What You Need to Know About Disability, Diversity, and Flourishing
Mike Walker is the primary researcher on the Our Doors are Open Project
Disability is a topic people in the pews don’t always want to talk about because weakness and vulnerability can make us uncomfortable. That said, disability is a theological and social issue for many believers and congregations that want to flourish. It’s a theological issue because all people are created in God’s Image; people with disabilities display unique and powerful aspects of that Image. Disability is a social and congregational issue as well, because people with disabilities long for equity—freedom and human flourishing—for people of all body types. When people with disabilities can take part in churches that want to end ableism, that promote access, and that act with empathy, our flourishing in diverse congregations becomes more possible.
Many scholars of disability observe that disability has multiple aspects. First, it’s both an embodied difference and a functional limitation that affects physical or social activity. For many reasons, some people can’t engage in specific activities or perform certain actions that most people would consider “normal” (Yong 2007; Black 1996). Disabilities can be physical, like cerebral palsy, or intellectual, like autism. Mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can be called emotional disabilities (Swinton 2000). Plus, disability is a social issue: many industrial societies are based on ableism—discrimination against and oppression of people with disabilities by those of able body. Significantly, disability is also personal: I’m a person with disabilities. I possess spastic cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that influences motor control. Thus, I live with physical and intellectual disabilities that impact everything I do.
As a Christian with multiple disabilities, I want to be part of congregations that really flourish—churches that lean into diversity. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that diversity is “the practice or quality of…involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.” I would add to that definition, and to the definition from the Flourishing Congregations site, that diversity includes ability and disability, because people’s capacities and energy levels directly affect the gifts they can offer in the Church, and how they use them. As Paul of Tarsus tells us in 1 Corinthians 12, all Christians are one Body, and the different parts of that Body have both significant contributions to make and measurable limits.
For worshippers with disabilities, truly flourishing in our bodies begins with access, the entry-way to God’s dignity and joy. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures illustrate some ways people give each other access. For example, God pairs Moses, who may have had a speech impediment, with his brother Aaron when they set out to free the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 4:10ff); King David gives Mephibosheth, his friend Jonathan’s son who experiences paraplegia, a seat at his table (2 Sam. 9). Most significantly, Jesus, David’s descendant, loves people with disabilities. He heals and befriends gregarious men who are blind (John 9; Mark 10:46-52), a woman who lives with internal bleeding (Mark 5:25-34), and people with mental illnesses (Luke 8:26-39). These examples of hospitality demonstrate the appearance of access.
In light of all this, how can Christians embody access, and help believers with disabilities to really flourish in healthy congregations? I can think of several strategies. Most significantly, make the effort to befriend people with disabilities in your churches. We want to belong, just like people of able body! Other practical ideas include using diverse forms of media in worship (videos, captions, dance, or pictures); printing documents in bright, contrasting colours; offering audio support, like FM systems or ASL interpretation, in your churches; and telling newcomers where the accessible parking and bathrooms are in your buildings. All these ideas can help Christians with disabilities to be vital parts of flourishing churches—churches that really embody God’s love.
Mike Walker is a Canadian theologian and advocate for people with disabilities who previously worked at North Park Theological Seminary; he’s currently the primary researcher on the Our Doors are Open Project through the Ontario College of Art and Design. Mike loves reading, writing, working out, dancing, and playing games. He’s based in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.
What We Are Reading
The lifecycle of trust in education: Leaders as moral agents
Benjamin Kutsyuruba & Keith Walker
As a pastor, high school teacher, department head, and for the last 30 years a university educator, I've come to take both complex and simple views of congregations, schools, and post-secondary institutions. I hold that each of these "peopled" organizations is complex in their uniqueness; each possessing distinct collective personality traits, history, culture, ebb and flow experiences, relational dynamics, and dispositions. The simple part of my viewpoint is that I see these types of organizations through the lens of their educational functions and that they have much in common. For example, every congregation has both laudable capacities and learning disabilities. When "things have gone well" there is both the mystery to ponder and supposed reasons to explain. When "things haven't gone well" there is mystery, retrospective explanation, and blame to explain the experience. But in all times the graces of wisdom (with humility) and diligence (with determination) are required in relationships and the assorted tasks. I think applying the construct of "trust" to our experiences may provide insights into our flourishing and floundering.
Whether the leaders of these organizations have titles of priest, pastor, principal, president, dean, department head, board member, lead, director, or servant – there is a moral agency and purpose that may be seen as educational in nature and the challenges associated with human organizations are common and daunting. Insights are generally welcome by those with any of these roles. With the simple-complex perspective, I'd like to introduce readers to a book that was written for educational leaders to navigate "the people parts" of organizations: The Lifecycle of Trust in Education: Leaders as Moral Agents. Out of our experiences and research with congregations, not-for-profits, schools, and post-secondary organizations, Ben Kutsyuruba and I have long felt that the construct of trust (personal, interpersonal, organizational, and societal) is key to leading renewal, healthfulness, transformation, and flourishing. The book details the stages of establishing, maintaining, sustaining, breaking, and restoring trust and the leaders' roles in trust-brokering. The roles of hosting compassion, hope, and trust are offered as essential for thriving congregations and these require that ethical commitments, courage, and moral agility be operationalized in practices. I would observe that faith-based organizations need to give attention to horizontal trust to flourish. To this end, this book explores the role of the leader in fostering and sustaining trust.
Dr. Keith Walker, Professor of Leadership and Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan
Resources for Church Leaders
Global Leadership Summit
Thursday-Friday, October 21-22
Experience two days of rich, high-impact, inspiring sessions, and learn from a diverse faculty who will share their wisdom and practical perspective to support you in your leadership growth. Register Now
How to Lead When You Don’t Feel Like a Leader
Wednesday, November 10 at 1:00pm ET
As a parish priest, do you ever feel like you're in over your head? Does leading a parish seem very overwhelming?
Join us on November 10 as we host hundreds of priests from around the world for "How To Lead When You Don't Feel Like A Leader." We'll hear from Divine Renovation leadership coach Rob McDowell along with priest guests on leadership styles, gifting, and using your unique gifts and talents to forge ahead in renewal. Register Now
Virtual Book Club on Congregational Flourishing with Joel Thiessen
Thursday, November 18 at 7:00pm ET
Join our discussion on the book Signs of Life: Catholic, Mainline, and Conservative Protestant Congregations in Canada with Joel Thiessen of Ambrose University in Calgary. Live Q and A plus breakout group discussion. Order the book today from your local bookstore so you can read it by November. Join the Club
Resources for Safer Church Re-Opening
Want to increase confidence in your congregation and community; to increase your knowledge; and to share what you've learned over the past year?
Join Dr. Bridget Stirling (epidemiologist and former missionary), a team of public health specialists, and church leaders from around the world in the ARCC.
The Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches (ARCC) is a program that increases safety through Risk self-assessments and guidance, church-specific training and an interactive forum. Visit us at stirlingharmston.com
Researching the Impacts of Covid-19 on Congregations
Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.