The ELCA Message on People with Disabilities was drafted and adopted in a context of official actions and staff work stretching back fifty years to the ELCA’s predecessor churches, the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) and the American Lutheran Church (ALC). The following brief narrative, which summarizes important actions and activities of the ELCA and its predecessor churches concerning disabilities,1
is intended to put the message in this context. It is not a comprehensive or authorized history of developments but represents the work of its author, the Rev. Ronald W. Duty, PhD, who alone is reponsible for its content.
Lutheran Church in America
The Lutheran Church in America (LCA), a predecessor church of the ELCA, adopted a social statement on “Aging and the Older Adult” in 1978 which acknowledged the reality of disabilities for some older persons and the tensions they cause in families, advocated supportive services be provided to the elderly on a voluntary basis both by congregations and by social service agencies and other institutions of the church, and called for greater accessibility to buildings used by the church and its related institutions as well as in all public buildings.
Actions in LCA General Conventions addressed disability themes as well. In response to a motion in the 1976 meeting calling for the church to address ways church buildings could be made more accessible, the 1976 General Convention adopted a motion to urge members, congregations and LCA institutions and agencies to advocate for the setting and enforcement of public architectural standards that facilitated accessibility to buildings for people with disabilities. The 1978 General Convention directed that a division of the church be asked to suggest ways for church agencies and institutions to advocate for adequate funding for therapy and medical care for children with disabilities. It also transmitted a synod memorial to this same division requesting that LCA agencies and institutions take accessibility into account when leasing facilities. In 1980, responding to synod memorials to develop and an implementing resolution to the LCA’s 1978 social statement on Human Rights on the human rights of the handicapped, and to instruct the church’s synods and congregations to act to guarantee people who are disabled “their civil rights and full access to life and society,” the Committee on Memorials said that the LCA “has acted as though there were” such an implementing resolution and that the staff was developing a strategy for public policy advocacy “for appropriate legislation to benefit the handicapped.” In response to a synod memorial requesting educational and worship materials for persons with disabilities by its 1980 Biennial Convention, the Memorials Committee at its 1982 Biennial Convention detailed a number of actions the LCA has or was taking that addressed the needs of persons with disabilities in the church, including educational materials and worship materials for people with impaired vision, and guidance for parish ministry planners.2
American Lutheran Church
The American Lutheran Church (ALC), another predecessor body to the ELCA, became involved in ministry with people with disabilities from its beginning. The Ephphatha Mission ministry was begun as a national ALC ministry in 1960. Its purpose was to minister to people with disabilities. The ministry was originally begun in 1898 as an informal effort of Rev. Gilbert H. Bakken, Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church (now First English Lutheran Church) in Faribault, Minnesota, and Pastor Olav Lee, professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. They proposed in 1898 that the United Norwegian Lutheran Church establish a program in home missions for blind and deaf children near the residential school for the children with vision and hearing impairments in Faribault. The formal beginning of this program occurred in 1901. A school was purchased and remodeled for a church building in 1920. In 1941, a new church facility for Ephphatha Church for Deaf and Blind was opened in Faribault. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, four additional ministry sites were established in Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. In 1981, the members of Ephphatha Church in accepted the invitation of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Faribault to become members of Our Savior’s, and the work of the ministry to people with vision and hearing impairments continued there. In 1996, the ministry was incorporated as an ecumenical, non-profit ministry called Christ Through Hands Ministry, which continues to exist in Faribault.3
The ALC Ephphatha Mission ministry, which began in 1960, was operated out of its DSMA unit, which had an Ephphatha Services Advisory Committee, and eventually an Ephphatha Services Reserve Fund as a restricted fund for use in this ministry. The monies for the Fund came primarily from a bequest from the Garness Estate that was to be used for aging deaf people, and from the sale of Ephphatha Church, Faribault, Minnesota. In 1986, the Ephphatha Services Advisory Committee, in anticipation of the ALC’s merger into the New Lutheran Church (i.e., ELCA), acted to request that the Transition Team for the New Lutheran Church assign the monies of the Fund to the Division for Social Ministry Organizations “for the purpose of making repayable loans for the benefit of ministry related to disabled persons, and that the earnings therefrom may be used for the growth of the corpus or may be expendable for the benefit of ministries related to persons with disabilities.”4
Further discussion of program priorities of the ministry during the transition period to the New Lutheran Church focused on a proposal for “How to assist congregations to move from physical accessibility to outreach that actually includes disabled people in congregational programs and life....”5
Points made during the discussion emphasized equipping for ministry, personal contact with people with disabilities, congregational need for practical information, and the importance of having an advocate for ministry with people with disabilities in each congregation that embarks on this ministry.6
The ALC addressed matters of disabilities at its Tenth General Convention in 1980. The Convention adopted two recommendations from the ALC’s Board for Life and Mission in the Congregation. One emphasized “the needs of persons with handicapping conditions” during the UN International Year of the Disabled in 1981, and asked that each congregation seek to find a job for one person with a disability, work for adequate barrier-free transportation for persons with disabilities within its community, that each congregation educate itself about architectural and attitudinal barriers to the full participation of people with disabilities in congregations along with issues related to their education, and that the ALC produce a television film about disabilities in time for distribution in 1981. The second recommendation adopted by the General Convention was to receive a tri-partite statement, “Disability and the Family of God: A Theology of Access,” and to commend its “Issues and Implications” sections to congregations for consideration and action, to instruct the divisions and service boards along with the agencies and institutions of the church to examine the statement of its implications, to promote the UN International Year of the Disabled in 1981, and encouraged the districts of the ALC to implement the concerns of the resolution. Also adopted was an amendment suggested by the ALC to work to increase the number of persons with disabilities on the ALC staff.7
The ALC created a designated fund called the Ephphatha Fund that used contributions from members and others to produce materials for the hearing impaired. This fund was later carried over into the ELCA.8
Subsequently, the ALC Church Council addressed the admission of persons with disabilities into ALC seminaries and their certification for ordination. In June 1985, it adopted a policy statement drafted by the Board for Theological Education and Ministry at its request, “Seminary Admission and Certification Criteria in Relation to the Work ALC Pastors are Expected to Do.” That statement specified the theological, academic, and ethical qualifications of pastors, as well as their work performance expectations, including expectations for physical mobility and energy for the pastor’s workload. In light of these, the statement issued guidelines for admission to seminary and certification for ordination that attempted to distinguish between those disabilities that were not a barrier to pastors serving congregations, on the one hand, and those physical conditions that were “potentially disqualifying,” on the other hand. The latter conditions included progressive degenerative neurological and physical disorders (e.g., multiple sclerosis, ALS, juvenile onset diabetes, cystic fibrosis, some kidney diseases, non-correctable heart conditions, quadriplegia, and severe psychiatric disorders). This policy proved to be controversial afterwards. Presiding bishop David W. Preus publicly defended the Council’s decision for at least four months afterwards until the controversy died down.9
Some ALC seminarians with disabilities were certified for ordination and called to parish ministry after the adoption of this policy. It is unknown whether it was ever used either to deny admission to an ALC seminary or to deny certification for ordination during the remainder of the ALC’s life before it merged with the LCA and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches to form the ELCA in 1987.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America took up addressing issues related to people with disabilities in both church and society that the LCA and ALC had begun to face. It’s 1989 Churchwide Assembly took three actions: 1) to refer a synod memorial “that appropriate ways of enhancing the participation of persons with disabilities on the boards, committees, and councils of this church be developed” to the Church Council; 2) to refer synod memorials raising concerns about mental illness to the Division for Social Ministry Organizations, to request formation of a working group on mental health concerns within the Interunit Staff Team on Social Ministry, and “to preparing materials to educate congregations about mental illness and to improve the church's ministry to the mentally ill and their Families”; and 3) to refer a synod memorial calling for amendment of ELCA governing documents to recognize American Sign Language and deaf culture so that “the Commission for Multicultural Ministries can recognize and include the deaf community” to the Memorials Committee along with substitute language proposed by voting members.10Endnotes
In 1991, the ELCA Church Council followed up on two of the 1989 memorials. It considered and finally rejected the idea of altering requiring the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all governing structures of the church in ELCA governing documents, Instead, it acted to “encourage all entities of this church actively to seek to include persons with disabilities on their councils, boards, and committees and in other leadership positions” (CC91.4.24). It also acted on the 1989 memorial about persons with hearing disabilities to: “affirm the following statement, which articulates the relationship between the churchwide organization and the deaf community: Deafness has led to the creation of a unique language and culture, worthy of respect and affirmation within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” It further stated, “Responsibility for promoting the inclusion of deaf persons in all aspects of ministry within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rests with the Divisions for Congregational Life, Education, Ministry, Outreach, and Social Ministry Organizations and with the Commission for Multicultural Ministries. The Division for Social Ministry Organizations or its successor unit carries the lead responsibility for this multi-unit approach. Assistance will be provided to the deaf community in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to organize and to make known the unique ministry needs and opportunities resulting from their distinct language and culture.”11
The Division for Social Ministry Organizations was responsible for ministry with persons with disabilities in the churchwide organization, beginning in 1988. A Consultation on Ministry with Persons with Handicapping Conditions was sponsored by the Division for Social Ministry Organization in February 1991. Approximately 130 persons representing almost all of the synods participated in a three-day consultation, which was convened by Mr. Dennis Busse, Director for Ministry for Persons with Disabilities.12 A number of concrete suggestions emerged from discussions in several small groups. Busse also started four advisory groups on mental illness, the hearing-impaired, visual impairments, and developmental disabilities. The primary focus of staff work with these groups was on developing leaders among persons with disabilities who could speak directly to congregations out of their experience. Prospective pastors were identified among the hearing and visually impaired whose seminary education was given financial support. Occasional consultations were also held with synod disability committees. Because of the availability of curricular resources for disabled children from other organizations, the ELCA refrained from developing and publishing its own curricula. Participation of youth with disabilities in the Definitely Abled Youth Leadership Event (DAYLE) was given financial support. In the late 1990’s a Braile and Tape Ministry was started to produce and distribute some materials to members and congregations that requested them. Later, a full-time director of disability ministry was hired and responsibilities of the position were expanded. Contracts were also signed with two part-time coordinators, one for ministry for persons with hearing impairments and the other for ministry for persons with vision impairments. Busse was succeeded as Director by Rev. Lisa Cleaver in 1998. Much of her work focused on direct outreach to congregations. This was consistent with Busse’s recommendation to Charles Miller, Executive Director of the Division for Church in Society upon his departure that his successor be an ordained person with a disability who could interact directly with congregations. In the 2004 churchwide organization reorganization, the director of disability ministry was moved from Church in Society to the new program unit for Vocation and Education. The director served until 2009, and retired after the position was reduced to half time in response to a churchwide budgetary crisis that also saw a significant reduction of the churchwide staff. The part-time contract coordinators for ministry with persons with hearing impairments and sight impairments continue their work. During this time, a network of rostered leaders with disabilities was created, called the ELCA Disability Mentor Network, to mentor and offer support to seminarians and rostered leaders with disabilities.
The 2001 Churchwide Assembly declined to establish an officially designated Accessibility Sunday, but encouraged congregations to designate a Sunday in October for “special emphasis on disability awareness.” (CA01.07.70). In apparent concern over the volume of materials produced and distributed by the Braille and Tape Ministry, the 2001 Assembly acted “request that the Division for Church in Society review budgetary support for [it’s Braille and Tape] ministry and prepare interpretation materials for synods about the Braille and Tape Ministry, the Braille and Tape Endowment Fund, and the availability of consultant services on ministry with persons with visual impairments.” (CA01.07.73). In the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, when the issue of Braille and tape resources was raised again, Churchwide staff were encouraged “to give attention to” providing “additional worship and educational materials in Braille, large print, and audio formats and other forms of technology as may be available.” The Assembly also encouraged contributions from members and congregations ”to appropriate endowments held by the ELCA Foundation.” Moreover, it asked for a progress report to the ELCA Church Council at its November 2011 meeting.13
Ministry with persons with hearing impairments was also the subject of a 2001 Churchwide Assembly action, which affirmed that the ELCA “lift up and support the unique culture and language, American Sign Language (ASL), of deaf persons.” It also requested that deaf ministry be housed in Church in Society and that it “be separated from disability ministries in structure and budget” and a part-time director be hired “hired to assist ELCA deaf congregations, recruit leadership for deaf congregations, and act as the liaison between the Evangelical Lutheran Deaf Association and the ELCA's deaf ministry”, and that Church in society be “committed increasing support for this ministry as it becomes possible.” (CA01.07.71)
The preparation of a social statement on disabilities was requested by several synods at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. Instead, the Assembly responded positively to a request to develop a social policy message, which was to “aid awareness, deliberation, and action within this church, giving special attention to the unique issues (e.g., physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual) of the different types of disability.” (CA09.06.37)
1. This narrative is not meant to be exhaustive. For example, it does not cover the actions or services of most Lutheran social ministry organizations. Nor does it provide a detailed account of the administrative policies and actions either of the ALC, LCA, or ELCA. Such detailed and complete histories remain to be written.
2. Minutes, Eighth Biennial Convention of the Lutheran Church in America, July 21-28, 1976, 427, 430; Minutes, Ninth Biennial Convention of the Lutheran Church in America, July 12-19, 1978, 676, 707; Minutes, Tenth Biennial Convention, Lutheran Church in America, June 25—July 2, 1980, 52, 103; Minutes, Eleventh General Convention of the Lutheran Church in America, September 3-10, 1982, 159, 160.
3. E-mail communication from Mary Kinde of Christ Through Hands Ministry to Roger Willer, 7-08-2010.
4. ES-86-1-5, Minutes, Ephphatha Services Advisory Committee, January 22-23, 1986, Minneapolis, p. 2.
5. Agenda Information, Ephphatha Services Advisory Committee January 22-23, 1986, Minneapolis, p. 2.
6. Minutes, Ephphatha Services Advisory Committee, January 22-23, 1986, Minneapolis, p. 3.
7. 1980 Reports and Actions, Part I, Tenth General Convention of the American Lutheran Church, October 1-7, 1980, 708-71. The statement, “Disability and the Family of God,” is printed on 819-844.
8. Phone interview with Dennis Busse June 3, 2010.
9. Minutes, The Church Council, The American Lutheran Church, June 3-7, 1985, p. 96; “Seminary Admission and Certification Criteria in Relation to the Work ALC Pastors are Expected to Do,” Agenda Exhibit T-1, CC 6/85; “Seminaries to tighten admission?” The Lutheran Standard, May 3, 1985, 20; Letters under the heading “Disabled Pastors,” The Lutheran Standard, July 12, 1985, 13; Richard Lisher and Tracy Kenyon Lisher, “’No Handicapped Ministers Need Apply,’” Christian Century, July 17-24, 1985, 670-671; and David W. Preus, “The Truth about Seminary Admissions,” The Lutheran Standard, October 18, 1985, 36. Some years later theologian and sociologist Nancy L. Eiesland, who had a disability but was not a Lutheran, noted and criticized what she saw as the dissonance between the ALC’s statement, “Disability and the Family of God: A Theology of Access,” and the ALC policy on admission to seminary training and certification for ordination adopted in the policy statement, “Seminary Admission and Certification Criteria in Relation to the Work ALC Pastors are Expected to Do.” From her disability movement perspective she also was critical of the ALC statement. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) 75-86.
10. CA89.7.94; CC89.11.195.b; CA89.8.111. The latter referral is not identified with an action number. (Assembly Minutes, ELCA, 1989 Churchwide Assembly, Reports and Records, Volume 3.
11. CC91.4.52) ELCA Church Council, April 13-15, 1991, Minutes, p. 70.
12. The following information was supplied by Dennis Busse, phone interview, June 3, 2010.
13. CA 09.03.12, Preliminary Minutes, Eleventh Churchwide Assembly, Plenary Session Four, pp. 12-13.