Featured image: Hyatt Moore creates a banquet table surrounded by people with disabilities from all nations based on Luke 14:20, at the Joni and Friends Global Access Conference which preceded the Lausanne Consultation on Disability Concerns. © 2015 Joni and Friends, used with permission
Why do so few people with disabilities serve as Christian leaders? If people with disabilities globally number more than one billon, where are the pastors, deacons, missionaries, Sunday school teachers and leaders of Christian organizations who, by God’s design, have disabilities? In response to this need, Joni Eareckson Tada concludes, ‘Disability ministry is not disability ministry unless the disabled are ministering.’
The Cape Town Commitment states, ‘We encourage church and mission leaders to think not only of mission among those with a disability, but to recognize, affirm and facilitate the missional calling of believers with disabilities themselves as part of the Body of Christ’ (II-B-4, emphasis added). Although local churches and Christian para-church organizations genuinely care and have made progress in responding to this commitment, they struggle to include people with disabilities in their leadership.
What was Ministry Access?
Ministry Access, the Lausanne Consultation on Disability Concerns, convened on 21 February 2015 in California, USA. The goal of this consultation was to identify obstacles standing in the way of people with disabilities who want to become Christian leaders. A passage that set the thematic tone for the consultation is ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord’ (Lev 19:14, NIV). Ministry Access focused on stumbling blocks, obstacles that impede access to ministry leadership roles for people with disabilities.
Obstacles come from several sources: wrongly interpreted biblical passages or incorrect theological principles; inaccurate social and relational habits in local churches; and assumptions that stem from ideological and cultural misperceptions. Although physical and material obstacles to leadership access still exist, most of the more stubborn and subtle obstacles are embedded in human hearts. These are the most difficult obstacles to uncover and remove for they are, in many respects, invisible but rooted deeply in church culture.
To pinpoint obstacles, the consultation focused on the entire process for preparing leaders with disabilities. Three overlapping phases for ministry preparation include: (1) finding and selecting people with disabilities who are called and gifted for leadership roles; (2) discipling and training them for effective leadership ministry; and (3) placing and nurturing them in leadership roles.
Disability leaders then presented time-tested ministry models specifically designed for people with disabilities: several deaf pastoral and organization leaders (Asia), a blind church-planting pastor to the Rhoma blind (Europe), and a legally blind young leader who is also with quadriplegia (USA). The details of these ministries and the outcomes of the Lausanne Consultation on Disability Concerns will be treated in detail in an article for the Lausanne Global Analysis (Fall 2015).
Who participated in the Disability Concerns consultation?
Thirty disability ministry leaders from diverse geographical and professional backgrounds gathered to address the challenge of obstacles to people with disabilities who are called and gifted for local church and Christian organizational leadership. They offered a variety of perspectives that represents the broader population. A number of these leaders have developed training ministries in other countries. These included Lausanne younger leaders, leaders engaged in disability ministry around the world, and leaders from Joni and Friends, the disability ministry that hosted the event.
What is the network’s vision?
The vision for the Lausanne Disability Concerns Network in the short view is to pick up the gauntlet of The Cape Town Commitment and carry it forward. We are developing a working group focused specifically on the singular initiative of removing obstacles before people with disabilities whom God has gifted and called to local church and Christian leadership roles. This may well be one of the most challenging objectives of disability ministry but it is also one of the most strategic for ministry to people with disabilities because these are the leaders who will reach out to others with disabilities in local churches and Christian organizations. Some disability groups have their own language and culture that others find difficult to learn and in which they may not be accepted.
The network’s vision for the long view is also the universal disability ministry dream. The disability vision is to normalize disability in the church so that obstacles no longer exist. Two of the greatest challenges to people with disabilities, acceptance by others and access to the same opportunities others take for granted, will no longer prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in, even leading, their local church.
What are the network’s future plans?
The next Disability Concerns consultation will continue the focus on removing obstacles to people with disabilities in local church and Christian organizational leadership.
Another topic that needs to be addressed is the close connection between disability and mental illness. Some have said that it is one of the largest unaddressed challenges in local church ministry and the broader Christian community.
A third goal is to offer training for starting up new disability organizations where they are needed. Several disability leaders who attended Ministry Access design and develop organizations as their own full-time ministries, as well as consult others to start ministries. They aim to pass their knowledge and skills on to people with disabilities to start their own organizations, the priority being on local churches.