This guest post is from Mike Dobes and originally ran on our Not Alone blog.
Three years ago, God ushered me into the world of disability ministry. I must admit that I felt very unqualified and assumed it was a temporary position. During the job interview for my current ministry role, I was asked to share my experience in disability ministry, I had to admit that I had none (I assumed the interview would end with that question). I have five children and none have a disability. None of my extended family or close friends have a disability. Upon accepting the job at Joni and Friends, I had a sum total of zero days of experience with disability ministry. In my 15+ years as both a children's and youth pastor, I had kids come through the doors with disabilities and I cared for them as best as I could...but never considered the idea of a fully inclusive ministry to individuals affected by disability.
I can now say, three years later, that God clearly called me to this role and has called me to be an advocate into the church for families and individuals affected by disability. What is interesting is that I have come to learn it is more about the ministry and less about the disability. I do not mean that understanding and providing every reasonable accommodation for people affected by disability is not important; rather, if we are able to see each person as an indispensable member of the body of Christ, then the goal of the church must be more about ministry.
How do we serve, love, embrace, welcome and celebrate everybody? How do we focus more on the abilities of people than the disabilities? How do we begin to see people for their gifts and strengths more than what they might seem to be lacking?
So many people, including pastors, are convinced that you need specialty training and experience in order to enter the world of disability. I have learned quite the opposite. I continually invite people into disability ministry...no experience required. The fruit is not necessarily seen in understanding autism (is it truly possible to understand?), diagnosing disabilities, or providing medically founded information. While these are important in certain contexts, within the body of Christ, it must be about loving people well, celebrating their life and providing space for them to shine with their gifts. This does not require experience, it requires the heart of a servant willing to learn and love.
I would not qualify myself as an expert in disability ministry after three years. However, I believe that I have a strong grasp on ministry that happens to serve individuals affected by disability. In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus reveals a powerful truth of His kingdom. Greatness and leadership do not come through typical means of power and control; instead, God's kingdom must be identified by a heart of serving and preferring others. I do not see a qualification in His teaching that limits this servanthood only to those who are the same as, or at least like me. True servanthood is about the marginalized, the displaced, the ignored and the outcast. Luke 14 commands us to "go quickly...and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame." It seems that Jesus is teaching true servanthood cannot involved what I might receive back, but is truly about loving others.
By God's grace, I have been in professional ministry leadership since 1997 and have learned much. Probably my greatest lesson has been that at the end of the day, it is not about me. It is about loving God and loving others. I know that phrase has become very cliche in our culture, but it is so true. Can I love a person in a wheelchair? I am blessed to say I have many friends now who use wheelchairs! Can I serve an adult who is non-verbal or a child with autism? Yes, I am able because I have a gracious God who daily teaches me to serve and love.
If you asked me three years ago what the probability was of me entering disability ministry, I would have told you that I do not even know what that is. Now, I am blessed to have friends with autism, Down's Syndrome, cerebral palsy, and physical impairments. I have learned so much by seeing them do life with greater faith than I do - I am challenged and encouraged by my friends to see God in all situations. I am in a better place today because Joni and Friends took a chance by hiring a man with no experience in disability ministry. God has enlarged my heart, expanded my vision and extended my influence. What has happened to me personally is happening in churches across the country in much the same way. This is the fruit of disability ministry...no experience required.
Mike has been a pastor since 1997 and served in children's and youth ministry, as well as a teaching pastor. Recently, he graduated from LIFE Pacific College with a Master of Arts in Strategic Leadership. He is currently the Supervisor of Church Relations for Joni and Friends and is an advocate to the church for disability ministry. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their five incredible children near the beach in Camarillo, CA.