I started the new year asking the Lord to show me ways of working smarter, not harder. Perhaps, like me, you are asking God to keep you efficient and effective, focused and disciplined, pruned and optimally fruitful for His glory and for the good of those we are privileged to serve alongside.
Professional networking comes quickly to mind as one of those things that is helping me in this respect. None of us is an island, after all. I am convinced that I would not be as effective, motivated, or satisfied as a leader in disability ministry without the relationships I enjoy with others locally, regionally, and nationally. Nonetheless, it takes time to nurture these relationships. And time is at a premium for us, right? Many disability leaders are also full-time caregivers. Let’s just say, it’s awfully tempting to let networking slip down the priority list.
No small business owner or health care provider would think of isolating themselves, keeping their “nose to the grindstone” without finding certain valued avenues of connection and professional growth (e.g., service clubs, Chamber of Commerce membership, professional associations). Our nation’s educators have regularly-scheduled workshop days and they complete a certain number of accreditation hours annually. Certified public accountants complete continuing professional education. Healthy pastors take sabbaticals, attend conferences, meet with other pastors, plan occasional personal retreats and seek out lunches with mentors. The benefits these professionals enjoy from a variety of networking opportunities goes far beyond just knowledge and skill development. Friendships grow, encouragement is shared, confidence is built, and more.
In order to serve effectively in disability ministry, we need professional connections and resources too. I’m thankful to God for weaving intersections in my life that develop my character and skills, refresh me, and make me a more visionary leader. Sometimes these relationships are forged with intention. Other times, God has clearly orchestrated meaningful new friendships, often when I least expect it. This underscores my appreciation for the need to take initiative and step outside of my comfortable circles to meet new people while also covering my relationships and networks in prayer.
Nurturing relationships takes time, energy and discernment but the benefits are numerous.
Encourage one another and spur each other on. Every leader needs to feel supported and continually refreshed with vision. Disability ministry can be challenging and complex. Leaders don’t always have strong support within their church. We have a wonderful and biblical opportunity to keep each other inspired and motivated.
Learn about resources. Colleagues often share referrals about the latest trends, books, curriculum, volunteer recruiting strategies, adaptive/sensory tools, safety training tips and more. Discoveries of resources may also benefit the individuals with disabilities, special-needs parents and caregivers we serve.
Share and test ideas. Nobody can be an expert in all areas. So, connecting with peers in leadership keeps our creative juices flowing and give us opportunities for feedback that refine what we do. You may be wondering about offering fidget toys during services or creating a sensory room. It could help to know what other churches done and how that has worked for them.
Get answers to questions. Exploration with others prompts growth in our own understanding and ability to address the challenges that are naturally going to arise in our ministries. You may have a “runner” in your special needs classroom or be struggling to recruit volunteers. Have you wanted to know how other churches are handling these challenges?
Identify best practices. Networking allows God to multiply the experience and wisdom in your leadership community. You will gather insights and perspectives about how to approach specific challenges and develop effective ministry strategies. Find out if other churches have procedural templates to mirror for seizure response or emergency evacuations involving students with mobility issues.
Collaborate with other ministries. Sometimes it is better to combine efforts and make referrals rather than try to “recreate the wheel.” For example, not every church will have the resources to offer a monthly respite night. But most churches know at least one family who would benefit from a respite program. There may be an opportunity to make referrals to a nearby congregation or share volunteer resources. One church may have a strong buddy program for their early childhood and elementary programs while another church offers a thriving weeknight club for adults with intellectual-developmental disabilities. Collaborative churches can optimize their unique strengths while making referrals within their community to resources that may not be available in every congregation. These are marvelous ways to meet needs and keep much-needed programs thriving.
Be alert to future career opportunities. You may not be thinking about alternatives or have broader vocational goals but God has been known to surprise us with His intentions. Also, your own ministry growth may require the recruitment of additional resources (e.g., part time volunteer/Buddy coordinator, parish nurse, respite coordinator).
Promote awareness in your community. Another benefit of connecting in larger groups is that our collective “voice” draws more attention. Some will recognize special needs and opportunities they haven’t noticed before. Others will have courage to step into new areas of outreach when they see it modeled and know they will have pioneering peers to rely on for support.
Pray for each other and with each other. Praying together cultivates unity in the church, spiritual growth and unique influence. James 5:14-16 implies that when we involve others in presenting our requests and questions before God, we sometimes get answers from Him that we may not otherwise get.
Make Christ known to all. The spectrum of abilities in our congregations requires that we stay alert to different methods and resources that make the Gospel accessible.
Let’s begin with prayer. Ask the Lord to divinely connect us in relationships where “iron will sharpen iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and where we will be “spurred on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). Whether those are valued social connections, mentors, much-needed supports or professional networks, God has the desire and power to place us in relationships that will be uniquely meaningful and satisfying. Though it serves us well to be intentional and strategic about developing connections, we can also ask God for them and trust Him to place us in meaningful and timely conversations (Psalm 139:5).
Here are a few more simple ways to begin fostering connections with your peers:
Online Discussions— The Special Needs & Disability Ministry Leaders Forum is a private Facebook group that connects nearly 1,500 leaders from around the world to share support and ideas. Key Ministry’s monthly Video Roundtable is another wonderful way to get to know pastors and disability ministry leaders on a national scale while learning more about hot topics and trends in disability ministry.
Regional Groups— With increasing frequency around the country, leaders are interacting in multi-denominational groups to help people of all abilities encounter Christ and experience belonging in the church. The Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection, the Special Needs Ministry Network of Des Moines and the Northeast Ohio Special Needs Ministry Leaders Consortium are examples of groups that meet regularly and include online communities (e.g., Facebook discussion groups).
Mentors & Prayer Partners — Now and then, consider just making a phone call to a disability ministry leader at a church near you and arrange to meet up. Learn about what each other is doing, ask for a tour at their church (e.g., perhaps they have a new sensory room), share some encouragement, and pray for your respective ministries together.
Conferences— Attend a local, regional or national disability conference. There are conference offerings thanks to organizations like Key Ministry, Joni & Friends, 99 Balloons, Faith Inclusion Network, and the Summer Institute on Theology & Disability. Inclusion Fusion Live is one of my own annual favorites. With increasing frequency, general children’s and youth ministry conferences are offering a disability ministry track too.
In whatever ways you get connected outside your church, being intentional about networking with other leaders in disability ministry has personal and professional advantages as well as benefits for those you serve.
Lisa Jamieson is the author of Jesus, Let’s Talk and the Finding Glory collection of books for families affected by disability. She leads the Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection, is co-founder of Walk Right In Ministries, and speaks at parenting and special needs conferences around the country. Lisa and her husband, Larry, have been married 30 years and have three grown daughters. Their daughter, Carly, has Angelman Syndrome and lives at home with them in Maple Grove, Minnesota.