‘Disability ministry is not disability ministry unless the disabled are ministering.’ – Joni Eareckson Tada
Question: What are the barriers (social) and obstacles (all other spheres) to called and gifted people with disabilities serving in all areas of ministry in local churches and Christian organizations?
Where are we at?
One in seven people globally has a disability, yet studies show that the representation in our churches worldwide is far less. In the Lausanne Occasional Working Paper (35B, 2004), people with disabilities were labelled as the world’s largest unreached people group, with only fifteen percent having heard the gospel. There are barriers to them hearing, reading, and understanding the gospel, and therefore to them being present in our congregations.
If people with disabilities are already underrepresented or absent in our churches, then they are even further underrepresented in the ministries of our churches and Christian programs. And even if people with disabilities are ‘welcomed’ into the church, this welcome is incomplete if there are no opportunities for them to serve. Perhaps a church makes physical accommodations, so people with disabilities can enter the building, and the congregants invite people with disabilities to the church. But, does the church also actively encourage all people, including people with disabilities, to fulfill their God-commissioned callings, and to use their gifts for service in the church? If it is not possible for all congregants to serve in our midst, then is ‘every part playing a role’ in the Body of Christ? There is a risk that church inclusion would end up being merely a display of charity to people with disabilities, accommodating, but not being blessed by the gifts and abilities of people with disabilities.
This paper explores how to enable people with disabilities to serve in all areas of ministry, both in the church and in Christian organizations. We will begin with a biblical theology of ministry for people with disabilities. Then we will identify barriers and obstacles for people with disabilities to serve. Next, we will look at what ministries people with disabilities can serve in, and how that can enrich the church. And finally, we will propose a way forward.
A biblical theology of ministry for people with disability
If the Body of Christ does not include people with disabilities, then it is itself disabled. Can the eye say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’? No! We are all interdependent. When a part of the body is not playing its role, the Body of Christ is incomplete or disabled. Paul writes to the church in Corinth:
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it (1 Cor. 12:21-26).
This describes how the Body of Christ and its impact depends upon every part, with or without a disability playing its role.
Interestingly, various other calls to ministry in the Bible are also remarkably inclusive. For example, Paul writes that all believers have different gifts (Rom. 12:6), and that all are called to use those gifts for the purpose of building up the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 14:15, Eph. 4:12). There is no exclusion clause. When it comes to serving one another, people with disabilities are not exempt.
This paper builds on the reference in The Cape Town Commitment II-B-4, which reads: ‘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.’ This short reference needs further unpacking and operationalizing. If a believer with a disability feels called to and is gifted in missions, then the church should encourage and enable that person to serve in such ministry. And that is not only the case for a missional calling, but also for callings to other types of ministry.
Our definition of ministry, at its simplest, is using our God-given gifts to bring glory to God (John 9) and to serve others, both inside and outside the church. The gifts are to be used to serve the Body of Christ and so minister to others. Peter says, ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms’ (1 Pet. 4:10-11).
Likewise, other commands to minister are inclusive and directed at ministering to one another. Amongst many other calls to serve, we are all asked to love one another (John 13:34; Rom. 12:10; Gal. 5:13), encourage one another (2 Cor. 13:11), support one another, build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11) and many other commands relating to one another.
The majority of Jesus’ commands to minister are all-inclusive with no exclusion clause or footnote saying, ‘If you have a disability, then you are exempt from this call to minister’. In a similar way, Paul says, ‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Eph. 2:10).
This verse is actually all-inclusive and also very communal. As believers, ‘we are all’:
- God’s handiwork—whether or not we have a disability;
- Created in Christ Jesus—God created people with their disability;
- Called to good works—there are no disqualifications: God knew what struggles each one would have when he, in advance, prepared the works for us to do.
There is a beautiful intentionality in God preparing specific good works for us all to do.
Finally, this verse is addressed to ‘us’ together: ‘we are God’s handiwork’. This seems to imply that we, the Body of Christ, are a fellowship of Jesus-followers, created to do good works together. In the context of the limitations often associated with disability, one is acutely aware that our ‘good works’ are dependent on interdependence. In fact, most effective ministries are dependent on a team, but for people with disability this may be even more so. This is by no means a weakness but often a strength in ministry.
Why are people with disability not included in ministry?
If the Bible clearly calls all people to serve in ministry, then why aren’t there more people with disabilities involved in our churches and in Christian organizations? What hinders them? What obstacles, no matter how unintentional, do people with disabilities face when they want to use their God-given gifts?
Our churches have not always been welcoming to people with disabilities. Structures and processes can be inaccessible and the way we do things is, more often than not, based on ‘traditions of man’ rather than on biblical edicts (cf. Mark 7:8). For example, the way we do communion is largely based on tradition, is often highly regimented, and may exclude people who can’t walk to the alter, or say the right words, or even eat certain foods.
When we invite people in, we have not necessarily actively thought through how they can be involved in church, let alone how they can serve in ministry.
Attitude towards disability can be another barrier for people with disabilities. At worst, in some churches, people with disabilities are considered sinful, cursed, dirty, and unqualified for ministry or leadership. A worldly understanding has crept into some churches and has led to people with disabilities being treated as second-class members.
Then there is the soft bigotry of low expectations whereby the individual with a disability has been conditioned by those around him or her to have low expectations of themselves. This is reinforced by society and leads churches to have low or no expectations that people with disabilities will be involved in ministry. It can also stifle creativity in thinking as to how churches can include people with disability, and people with disabilities are not assisted to think through where they can be helpful because the assumption is often that they can’t help.
Ultimately, there may be a reluctance of people with disabilities to step out and step up. There may be self-stigmatization or a lack of belief in their self-worth. In these situations, people with disabilities may need someone to walk alongside them, to be there when they need encouragement, to facilitate their participation, and even to be an advocate for their active involvement. This may especially be the case if the person has a profound disability and needs a friend to be a spokesperson. But at times, even people with mild disabilities who are seeking to be involved in ministry will need someone to call on. We all do.
As Lausanne, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions. Are we ensuring participation of people with disabilities at our Lausanne Forums? If we are to take inclusion seriously then we need to listen to the experiences of people with disability. We need to repent of such failure to include people with disabilities in our own programs. We need to acknowledge that disability does not mean no ability or inability, but that it provides a fertile space for God to work powerfully. We will be blessed when we have people with disabilities involved in our ministry and programs. We need to repent for failing to include those with disabilities.
Ministries for people with disability
We may ask, then, what ministries can people with disabilities do? The answer is: every ministry. It depends on the nature of the disability or, in other words, it depends on the person’s ability and gifting, as it does for all of us.
We are all created in the image of God, and we therefore have valuable aspects of His image to use in ministry to glorify Him. We are all, disabled or not, created by God with various gifts. Every person in the Body of Christ has a spiritual gift, and each of the spiritual gifts outlined in the Bible may indeed be held by a person with a disability (cf. 1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12, Eph. 4, 1 Pet. 4): word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, increased faith, the gifts of healing, the gift of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, diverse kinds of tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophets, teachers, helpers (connected to service of the poor and sick), leadership ability, and administration.
Therefore, can a person with a disability preach? Of course they can, but it depends on their disability, or their ability, just like for any other potential preacher. A person with autism may find it hard to preach but a wheelchair-user can preach… at least if there is wheelchair access to the stage. Often our churches are designed, according to universal standards: to get people in the door but not on the stage. We assume people with disability will come to church but not take an up-front role. We can count on two hands the churches that we have been to that have an easily accessible stage or platform. What does this say to people with mobility issues about their ministry?
People are not all the same. That is the case for people with disabilities, as well as people without. There is no homogenous group of people with disabilities that can be neatly pigeon-holed. Individual persons have different (dis)abilities and different giftings. Each person is a unique individual serving the Body. We need to consider each individual and their giftedness, and match them to a ministry just like we do with everyone else in the Body of Christ. This requires thinking creatively and intentionally about how to draw on the gifts of those with a disability, especially when the disability is severe, multiple, or intellectual. The reality is that if we do not actively seek out and facilitate the ministries of those with a disability then we risk passively excluding them from ministry.
There are excellent examples of people with disabilities being involved in specific ministries, for instance:
- Art—People with disabilities can possess a unique creativity in the arts. Those with sensory deficits in one area may well have gifts in others.
- Non-social ministry—For those who may find intense social engagements difficult or overwhelming, there are other important tasks that do not require interpersonal interaction (eg cooking, counting, IT, sound, setting up, cleaning).
- Prayer ministry—If mobility is an issue, a role that requires sitting patiently, like prayer, could be more appropriate.
- Evangelism in the workplace—This ministry of people with disabilities is both limited by low participation rates and lack of support from those around them. However, people with intellectual disabilities are often more prepared to share their faith than the average workplace employee who is more cautious or even scared. Could having a disability actually be a comparative advantage in workplace outreach? One author tells the story of his daughter, who has Down syndrome, who proudly wears a bracelet and t-short to work that openly declares her belief in Jesus. She regularly engages her friends and even strangers in discussions about Jesus.
- Welcoming—Those with a mild intellectual disability can be warm, unpretentious, and disarming when on welcoming duty at a church. For example, Joel, a young man with Down syndrome is on the welcoming team at his church in Australia, and he excels in his welcoming role. He smiles at everyone and his joy and non-judgmental approach is disarming. Every person he greets is treated as . . . a person! Joel does not give greater attention to the doctor or CEO but instead loves all who come in regardless of their race, gender, or social status. He does need some coaching and training for his ministry, but then so do we all. It reinforces to us that a ministry is not just one individual ministering, but that it is a team effort. We are interdependent in our ministry.
- Ministering to others with a disability—Joe looks out for a young woman, who has a profound developmental disability. Unprompted, Joe began spending up to 45 minutes after church engaging and playing ball with her. Then other children joined in and started playing with her, following Joe’s lead. Joe consistently took the role of making sure she was safe and happy. He cared for her needs. He gave his full attention to her. He protected her. He included her in the play. He modelled to other children how to interact with her and was the ideal buddy for her. Now he serves in the church inclusion program and is the girl’s buddy every fourth Sunday morning, helping her access our worship service. This is both disability ministry and ministry of/by those with a disability, because Joe has autism and is using his specific gifts to serve others.
The examples are endless, but none of these roles are exclusive to people with disability. People with disabilities, depending on their gifts, could be capable of doing any ministry. The same process to match giftings with ministry should be undertaken for all people in the church, though there may be a need for increased creativity in the matching process for people with a disability and an intentionality in thinking about how to facilitate that ministry.
Blessings and benefits of having people with disability involved in church ministry
Luke 14:13-14 says, ‘But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.’
This verse speaks about an invitation to participate in a banquet. But wouldn’t the same be true when we involve people with disabilities to participate or serve in church ministries? Ultimately, we need to keep in the forefront of our minds that when we are all involved in ministry, the church functions completely, and our witness to the world is even more powerful. The blessing of people with disabilities doing ministry is partly similar to the blessing of the ministry of those without a disability. Yet there are also some unique aspects of this blessing.
How are we blessed?
- Our community is welcoming. People with disabilities serving in ministry communicates to outsiders that this church is friendly and will be welcoming of my gifts, despite my inadequacies.
- Interdependence is celebrated. We are more effective when we minister together. Often people with disability—given their limitations—more readily acknowledge that ministry is not an individual pursuit.
- We build community. By virtue of their presence, people with disability exercise their vocation of bringing the Body together. This diversity encourages service and care for each other.
- We promote God-dependence. People with disabilities are living examples of dependency on God. Paul writes, ‘to prevent me from becoming conceited, God gave me a thorn’ (2 Cor. 12:7). We don’t know if his thorn was a disability, but the principle is that a weakness or vulnerability can be a gift for church leaders where pride in one’s own ability is an occupational hazard.
- We learn valuable lessons and develop our character. People with disability teach us about vulnerability, personhood, compassion and empathy.
- Our witness is evocative. Disability demonstrates that ministry is not about our competence or our ability to do things. It’s about being and existing rather than ‘doing’ witness.
- Imago Dei. People with disabilities challenge us to acknowledge what it is to be human. They can help us focus on our true identity as God’s image bearers. This can promote a genuineness, and guard against pretention. Personhood and dignity are gifts from God.
- Prophetic witness. Ensuring that people with disabilities serve in ministry is counter-cultural and can be a powerful witness to the world. It challenges a world that is obsessed with success, beauty, power, money, and prestige. It’s a witness to the upside-down kingdom.
Actively empowering people with disabilities to minister: The way forward
When God calls any of us to a ministry, he also equips us with skills, supernatural enablement, and people around us to facilitate the ministry. This is as true for a person with disability as for those without. It is arrogant to think that one’s ministry is a solo endeavour. Instead, we are supposed to be interdependent as we minister. Ministers need people around them to support their needs, to prepare the service, to raise money, etc. Similarly, a person with a disability needs others to support him or her with needs such as transport, interpretation, signing, comprehension, and expression.
As Christians, how do we improve the participation of people with disability in the ministry workforce? First of all, we need to appreciate, encourage, and facilitate their unique contribution in workplace ministry. And how do we go about that?
Generally, there are two approaches to including people with disability, known as a twin track approach in disability programs:
1. Focused on the individual.
Do individuals have access to aids and assistive products to help them in their specific disability? This may be a pertinent role for the church in low- and middle-income settings. In high-income settings individuals supported by the government system tend to have access to the necessary aids. In both settings, however, there can be a role to assist individuals in accessing such necessities and to ensure their function is maximized in the church.
The church should also consider how they can equip and train those with a disability to minister. In order to prepare them, we must teach the Bible effectively and in a way that can be accessed and understood by persons with disabilities. This might, for instance, mean considering how the church can support access to Bible training programs and Bible colleges. We also need to train a person with a disability in the different ministry areas, just as we would train most people taking on a formal ministry role.
It requires time to sit down with the individual with a disability and to work out the person’s gifts for serving. This career-type coaching can help map the person’s skills and give guidance about various ministry options.
2. Focused on the environment and people around them.
This aims to remove barriers and obstacles in areas such as the following:
All ministry areas, including the stage, need to be accessible and welcoming of all people. Those desiring to be involved in ministry not only need to be able to access the ministry area but also to feel safe and welcomed in that area. This may mean going beyond what is legally specified.
There is a need to empower parents/families and acknowledge their role in helping the individual with a disability engage in ministry.
Pastors need to encourage and equip the laity of our churches to discover and develop everybody’s gifts and talents, and to actively consider those with a disability. Pastors can change attitudes and set the example of intentionally involving people with disabilities in the various ministries of the church, including leadership.
Congregations need to be equipped to value the contributions of people with disabilities. They need to be trained in working alongside people with a disability. Individual congregants might consider becoming a buddy for persons with a disability who are involved in ministry. The model of the early church disciples was to be sent out in twos so as to support one another.
Respectfully involving people with disabilities in ministry
Facilitating people with disabilities to be involved in ministry should be done respectfully and care must be taken not to coerce vulnerable people into ministry roles against their will. Whilst we should expect people with disability to be involved in ministry along with everyone else, the approach we take to involve them needs careful thought. For those with an intellectual disability, permission or decision to be involved needs to be made in consultation with the individual and their parents or primary carers. We also need to help carers and families understand the important role of people with disabilities in ministry. Otherwise, rather than acting as an enabler, the family may in themselves be a barrier to a person with a disability participating in ministry. Carers and families need to be shown that the ministry space is safe, and they need to understand that we believe that the role of the person with disability is indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22).
In short, there are no scriptural barriers or obstacles to people with disability serving the Body of Christ. In fact, the only disability in the Body of Christ is the absence of people with disability serving. Pastors and churches are rarely opposed to people with disabilities being present; but they often neglect to take the necessary steps to break down the church’s social barriers and to remove physical obstacles to their involvement in ministry.
Embracing the Lausanne commitment, ‘Kingdom impact in every sphere of society,’ our Disability Concerns Network strategy is, ‘committed to strengthening and multiplying disability leaders globally.’
We respectfully invite churches and their leaders globally to assume their God-given commission to tear down social barriers and remove structural obstacles that exclude people with disabilities from ministry.
Edited by Dave Deuel and Nathan John on the occasion of the Lausanne Disability Concerns Network Consultation, ‘Ministry Leadership Access’ at the Lausanne Global Workforce Forum, Manila, Philippines June 2019.
We submit this declaration with respect and admiration for Joni Eareckson Tada for her commitment to Jesus Christ and her invaluable contribution to the ministry access of people with disabilities globally.
Note: Bible quotations are from the New International Version. ↑