This is the third post in our on-going conversation about special needs ministry. Our most recent conversation defined what special needs ministry is: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons.
This raises a question- if special needs ministry boils down to including people, how is this category of ministry any different from general ministry? Isn’t one of the purposes of a faith community to include people? Isn’t a community intended to offer people a place to belong and to connect? A vital faith-community should be a place where all people, regardless of age, gender, size, ability, social status, employment or financial status, are welcomed.
A ministry directed solely at addressing the perceived needs of people with disabilities misses the mark of honoring the unique needs and gifts of all of the community members. The core values of special needs advocacy can be applied to every person in our faith communities.
One of the core values of people with disabilities is the necessity of their presence in the world. In the recent histories of humankind people with disabilities were hidden away in back rooms or locked behind tall institutional fences and walls, and dependent upon paid professionals for survival. In general, they were not allowed to be part of the greater world. As the wrongness of the institutional model of care and living became evident people with disabilities advocated for their right to be part of the greater society, to have a place in our communities, to be present and their worth honored. The core value of presence and worth of all people is rooted in the ancient Scriptures that tell us that God created humanity in His own image: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:27). People with varying and differing abilities are all created in the image of God. If all people are God’s image bearers, than should not all people be welcomed as unique expressions of God’s image ? As unique expressions of God’s image all people come to a community with unique abilities and gifts. All people should have the opportunity to be present. Presence is not ability or disability dependent.
Another core value of people with disabilities is the validity of their voices and experiences. Every person comes to our faith communities with personal stories, dreams, fears and gifts. Each person’s story that has brought them to our communities of faith has to be listened to. The stories may include exclusion and pain; they may be experiences of understanding and acceptance; they may be stories that are familiar and comfortable, or they may challenge our personal stereotypes of people with different abilities or social statuses. The stories and experiences are real and have shaped each person. The stories of all people need to be heard.
The final core value I want to touch on is the “nothing about me without me” mantra of disabilities advocates. Would faith community leaders make plans for youth ministry without including the youth of the community? What about senior citizen ministry or single parent’s ministries? In the development of intentional, informed ministries the voiced needs and desires of the target group are the guide. The same listening strategy needs to be employed if developing a ministry for people with special needs. Their voices and experiences have to be included, even if their voices tell us that they do not want a separate ministry, but that their experiences and gifts belong in the greater community of faith.
Special needs ministry and general ministry share a definition: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons. Special needs ministry is all people’s needs in ministry.