Different Gifts, One Spirit
A Practical Resource on Working with Rostered Leaders & Seminarians Who Are Differently Abled
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-7
God created all of humankind in God's own image, giving each person special gifts and talents through which the Holy Spirit works. We, as humans, sometimes ignore what God has done because of the stereotypes and fears we create for ourselves. These stereotypes can cause a breakdown in communication that leaves both sides feeling hurt and confused. As Christians looking for leaders we are called by God to put aside our own fears and prejudices and see all people as instruments of God's work in the world. This booklet is meant to be a guide to support current and future rostered leaders with disabilities, and to serve as a guide for communication between these church workers, congregations, and synods.
The challenge and the struggle are worth it! The church needs your presence and the power of your gifts! God has called each of us with a disability to a difficult journey in life and ministry. But, as in the past, God will not abandon us. God gives us the righteous strength and creative hope to endure.
ELCA pastor with a disability
To the Rostered Leader or the Prospective Rostered Leader
As a rostered leader in the church, whether a pastor, a seminarian, a diaconal minister or associate in ministry with a disability, you are called by God to do God's work. That is the hope. The reality is, the Church may not always be receptive to your service. Through this guide, we hope to make your journey easier by providing you with suggestions for effectively working your way through the Call process.
- Trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life!
- Share information regarding yourself and your disability with your synod office so they will be prepared to represent you appropriately. Being open about your needs and expectations will make the process smoother for all involved.
- When meeting a Call committee, be prepared with information and questions about the ministry of the congregation. This will help to focus the discussion away from your disability during the interview.
- Be open about your disability. Talking about your disability will create an easier atmosphere for communication. Understand that people may not be immediately comfortable with your disability. Encourage a few questions. This will help to clear up any misconceptions or misinformation about living with a disability.
- Find support, if possible, from another church worker who has been through this process before. It will be important for you to be able to express your fears and frustrations.
- Talk about your disability as a part of your work in the Church. Emphasize that it is a part of who you are.
- Plan ahead of time how you will answer questions about your disability. If you have an "invisible disability" such as a developmental disability or mental illness be prepared to share that information at the beginning of the Call process. Be ready to talk with the Call committee about any necessary accommodations you may need in either the church building or the parsonage.
- Be patient! The Call process takes time for anyone.
It's no more accurate to generalize about the attitudes of people with disabilities from having met one or two, than it is to generalize about people without disabilities, having met one or two.
That All May Worship, published by the National Organization on Disability
To the Synod Candidacy Committee
As a synod candidacy committee, you have the important responsibility of discerning who will be approved for rostered ministry in the ELCA. You will be the first ELCA committee that has the opportunity to model inclusive behavior toward candidates with disabilities. A candidate with a disability, like any other candidate, is in the process of discerning whether he or she is called to serve in rostered ministry in the church. As with all candidates their sense of call will be clarified in this process while gaining a deeper understanding of abilities and limitations. He or she trusts that God values them and their gifts for the ministry and is leading them through this process. Our hope is that you, as a synod candidacy committee, will also trust in God and allow God's will to be done in a fair and impartial atmosphere. Here are some suggestions on things to do and not to do when meeting with a candidate who has a disability.
- Be open to the possibility that the work of God can be accomplished in many ways. All God's people are "differently abled" in some way.
- While you will want to ask some questions about the person's disability, do not make that the focus of all your questions. Ask the same type of discernment of Call questions you would ask any candidate.
- Avoid making assumptions. No two people with disabilities are alike or deal with their disability in the same way.
- Encourage the candidate to talk about how their disability has shaped their life and their sense of Call.
- Create a comfortable atmosphere by making sure that the area for the meeting and any other space that is used is accessible to the needs of the candidate. Encourage the candidate to talk about any concerns he or she may have.
- Consult with your synod disability committee (if there is one) or the ELCA's Disability Ministries office with any questions or concerns you may have.
During the call process it seems like you're having to prove your ability to be a pastor to so many people, to the bishop, the synod staff and Call committees. At each step of the way, you're having to answer questions, deal with anxieties, and make people comfortable with your differences. The Call process can work to make you feel as though your disability is your identity.
ELCA pastor with a disability
The call process is intimidating to anyone, but for someone with a disability, it can be even more difficult. Pastors and other church workers may fear they have been turned down even before the interview takes place. The challenge for the Call committee is to conduct an interview which is equally fair to all candidates while still gathering the information they need. The challenge to the candidate is to talk about his or her style of ministry while still addressing the questions about his or her disability which will come up. Here are some suggestions for an interview process which will address both of these issues.
- Do not focus questions only on the disability but on the candidate as a person and as a church worker.
- Create a comfortable, accessible environment for the interview. Ask about any specific needs before the interview. Think about having a 2 day interview. This will allow time for you as a committee to interview the candidate, then debrief, and ask any new questions of clarifications the next day. It will also allow the candidate a time of refreshment and an opportunity to share additional information or ask clarifying questions on the second day.
- Try to limit the number of "how" questions (i.e. how will you give Communion? etc.). If these questions must be asked, try to ask them in a positive way. For instance, not "how will you...?" but "how can we assist you... ?"Ask the same questions about style of ministry, theology, spiritual gifts, and passions as you would ask any other candidate.
- Be fair and realistic about the expectations you will place on the candidate.
- Clarify any necessary accommodations that will be needed by the candidate during the initial interview.
- When presenting the candidate to the congregation emphasize the gifts for ministry and not the disability. Be prepared to take a few minutes to answer any questions that may come up.
Positive and Negative Questions
Below are just a few examples of questions that can be asked regarding the candidate's disability. In general it is only fair to limit the number of these questions and concentrate instead on the skills for ministry that this candidate brings.
Negative — "How will you visit our members' homes since you're in a wheelchair?"
Positive — "What are your plans for visiting our members in their homes?"
Negative — "How will you serve Communion?"
Positive — "How can we assist you in serving Communion?
Negative — "How will your disability limit your ministry?"
Positive — "How will your disability enhance your ministry?"
Rules of Etiquette
- Never lean on a mobility device, such as a wheelchair, or take it away from the user.
- Make sure ahead of time that the room you are using has easy access and that the person can move around freely.
- If someone is lipreading, speak clearly and make sure you face them at all times.
- Don't shout at someone who is deaf. It won't make communication any easier.
- When speaking with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, use appropriate gestures or facial expressions.
- If the person has a working dog, do not pet or play with it.
- When speaking with someone who is blind, use verbal cues and be descriptive.
- Offer assistance whenever appropriate, but do not force it or be offended if it is not taken.
- If someone has a care attendant, talk to the person with the disability not the attendant.
The following words and expressions are currently preferred and reflect a positive attitude toward people with disabilities and people who are deaf. Some meanings may vary depending on context or locale. The ideal is to incorporate these words into our language in a way that expresses the dignity of the persons to whom we are referring or to whom we are speaking.
- person with a disability
- person who is differently-abled
- hearing impaired
- psychologically / emotionally disabled
- developmentally disabled
- wheelchair user or uses a wheelchair
- mentally retarded
- person with paraplegia
- mobility disability
- vision impaired
- blind low vision
Many persons who are deaf desire not to be identified as a disability group, as they are limited only in communication with hearing persons. The ELCA recognizes this distinction in its work and considers the needs of hard-of-hearing persons as an accessibility issue.
The following is a letter written by Pastor Philip Wangberg, an ELCA pastor with a disability. He wrote this letter as an addition to his mobility papers when he was searching for a new Call. This was a way for the congregations to understand that, yes, Pastor Philip Wangberg has a disability, but the disability does not stop him from accomplishing anything. It only makes him think more creatively about how he can accomplish it. While not all pastors with disabilities agree with his ideas about appropriate language, they should agree with the purpose of the letter. The purpose is to help congregations, and anyone else who reads this, see past the disability to the person behind it.
Who I Am
When we meet you will notice that I use a wheelchair. I have been "spinning my wheels" as a means of mobility following unsuccessful surgery on a tumor six and one half years ago. I can get around with a walker or crutches, but it is safer for me to use my wheelchair. It is also a lot faster! Sometimes people wonder what I would like to be called: disabled, differently-abled, mobility challenged, or handicapped. Of those terms handicapped is preferable. I disdain political correctness. Handicapped refers to those who beg for alms while holding a cap in their hand-and aren't we all beggars waiting for God's gifts with open hands? In addition, I love the game of golf where everyone has a handicap. But when it comes right down to it, my first choice is for you to call me Phil.
What I Can Do!
My initial reaction to the realization that I had no movement or feeling from the waist down was, "Wow, this is going to be the most difficult challenge of my life!" Since that time I have learned new ways to do many common things. I play golf, ski, ride a "tricycle," travel extensively, and carry on a normal, independent life. I usually do not need help, but when I do I have no problem asking for assistance. Every day is an adventure and each new experience tests my creativity. There are very few activities I will not try!
Gifts I Bring
My positive outlook and zest for living are great assets. Looking back at my life's experiences I believe many of them prepared me to face this test. I have a strong faith and firmly believe I have been healed through the power of prayer. My passion for ministry and broad experience are resources that strengthen my ministry. If, after reviewing my mobility forms, my gifts fit your needs, I would be honored to consider a Call to serve your congregation.
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
II Corinthians 12:7-10
Historically the relationship between the Church and those who are differently abled has been a tenuous one at best. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 60's, persons with disabilities began to claim their own place in American mainstream society, including the Church. In answer to the increasing number of people who are differently-abled, the American Lutheran Church passed a resolution concerning ministry with persons who are differently abled. When 1980 was declared the International Year of the Disabled, this evoked a flurry of activity such as the formation of disability offices at the national headquarters of a number of these same church bodies, including the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America. Congregations were encouraged to examine the way they were ministering to persons with disabilities and to establish such programs as were needed. What happened was a resounding thud.
In spite of the fact that there were disability offices established by many church bodies at the national level, this did not translate to local congregations. Few permanent changes occurred. The practices of equal access for all that were beginning to be seen in the secular society were not always being implemented in the sacred world. Pastors with a disability found it difficult to receive a Call. They were expected to be "sufficiently able-bodied" and mobile enough to carry out pastoral duties. The language of ministry that involved persons with disabilities was to them and not with them. There was little discussion of the gifts that people who are differently-abled possess. Instead of seeking the advice and participation of people who are differently-abled, and allowing them to be at the heart of the ministry with persons with disabilities, the ones making all the decisions regarding this ministry were able-bodied people who only knew the life of a person with a disability second hand.
The Americans with Disabilities Act became a law in 1990. Technically, this bill still did not have any legislative authority over church bodies but it was so wide reaching that it could not be entirely ignored. For the first time, church buildings which were used for any public activity had to at least have an accessible entrance. As more and more people who were differently-abled entered the work force, the general population finally began to realize that people with disabilities not only have a right to work where and how they want but are entitled to live in the life style they desire with little, or at least as few, barriers as possible. With all this change going on in the secular world, the Church began to feel the pressure of not only changing its physical structures but its attitudes so that people with disabilities may worship freely, be fully included in the ministry of all God's people and, consider a Call to public ministry.
Prior to the formation of the ELCA, both the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America affirmed Churchwide ministry with persons who are differently-abled. The American Lutheran Church began a ministry with the Deaf known as Ephphatha in the late 1970's. Ministry with the blind, consisting of the production of Braille and audiotaped materials joined with Ephphatha. In 1983 Ephphatha widened its scope of services and became known as the ALC Ephphatha Services, Ministry with Persons with Disabilities. The focus in the Lutheran Church in America was on Christian education. In 1979 the Lutheran Church in America added its first staff person with responsibilities for work with people with disabilities. When the requests for education material for persons with developmental disabilities began to pour in to the office, the director began to create a series of one-page resources titled "Tips for Congregations Working with Disabled Persons."
In 1988 with the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the work of both predecessor bodies was formed into one ministry with people who are differently-abled. Initially this office was in the Division for Social Ministry Organizations, but in 1991 the Division for Church in Society was created and disability ministries was moved there. E. J. Lugo served as the director for disability ministries from 1988 to 1989 and Dr. Dennis Busse from 1990 to 1997. For some time the position was part time but in 1999 the Reverend Lisa Thogmartin-Cleaver was hired as the full-time director for disability ministries and deaf ministry.
Today Disability Ministries has several networks, including the Lutheran Network for Mental Illness and the ELCA Braille and Tape Ministry. It is also closely associated with the Definitely Abled Advisory Committee, a part of the Lutheran Youth Organization. Resources are available to congregations and synods to assist them in forming their own ministries with persons who are differently-abled. Several conferences, both at the national and the synodical levels, have been held to raise awareness of the lives and needs of persons who are differently-abled. In 2001, in response to many requests from the deaf culture for a director for deaf ministry, Pastor Beth Lockard was hired as the project coordinator for deaf ministry, thus separating it from the work of disability ministries.
Looking to the future, the ELCA hopes that there be will many opportunities to include persons who are differently abled in the life of the Church. It is vitally important to use the many gifts and talents of people who are differently-abled to do the work God calls all people to.