A Feature Review of
Disabling Leadership: A Practical Theology for the Broken Body of Christ
Andrew Draper, Jody Michele, & Andrea Mae
Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
Imagine this scene: A congregation has just purchased a historic building to move into. The pastor is proudly taking a small group through the building in a preview tour. One is in a wheelchair. She had been assured by the pastor that “the building was wheelchair accessible.” While others marveled at the beauty of the early twentieth-century building and recounted how “God had led them to this place,” her concerns deepened. They passed 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 swirled. She held back tears. Finally, they entered the pew-filled sanctuary and stared at the section where the church had removed several pews to provide a section for people with wheelchairs. Her tears came out in sobs. She left the group explaining as best she could, that she and the pastor would discuss it later.
This is the experience of Draper and Michele, two of the authors of this important book, Disabling Leadership: A Practical Theology for the Broken Body of Christ. Michele and Draper– two siblings in Christ– met later to discuss her concerns. She explained how “having a segregated disability section was like being forced to sit in the back of the bus.” When he responded citing a concern for costs, Michele countered “that there had been plenty of financial excuses for maintaining racial segregation.”
From that point, the pastor and his congregation began developing a better understanding of how to minister to those with disabilities. While being a church passionate about justice, they realized they were misrepresenting their priorities in the building layout because it did not align with their beliefs about inclusion.
Two key themes related to unintentional exclusion are prominent throughout the book. First, exclusion from participation; “People with disabilities are often excluded from full participation in church communities in both explicit and implicit ways.” And secondly, exclusion 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. The ideas and insights of Henri Nouwen– particularly as shared in his book In the Name of Jesus– figure prominently in their rethinking regarding disabled ministry. They recount Nouwen’s experience of traveling and speaking with L’Arche resident, Bill Van Buren, a person with cognitive disability. It was in this interaction that Nouwen came to realize his own need to rethink how he viewed the residents of L’Arche and their role in the kingdom 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 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). While the ADA provides significant improvements toward accessibility, the authors point out that what the ADA requires is merely the minimum. There are still significant hurdles to overcome for those with disabilities. For example, just getting from one place to another, which can involve a series of critical steps, can become overwhelming.
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.” This inclusion comes by church leaders becoming conversant in disability literature, ensuring that people with disabilities are at the tables where decisions are being made, and simply viewing those with disabilities as valued gifted members of the congregation.
Issues like the meaning of suffering, when God doesn’t heal, what healing means, and how heaven will look for those with disabilities, are just a few of the tough questions addressed in this important book. More than once, common concerns are held up to the lens of disability, and subsequently reveals a much different perspective.
For example, a common issue in churches revolves around appropriate volume levels for music. Usually this falls into what population segment the church wishes to target: younger or older people. They 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 ideal is making accommodations that allow the entire body to worship together.”
While there are several practical examples scattered through the book of how a congregation can become more disability-friendly, the bulk of the book dwells in history, theory, and theology. I hope the authors will develop a sequel that goes the other way, providing more practical examples and concrete steps for congregations wanting to engage more inclusively with the disabled in their communities. Perhaps a workbook or “field guide” format.
This is an important book with an important message that can be summed up this way, “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.” Inclusion of all God’s children in the body of Christ is the point of the gospel; as Michele declares, “Whether people have a cognitive disability or not, we are all human, made in the image of God.”
Stephen R. Clark
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 a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance WritersNetwork blog. He has published three volumes of poetry and his writing has appeared in American Bible Society blogs, The Christian Century, Christianity & Literature, and more.
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