I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for the invitation to write about the issue of stewardship and disabilities.
Spoiler Alert: For those who do not know me, I am a person with a disability. As a teenager I had bone cancer—both of my legs were amputated above the knee.
I want to begin this blog by suggesting two ways in which leaders can reframe the way that we think about ministry and disability.
From Membership to Stewardship
First, I want to suggest a move from membership to stewardship as the orienting metaphor for belonging to a congregation. Many years ago, I wrote an essay for Word and World entitled “‘Stewards of God’s Mysteries’: Stewarding as a Model for Congregational Ministry.” A central tenet of that essay was that congregational leaders should cease to think of congregations as organizations that serve (minister to) the needs of their members. Instead, leaders would do well to think of congregations as communities of ministers that exist to serve the world.
In a “membership model” of congregations, people join congregations in order to receive ministry from the professional ministers. In a “stewardship model” of congregations, people join congregations in order to share their gifts and participate in ministry for the sake of the world.
When a person looks for a congregation to join, they should be discerning, “What are the gifts that God has given me and where can I best contribute to the ministry of Christ’s Church?”
Wouldn’t church be amazing if each of us were sharing our deepest gifts with one another for the sake of God’s beloved but broken world?
From “To” to “With”
Second, I want to suggest a move from ministry “to” members to ministry “with” members—including those with disabilities.
When people look at persons with disabilities, they tend to think about them as people who receive ministry rather than those who have gifts to share in ministry.
The regional director of Minnesota state services to those with disabilities taught me this lesson a few years ago. He asked me, “How many leaders do you see with disabilities?”
Pop! A light went on for me.
Even though I have a very visible disability (no legs), I had never stopped to realize that people with disabilities are rarely seen as leaders. Whatever the field—politics, business, education, religion, and so on—people with disabilities are not called upon to lead.
Why is this the case? In part this is due to how the world teaches us to regard those with disabilities. We are taught to see those with disabilities as having “needs” rather than “gifts.”
Calling Those with Disabilities to Share Their Gifts
So what is the takeaway for those who lead congregations? It is pretty simple: The job for congregational leaders is twofold. First, to see. Second, to call.
First, the work is to see those with disabilities differently. To see them as having gifts to share. To ask them what their gifts are. This might mean that a leader needs to help them see themselves as having gifts—because the world has also taught them that they have more needs than they have gifts.
Second, call them to share their gifts. Call them to help to lead worship, to lead committees, to teach, to lead the congregation.
This might take work. And you might face resistance.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s imagine that you have someone with a mobility disability—such as being in a wheelchair or walking with a cane or walker—who has the gift of singing. Let’s also imagine that the choir sings in the balcony—and that the choir members prefer to sing from the balcony. In this example, in order to call forth the musical gifts of a disabled person, the choir might need to sing from a different location—and there might be resistance. And resistance requires time and effort to overcome.
The one example could be multiplied in many and various ways. But the point should be clear: Those with disabilities have gifts to share and need to be called to share those gifts and to participate in the ministry of the congregation.