Leadership by Ministers with Disabilities

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What keeps many people with a disability from being considered for a leadership position? The United Church of Christ produced a video intended to raise awareness about how pastoral search teams can discriminate against leaders with a disability.

CRC and RCA Disability Concerns encourages all congregations to be places where everybody belongs and everybody serves. Often, people with disabilities, be they physical, developmental, mental health issues, have lower expectations placed on them and as a result, can be denied leadership opportunities both within the church and in the larger community. And, as a result, the church and the community misses out on people’s gifts and passions.

Growing up with Cerebral Palsy (CP), I was aware of the challenging statistics of people with disabilities seeking, and not receiving, employment opportunities. For example, when I graduated with my journalism degree in 2011, Statistics Canada released a report saying, “The employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49%, compared with 79% for Canadians without a disability.” As I entered into training for ordained ministry, I thought the church would protect me from the disparity of these numbers. After all, the church I grew up in had loved me, shaped me, and affirmed that God was calling me into ministry.

I was wrong.

While preparing for ordained ministry at Emmanuel College and on my eight-month internship, I ignored how my CP impacted my ministry. Though professor Tom Reynolds opened the world of theologies of disabilities to me, I didn’t leap in. I saw myself as a traditional leader in terms of worship and pastoral care and was more interested in feminist and liberation theologies. Upon seeking ordination, however, I realized that my disability was perceived to negatively impact my ministry and prevented many congregations from considering my leadership.

In meeting with search committees, I quickly discovered that my CP was a conversation stopper. I spent time pondering how and when to disclose my disability.  Sometimes I did not put it in my cover letter. When I was invited for an interview, I decided to email and say something like, “Thank you for the opportunity! I look forward to our conversation together. I will be coming with my dog guide and power wheelchair, and so would appreciate knowing where the most accessible entrance is.” 

I was hesitant to just “show up” as that seemed unfair to both me and the committee, but I was hesitant to put it in my initial letter and risk not being considered at all. Sometimes I heard back from congregations that they really appreciated my gifts for ministry, but they “just couldn’t get their heads around the disability” or they “didn’t know how older people would understand” my speech. One time a congregation offered me a supply position as the minister they were calling could not begin immediately. Other times I did not hear back.

I did find an opportunity to serve in a congregation and was able to be ordained in 2015. I was privileged to work with children, youth, and young families for three years.  It is a real privilege to serve in ministry and I am very thankful to that congregation. It has almost been one year since I left, and I still miss “my” families. Ministry is an amazing, beautiful, hope-filled calling, but it can also be hard. Growing up the daughter of two ordained ministers, I knew that!  

There were certainly times when my CP was seen as a barrier to ministry by a small percentage of the congregation. One time someone brought forward a complaint that I was announcing announcements. And though I appreciate that my speech can be challenging to understand, especially for people who have not heard me speak before, as a member of the ministry team I would continue to be part of announcements if and when I needed to be.  

When other issues arose, I worked with committees or particular people to solve problems and seek to move forward. I have been solving problems as they come all my life, and so am excellent at thinking through how situations would work best for my abilities! Throughout my short time there, I led worship, preached, designed and led children and youth programming, presided at table, baptized babies and adults, welcomed new members, developed community with and for young families, and so on. Such a blessing!

These experiences led me to this work with Disability Concerns, and is leading me to begin PhD work this fall at Emmanuel College. I hope to explore what ministry of people with disabilities says about the ministry of the church, as well as the practical implications for worship, pastoral care, and preaching the gospel. I intend to examine leadership and disability in the United Church (my home denomination), in hopes of providing a framework for congregations, the denominational Board of Vocation, and current and future ministers to engage in ministry with all of God’s people.

Through this work and the work of videos such as this from The United Church of Christ, I hope experiences of exclusion can be the beginning of transformation for the whole beloved community of God.

I invite you to watch the videos below and to reflect on how your congregation invites and supports people with disabilities to be in leadership roles, both ordered and lay!

The United Church of Christ also produced excellent videos on racism and sexism in hiring practices and committees.

Stretching Beyond Ableism

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