Disabling Leadership: A Practical Theology for the Broken Body of Christ

By Stephen R. Clark

by Danielle Dolin

Jody’s church purchased “an historic building” to move into. The pastor took a small group through the building in a preview tour. Jody is in a wheelchair. She had been assured by the pastor “the building was wheelchair accessible.” While others marvel at the “beauty of the early twentieth-century building” and recount how “God had led them to this place,” her concerns deepened.

They pass through “narrow doorways” as well as “steep and dangerous” hallways to reach meeting rooms. The “lack of accessible restrooms made her feel unseen.” Feelings of hurt, anger, frustration, and disappointment swirl. Jody holds back tears.

Finally, they enter the pew-filled sanctuary. “She stared at the section where the church had removed several pews to provide a section for people with wheelchairs.” There the tears came out in sobs, “Unable to keep the hurt and anger buried any longer.” She left the group explaining as best she could, she and the pastor would “discuss it at another time.”

This is the experience of Andrew and Jody, two of the authors of this important book, “Disabling Leadership: A Practical Theology for the Broken Body of Christ (IVP Academic), by Andrew T. Draper, Jody Mischele, and Andrea Mae.”

Jody and Andrew, “two siblings in Christ,” met later to discuss her concerns. She pulled no punches. From that point, the pastor and his congregation began developing a better understanding of how to minister to those with disabilities. They realized they had missed the ways “the priorities they communicated in our building layout also communicated the limitations of our beliefs about inclusion.”

Two key themes related to unintentional exclusion are prominent throughout the book:

(1) Excluded from participation: “People with disabilities are often excluded from full participation in church communities in both explicit and implicit ways.”

(2) Excluded from leadership: “If people with disabilities and their advocates are not at the leadership table, then the decisions that are made will exclude and hurt people, whether intentionally or not.”

The authors assert that this failure to properly address those who are disabled as essential parts of the body of Christ is based, in part, on “common misconceptions about what it means to be created in the image of God.”

As they state, “Accessibility does not exclude; accessibility includes.” Inclusion of all God’s children in the body of Christ is the point of the gospel since, as Jody declares, “Whether people have a cognitive disability or not, we are all human, made in the image of God.”

The authors define disability as “any exceptionality or limitation that demonstrates substantial difference from what society considers ‘normal.” This comprises physical, cognitive, mental, and emotional categories, as well as includes those who, through aging, injury, or disease become variously disabled over time.

Throughout the book they share experiences of those with disabilities. A particularly telling story is provided in the writings of Judy Heumann, a founding leader of the disability rights movement in the U.S. In her book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, she describes the challenges she faced just trying to go to school. Due to polio, she spent most of her life in a wheelchair. Her local public school “initially refused to allow her to attend, calling her a fire hazard.” Later, after graduating college, she “was denied her New York teacher’s license because she couldn’t walk.” The work of Heumann was key to the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The value of more effectively including those with disabilities in the church, say the authors, is that “people with disabilities lead us toward a fuller experience of Christ’s body.”

More than once they hold a common concern up to the lens of disability to reveal a much different perspective. For example, churches often wrestle over volume levels for music. The authors recast this issue within the context of disabilities, pointing out that “There are important ecclesial reasons for addressing volume levels or stimuli that go beyond attractional concerns.” Sound, light, fog and other “attractional” elements in worship can also be deterrents to those with sensitivities that have nothing to do with being older or younger. They point out that what can be a plus for some, “can also be a stimuli nightmare for many people with disabilities.” The authors state, “The ideal is making accommodations that allow the entire body to worship together.”

The authors also wrestle with the meaning of suffering, when God doesn’t heal, what healing means, how heaven will look like for those with disabilities, and other tough questions.

This is an important book with an important message that can be summed up, “The extent to which people with disabilities are included and valued in the congregation serves as an indicator of that congregation’s faithfulness to the leading in the way of Jesus.”

Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and managing editor of the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. He is also a news writer for The Baptist Paper. His writing has appeared in several publications. A longer version of this review appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is used with permission.

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