Pastoring an Ability-Inclusive Church
Updated: May 10, 2018
In following God's call to start a church collaboratively with people with and without intellectual disabilities - where everyone can lead and fully participate together - I had some initial ideas of what things might feel challenging, and what would take some intentional thought and planning. But that thinking was mostly about logistics, about how to create a meaningful, worshipful, connective space that welcomed and intentionally made room for different ability levels and gifts (in terms of speaking, reading, attention span, movement, comfort with touch, etc. etc. etc.). And even though our church has only met a few times so far, these are all things we've continued to explore and experiment with and learn from (more details on all these explorations in many future posts!).
Some of the logistical guidelines thus far have been: more interactive than passive, more relational than individual, and more embodied than strictly verbal.
There is very little time during the gatherings (at least those we've had so far, but I honestly can't imagine this changing much) where we simply sit quietly and listen to a person talk for a long time. Passive listening and/or engagement primarily with words are not really conducive to the full participation and formation of all the folks in our community - those who are part of the community now, and those we have yet to welcome (both with and without intellectual disabilities).
This reality led to one thing I didn't consider, a more personal adjustment on this journey: thinking about my own role as a pastor of this community and what that will be like.
Most of my seminary training (and pretty much all of my PhD program) focused on developing intellectual and verbal skills. There were entire classes devoted to talking for long stretches of time (aka, preaching!). And I LOVED those classes! I love talking for long stretches of time! I love teaching! I love explaining things! I love telling stories!
Only now, I'm starting a church where those verbal gifts are not the central ones needed in our gatherings as a community. In fact, talking for a long stretch of time about fancy ideas would likely result in a lot of pretty bored and disengaged people.
I've begun to realize how much my understanding of what it means to be a "good pastor" has been connected to being a "good talker."
When I've preached at churches in the past, even though music, rituals, prayer, and other activities were part of the time together, after the service people have pretty much only commented on the sermon. And that feedback was part of how I would gauge whether I was connecting with people and doing a good job. It's also an aspect of the service that I had significant of control over - since a lot of it was all up to my own preparation and practice to make it good, and it was the part that took the longest amount of time and effort to get ready for.
But in this community, a long teaching/sermon isn't part of the worship gathering. Sure we use some words, we engage scripture, but alongside visuals, movement, or additional points of engagement, and usually in a more interactive way involving multiple people and voices.
So what does it mean to be a pastor when my words may not be the main way I engage, love, and lead? What are some of the other gifts that might rise to the surface, when the focus is taken off intellect and verbal-acuity? It feels kind of vulnerable, honestly. Those are gifts I've gotten pretty comfortable with, and also gifts I especially associate with being a leader in a church congregation, so not being able to rely on them in the same way makes things feel a little precarious. Exciting? Yes. But also like I'm in the middle of a lake needing to paddle a rowboat without oars; or at least without the oars I'm used to.
At the end of the day, though, I want to trust God and God's movement to take what I bring and multiply it and make it enough. And if there's one thing God continually teaches me it's that when I reach the end of myself, and keep going, that's the beginning of something unexpected and beautiful.