of abundant kindness and generosity.It is one which is fully reflective of the glorious panoply of the creation and soon-to-be-redeemed kingdom of God. It is one which gives high esteem and honour to its “weakest” members, does not avoid pain and suffering, but journeys together with individuals and communities as they do suffer. It teaches and exists to glorify Christ and Him crucified above all else It is a small, as yet imperfect picture of the final, technicolour coming kingdom. It is something that we are invited to be a part of today.

In my next blog I hope to look at the issue of disability and leadership, both from the point of view of disabled people leading in Churches, and those who are abled seeking best to lead disabled people in Churches, and in family life.


Disability News

Enabling Church 3.6.14

I’m looking forward to speaking at the Midlands Enabling Church Conference 2014 next Tuesday (June 3rd). For more information on the conference you should visit the Enabling Church Website – this is an important day for anyone involved or interested in living and working with disabled people in Churches. I’ll be  offering some thoughts on Identity and Future Hope in Disability.

Other more important/eminent/noteworthy people speaking at the event include Joni Eareckson Tada, John Swinton and Roy McCloughry. It’s an event teeming with expertise and wisdom and a real privilege for me to be involved. Don’t miss out.