Consider that about 54 million people in the United States — roughly 30 percent of the population — have some form of disability, and that people with disabilities are less likely to be in worship and otherwise participate in the life of the congregation because of physical and attitudinal barriers.
Those are considerations that faced a 10-member Synod Disability Ministry Task Force with LCMS World Relief/Human Care as it began work in fall 2005 that has resulted in an array of resources to help congregations assess and enhance ministry to and with people with disabilities.
Those resources, just posted on the Web at www.lcms.org/disability, include a downloadable DVD presentation, a brochure, and a Bible study — all titled “Think About … the Body of Christ”; links to other resources; and a comprehensive congregational disability-ministry assessment tool that allows congregations to weigh what they have in specific areas that could affect their outreach to and involvement with people with disabilities.
The assessment tool asks specific questions about the congregation’s attitude toward people with disabilities, as well as its readiness for people with disabilities in educational-program considerations, communications such as the Web site, and property access (the parking lot, entrances, worship and classroom space, offices and equipment, restrooms, other areas throughout the buildings, and playgrounds and other exercise facilities).
Then “possible solutions” are offered — one for each point of the assessment tool.
The task force formed and went about its work after the 2004 Synod convention adopted a resolution (6-09) titled “To facilitate ministry with and to people with disabilities.”
“I think this task force has done an excellent job developing resources to help our congregations in their work with and outreach to people with disabilities,” said Rev. John Fale, LCMS World Relief/ Human Care’s associate executive director and staff liaison person with the task force.
Fale said “there already were some good resources available for congregations’ work with people with disabilities. This has been a first-time opportunity to pull them together under one umbrella.”
“Our official mission is to facilitate the full participation of people with disabilities in the life of Christ’s church,” Rev. Earl Bleke, chairman of the task force, told Reporter. Bleke is chief religious life officer for Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, Inc., based in Watertown, Wis.
“We’re looking at disabilities in the broadest context of how people can be included in the life of the church,” said Bleke, as he pointed out that “it’s pretty well agreed on that 95 percent of the people with disabilities in this country are not included in congregational life.”
Bleke said that people with disabilities have often been seen as problems “in society and the church. But there’s no better place to help people with disabilities see that they are God’s loved children than in the church; and if we are doing that, it has ramifications for society as well as for the individual.”
“If we aren’t touching their spiritual lives, then it’s not ministry,” he said.
Bleke said the task force has been “very intentional about not just addressing ministry to persons with disabilities, but ministry that involves people with disabilities, because they are legitimate members of the body of Christ. And significantly, they know others who live with similar disabilities who can benefit physically and spiritually as they become involved in the life of a congregation.”
As Fale told Reporter, “We really see this tying in very closely with the Ablaze! initiative.”
Bleke indicated the task force also sees the benefit of congregations partnering with agencies and organizations that work with people with disabilities — such as the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), and Bethesda.
The task force — which includes mental health professionals and volunteers, at least one member with a disability and another with a family member with a disability — “prays that our resources can not only help congregations and others feel less overwhelmed in their ministry when there is opportunity for ministry with persons with disabilities, but can help congregations fully involve people with disabilities in ministry and outreach,” Bleke said.
Fale added that although the task force has completed its work, it will continue to function as an advisory group in ways to further involve people with disabilities in congregational life.
And he said that as the result of a task force recommendation, LCMS World Relief/Human Care is currently seeking a manager of disability ministry — a new position for its staff and for the Synod.
Posted June 1, 2007