When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming many things. I can recall wanting to become everything from a professional athlete to a teacher or firefighter. The thing I most remember about my hopes and dreams as a child was not just what I wanted to become but who I wanted to become. I wanted to become an artist.
Children have such an enormous advantage when it comes to living lives full of faith, hope, love, and creativity. It’s almost as though the younger we are the more excited and hopeful we are about who we can become.
If you know my story, I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was 36 years old. As a child I struggled greatly with socialization, sensory processing, anxiety, and a host of other challenges but until few years ago I had no idea that there was a reason for my struggles.
Those who noticed my challenges as a child weren’t always positive or affirming. In fact, there were many children and teachers who took my struggles as a sign that my options of what I wanted to become would be very limited, except God seemed to have other plans for my life.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible helped me to learn an incredible truth about my life, disabilities, and how God can use all people for his purpose.
“So, to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.”
Paul is one of my biblical heroes. Until this time period of his life and ministry we really don’t know much about his personal life. Then Paul lets us in on a secret. He has a disability. While we don’t know for certain what his disability was, Paul makes mention that it is something that causes him physical discomfort and that it was a tremendous struggle that he describes as “torment.”
Whenever a disability is diagnosed, our first response is to wonder about all of the possible ways that life will be limited. We almost assume that the disability will keep people from becoming the best version of themselves.
Paul, however, points to a startling revelation about faith and disability. While he doesn’t deny that he struggles greatly he does openly express that the one thing that his disability cannot keep him from becoming is the best version of himself.
I can’t understand all that Paul had to endure but he seems to believe that his disability didn’t stop him from becoming the best version of himself, in fact he believed that it actually stopped him from becoming the worst version of himself.
“To keep me from becoming proud…”
Through his own personal challenge comes a testimony of faith that teaches us all a great lesson. God uses people of all cultures, colors, and conditions to build His kingdom. So, why don’t we see more disabled ministry leaders in our churches? If representation matters, then we must find ways to create opportunities for the disability community to lead our congregations in mission of Christ.
Here are three things to consider if we are going to believe that disability doesn’t stop people from becoming their best, even in ministry.
People with disabilities are so much more than their disability. Paul is clear that he has a thorn, but he is also clear that it in no way limits his capacity to be used by God. People with disabilities have strengths, passions, training, and experience. Try to discover their capacity for contributing to the mission, vision, and value of your church. Be sure that you are offering the same pathway to service and leadership to them as you do to non-disabled church members.
Learn to take our cues
Since being diagnosed with autism I have learned that I have significant trouble navigating social cues of the neurotypical world but that does not keep me from being my best. The way my brain processes information actually makes perfect sense to me. I may be in the minority in how I perceive things, but when people are open to following my cues they are often surprised at how I can creatively come up with solutions to problems. If one in sixty-eight people are diagnosed with autism, that means that in a room full of neurotypical people, I can see and do things that others can’t. The same is true for other people with disabilities. If you want your church to be a stronger community of faith, learn to take your cues from the disability community.
Create an environment where creativity thrives. If you want to involve disabled people in ministry and leadership re-imagine how your current structures, schedules, and systems work. What would it take to include them in your meetings? How might you find appropriate spaces that can accommodate them teaching a class or leading a group? Be creative in including them into full participation. Their disability isn’t stopping them from giving God their best, the church itself may actually be what’s stopping them from giving God their best.