Developing Leadership Among People with Disabilities for Vocational Ministry

Developing Leadership Among People with Disabilities for Vocational Ministry Submitted by Jerry L. Borton

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership

 Philadelphia Biblical University School of Business and Leadership Langhorne, PA 19047-3990

September 2007  

Copyright Jerry Borton 2007


Chapter 1: Statement of the Problem
Chapter 2: Literature Review
Chapter 3: Intervention Design
Chapter 4: Intervention Implementation
Chapter 5: Presentation of Findings and Results
Chapter 6: Reflections, Conclusions and Recommendations
Appendix A: Survey of Ministry Leaders with Disabilities
Appendix B: Data Summary of Ministry Leaders with Disabilities
Appendix C: Interviews with Seminary Faculty and Administrators

Chapter 1: Statement of the Problem

We live in a society that seems to be saying to people with disabilities that they are better off dead than disabled. When asked about her greatest concern for the disability community in the year 2020 Adrienne Asch, former president of The Society for Disability Studies and Professor of Bioethics at Wellesley College stated:

As we have a society marching along toward genetic manipulations and wanting to contain healthcare costs, we are facing more and more desires to persuade people to die and get out of the way.If we can’t fight that mentality, it doesn’t matter what kind of ostensible civil rights, victories we win in all of these years, because we won’t be alive. I’m not convinced you can truly fight for equal rights to employment of people that you would really prefer not be born (McCarthy, 2003, p.2 9).

We want instant solutions to problems, and pain free lives. Sadly, the Church does little to combat this trend despite the significant Scriptural teaching about the value of, and lessons learned from pain and suffering. The Church needs people with disabilities.

The Church needs to see people with disabilities who are using their gifts, whatever they may be, in the service of God. Recruiting, teaching, and reaching people with disabilities should therefore be a responsibility that the church, Bible colleges, and seminaries take seriously. Perhaps by doing so, and seeing these examples, the Church will come to understand that our disabilities, whatever they may be, are God’s platform to speak His grace into our lives and the lives of others.

The purpose of this project is to research the most effective way to develop leadership for vocational ministry among people with disabilities. For the purposes of this paper vocational ministry is that which is perceived to be done for pay or other compensation. The reader may perhaps think that the way leaders are developed among people with disabilities is the same way one develops leaders among any particular group. This may be true, but a quick look around the world of vocational ministry and Bible College and Seminary campuses shows a virtual absence of people with disabilities.

According to the United Nations (2006) roughly 0 percent of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with some type of disability be it physical, cognitive or emotional. The Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism in 2004 recognized people with disabilities as a people group. The Ministry Among People with Disabilities issue group goes on to state, “If we were to place these.650 million people together, they would comprise the world’s third largest nation with the highest rates of homelessness, joblessness, divorce, abuse, and suicide” (Tada & Opppenhuizen, 2005, p. 8).

Awareness has to start among Church leadership at large regarding the need to develop leadership among people with disabilities. This may prove to be the biggest obstacle, as most churches, if they are thinking about persons with disabilities at all, are struggling with whether they can they really minister to people with disabilities, let alone ministering with persons with disabilities or allowing persons with disabilities to minister to the Church.

The National Organization on Disability 2004 Harris Poll states that people both with and without disabilities (84% and 85% respectively) consider their faith to be important to them.

However 49% of Americans with disabilities attend religious services at least once per month, compared to 57% percent of those without disabilities. People with disabilities are less engaged in their communities. People with disabilities socialize less, and eat out less than their non-disabled counterparts. Life satisfaction for people with disabilities also trails, with only 34 saying they are very satisfied compared to 6  percent of those without disabilities”

Importance of the Study


There is a small body of literature from a Christian perspective on developing people with disabilities for vocational ministry. The vast majority of this literature comes from the perspective of traditionally mainline denominations. There is little literature from an evangelical perspective. The Lausanne 2004 Forum Ministry Among People with Disabilities issue group challenges the church to develop leadership among people with disabilities by bringing “in people with disabilities and charge them through discipleship and training to use their spiritual gifts” and “training and equipping people with disabilities in order to help them exercise their Godgiven [sic] gifts in building the Body of Christ” (Tada & Opppenhuizen 2005 p.7). People with disabilities have gifts that are needed by the Church if it is to be the full or complete Body of Christ.

However, a study of 373 Christian institutions of higher learning found only one percent having degree programs directly relating to ministry with people with disabilities (Borton, 2005). Seventeen institutions (4.6%) had coursework relating directly to ministry to or with persons with disabilities. Thirty-two Christian schools had an introductory course regarding children with disabilities in their special education or elementary education degree programs. These introductory courses constitute 53.3% of all the courses available regarding persons with disabilities; seemingly implying that disability ministry, when it is given consideration, is seen as a children’s ministry issue.

Further, a recent survey of theological institutions by Robert Anderson (Anderson, 2002- 2003, p. 2) shows that:

  • 82% of responding institutions had never intentionally examined whether their curriculum included elements to increase theological and practical knowledge about people with disabilities and their families
  • Less than 5% of respondents rate their curriculum as effective in preparing ministry students to include and minister with people who have disabilities (and their families) in congregational
    • Less than 5% of respondents believe that their curriculum effectively promotes a theological understanding of the human experience of
    • Seminaries have little to no educational content about the human experience of disability, 9 % of academic leaders believe that their students would benefit from exposure to such
    • 72% of responding deans indicate that in-service learning opportunities focused on disability and theological education would be of value for
    • 83% state that there is a need for greater academic attention to the human experience of disability in graduate theological


 The author makes the following assumptions:

  • For the purpose of this paper, the focus will be placed on what are traditionally considered paid vocational ministry positions (e.g. pastor, administrator, director of para church ministry).
  • For the purpose of this paper the term “person with a disability” or “people with disabilities” refers only to those affected by physical disabilities and does not include individuals who have a cognitive deficit. This is not to say that leadership positions held by people with cognitive disabilities are unimportant. It is simply beyond the scope of this paper. It is interesting to note that there is a growing amount of literature available on developing leaders among people with cognitive disabilities including post secondary learning opportunities.
  • Many persons with disabilities who choose to go into ministry will choose the more traditional route into those positions, that being through a Bible College and/or seminary.
  • It is common among traditional mission agencies to include indigenous leadership development as a component of their overall evangelism strategy. In order to reach people with disabilities, at some point people with disabilities need to do the reaching.
  • There are few people with disabilities in leadership positions in disability ministry or the Church at large, and there seems to be little effort being made by the evangelical church to recruit or develop leadership among people with disabilities. So, the catalyst for the reach-teach-reach cycle, which is critical for mission, is missing.

Questions to be addressed

 The study seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What are the barriers that persons with disabilities must overcome to enter vocational ministry?
  • What are the success factors that help students with disabilities overcome barriers to completing programs of higher education?
  • How might schools, Bible colleges and seminaries remove the above barriers and promote the success factors in the process of education for students with disabilities?


Chapter 2: Literature Review

System change occurs through interplay of external and internal forces (Powers et al., 2002). In the case of disability related systems, forces of change include legislation (the Americans with Disabilities Act) and the disability rights movement where people with disabilities are attempting to change a system from the outside. However, for systems (including the Church) to actually change there must be people on the inside facilitating change. In order for the Church to change its view and practice toward people with disabilities, people with disabilities must become leaders within the church.

Models of Disability Perspective and Practice

 Through the years, the experience of disability has been viewed through two adversarial models. The first is the medical model, which holds that the disability is a defect to be diagnosed, then cured, treated or eliminated. If the “defect” could not be cured, treated or eliminated the practice was to “warehouse” the “deviant” or “imbecile.” The medical model places the focus on the deficits and on the body. It is presumed that the doctor, educator or social worker is best able to determine the needs of the individual. If the person with the disability will just accept the advice of the experts and their limitations they will adapt to the world around them. This model puts the primary responsibility on the person with the disability and does not deal with the stigma or other barriers placed by society on people with disabilities (Eiesland 994; 998 & Wolanin & Steele, 2004).

The second model of disability is that of the social model. This model says that people with disabilities are a minority and, like other minorities such as African Americans and women, face pervasive discrimination and barriers to full participation in society. People with disabilities saw the civil rights movements of other minorities as the precursor to their own campaign for freedom. In addition, there were young people who grew up with disabilities in middle class families who assumed the right to an independent life in society. The social model says that society has a role to play in insuring equal opportunity for people with disabilities, and the legislation to guarantee that. The down side of this model is that the person with the disability can easily blame society without taking personal responsibility for their own success or growth (Eiesland 994; 998 & Wolanin & Steele, 2004).

A third view is espoused by Hubach (2006) who believes that the medical model wrongly states that disability is abnormal in a normal world. She goes on to say that the social model promotes celebration of the disability and not the individual, and is wrong when it states that disability is normal in a normal world. She states that disability is normal in an abnormal world. In this view, we live in a world created by God and affected by sin:

Everything in human experiences is affected by the fall. On every level of every dimension of the human experience there is a mixture of both the blessedness of creation and the brokenness of the fall. . . What does this imply then about disability? Disability is essentially a more noticeable form of brokenness that is common to the human experience – a normal part of life in an abnormal world. It is just a degree along a spectrum that contains difficulty all along its length. (Hubach, 2006; p 29)

The Church’s Perspective and Practice Toward Persons with Disabilities

The Church has historically had difficulty assimilating people with disabilities into the Body as can be seen from the lack of physical and attitudinal access to many congregations, Bible colleges and seminaries. This difficulty can also be noted in some interpretations of Jesus’ healings and other Biblical references to persons with disabilities. The Church has the Biblical mandate to be the “City on the Hill” (Eiesland, 994, p.20) with its beacon of truth, justice and freedom shining. Rather than being the catalyst for change, the Church has become just another “city on the hill” that people with disabilities cannot access. Rather than being a light to the world, the Church has settled on just being a mirror of the world in the realm of disability. For example, the church fathers had a less than admirable view of persons with disabilities.

According to Kanner ( 964 as cited in Anderson, 2003 p. 9), “John Calvin at times refers to persons with certain mental imbalances as possessed or created by Satan.” Augustine believed that individuals who are deaf are unable to “hear” the word and therefore cannot be saved (Brueggemann, 200 ). Finally, Martin Luther had this to say:

He had the use of his eyes and all of his senses, so that one might think that he was a normal child. But instead, the child gorged himself . . . He drooled, defecated, and screamed uncontrollably . . . If I were prince, I should take the child to the Moldau River and drown him. [They are] a mass of flesh, a massa carnis, with no soul. For it is the Devil’s power that he corrupts people who have reasons and souls when he possesses them. The Devil sits in such changelings where their souls should have been (Minnesota Council on Disabilities, 2003 The Reformation section para. 3).

Luther’s comments likely reflect the thinking of his time. While persons with disabilities had made many advances, many of the disability community believe that this mindset still exists both in society and the Church. According to Nancy Eiesland ( 994, p. 7),

healing has become the churchy parallel to rehabilitated medicine, in which the goal was normalization of the bodies of people with disabilities. Failure to be healed is often assessed as a personal flaw in the individuals such as unrepentant sin or a selfish desire to remain disabled. Thus for many people with disabilities laying on of hands is associated with the stigmatization within the church.


For many in the church, the healings have become the major focus and not the God who did the healing. When Jesus healed someone He returned them to community. He moved them from the margins back to their friends and family (Black, 2004). “The cardinal message. is that when we create an inviting environment and provide space for full participation and active involvement of people with disability in church life, we are participating in Christ’s healing ministry” (Kabue, 2003 p. 5).

For many people with disabilities the stigma continues when pastors and teachers use the healing passages as metaphors for sin:

The issue is not that persons with disabilities can’t go beyond their reality and see blindness as a metaphor. The issue is that in our hymns and liturgies and sermons, the physical reality of a person’s blindness is equated with sin — lack of faith, willful disobedience, separation from God, etc. it equates the physical reality of some with the intentional disobedience of many (Black 2004 p. 4- 5).

Some may counter that Jesus also uses blindness/deafness as a sin metaphor. For instance, in Matthew 5: 4 Jesus refers to the Pharisees as blind guides. While Jesus in this passage does equate blindness with sin, His actions with persons with disabilities are an example for us to follow. In Luke 5: 8- 9 in his “ministry manifesto” he includes recovery of sight to the blind. In Luke 4: 2-24 he challenges the Pharisees to fellowship with persons with disabilities and other outcasts who could not repay them. In John 9 Jesus’ disciples ask who is responsible for the blind man’s blindness, was it his fault or his parents. Jesus answers neither. Jesus had compassion for people with disabilities and their families, e.g., Mark :40-44. Jesus asked questions and listened. He asked the man at the pool at Bethesda, “do you want to get well?” In Mark 5:25-34 Jesus sought out the woman who had touched his cloak and listened as she told the whole truth about her entire story of her battle with disability over many years. In Mark :4 Jesus touched the leper. In Mark 8:23 he touches the blind man. Jesus put the needs of persons with disabilities over the traditions and taboos of men. He seemed to delight in healing on the Sabbath, e.g., Luke 3: 0- 3, the stooped woman, and John 5:9, the man at the pool. Later Jesus finds the man who had been healed at the pool and tells him to stop sinning or something worse may happen to him. Some point to this to show that the man’s disability was the result of sin. It is more likely to mean that a lost soul is a fate far worse than any disability. Jesus reached out to people with disabilities when he was busy with other matters and it may have been inconvenient. The paralytic and his friends in Mark 2: -5 interrupted a meeting. The woman who touched His cloak stopped Him as He was on His way to perform another miracle (Mark 5:2 -36). Jesus was even meeting the needs of people with disabilities on his last weeks on earth Mathew 2 : 4 (Borton, 994). Most of the time, when disability is referred to it is used as a metaphor for sin.

While it is not appropriate to stop using disability as a metaphor; it is important to also follow Jesus’ example to reach out and bring people with disabilities into the mainstream of the church.

Some denominations have cited the Levitical mandate (Leviticus 2  :  6-23) that priests be without defect as reason to exclude persons with disabilities entrance into the ministry. Over the years this passage has been used to exclude those who are deaf, blind or mobility impaired. Black points out that there are many others included in the list such as someone with a limb longer than the other, a broken foot or hand, or a blemish in the eye. A strict interpretation of this passage would likely exclude those who wear glasses or contacts. The reason for the strict exclusion of defects for the priesthood was that the priests were a type or precursor for the Messiah to come. Jesus fulfilled this requirement.

Joni Eareckson Tada defines suffering as having what we do not want and wanting what we do not have (Tada & Estes, 997 p. 8). Nothing happens to the believer without God’s permission. This means that He has a purpose for suffering. “God uses suffering to refine, perfect, and strengthen us. Suffering or disability requires us to depend on God. Disability teaches us that God is more concerned with the character He is building in us. Disability teaches us that the greatest good of the Christian life is not absence of pain, but Christ likeness.” (Tada & Oppenhuizen, 2004 p. 3- 4) While the church may seem to understand the value of suffering, seeing a believer with a disability acts as a visual illustration. Perhaps this is why the church is many times uncomfortable around people with disabilities, because they would prefer not to be reminded of suffering and its value in God’s economy. Allender (2006, p. 55) reminds us of God’s leadership model “he chooses fools to live foolishly in order to reveal the economy of Heaven, which reverses and inverts the wisdom of this world. He calls us to brokenness not performance; to relationships not commotion; to grace not success. lt is no wonder that this kind of leadership is neither spoken of, nor admitted in our business schools or even our seminaries” [italics added].

Much of the literature about people with disabilities in theological terms comes under the sphere of pastoral care, as in – this is how we care for people with disabilities (Blair, 2003). The Church needs not only talk about them, but to begin initiating a conversation with them. The church needs to build relationships. The Church and the secular disability community have a tenuous relationship at best. The Church considers many in the secular disability community to be too bitter and liberal to be relevant, while those in the secular disability community see the Church as patronizing and equally as irrelevant. An example of this can be seen in the process to bring the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Many Christian leaders lobbied against the passage of the ADA because of the feared cost, and separation of church and state. While many leaders in the disability community were willing to consider making allowances for the separation of church and state, they felt that what many church leaders were exhibiting was the “not in my backyard” mentality (Eiesland,   998). During this time, many denominations  were closing their disability offices or consolidating them with other departments thus cutting off the most likely channel of communication with the disability community and further straining relationships . The Church needs to reopen that communication. The seminary or Christian college campus is an appropriate setting for that conversation. “When people with disabilities interact with others in educational settings, a transformation of environment, culture and curriculum will necessarily occur.” (Anderson, 200 , p. 40) In order to learn how to minister to people with disabilities one must minister with people with disabilities. This requires people with disabilities and without disabilities to live together in community.

Literature on the topic of disability and theology comes almost exclusively from mainline denominational writers, rather than from evangelical writers. W. Daniel Blair wonders (2003, p.70):

More mystifying (at least to me) is the fact that even among evangelicals, whose very ‘mission’ is world evangelization, theological treatment of disabilities is virtually non- existent. It would seem that the sheer magnitude alone of what some would term the world’s largest (cultural) minority . . . would incite vigorous demographic and cultural research by the evangelical sector!”


Characteristics of Students with Disabilities

 Students with disabilities are enrolling in college (36% of students with disabilities enroll) but are still less likely to attend college than their peers (78% enroll). They are less likely to attend college because students with disabilities have fewer opportunities to take the usual college preparation courses, are usually not expected to attend college and may lack the self- advocacy. Only 28% of students with disabilities achieved diplomas in four year institutions, compared to 54% of their peers. Students with disabilities are on average older than their counterparts without disabilities because students with disabilities are more likely to delay entry into college and more likely to take more than five years to complete a degree program (Getzel & Wehman, 2005; Wolanin &Steele, 2004).

In addition to the usual demands of academic pursuits, students with disabilities must also deal with the complexities of their disability. Degraff (2006) lists four categories of disability related stress. The first is psychological, meaning dealing with the realities of disability (e.g., bowel or bladder accidents, and pressure sores). The second area of stress is relationships, such as dealing with public discrimination, perceived burden to family, attendant management issues, or sexuality. The third most prominent cause of disability stress is architectural inaccessibility.

And the final area of stress identified is that of societal policies, programs and practices.

Disability also takes more money and more time. It may require a student with a disability more time for routine activities such as getting dressed in the morning, personal hygiene, walking from their home or dorm to class or from one class to another. They may have routine therapies or medical appointments that require their time and finances. They may rely on assistive technology, such as a power wheelchair, a specialized computer or software program. Funding may not be available for this assistive technology or for repairs. University or seminary financial aid packages need to consider the students medical and assisted technology needs. (Wolanin & Steele, 2004)

College students with disabilities were asked to identify which skills they believed to be necessary to succeed at the college level. Their responses included decision making skills, problem solving skills, goal setting and time management skills, self-advocacy and leadership skills, self evaluation, self awareness, and the ability to believe you can succeed. When Covey (2004) speaks of finding your voice, or when Blanchard and Hodges (2005) speak of Jesus’ transformational leadership model, the skills they teach are very similar to these success factors. Disability Disclosure

Disability disclosure is a complex issue for the college student. In normal relationships disclosure is mutual. When a person in a relationship discloses information this usually leads the person receiving the disclosure to make a similar disclosure. For example, Sam may say to Dave, “I’ve been a Phillies fan all my life.” Dave may respond by saying, “I’m a Phillies fan too.” Disclosure of a disability is different in that the person with a disability is disclosing personal information without the expectation of reciprocity. The purpose of the disclosure is to receive accommodation in order to successfully navigate the course or program of study. The person with a disability has to weigh the potential benefits of disclosure against the potential negative reaction of the person, usually a professor or instructor, receiving the disclosure. The professor’s or instructor’s response to a student’s disclosure of disability and request for accommodation can be the determining factor as to whether the student actually completes the course or program of study (Wolanin & Steele, 2004). There are several reasons why a student with a disability may be apprehensive to disclose their disability or its impact. These reasons include: embarrassment, fear of stigma, feelings of inadequacy, belief that the accommodations give an unfair advantage, and the feeling that disclosure will lead to scrutiny or being held to a higher standard. The  student must also consider the timing of the disclosure. If the disclosure is made before the program or course begins the professor may view the request as extra work and the need for the accommodations may not be understood. If the disclosure is made after the start of the program it may be viewed as an attempt to excuse poor performance (Rocco, 200 ).

The student’s disclosure of their disability should be pertinent to the situation. In other words, the student should share enough information with the instructor to show how the disability may impact the student’s participation in the course or program and what accommodations the student is requesting and how those accommodations will assist the student. Because of the sensitive nature of disability disclosure, it may be helpful for the student to actually write out a script of the disclosure. Instructors can assist students by seeking information and helping the student relate the disability and the disclosure to the course contents.

This can be particularly complex on a private Christian college campus where access is voluntary instead of mandatory. The American with Disabilities Act exempts religious institutions and entities related to them from the accessibility provisions of the law. Thus churches and educational institutions associated with them may be exempt. However, institutions that receive federal funds including student federal aid are required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 973 to provide access (O’Brien-Prager, 2004). However, churches and religious institutions are not exempt from the hiring provisions of the ADA. For example, if a seminary has 5 or more employees it does not have to provide accessibility for its students, but cannot discriminate against a potential employee because of disability (Getzel & Wehman, 2005; Golden, Kilb, & Mayerson 993;).

Documentation of Disability

 In order to provide appropriate accommodation the student with the disability is required to provide documentation of the disability. This documentation shows that the individual qualifies for accommodations and gives the rationale for those accommodations. Documentation should include a professional verification of the disability made by a licensed physician, rehabilitation counselor, or other appropriate professional (Cincinnati Christian University, 2007). A statement including current treatments, medications, and a history of previous accommodations may be helpful (Wolanin & Steele, 2004).

Once the disability is verified, the school may provide a wide variety of accommodations.

Before discussing accommodations it is important to note that reasonable accommodations do not lower the academic requirements of the course or program and should not place an undue burden on the institution. Also, accommodations must be appropriate and not necessarily the best or preferred accommodation. Some of these may include alternate forms of testing, text in alternate formats, early syllabus availability, early registration, extended time for tests or in class assignments, interpreters, note takers, preferential seating and parking, class relocation, course substitution, elevator or accessible entrance keys, library assistance, and reduced credit load (Cincinnati Christian University, 2007; Wolanin & Steele, 2004). There are also a host of assistive technology options for students with disabilities including: screen enlargement software, alternative entry options (such as Dragon Naturally Speaking), keyboard adaptations, and speech output. The University of Washington’s Do-It (2007) program website lists a variety of options and vendors. Often state offices of vocational rehabilitation can assist students in determining what technology would best work for them and may also provide financial assistance.

Universal Design for Instruction

 One of the ways to defuse the disclosure and accommodation issues is to implement the practice of universal design. Universal design was first developed in the field of architecture. The concept of universal design is that you build in accessibility from the beginning. The ADA requires commercial buildings and public institutions to be accessible. Universal design for private homes however, is voluntary. Homes built using the principals of universal design typically include one entrance that is accessible for someone using a wheelchair and one restroom also wheelchair accessible. Universal design for instruction is consistent with recent findings on adult learning theory. Universal design means that courses and programs of study are designed to be accessed by a variety of students with special needs and differing learning styles. Text books and other learning materials are available in a variety of formats and may be downloaded from a class or department website. Instructors use a variety of teaching methods.

Unnecessary complexity is eliminated. Long-term course assignments are broken into smaller segments which the students may submit for feedback prior to the project’s final due date.

Nonessential physical effort is minimized or eliminated. Classrooms are set up to allow students to see the instructor and other students during discussions. The learning environment promotes interaction between students and faculty. Finally, instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive and high expectations are espoused for all students. Detailed class notes are uploaded to a class website, class lectures can also be provided in MP3 format for download by class participants (Wolanin & Steele, 2004). One institution includes a statement welcoming students to discuss their accommodation needs with the instructor (J. Estep, personal communication, August 28, 2007).

Some students need their text books to be reformatted into .pdf or Word files that can be better accessed by students with mobility impairments or read by software programs used by those with visual impairments. Some publishers are willing to accommodate this if a regular text book is purchased. The Chaffee Amendment allows certain nonprofits to reformat texts for the visually impaired or physically handicapped without needing permission from the copyright holder. However, some publishers narrowly define the terms “visually impaired” or “physically handicapped” (National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 2006). One organization that has an extensive catalog of theological and other Christian works is Optaisa Ministry. Some of the works it provides include commentaries, Greek and Hebrew word studies, and Bible translations (T. Vos, personal communication, August 25, 2007).

The Cost of Providing Access for Persons with Disabilities

 One of the common concerns raised when talking about inclusion of people with disabilities is the cost. It is unfortunate that the Church is no exception. Birch (2003) makes the following suggestions when considering the cost of accommodations:

Budget in advance for services. Include a line item in your budget for accessibility. Never say no as a predetermined answer. Explore the possibilities. Mobilize every possible funding source. ‘Remember that the majority of American families include some individuals with disabilities . . . there may be more people in your constituency willing to support efforts of response to include people with disabilities than you imagine.’ Be realistic about the possibilities. Prioritize the work that needs to be done.

One suggested way to categorize priorities is to do what we can at once with little or no cost; do what we can at once but at some expense; do what we can only do when we are able to have a major renovation; do what we can only do if we erect a new building (Stookey, 2003). Robert Anderson (2003, p.44), discussing the economics of inclusion states:

Suppose for a moment that your spouse or child has a disability. Most families exhibit the following behavior in these situations: they will do whatever it takes to help the person be as included as anyone else. This responsibility almost always entails financial resources, sometimes great, sometimes small. The central motive in these instances does not deny the cost of resources, but shifts away from measuring the body’s worthiness based on its “cost” to be included in a material environment. The ordinal value is placed on relationships and responsibility becomes response.

The Church is the family of Christ. Should not we respond to others in our family in the same manner? The Church needs people with disabilities in vocational ministry in order to be complete. They are needed both to lead in the outreach to people with disabilities and to exercise their gifts within the body of believers. One might say that the Church is disabled when the presence and gifts of people with disabilities are absent.


Chapter 3: Research Design

The purpose of the research is to gather data on the experiences, challenges and success stories of people with disabilities in vocational ministry positions within the church. Data will be gathered from people with disabilities in vocational ministry positions and from faculty members and administrators of Christian colleges, universities and seminaries. A variety of methods will be employed including surveys, interviews and focus groups. A variety of delivery methods will also be used, such as email, telephone and face to face.

The research project will consist of four phases. The first phase will be an email survey, sent to individuals who are in Christian ministry leadership positions. These individuals will come from the National Organization on Disability (NOD) which has a list of 39 individuals with disabilities who have identified themselves as religious leaders. For the purposes of this study the researcher will invite those leaders from the NOD listing who identify themselves as being part of the Christian faith. One hundred and twenty-eight of the religious leaders on the NOD list identify themselves as Christians. The researcher also has access to the roster of staff members, ministry affiliates, and ministry associates of Joni and Friends (JAF). Joni and Friends is an international ministry outreach to persons with disabilities. Seventeen individuals with disabilities associated with JAF will also be invited to participate in the survey

In addition the survey will be sent to the Christian Council on Persons with Disabilities which is a consortium of disability ministry leaders and ministries, the Christian Institute on Disability which is a part of Joni and Friends, and Dr. Jeff McNair who is a special Education professor at California Baptist University and the Executive Director of the National Association of Christians and Special Education. These groups will be asked to forward the survey to their members who they feel are qualified to participate.

The survey is going to focus on the respondents’ disabilities and how disability affected their training for ministry, experience in ministry and their views on God, the Church and vocational ministry. The survey will also explore the accommodations made and obstacles faced as well as who their mentors and role models were and how those individuals encouraged and/or challenged them.

The second phase will be a series of follow up interviews of eight to ten survey participants, conducted using the participant’s desired method of follow-up, either another email or telephone. Questions will be based on the responses from the first survey. They will likely be clarifications of the respondent’s initial survey, as well as useful topics that come out of the first set of responses.

The third phase will be interviews with three to four Christian college or seminary administrators and/or faculty. The administrator and faculty interviews will come from seminaries and colleges in the greater Philadelphia area, as well as faculty and administrators in other parts of the country where the researcher has contacts.

The purpose of the third phase involving the college faculty and administrators is to determine the extent to which students with disabilities are served or underserved, determine ways to best disseminate information to Christian institutions of higher learning, and to determine what information needs to be disseminated.

The fourth phase will be a five-person focus group to draw out the trends and learning from the first three phases of the project. The focus group will use the Delphi method (2007) and will consist of two rounds. In the first round the participants will receive via email a summary of the data from the email surveys and phone interviews as well as a summary of the researcher’s findings. The author will summarize the responses of the focus group which will then be sent back to the group for further comment. Ideally the focus group will be composed of at least one person with a disability, an administrator or faculty member, and a pastor.

It is hoped that the lessons learned from the data can be used to develop training materials to assist Christian institutions of higher learning in making their facilities and programs more accessible to students with disabilities. The training materials might include seminars or workshops that can be delivered at gatherings of faculty and administrators, articles that can be published in appropriate journals and newsletters, web based training and procedures that disability ministry organizations might use to consult with and facilitate interactions between local Christian institutions of higher learning and students with disabilities.


Chapter Four: Intervention Implementation

The researcher conducted a four phase process utilizing an email survey, phone interviews and finally a focus group. The details of the process are discussed below.

The researcher developed a survey to collect information regarding the nature of the respondent’s experience with disability and how the disability impacted their theology and ministerial education. Questions were designed to also solicit information on role models and mentors and offer advice or suggestions to other individuals with disabilities who may be considering vocational ministry (a copy of survey is Appendix A).

Once the survey was designed the researcher gathered the appropriate contact information from the National Organization on Disability (NOD) website listing religious leaders and Joni and Friends website and staff directory. For the purposes of this study leaders who identified themselves as being of the Christian faith were selected. The contact information was entered into a spreadsheet. Each entry was checked to verify accuracy of the information. A mail merge process was completed so that each individual would receive an email containing a personal request to complete the questionnaire. The email also included a statement indicating a response to the email would be considered consent to use their responses for research purposes. Respondents were also given a general idea of the project timeline and the opportunity to request a copy of the final project.

An email containing the survey was also sent to the managing director of the Christian Institute on Disabilities (a new initiative of Joni and Friends), the Executive Directors of the Christian Council on Persons with Disabilities and the National Association of Christians in Special Education. These individuals were requested to forward the survey to appropriate potential respondents.

The researcher chose to send the survey by email as the timeliest means to disseminate it and gather the information. The first survey had a June 30, 2007 deadline for responding.

One hundred and forty-five surveys were sent to the combined lists from the National Organization on Disability ( 28 surveys or 88% of surveys sent) and Joni and Friends lists ( 7 surveys or 2% of surveys sent). Twenty-seven email addresses were no longer active. Eight individuals responded that they would return the survey before the deadline, but did not. Five responses were automated messages giving various reasons why the individuals would not be available. One individual responded that they had retired and preferred not to participate. One individual declined due to the timing of the survey and heavy ministry demands. One individual did not consider himself to be a person with a disability. Finally one automated response was received for a home based business. Twenty-seven individuals completed the survey for an overall response rate of 9%. Twenty three respondents were from the list of leaders from the National Organization on Disability (85% of all respondents; a response rate of 8%). Four were Joni and Friends contacts ( 5% of all respondents; a response rate of 24%). There were no responses from the other groups contacted.

The low response rate from Joni and Friends employees may be due to timing as the email survey and phone calls were done during the summer months which are disproportionately busier months of the year for the ministry. The researcher, in consultation with his advisor determined that 27 responses was sufficient for the purposes of this project. No further attempts were made to contact individuals whose email addresses were no longer active, or to expand the pool of potential respondents.

Of the 27 responses received (overall response rate 9%), 8 were male (67%), nine were female (33%). Ten of the respondents were born with their disability (37%). Three ( %) became disabled as youth. Fourteen became disabled as adults (52%). Sixteen respondents (59%) were disabled when they entered vocational ministry; eleven were not (4 %). As a group the respondents were trained at 32 institutions of higher learning and have reported holding 75 different ministry positions.

Upon receiving survey responses it became clear that the researcher did not write all the survey items in the clearest manner. Some items contained more than one question, making it difficult to input the responses into a spreadsheet. The number of open ended questions, however (over a dozen) provided for a rich return of data (Survey response data is Appendix D).

The second phase of the research design was to interview eight to ten of the initial respondents to clarify their answers and delve into specific topics of interest brought about by their responses. After reviewing the initial responses, it became clear that there was not as much information on the impact of role models or mentors as the researcher would have liked. All of the 27 respondents were willing to have further follow up contact. For eight respondents who preferred email follow up, the researcher asked them to tell more about what drew them to their mentor, or encouraged them. The purpose of the follow up was to learn how a mentor could be most helpful. The second round of questions also asked what advice they would give to a pastor working with a person with a disability who was considering ministry

Seven individuals from the pool of respondents were chosen for follow up telephone interviews. The phone interviews were designed to follow a standard pattern of questions based on their initial responses and the additional email regarding their mentors and advice to pastors. The phone calls became conversational between kindred spirits passionate about the same issues. During the phone interviews a volunteer assisted the researcher by taking notes, and the conversations were recorded. The participation of the volunteer and the recording were done with the interviewees’ permission. The recordings were not completely transcribed, but were used to compare with the notes taken during the call to ensure that the quotes used were accurate and the interviewee responses were accurately conveyed. One of the individuals selected for a follow up call did not return the researcher’s calls. One of the contacts for a second interview was an individual who was no longer attending church and wouldn’t recommend a person with a disability even consider going into vocational ministry. She has an incredible amount of experience in the disability advocacy ,ministry and pro-life spheres but grew frustrated by the infighting between the groups. Also she never seemed able to develop significant relationships and tired of the battle for access. The other individuals were chosen because their responses led the researcher to believe they had additional insights to share.

The researcher also selected four Christian institutions of higher education to be contacted. In three of the institutions the researcher had a personal contact. One of these was a local seminary. The person interviewed at the second school was a college classmate of the researcher, and was known to the researcher through previous ministry opportunities. While he is currently the chair of the Christian Education department at a seminary which is part of a larger institution, he has also been an administrator at two other institutions. The other seminary was contacted because their recently retired president was a respondent in the initial survey; therefore he was also a person with a disability. The fourth institution’s website contained a detailed description of services available for students with disabilities. The researcher made three phone calls to schedule an interview with someone from the student services department. The calls were never returned. Ironically, it is the institution that the researcher graduated from with his Bachelor’s degree.

The interview topics used for the college administrators and faculty were based on sample questions regarding the professional development needs of faculty and administrators in meeting needs of students with disabilities (Getzel & Wehman, 2005 p.202). The researcher perceived that the more previous experience the interviewee had with disability the better the institution was at assimilating students with disabilities.

The final phase of the intervention was a focus group of six people conducted by the Delphi method. Several individuals were invited to participate. The focus group consisted of a retired seminary president who has a disability, a pastor who has some experience with disability and special needs, the father (who himself is in vocational ministry) of a teenage girl with disability who is likely to attend a Christian University, an individual who works as an editor, a legal assistant who serves on the board of the researcher’s employer, the researcher’s supervisor who is also a father of twin daughters with disability and is employed in disability ministry.

The focus group received by email a document summarizing the data from the email survey and phone interviews, as well as the data gathered from the institutions of Christian higher education. The researcher also provided a brief summary of his findings. The focus group was saddened by the lack of access and the difficulty for those with disabilities attempting to enter vocational ministry. They were struck by one respondent’s imagery of easy access to a casino versus the inaccessibility of many churches. The focus group felt that what was provided as the summary of the findings by the researcher was good advice, but fell short of being findings supported by the data. They also felt that this was good data and important research and affirmed the researcher suggesting he take a closer look at the data and draw the conclusions more directly. The group believed the researcher moved too quickly from the data findings to recommendations based on the findings. The researcher reexamined the data and sent an email containing four findings with stronger rational. In the second round the focus group found that the conclusions drawn by the researcher were more concise and were drawn from the data collected. The focus group was a vital part of the project resulting in better findings, clearer thinking and a more concise presentation of the findings and recommendations.


Chapter 5: Presentation of Findings and Results

People with disabilities suffer from a lack of spiritual community. The National Organization on Disability’s 2004 Harris poll states that 47% of persons with disabilities attend religious services at least once a month compared to 65% of those without disabilities (National Organization on Disability 2004) even though faith is of equal importance to both groups. The survey goes on to say that this is not an indication of faith, but likely a barrier of architecture or attitude as well as the daily grind of their disability that holds people back from participating in church or other places of worship.

This project’s survey results indicate people with disabilities are more likely to face opposition in their attempts to enter vocational ministry, or at the very least, receive less encouragement to do so.

Five of the respondents who were disabled at the time of their ministry training said that they faced no obstacles that were out of the ordinary for a typical student. Twelve of the respondents however, believed that they faced obstacles not faced by the typical student. Half of these respondents mentioned physical barriers such as the need to climb several sets of stairs, inaccessible classrooms and student housing. One respondent had difficulty recruiting individuals to provide personal care. In addition to the physical barriers there were also program barriers. Some respondents had to recruit note takers, interpreters for classroom lectures and secure their own internship opportunities. One seminary had rigid attendance policies and refused requests to move classes that were in an inaccessible location. Ironically, one of the classes the seminary refused to move was a course on pastoral care. Two of the respondents had to deal with issues surrounding the question of divine healing or, more to the point, the lack thereof.

When asked about obstacles faced upon entering vocational ministry one catholic priest noted being turned down by two orders before finally being accepted. A hearing impaired respondent said “I had a humorous interview with my first senior pastor, who spoke very loudly and in an exaggerated manner. I think he was worried about how we would communicate. I felt like I had to keep proving myself to him throughout the four years I served under him. I think he respected my abilities after four years.” Another respondent stated that an obstacle in the minds of his congregants was ‘how could God allow my pastor to have a disability?’ One respondent felt that he was passed over for positions because of the fear that his disability might raise health insurance rates. Difficulty in finding appropriate transportation was also mentioned.

For many, this opposition and lack of encouragement clouds the respondent’s view of the Church and vocational ministry. While some have had good experiences from supportive churches and parachurch organizations others found access into community to be a struggle:

  • I often read the gospel stories of Jesus These stories help me to stay focused and ask for inclusion and accessibility in the church in general. The church still has a long way to go to make itself accessible to everyone! But there are signs of hope everywhere. Churches now have ramps, sign language interpreters, large print.etc.
  • Regarding church, I’ve been blessed and people have actually always been encouraging and caring as well as interested in and inspired by the testimony God has given me.
  • I’m always amazed that the church reads about people with disabilities all the ‘time and even celebrates them (especially their healings) but yet ignores a big ‘Let the government and service clubs take care of disabled’. The church is uncomfortable with people with disabilities.
  • . . . Many church members are reluctant to treat disabled people and ministers. this [sic] same adult way they would treat other people. Part of this comes from a lack of associations with disabled people and from ignorance of ‘what to do with a disabled person’.
  • . . . I’ve less and less interest. We went through Shreveport, LA on a recent tri I noticed that the casinos are all fully accessible.they will even send [sic] accessible taxi to get you from your hotel. It is a shame that the church doesn’t get the message, and that I [sic] more welcome at a casino than a church.
  • There was a lot of disappointments and anger because people with disabilities are still not accepted as church leaders. But as I get older and more disabled, I don’t have the energy for that. I no longer go to any church at all due to the discrimination.
  • I now face employment issues that are compounded by my gender, age and mobility issues.

Brokenness ministers to brokenness. It has been said by many Christian leaders and teachers, from Henri Nouwen to C.S. Lewis, that God ministers in and through our brokenness. Our brokenness is God’s platform to speak His grace to us and others. While we know this to be true, nobody really wants to be broken. Perhaps one of the reasons the Church has such an aversion to people with disabilities is the fact that the brokenness they exhibit is difficult to hide. It’s easier to spiritualize brokenness than to join someone in it. In order to fully receive the gift of brokenness one has to understand their relationship to Jesus. This brings an intimate knowledge of who He is and how he created you as well as what He created you for.

When asked how their disability affected their view of God, the church, and vocational ministry several themes emerged. Perhaps the most significant effect on the respondent’s view of God was the theme of ministering through brokenness to the broken. Disability allows the minister with the disability to identify with the hurting. Disability is also an opportunity to identify in the sufferings of Christ. Comments included:

  • My disability causes me to understand my desperate need of the cross a little better.
  • I can offer more to those who live with chronic pain or disability because I’ve ‘been there’.
  • . . . God has used my disability to shape me into whom [sic] I am today. I became a Christian through my accident and don’t know if I’d ever come to know the Lord otherwise. I believe I have come to rely on God for more things, deepening my relationship with Him too.
  • Disability allows the church to see God’s desire to reach the marginalized.
  • I see God as a God who cherishes the marginalized and oppressed as a population that is dear to His heart.
  • I went through a serious time of questioning, a time of ‘why me?’ The turning point came at 3:00 AM one night. The question changed from ‘why me’ to what would a loving God be doing when one of His dear children happens to have MS. I began to list things that would be happening; opening up a new understanding of Scripture, a new sense of prayer, blessings of life, being surrounded with friends. I realized all this was happening. God is still there. I saw Him as compassionate and supportive.

A third finding is fear; on the part of the Church and those hiring church staff members. The antidote to fear is knowledge, experience and grace. In the limited surveys conducted with administrators and faculty at institutions of higher education, the common denominator of the advances in access to Christian higher education and seminaries was because of positive experiences with people with disabilities. While there is not enough data to reach a definitive conclusion, it is a reasonable hypothesis to say that the more we can expose the Church at large, and for the purposes of this paper, ministers and future ministers to the experience of disability, the more likely we are to break down the barriers and build on the advancements that have been made. A faculty member and two administrators shared the following:

  • I was labeled ‘learning disabled’ in elementary school, and have a child with a learning disability and attended Bible College with a classmate who had a physical disability and used a wheelchair at an inaccessible campus. If my students could hear some of the stories of this classmate they would be laughing and able to relate to a person and see the potential. I sometimes use this classmate as an example to my students stating, ‘if you believe God has called you into ministry and others don’t see it maybe they need to get other glasses!’
  • I think it is an emotional issue . . .when I see a student in a wheelchair there’s a part of me that thinks I hope I don’t say anything stupid or offensive . . . the idea of becoming comfortable around people who are different than we are . . .that’s what’s needed. To be naturally exposed to these people. . . These students aren’t asking us to change the academic standards, but just to accommodate. We can’t look at someone who has a documented learning disability and say ‘you can’t really serve.’
  • I think the best way to do training is to have disabled persons within the community as students, staff and There’s no better way than to live with disability within the community. . . I would think.that issues of disabilities wouldn’t be separated so that you have a special class on dealing with disabled persons in the church, but where issues of disability are infused throughout the curriculum in every area.
  • I don’t know where to find students with disabilities. I would want somebody to meet with my staff where we could ask any question.

Mentors and role models were important for the majority of those who responded to the survey. It is of no surprise that pastors play an important role in encouraging and mentoring future pastors. Those who responded to the survey also indicated a sense of loneliness, a feeling that they are the only one (or one a very few) with a disability in ministry. There’s a need for role models, to feel the presence of somebody else out there and to know you are not alone. One respondent went to the effort to found an association of physically disabled pastors and later an email group so they could encourage one another.

When asked, “Did you or do you have any role models of others with disabilities in professional ministry?” twelve respondents said “no” (44%). Of the fifteen (56%) who responded that they did have role models, Joni Eareckson Tada was the most mentioned, five times (33% of those with roll models). Mrs. Tada is a disability advocate, speaker, writer, and artist. She is also founder and chief executive officer of Joni and Friends, an international disability ministry ( Five other persons with disabilities were mentioned once. Twenty of the 27 (including 2 who were disabled when they entered the ministry) responded that a pastor or other ministry professional had been a mentor to them In discussing their mentors the following comments were representative:

  • First of all, they considered me a person and focused on that. They encouraged me to develop my abilities as a scholar and always spoke of that first.
  • . . . my mentor was someone who is a caring person. When I was with him, I felt that I had all the time in the world to talk to He was someone who understood the deafness problems [sic]. I didn’t have to explain deafness and [sic] deaf experience to him. That made a difference in talking to a person who understood right away. He celebrated my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. He was there when I celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. He became friends with every member of my family.
  • They embraced their [own] unique personality [an example to the mentee to embrace his own uniqueness]. God can use all of me, even the parts that aren’t perfect. Perhaps I’m called because of my lack of faith?
  • . . . were honest with themselves and with me. Facing me as I am and helping me to confront myself in both my gifts and my detriment.taught me an awful lot about patience, waiting, not talking over situations.particularly in ministry, had to discover my more tender side, my feeling side, which is far more useful to us.
  • . . . A college professor constantly repeated the phrase, ‘Eternal discontent with things as they are’ . . . while Christian education during my training did not talk about disabilities, the basis of looking at every meeting of persons as a gift exchange has been the basis for the success of my work.

Additional feedback from the surveys and interviews of the leaders with disabilities can be found in Appendix B and from the seminary faculty and administrators in Appendix C.

Persons with disabilities who serve in vocational ministry are overcomers. They persevered against fear and opposition. The disabilities and challenges they faced drew them into the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ and made them more sensitive to the brokenness of others. The mentors who chose to walk along side people with disabilities see them as people first and understand that God seeks to use the whole person for His glory including one’s gifts and more importantly, one’s perceived weaknesses.


Chapter 6: Reflections, Conclusions and Recommendations

Recommendations for Future Research

 Much further research needs to be conducted both among those with disabilities and Christian institutions of higher learning. There are many more than the  45 Christian leaders  with disabilities identified during this project. It would be ideal to find those leaders and current students with disabilities and follow them through their training and ministry careers to learn best practices for success and overcoming common challenges. Ministry leaders and future ministry leaders with disabilities also need an opportunity for fellowship and encouragement with others who serve with a disability.

Another area that may warrant further research is that of ministers with disabilities who need to take early retirement due to their disability. Two of the respondents struggled wondering what does a minister with a disability do in retirement? They still want to serve in some ways – what are the opportunities to utilize their gifts?

Final Reflections and Conclusions

 The most difficult part of this project was “living the research.” In the very beginning of the literature review I started with looking at the history of people with disabilities. Though that history didn’t make it into the literature review due to space constraints, and though I myself grew up with a disability and I have spent my career ministering with people with disabilities, I was not fully aware of how oppressed and difficult the lives of most people with disabilities was and is. I did not realize how difficult  it was to go to Bible College in the 70’s and 80’s when I  did, or how difficult it was to enter ministry when I did. In those days reasonable accommodation meant they let me in but required a friend to pave the way at orientation to find personal care attendants for me before I was allowed to come on campus. It also meant they would carry me up the steps and hopefully not drop me too many times. We’ve come a long way since then, but I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything because of what it taught me, about perseverance and trusting God and the sensitivity it developed in those around me. My friends saw what God could do with someone who trusted Him enough to persevere to the end.

Churches, seminaries and other Christian schools are becoming more physically accessible and with the proper encouragement and resources some will begin to incorporate more of the accommodations and teaching methods used by some of their larger secular counterparts. With this in mind, let me address four groups.

First, individuals with disabilities considering a career in vocational ministry should not attempt this alone. The call to ministry is difficult for anyone. Disability exacerbates the already murky waters of leadership in the church. Persons with disabilities seeking to succeed in vocational ministry must have a strong support network ready upon which then can call. They must be able to develop relationships that result in the building of that network. One respondent offered the following advice to a person with a disability considering vocational ministry:

You are not alone. While each ministry context is different, it is important to have a strong network of support from people (both able bodied and those with similar disabilities) who will support you in your own ministry setting. Also, do not be surprised that there is discrimination within the Church, just as there is in the larger society.

Finally, recognize that God will use your weaknesses as well as your strengths to touch others.

Know Who’s you are and who you are. Understand your unique position as a believer in Jesus and how He created you, including how your disability plays into that. Then communicate that understanding effectively as you advocate for yourself and others. Look for opportunities to develop your leadership skills.

Second, to the Christian institution of higher learning: nothing beats the disability experience. The best way to understand the world of disability is to live in community with people with disabilities. Disability ministries and their local Bible colleges, universities and seminaries must find ways to bring the world of disability onto the campus and infuse disability into the curriculum. Find organizations in your community that serve people with disabilities, particularly those organizations that include people with disabilities in their leadership. Ask them to critique the physical layout of your campus. Find people with disabilities in the congregations you serve and offer them free tuition for a class in return for feedback not only in the area of physical access, but the attitudes and culture of the institution as well as ideas for accommodations to aid in their learning. Also ask them how the theme of disability is viewed in the courses they take. When considering financial aid and scholarships for students with disabilities consider their need for personal care, assistive technology, and extended time for degree completion. Finally, a recently retired seminary president who has a disability recommends other seminaries write an accessibility plan for their facilities. Start with the less expensive items like providing accessible parking and signage or grab bars in restrooms, then implement the more costly items as the money is raised.

Third, to Joni and Friends become a leader and an example in utilizing the principles and techniques of universal design for instruction. This means providing materials in a variety of formats. This applies both to materials made available for sale to the public (in particular the writings of Joni Eareckson Tada), as well as materials distributed through conferences and summits. Materials need to be developed to assist Joni and Friends field staff to support the Christian institutions of higher learning in their area in incorporating disability related themes in their curriculum. Joni and Friends should consider facilitating staff members with disabilities to take a class each semester at their local Bible college or seminary to provide a way to get them on campus and gain access to build rapport and serve as a role model. Finally, identify a group of six to twelve students with disabilities who would be good candidates for becoming future ministers. A track could be developed for a Family Retreat or conference that could provide them with some assessments, coaching and resources to give them a head start in developing their leadership skills and potential.

Finally, to the Church: the body of Christ is not complete until every person is involved  in the mainstream of the body, both utilizing their gifts and receiving the gifts of their brothers and sisters in Christ. This includes people with disabilities and all those on the margins of the Church and society. Pastors are an important link between future ministry leaders and institutions where future ministry leaders are trained. Disability ministry leaders must find ways to effectively develop relationships among networks of pastors to encourage them to look for and develop the giftedness of persons with disabilities within their congregations. Those persons with disabilities who are gifted for vocational ministry should be encouraged and supported to pursue that call by their pastor, local congregation and other ministry leaders.

I hope the reader has caught the vision for the potential of persons with disabilities as leaders in vocational ministry and the Church at large. Not only are we one of the largest unreached people groups, we are perhaps the largest untapped ministry resource as well. The Church is disabled without us. With us, the Church is the diverse body it is meant to be.



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Appendix A: Survey of Ministry Leaders with Disabilities

1. What is the nature of your disability?

2. How long have you been living with your disability? Were you born with it?

3. Were you disabled when you first entered vocational ministry?

4. What vocational ministry positions have you held?

5. Where did you receive your training for vocational ministry?

6. Did you or do you have any role models of others with disabilities in professional ministry?  If so, who were/are they and why?

7. Do you feel like you faced obstacles in going to Bible College and Seminary that were not there for students without disabilities? If so, please describe

8. Did you face obstacles unique to your disability in entering vocational ministry? If so, please describe

9. How has your disability affected your view of God? The Church? Vocational ministry?

10. What characteristics do you believe are important for individuals with disabilities considering the call to ministry?

11. What accommodations have been necessary or useful in your ministry activities?

12. Who were your mentors in the years you were considering your call?

13. Is there anything else you believe is important for someone with a disability to know or consider as they prepare for vocational ministry?

14. Would you like a copy of the final research project? Note: the writing of the final project is scheduled to be submitted by September 6, 2007.

15. Would you be willing to be interviewed to clarify your responses to the questions above?  If so please provide your preferred contact information.


Appendix B: Data Summary For Ministry Leaders with Disabilities The respondents were from 9 states including:

Maryland 3 California 1 New Jersey 1
Texas 3 Colorado 1 Ohio 1
Florida 2 Iowa 1 Rhode Island 1
Illinois 2 Indiana 1 Tennessee 1
Michigan 2 New Hampshire 1 Virginia 1
Pennsylvania 2 North Carolina 1 Wisconsin 1
Alabama 1        


Eight denominations were represented in the findings including:

Undisclosed 7 Episcopal 2
United Methodist 6 Roman Catholic 2
Lutheran 3 Baptist 1
Presbyterian 3 Church of the Brethren 1
Christian Reformed 2    


The respondents have the following disabilities (some have multiple disabilities):

Multiple Sclerosis 7 Chronic Pain 1 Hard of Hearing 1
Blind 4 Congenital hip 1 Lupus 1
Spinal Cord Injury 4 Deafness 1 Muscular Dystrophy 1
Cerebral Palsy 2 Degenerative Disc Disease 1 Seizure Disorder 1
Polio 2 Diabetes 1 Spastic Paraplegia 1
Amputee 1        

Three of the respondents mentioned that their congregation or seminary was supportive of them as they were diagnosed and as their disability became more prominent:

  • The congregation was very supportive and helped me solve the physical obstacles (elevator, ramps, accessible restroom, elevated office desk).
  • This congregation has journeyed with me through my progression. For this congregation my handicap has never been an issue. I don’t know how another congregation will respond to my handicap when it comes time to move.
  • [The respondent’s first church] was planted by his home church. His home church was instrumental in my conversion, [they] allowed me experiences to teach and preach, to lead youth meetings and lead worship playing my So [my first church] already knew me and had seen my gifting and abilities in action. That was a big help for my first position in ministry. From there I continued to gain experience, confidence and ministry passion.

The participants’ listed the following accommodations as useful in their ministry activities:

  • Chairlift in the parsonage
  • A ramp to the pulpit
  • People who drive me to ministry activities; sometimes this even means going out of town
  • Have a pad and paper ready in case I can’t lip-read the person
  • Using relay operators, emails
  • Manual interpreters, oral transliterates and CRT [Communication Real Time Transcription] reporters
  • Prepare ahead of time and asking questions ahead of time before celebrating Mass, funerals, etc. especially in other places besides my regular parish. I do this by bringing a list of questions to the parish and then having them check off or write the answers to the questions.
  • Handicapped restrooms that are large enough for a wheelchair”
  • A handicapped van with a ramp and driving tools
  • Voice activated software
  • Making things wheelchair accessible
  • Removing “stuff ” from the front of steps
  • Ability to participate via internet or phone hookup
  • Change location of meetings to a more accessible place like my house
  • Air conditioning
  • Flexibility
  • Personal care assistance (dressing, )

The survey respondent’s believe the following characteristics are important for individuals with disabilities considering their call to ministry:

  • A person who enters vocational ministry is an example to others. Persons with handicapped conditions are even more Many people have told me that I’ve been an inspiration to them because I keep going. I am surprised how many people ask me if I’m still working.
  • A love for Jesus and understanding of his/her
  • They need a very strong sense of commitment and call. They need to be as independent as possible. They need to bring other people into their ministry, not as though they are imposing on them, but as part of an overall theology that involves the entire church in ministry, a view that would transcend the disability itself and would be equally applicable even if the minister were not disabled. They must be skilled in dealing with sighted people and have good social interactions that downplays their disability, after all we’re not the subject, God is.
  • . . . Commitment.perseverance.determination are repeated characteristics.
  • Man looks on the outside and God looks at the heart.
  • An openness to discuss one’s physical condition is important.
  • Be quick to overlook offenses, good sense of humor and abiding sense of God’s presence through the joys and trials of ministry.
  • If one wishes to enter the ministry with a disability, they must be very sure of their call.when that is clear. go for it.God equips who God need to have an alligator hide, a sense of humor, tenacity, resourcefulness, a supportive community and tremendous patience. There are a lot of stupid people out there and many of them are denominational heads.
  • Willingness to be open and honest about requesting assistance.
  • Know.that God so loves them no matter what.
  • Availability.a burden for the lost that is greater than their own painful circumstances. I believe that individuals in ministry must give up the ‘right’ to demand accommodations. or special treatment. simply due to the disability. A demanding spirit can’t serve in the same body with a servant’s heart.
  • You have to believe that you can do it and know that God has given you gifts to You have to ignore people that tell you that you can’t do it. You need to have a positive attitude. And don’t have a chip on your shoulder thinking that your disability is everyone else’s problem and they have to make all the adaptations or accommodations. No one wants to be around that kind of person.
  • To have a really good Plan B when the barriers get to be too I had no Plan B because I did not believe I could permanently be marginalized from the Body of Christ. That was a huge mistake on my part.
  • Strong sense of personal worth and identity grounded in who we are in Christ and the permanent value of life.

The respondents were asked, “Is there anything else you believe is important for someone with a disability to know or consider as they prepare for vocational ministry?” The following advice is representative:

  • In parish ministry; many churches are not handicapped accessible.
  • I believe that any disabled person considering vocational ministry must be willing to put God’s call ahead of any other consideration, even ahead of the disability itself. Adjustments will have to be made and difficult decisions and sacrifices must be If the disabled person puts any conditions on his or her service to God in ministry, the ministry will not succeed. In addition, the disabled minister must be prepared for disappointments. Life in the ministry will probably not be easy but if it’s God’s call, faithfulness will be its own reward.
  • Always be in conversation with the Lord (contemplative) and be open to the unexpected surprises and unpleasant surprises. Accept the unpleasant surprises as a cross. Be optimistic at all times. Use the sense of wonder the Lord has given you, even during boring and difficult times.
  • I have become more of a ‘fighter’ than I would have liked. One has to constantly go back to groups and architects to make it My attitude is not one of fighter, but that is the way it has felt in many situations. It is not with malice within the church that ramps aren’t provided and people don’t understand chronic illness; it’s just thinking that someone else has taken care of it, whatever it is. Solutions have to be revisited, and attitudinal preparations have to be repeated.
  • Be passionate about what you do in the field of disability. If you are a disabled pastor not working in the field of disabilities, still be passionate about your work, and try to live life with zest. Find a person you can trust who will exchange life stories with you. It is lonely out there as a disabled person. I have a friend who uses fore arm crutches who truly understands our version of road rage as rage against the person who parks on the slash lines next to your accessible van. He also understands frustrations of daily life and life in the church.
  • Mostly do not do it because the church will not be ready in your lifetime for a minister with disabilities.
  • . . . There are many books now appearing dealing with a theology of disability. They would have to become acquainted with that Three mentioned by respondents:
    • Till Healing Comes, by Kenneth Dignan
    • The Disabled God, by Dr. Nancy Eiesland
    • Make a Joyful Silence, by Peggy Johnson
  • How and when to make this known in the search process.
  • God can use and work through anyone, regardless of ability. Also, I would say it’s important to go the extra mile in doing things well so that others realize your effectiveness (even if there’s a disability). Find someone to be a mentor who will give constructive criticism and ask tough questions, rather than being surrounded by people who simply say you did good because you’re disabled. Lastly, recognize that a disabled person is not limited to serving in disability ministry.
  • It’s hard, painful and sometimes embarrassing. and it requires you to be That’s not transparent. that means “touchable.” You have to be willing to open your chest and let others see how you’ve wrestled with life. Too many individuals with disabilities try to be ‘inspirational’. The goal is to inspire people to trust Christ. not be impressed by someone who deals with challenges.
  • People with disabilities have to try twice as hard, study twice as hard, have to ‘pass’ for able bodied to make it through the ordination boards, and continually face an uphill battle to get even the simplest accommodations. If one is in a “called” system of a church it is hard to get a call if you have a disability. If you are in an appointed system usually your appointment is a struggle with the receiving church not wanting you and thinking the bishop is trying to stick them with something bad…when really you are a gift and a light and a sign of God…only the eyes of faith will see that and embrace you and receive your gift. Some never will and they are to be most For to look at the body and the physical ability/disability is to see so little of who you really are. People with disabilities have to know who they are to withstand that rejection thing and be in prayer diligently so as not to become bitter from it. Many rude and hurtful things will come your way. There will be awesome moments of grace as well and that is just a glimpse of THAT DAY to come.


The following represents the advice to the pastor who is working with someone with a disability considering ministry:

  • Think first about the gifts and graces of the individual apart from the disability, and then address the disability.
  • What is the pastor’s own experience; has he or she ever seen a person with a disability in the ministry in their groups?
  • . . . I’m not sure how one can communicate issues to someone who has never experienced significant hardships. A young, white, married male who says (as my head of staff) I have a disability too, ‘I have a problem with my big toe’, don’t [sic] get it and is not particularly helpful. Perhaps the best advice would be for an able-bodied pastor/professor to seek out someone in ministry who lives with a disability and arrange for three-way networking.
  • I would encourage the priest to look into the heart of the person with the disability and have a conversation with Jesus in that heart. I would encourage the priest to encourage the person to look into his/her heart and have a conversation with Jesus there.
  • Listen and learn; be open to learning.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is just beginning a mentoring program for people with disabilities who are considering the ministry. Encourage them to think of their unique gift and how God might be calling to use them in the ministry. MS is a window to talk about sickness and encouragement. In what way would your disability make you a stronger pastor? Expect some Just because a church has a ramp doesn’t mean that they are barrier free. There will also be attitudes and theology barriers.
  • Is the disability stable or progressive…my son has mild cerebral palsy, his condition is stable and will not get worse. Seven years ago I was walking with a cane. Now I am in a wheelchair and can only walk with a walker with great difficulty.W hat kind of ministry does the person feel called to? Parish, Campus or Hospital, etc? Most churches are not easily accessible. Most campuses and all hospitals are. How do they think their disability will affect their ability to minister? For example, I sit on a stool to preach behind the pulpit. I sit in my wheelchair for weddings as well [sic] use my wheelchair in But I am not able to visit most people in their homes because of steps. The church I am currently at is very accommodating. I don’t know what will happen in my next appointment. Can they put in a full days work? I tire easily. I have accepted the fact that I have to take a nap for about a half hour to forty five minutes in the afternoon. I can fall asleep in my chair quite easily. Are they physically active? Are they doing any physical activity? I try to go to the YMCA three times a week for a Water aerobics class. It is the only exercise I am able to do. But I am told by my doctor to not to give up walking as much as I can, because I will lose the ability that I do have if I don’t exercise.


Appendix C: Interviews with Seminary Faculty and Administrators

In addition to the individuals with disabilities the researcher also interviewed by telephone two administrators and one faculty member at Christian institutions of higher education. While portions of these conversations are noted in chapter five the full summary of each interview is provided here.

The first institution was a college and seminary with a combined student body of about 400 students, with an estimated 60 of those students having disabilities. About 50 of these students have learning disabilities; the others visual hearing or mobility impairments. At this school in the Midwest a faculty member was interviewed, who has also served as in administrative posts at two other institutions. He himself was labeled learning disabled in elementary school, has a child with a learning disability and attended Bible College with a classmate who had a disability. This Christian Education faculty member had also served in other administrative posts at two other schools.

When asked about the types of accommodations that are provided he mentioned that it starts with a statement in the college and seminary catalogue and each course syllabi inviting students to “let us know they have a need that needs to be accommodated.” He went on to say, “I try to be as transparent as I can on the very first day and tell them that in first grade I was labeled learning disabled and had it not been for teachers who gave me extra time and worked with me I may not be sitting in front of you today.” He also shares with the classes his experience with one of his daughters who has a slight learning disability. He wants the students to understand that needing accommodations will not be held against them.

At his current school, and another in which he served they meet with each student with a disability at least once a year to determine together what the needs are and what accommodations can be made. The larger schools he has worked with also have learning labs with staff and teachers ready to assist students in their learning needs.

He has also used as an example to his students a Bible College classmate of his who used a wheelchair, stating, “if you believe God has called you into ministry and others don’t see it maybe they need to get other glasses! We can’t look at someone who has a documented learning disability and say ‘you can’t really serve’.” When asked if faculty and staff are equipped to serve students with disabilities he responded, “I wonder about that” and then went on to say that in the spring semester his seminary will teach a class on how to be a Bible College professor and part of the class is going to be on faculty student relationships including dealing with students with disabilities.

When asked how faculty and administrators could be better trained he suggested contacting the Association for Biblical Higher Education and the Association of Theological Schools or other such organizations and offer a distance learning training on how to accommodate and reach out to students with disabilities. He also recommended offering one to two page summaries on various disability related topics. In addition he suggested that sometimes state agencies can be helpful in providing resources for students with disabilities.

When asked what the highest priority would be in providing services for students with disabilities, he responded, “. . . I think it is an emotional issue . . .when I see a student in a wheelchair there’s a part of me that thinks I hope I don’t say anything stupid or offensive . . . the idea of becoming comfortable around people who are different than we are . . .that’s what’s needed. To be naturally exposed to these people.” He went on to share that if his students could hear some of the stories of his classmate with the physical disability they would be laughing and able to relate to his classmate as a person and see the potential. “These students aren’t asking us to change the academic standards, but just to accommodate.”

The other two institutions studied were seminaries; each has a student body of about 300. One seminary in the South estimated they serve ten students with disabilities. Here the recently retired president, who himself has a disability, was interviewed. When asked about the experience with accessibility at his seminary, he stated, “I’m sure I was more attuned and more sensitive just because of my personal situation. It was always something that was at the forefront of my mind. I don’t want to say that we were more attuned than other places; I just know that it was forefront in my mind to make sure we had accessible space we were building. That was a key goal for us.” He believes that other seminary presidents are also more than willing to make their facilities more accessible within the budget constraints that they have. When asked what he would advise other seminaries, he recommended that they “plan for accessibility so that when funds are available they can move in that direction.” He also recommended they identify three or four small things that they can do that won’t have a significant impact on the budget, such as providing bars in the restrooms and appropriate signage and parking for students with disabilities.

When asked if faculty and other staff members are equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities the former president responded, “I felt good we were handling those with mobility issues, sight issues or hearing issues. But where it became most problematic was how we deal with those students dealing with emotional or psychological issues.” Some of the accommodations his institution provide include physical access such as chair lifts and elevators, special arrangements for students who need more time or a different avenue for taking an exam, “maybe a better way to put it was that the faculty were very willing to develop individual lesson and study plans for those students who were disabled.”

The conversation then turned to the best way to train faculty and administration. “I think the best way to do training is to have disabled persons within the community as students, staff and faculty. There’s no better way than to live with disability within the community. . . I would think the highest priority for the school would be that issues of disabilities wouldn’t be separated so that you have a special class on dealing with disabled persons in the church, but where issues of disability are infused throughout the curriculum in every area.”

The final question was, “before your personal experience with disability how would you have answered some of these questions differently, or would you have?” He responded, “I think I would have answered them in a dramatically different way . . . before I was diagnosed it just was not on my radar screen. Not that I would have disregarded persons with disabilities, I just wasn’t sensitized to the issue.”

The third seminary studied, in the Mid Atlantic region identified one current student with a disability. The interview for this school was conducted with an individual who serves on the administration and was impacted by a staff member with a disability who graduated from the same institution.

This administrator described their experience with making accommodations as “more reactionary” and she would like to see them become more proactive. Though the seminary currently has only one student with a disability the administrator spoke to the researcher about a couple of other students, one of whom had recently graduated and another student who because of an injury was temporarily disabled. The faculty and administration are very willing to look at each student individually and make accommodations as necessary. Those accommodations are for the most part renovations to the facilities as they became aware of more students with disabilities attending their information nights. The researcher stated that “it seems like when you see a need you respond.” She stated in reference to a staff member with a disability, “he didn’t make a big fuss over it. Now things are so much easier for him . . . now that we have those things it made it so much easier. We accommodated for him along. As our training got more broad we saw there were more students with disabilities.” Other accommodations they have provided included note takers and sensitizing students in a training group with students with disabilities to be patient with their fellow student who needed more time and effort to communicate.

When asked the best way to train faculty members and administration, she replied, “I don’t know where to find students with disabilities. I would want somebody to meet with my staff where we could ask any question.”

When asked what were the next steps for the seminary in regard to students with disabilities she replied, “I probably don’t know enough about what’s out there to answer your question . . .if I knew more about how we could serve . . .It would be learning. Here are some areas we could recruit students who might have some concerns.”

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