Reflections on Leading Disability Concerns Ministry

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Announcing one’s retirement date from CRC staff bears risk of delay, it seems. Colin Watson and John Bolt both proved that, and now I have as well. Still, in the next few months I do expect to hand over my responsibilities for leading Disability Concerns (DC) to a new director: Lindsay Wieland Capel. I’ll continue my interim leadership of Race Relations and Social Justice well into 2022. Here are some reflections on leading DC since 2006.

Change is constant.

In the 15+ years that I have led Disability Concerns, I’ve had six different bosses, seven different workstations (including home), and five different Executive Directors. (For all or part of their terms, three of those five had “acting” or “interim” in their titles.)

If I remember right, we’ve had at least four ministry plans. There have been two completely different governance structures (BOT with various boards, and COD with fewer boards). Faith Alive, as a staffed ministry with a board, went away. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 required significant budget reductions across the board, requiring all of us with leadership positions to be more intentional about ministry advancement.

In DC, I’ve worked by myself and with up to three different people at one time. I've supervised 10 different DC staff, including four different people in Canada during my first four years (thanks to mat leaves). Besides leading DC, I’ve been interim director of Chaplaincy and Care, Race Relations, and Social Justice.

Since 2006, of the ministries with which I work more closely, there have been five directors of Chaplaincy, three directors of Safe Church, four directors of Race Relations and Social Justice, and four directors of Pastor Church Resources. All of these different people and ministries bring their own gifts, emphases, and challenges to the work of ministry. Change is constant.

The CRC, mostly, loves and is committed to its denominational justice ministries.

Yes, this statement needs qualification, thus my use of “mostly”. Here are some qualifications. When I started with DC, I was hired on a three-year, term contract; I was told that unless I proved to the Board of Trustees’ (predecessor of the Council of Delegates) satisfaction, the board would eliminate DC and my position at the end of the three years.

Just in the past year and a half of leading Race Relations and Social Justice, these two ministries have received significant pushback to some of our work, including implied and direct threats of physical violence that were reported to the police. That pushback goes back many years before I began to lead them. Over the years, at least six OSJ staff have left the work disillusioned and frustrated.

In Disability Concerns, we staff and volunteers have found that some people do not value our work. Others ignore our advocacy efforts. Even though people with disabilities comprise about 20 percent of the population, sometimes disability advocates find church councils or classes resistant to change in structures, communications, and attitudes, because those changes are only for “a few” people. Still today, some people believe that Disability Concerns should not exist at all. 

Still, I can say confidently that the CRC loves its denominational justice work. The CRC has created eight different ministries that are explicitly mandated to work at justice in various forms: World Renew, Disability Concerns, Safe Church, Race Relations, Social Justice, Centre for Public Dialogue, Indigenous Ministries, and most recently, a Senior Leader for Antiracism and Intercultural Conciliation in Canada.

Broadly defined, we could consider all of World Renew’s work to be justice work. If we narrow the focus to their “Peace and Justice” work, the CRC has budgeted $3.45 million USD in FY22 on ministry that is explicitly justice-oriented. These ministries were created not by CRC staff, but by CRC people in CRC churches who had a vision for shared justice work in North America and throughout the world. These ministries continue to be supported by CRC people in CRC churches (and people outside of the CRC, too) because the commitment to do justice and love mercy remains strong. 

Recently someone asked this question via our Social Justice general mailbox ([email protected]): “Why can you not privatize yourself and wean off the official church support? Having you report to a church denomination and receive leadership/direction from THAT source just does not feel right to me.”

Here’s part of Victoria Veenstra’s excellent reply, 

We view our work as an integral part of the mission of the CRCNA. The [CRCNA] mission states, ‘ . . . We pursue God’s justice and peace in every area of life.’ The office [of Social Justice] finds its place in the CRCNA by educating and equipping churches to become more involved in doing God’s work of justice in the world. Since input from every sector, especially those sectors close to the poor, is critical for good policy to emerge, the laws of the U.S. and Canada allow and encourage churches to give their input. Hopefully a vision of justice and peace for all is one that we can embrace as a church even in these polarized times. 

The CRC has not cut loose OSJ nor any of our other justice ministries, because the CRC loves and is committed to our shared justice work. 

Working with others is crucial to ministry effectiveness.

Within days after I started working for DC in 2006, one of our key volunteers in Canada, Hank Kuntz, called me to give me a primer on DC work in Canada. Within weeks, at Hank’s request, I met with Hank and another key volunteer, the late Ralph Bus, for about six hours in Sarnia, Ontario. Identifying, training, and supporting Church and Regional Disability advocates has been and remains the key way that Disability Concerns works.

In 2007, RCA leadership approached CRC leadership about shared work in Disability Ministry. We created an MOU that is still operative today, and have been sharing ministry with RCA Disability Concerns since 2009. My RCA counterpart, Terry DeYoung, and I even wrote a journal article about our shared work that is awaiting publication, “Mutuality, Interdependence, and Belonging in the Body of Christ: A Model for Interdenominational Partnership in Disability Ministry.”

I’m convinced that the CRC and the RCA have benefited in significant ways by this ministry partnership including shared conferences, learning communities, connection events, training events, an online asynchronous training for disability advocates, a blog, and two electronic and one print newsletter. The newsletters and blog have won multiple awards over the years from Associated Church Press, a membership CRC DC began thanks to our partnership with RCA DC. 

I’m thankful that DC has participated in various other collaborations over the years that have resulted in resources and the creation of organizations. Here are some examples:  

Volunteers are lonely and need encouragement and connection.

We CRC and RCA DC staff do this work daily and have frequent contact with one another, but the volunteer disability advocates don’t experience that benefit of regular contact. Some grow discouraged at the apathy about engagement with people with disabilities that I describe above. Some have a heart for the work but need training. Some invest heavily in the work and get burned out. Yet, these people in churches and classes are where the real work of disability advocacy happens. Disability Concerns staff work hard to support these dedicated people with training resources and events and regular gatherings to share ideas and to encourage one another. 

God is at work. 

My ability to work, the gifts God has given me, the ministry that the CRC created nearly 40 years ago and the position I’ve been privileged to fill for the past 15 years, the financial support of many congregations and individuals, and the hard work of CRC and RCA DC staff, other collaborators, and hundreds of volunteers are all gifts from God and manifestations of God’s activity. It has been a tremendous privilege for me to witness God at work in so many ways through the ministry of DC these past 15 years.

When my wife and I's daughter Nicole was born in 1987 and experienced a variety of life-threatening complications from her premature birth, Bev and I were frightened for Nicole’s life and welfare. As she grew, we realized that her disabilities were significant, and that she would need assistance for all the tasks of daily living throughout her lifetime. Yet this woman, who by many measures is so limited in her abilities, is the person God used to lead both Bev and me to the callings he gave us; Bev became a special education teacher, and I moved from parish ministry to lead Disability Concerns.

Nicole taught us that God gifts every person, calls every person, and works through every person. If it hadn’t been for Nicole, I would never have had the honor and privilege of leading Disability Concerns these past 15 years. God is at work, always.

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We love your comments! Thanks for your help upholding the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.

Thanks, Mark, for your gifts and contributions that have helped the CRCNA to be a more loving denomination!  I trust God will continue to water the many seeds you have planted in the past 15 years and produce new fruit of love and compassion!

Thank you for your years of faithful ministry in this role, Mark! So appreciate your wisdom and leadership. God’s blessings to you!