One of the blessings of being a pastor is the incredible opportunity to witness the joy of families overcoming difficult circumstances. Nothing brings me more pleasure than to see God at work in the lives of those that I am called to serve.
There are many images in the Bible used to describe the role of a pastor but my favorite has always been the image of pastor as shepherd. When I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Aspergers) a few years ago, the reality of being a shepherd to those in the special needs and disability communities was profoundly shaped by one of King David’s most popular works found in Psalm 23. Like David, I have found that God has used my own personal experience to help me understand how to better serve my congregation, particularly those families and individuals with special needs.
Since I disclosed my autism diagnosis with our church and community in 2015, we have seen an increase of families attending our church that are impacted by some form of disability and/or mental illness. I have been given the awesome privilege of being their friend, mentor, and pastor and our growing relationship has been particularly meaningful not just in times of experiencing joy, but also experiencing moments in the valley.
David’s words about how God shepherded him have become my model for pastoral ministry to the special-needs community. Pastors, here are four things to consider when pastoring special-needs families through moments in the valley.
King David describes God as a shepherd who “walks with him” in the valley. This is important because it is human nature to want to rush through situations that make us feel uncertain or uncomfortable. No one wants to take their time when traveling through difficult seasons of life, but David says that God is a shepherd who walks through the worst valleys with us. Pastors, families and individuals with special needs don’t need us to rush them through the valley. They need us to walk with them slowly and deliberately. While there are many joys that you will experience while shepherding the disability community, there will be seasons of valleys. Be patient with your parishioners. Don’t push. Good shepherds go at a pace that works best for their flock.
Pray for peace.
I know first-hand the importance of spiritual peace. David explains that God is a shepherd who leads us toward places of peace. From time to time I can struggle with intense bouts of sensory overload. When I experience these valley moments it can be so overwhelming that I may spend days in bed. What I need most in those moments is a place of peace. As a pastor, I understand that managing life with a disability can at times create a sense of restlessness. David reminds us that shepherds are always seeking out places of peace for their sheep. When walking with families through valley moments, be sure that you are praying for spiritual peace for people who may be fighting battles that you are unaware of.
In the 23rd Psalm, David lets us know that while walking through the valley he feels secure because God uses the tools of a shepherd to protect him from harm. One of my top priorities is to work to create a place of safety for all of my parishioners, particularly those in the special needs and disability community. I want to protect them from unnecessary harm. We create guidelines, policies, and procedures to make sure that they are not only physically safe, but spiritually and emotionally safe as well. Pastors, take time to teach your leaders and volunteers how to keep them safe by avoiding hurtful and harmful language, theology, songs, and sermons about disability. It is also important to encourage your congregation to educate themselves about disability-related issues.
Practice the ministry of presence.
Joy is often a time of celebration, but when you are called to pastor people in the valleys of life it may call for silence. One of the most beautiful images of God as he shepherds David through the valley is that God doesn’t appear to say anything to David at all. God is simply present. As pastors and preachers we often feel the need to shepherd people by preaching to them, but I have learned through my own experience with disability that there are times that simply being present in the valley is pastoral enough. Every moment doesn’t require a scripture, a song, or a sermon about suffering. Sometimes pastoring special-needs families through the valley is simply showing up and silently showing support in ways that bring hope and encouragement.