Leaders with disabilities? Removing obstacles, opening doors

I shared a while ago about the importance of developing, empowering and releasing people with disabilities into Christian ministry and leadership.

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I’m going to have to tell y’all sometime about Dima, who’s challenged and encouraged me along MY way…

So let’s get practical… and positive. What can we actually do? First off, make friends with persons with disabilities. This is not “Phase One,” undertaken and then marked “completed.” On mission with God, we always need to reach out to those around us; the fabric of gospel transformation is woven from threads of interpersonal relationships. We can’t even start equipping and encouraging if we’re not actually being friends with persons with disabilities.

So what can leaders (like me) do to empower leaders among those with disabilities? Simply, we must remove obstacles and open doors.

Identify and remove obstacles impeding young people with disabilities from becoming leaders

The Levitical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is not an abstraction… in context, it’s actually a summary statement of practical ethical imperatives about what today we’d call “social justice.” One of these is ‘Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind’.

wall_separationSo “love your neighbor” specifically includes engaging people with disabilities as they travel along life’s pathway. God’s version of love compels us to remove impediments from before them. With obstacles cleared, people with disabilities can advance along life’s path to success and fulfillment – same as everybody. Consider the example of Job, the “righteous” man who said with integrity, ‘I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.

Some obstacles are physical, addressable by ramps or rails and the like. The most difficult obstacles, though, are in the mind.

There are roadblocks of biblical misinterpretation and theological misunderstanding. We’ll address ‘ableism’ in the church (including in our handling of Scripture) soon, but one example would be interpreting a passage from Leviticus (21:18) that forbids people with (external) disabilities from being priests to mean that ‘Christian leaders cannot have disabilities.’ This passage details qualifications for the Aaronic line of priests for temple worship; it has no direct application to leaders in the new covenant church of Christ.GA-Social-Media-Graphic-NickV-6

Obstacles can involve social misunderstanding. Like thinking that disabled people are cursed by God (or beset by demons). Or that disability is somehow contagious. Such attitudes corrode personal relationships – brutal for people dealing with impairments that already make isolation a real concern. Someone who can’t see or hear or speak or move without assistance can ill afford attitudes that make it even more difficult for them to develop the relationships they need to flourish.

Obstacles can be ideological. These come from the “dominant” culture(s) in which we live. We may not even notice them, because they have become the air we breathe. They’re seen as “the way things are.” They’re hard to recognize and even harder to remove.

One example: “people with disabilities cannot care for themselves.” This is not only false, but disempowering – it blocks people with disabilities from succeeding, erodes their self-confidence, and leads them to doubt that they can ever achieve their goals in life. Sucha assumptions prevent people with disabilities from becoming leaders in local churches, resigning them to, at best, being passive recipients of charity.

2015-02 GAC IMG_20150218_154052_145 what would be betterUnfortunately, many of us are heavily invested in such mistaken thinking. Our fulfillment draws from it… We as leaders not only need to care, but to be wise in how we express care. We can easily undermine the dignity of persons with disabilities by fostering unhealthy dependence on others. In caring for people with disabilities, we should strive to respect disability cultures, which are as diverse and complex as those found in any other cross-cultural ministry context.

We open doors of opportunity for young leaders with disabilities.

What do people with disabilities need in order to become local church and Christian organizational leaders? What do any of us need? Training and experience for developing spiritual gifts; someone to widen opportunities; assistance in extending influence; promotion by other leaders.

With such a start, people with disabilities whom God has called and gifted could assume their God-given leadership roles to evangelize, equip, and multiply gospel fruit in the lives of other qualified leaders, including others with disabilities.

So who makes the first move to remove the impediments to growth in ministry of people with disabilities, who opens doors of opportunity, so that all among us can fulfill their God-given mission? We—current leaders of churches and organizations—are the only ones who can do this. We must accept the responsibility to nurture, train, and invite young people with disabilities into leadership roles, and consequently, change the local church and Christian leadership culture.

I’m speaking to myself first – I need to make some changes. But this message is for colleagues all around the world who seek to serve by leading the church with skill and compassion. Here are some familiar-sounding suggestions about where we might begin:

  • Encourage a young person (with a disability) to use his or her gifts in church to help discern calling or vocation.
  • Invite a young person (with a disability) to work alongside you in a leadership role, providing mentoring and assistance (when it’s needed).
  • Lead the way in placing called, gifted, and trained people (with disabilities) in local church and Christian organizational and leadership roles.

Why should we do this? Because we want to see strong, healthy and active churches. By removing obstacles and opening doors of opportunity for people with disabilities to serve in leadership roles, the church will discover that many people with disabilities are gifted deacons, teachers, pastors, and missionaries. And we’ll see how much we’ve been missing.

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Leadership team from the Global Access Conference, sponsored by Joni and Friends. I dream of the day where a picture like this is seen as a “normal group” of Christian leaders.

Persons with disabilities will provide insight, empathy, access, and relationships essential for reaching into disability cultures to evangelize, equip, and train the next generation of effective leaders. And their success will be an inspiration and encouragement to other people with disabilities to move from passivity to action, to see themselves as being sent not to be served but to serve.

And, by thus strengthening the Body, we will ALL be strengthened. And God’s glory will increase.

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