10 Theses on Ministry among the Disabled

My family and I recently served at a camp for people with mental and physical disabilities and their families. Although I have been reflecting on ministry among the disabled for some time, this experience pushed me to bring some thoughts together in the following 10 theses:

  1. The church’s ministry to the disabled must disavow itself of liberal society’s measure of human worth – autonomy, individualism, reason, rationality, independence and the capacity for self-advocacy (Stanley Hauerwas has shaped my thinking on this)
  2. and allow its understanding and practice of human personhood to be disciplined by a doctrine of humanity according to which the creation of human persons in the image of God entails both endowment (human dignity) and summons (eschatological horizon).
  3. Emphasis on creation and eschatology reminds its participants that as those given life and shaped in the “image and likeness” of their creator (creation), they stand in the world “worth-full” and called forward to the completion and consummation of the image found in Christ (eschatology).
  4. The church’s ministry to the disabled therefore includes more than evangelism;
  5. rather, as one facet of the Kingdom’s restorative work in broken creation it participates in the eschatological restoration and repair of human dignity in all its facets (most properly God’s activity into which he invites participants). This framework invests those “ordinary” gestures such as wheel chair etiquette with Kingdom significance, makes plain the importance of play, laughter, and the arts, and orders evangelism within an encompassing vision of the divine economy.
  6. Awareness of its eschatological dimension chastens efforts to explain away the inexplicability, tragedy, and pain of disability either for its sufferers or their families,
  7. or to trivialize the lives of the disabled by investing their life with the purpose of “teaching” us something useful about ourselves.
  8. Rather than explain away the lives of the disabled with pat notions of divine intentionality or diminish them as “lessons” for the physically or mentally “able”, it speaks of the cruciform God of the Gospel who shared his life with the world.
  9. As a kingdom, eschatological ministry of the cruciform gospel, it will major in ministries of presence, not seeking to make the disabled “useful” or make ourselves useful to them, but offers them the dignity of shared life.
  10. In offering a shared life it purges any hint of pity from its practices (spiritualized condescension), and self-consciously imitates the patterns of divine action found in scripture which model compassion and care for society’s most vulnerable (albeit poorly, incompletely and in a derivative sense).

17 thoughts on “10 Theses on Ministry among the Disabled

  1. Yeah, Hauerwas has rocked on this topic IMO ever since the articles that comprised his Suffering Presence were published. I too have much appreciated Hauerwas in my own work on end-of-life decisionmaking, which raises many of the same theological issues about the imago Dei that are so evident in the lives of the disabled and remind us that we were not created to be as autonomous and individual as we usually consider ourselves to be, without even thinking.

    • Jim, I am in the throes of moving so this will be brief. I couldn’t agree more related to end of life questions and to our preoccupation with the autonomous self. Any chance you would write a “10 theses” post for TF on end-of-life decision making issues?

  2. I really like the emphasis on dignity that is rooted by creational and eschatological anchors. My only elaboration would be on point #8 & #9 (and something that I stumbled upon in my own reading last night from Terence E. Fretheim in The Suffering of God). It is the idea of living the “shared life”– which naturally has to do with relatedness and the capacity to enter into relationships that must have real meaning. Fretheim, in an effort to further understand what relationships mean to God, says that ultimately relationships must be built on integrity.

    “As with any relationship of integrity, God will have to give up some things for the sake of the relationship.”

    Fretheim says that namely, God gives up freedom within relationships because relationships entail promises and covenant-making which limits Gods ability to act because he will be faithful in those promises. This kind of freedom is not freedom from his people or the world, but freedom for his people and the world. Naturally God also gives up (some) power as all relationships of integrity entail a sharing of power. Each party must give up any monopoly for the sake of the relationship.

    I think you’ve expressed that danger for any ministry wanting to serve the disabled in points #7 & #8. I think that ministry is (quite obviously) wrapped up in relationships, but that the nature of all relationships (by God’s design and self-disclosure) is something sacrificial. There is dying to oneself in ministry because relationships are more than getting certain needs met (eg: learning something about myself [point #7]) it is the process of how both parties experience the divine life of God. In essence, one of the most poignant ways in which we reflect the image Dei is by the humility of entering into relationships of integrity.

  3. I really appreciated this. As a person with a disability, or whatever we are supposed to call ourselves these days, it rang true. I especially appreciate 7 and 8. It is certain that I and others have learned lessons from my traumatic brain injury, but the tuition has been pretty high, and I don’t believe God throws people off bicycles for the edification of the faithful.

    Thank you for your thoughts on eschatology. It is one of my theological specialties, but I have never reflected on its implication for my disability until now. A terrific post.

    -Richard L. FLoyd

  4. Pingback: Ministry to the Disabled: Individualism, Independence, Autonomy, and Self-Advocacy « Castle of Nutshells

  5. From reading Nancey Murphy’s Whatever Happened To The Soul, to listening to my wife’s stories from working in autism classes, thank you for continuing the discussion, both on levels of practical theory and sincere Christ-carrying. Especially point 9, and point 1-the very cognitive starting places denote a different starting place for us in working with the disabled, rather than applying the same assumptions to new folks.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with your list. Beautiful. I have only one thing to add: the basic pre-theoretical assumption that being precedes meaning is the old Hellenic hold-over that keeps the church stuck in the unhealthy patterns.

    I will always have value and meaning, regardless of what ever shape I may be in at any given moment.

    I truly enjoy your blog. Thanks for writing.

  7. Forgot to say: meaning precedes being, as it is found in the declaration of the Living God concerning myself and others. My multifaceted identity is spoken even before my being is brought into existence. Value is not empirically derived, but rather, based on the creative Word.

    Thanks again.

  8. Coming from the prospective of someone with a disability, as well as being a Christian

    I applauded this list– while I have not looked into, and recorded it extensively–mainly due to my current lack of time–I have “developed” a theology of Disability on a biblical, and christological foundation. While currently an undergrad ICS/Ministry major–I am self taught in the area of disability studies, and research. I believe this list in invaluable to ay church, or individual called into a disabled ministry.

    In Christ\

  9. I would caution that it be made a point to examine motive. Let me explain, While we would all agree that the Ethic of the Christian, is Charity through Christ’s given strength.

    We must be careful not to let in what I call the “tax write-off” attitude; making sure that we do not get caught-up in What “we” can do boosting our egos, to the point of forgetting why we are doing the ministry to begin with.

    This attitude can be seen no matter the ministry, but society has loosed this attitude using the various models of disability.

  10. Pingback: Spiritual Formation and Ministering to People with Disability | Metamorpha

  11. I have bipolar disorder. As a result of reading “Journey With Jesus”, I became aware of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and spiritual formation. While I see a therapist, he is not a Christian. I have been praying and asking God to lead me to a spiritual director and I understand the training and insight necessary to be effective in aiding me to make this journey, I am not in a position to pay. I have been praying about this and after reading your article, I am considering whether my disability and financial situation (my sole source of income is SSDI) disqualify me from moving forward on this. While it would be disappointing not to be able to do this, I do not want to enter into something that might be harmful given my disability. Would it be possible to get some input regarding this?

    • Sharon, thank you for reaching out! This medium can sometimes feel very intimate, and this is one of those times. Thank you. I wish I could be of more help to you, however, I don’t have the professional knowledge to help you. I recommend working with your local church to find a Christian counselor or spiritual director in your area who can help you navigate this decision. I am sorry I could not be of more help.

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