New Certification: Ministry with People with Disabilities
Many churches want to do a better job of ministry with children and adults with disabilities, but often simply don’t know how. United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, now offers classes that can help lay and clergy serve an underserved population.
“Many people with disabilities feel disaffected in church circles,” said David Watson, academic dean and vice president for Academic Affairs at United. “The church needs to proclaim and live out the good news, fully including people with disabilities.”
Watson’s own interest in this ministry is intensely personal. His 6-year-old son Sean has Down Syndrome.
“Sean’s a great kid, but he does present challenges. Most people in churches want to help do the right thing, but they don’t know how,” Watson said.
The Rev. Anita Wood, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s director of Provisional Members and Deacon Ministry Development, said GBHEM’s Board of Director’s approved the new area of certification at the October meeting.
“This is an area that is ripe for evangelism,” Wood said. She said the classes are available to both those enrolled in seminary and to lay people or clergy who are interested in learning more about this area of ministry and doing a better job.
Certification requires completing five courses, three of which can be taken online. An undergraduate degree is also required for professional certification.
Wood said that some churches have done a good job in this area, usually because of special circumstances or special education teachers in the congregation who called attention to the need.
“I don’t know many places that have done it as an ongoing thing,” she said.
Watson, who also serves on a West Ohio Annual Conference Task Force that deals with this area, said intentional engagement is required, and it cannot just be able-bodied or able-minded people involved.
“You have to be intentional about having people with disabilities in the middle of the conversation guiding the ministry. Some people with severe cognitive disabilities can’t advocate for themselves and in that case it’s important that we advocate for them,” he said.
“The United Nations calls persons with disabilities the world’s largest minority,” Watson said.
Courses offered at United include Theology for the Practice of Ministry, which provides a theological foundation for the practice of ministry, relating theology to relevant issues of disability and faith development. The class engages students in theological reflection relating to tradition and experience and explores a theology of disability.
Disability, the Bible, and the Church focus examines relationships with people with disabilities, taking into account key biblical texts that may come to bear on this relationship. Other courses cover the nature of disabilities, history, theories, etc., and a practical approach to creating hospitality and developing effective ministries with people with disabilities and their families.
Watson said the theological basis for such ministry is important partly to dispute some still held beliefs. “Some people may still believe that a child with a disability has that disability because of a parent’s sin. We have to challenge ideas like that.”
People with disabilities are doing a good job of hiding in order to fit into an “abelist” world, Watson said. So he said some churches might have people with disabilities who are hidden and struggling to fit in.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.