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Full Participants: Pastors with Disabilities Share Struggles, Hopes in Ministry

by Bill Fentum*

November 12, 2009—For the Rev. Kirk VanGilder, life in the deaf community and his call to ministry both began in a single moment of grace.

Born hard-of-hearing, he learned sign language when the condition progressed in his teen years. But he still struggled in his 20s to identify with deaf culture, in many ways its own world.

Then during a mission trip to a deaf school in Kenya, a hearing teacher pushed him aside, refusing to let him lead a class. Later he told his mission partners what had happened.

“I had experienced total rejection of myself as a deaf person, and I broke down in tears in front of the team,” he recalls. “I tried to leave the room, but the other deaf people encircled me in prayer. It was like a sacrament—every bit as powerful as my baptism—and I felt at home.”

Mr. VanGilder then went to seminary and now serves as an ordained United Methodist elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. He shared his story during a meeting of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities (UMAMD), Oct. 6-7 at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

UMAMD, an official caucus within the denomination, changed its name at the meeting from the Association of Physically Challenged Ministers. Founded in 1990, the group supports disabled people in ordained or lay ministry, and advocates for them at all church levels.

The United Methodist Social Principles urge “the Church and society to recognize and receive the gifts of persons with disabilities, to enable them to be full participants in the life of the church.”

Many people, though, experience the opposite.

The Rev. Bill Downing, an elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference, led local churches for three decades before a serious auto accident forced him into disability leave in 2003. “Friends distanced themselves from me,” Mr. Downing said at the meeting, “and I heard more ‘poor Bill’ than, ‘You’re OK, and you’ll go far just the same.’”

Worse, he said, someone suggested that he must have sinned or “crossed lines with God,” to be forced out of the pulpit so violently.

That’s retributive justice theology, says the Rev. Bruce Birch, a former dean of Wesley Theological Seminary who led part of the UMAMD meeting. “The Book of Job tried to knock it down,” he said, “but a lot of the friends of Job are still out there, preaching that the righteous prosper and the wicked perish.”

Dr. Birch helped draft policies on disability adopted in 2008 by the Association of Theological Schools, an agency that accredits most seminaries in the U.S. and Canada. Under the new policies each seminary is urged to ensure physical access, welcome disabled students and faculty, and include disability concerns in its courses.

Many schools, according to Dr. Birch, need advice on how to take those steps. “I’d love it if people in our network would go to all 13 United Methodist seminaries and ask to see their disability policies,” he said. “See if you can open a conversation.”

Dr. Birch’s daughter Becky, 29, was born with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. Being her father “has been both challenging and immensely rewarding,” he said in a sermon at Perkins Chapel, where UMAMD members led a worship service for students and faculty.

Early on, Dr. Birch recalled, a doctor told him to accept that Becky would “live her life as a flawed human being.”

“I was shocked,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine that her very humanity was in question. Are people on a continuum from more human to less human? I think not.”

Even some theologians, he added, measure worth according to ability. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote in Summa Theologica that “only in a rational creature do you find a resemblance to God in the manner of an image. . . . [O]ther things resemble him in the manner of a trace.”

“This naturally leads to a hierarchy of intellect,” Dr. Birch said, “that probably leaves my daughter as a flawed human being, and leaves the profoundly disabled often labeled as subhuman.

“I want to suggest,” he said, “that the image of God has nothing to do with any set of abilities. Every human has the created possibility of reflecting the goodness of God, with whatever gifts we possess.”

The Rev. Eric Pridmore, who co-chairs the UMAMD, has lost most of his sight to a degenerative eye disease but leads Memorial United Methodist Church in Bolton, Miss., with his wife, the Rev. Lisa Pridmore. A Ph.D. candidate in sociology of religion at Drew University, he also teaches Old and New Testament classes at a community college.

Mr. Pridmore’s disability and his busy schedule sometimes clash, he said at the meeting.

“Living with blindness takes a secondary role to doing what people expect of me,” he said. “On one hand it’s nice to have those responsibilities. But to deal with everything and still find a way for my spirit to sing, now and then becomes difficult.”

It’s easy for people with disabilities to begin feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, qualities that no one looks for in a church leader. Perhaps, Dr. Birch noted, that calls for a new “theology of disability”—the idea that God, too, is vulnerable.

“It started in the Garden of Eden,” he said, “when God was the first one to be wounded and rejected in a relationship.” Later, in Exodus 3:7, God tells Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings. . . .”

Those should also be powerful words, Dr. Birch said, in a postmodern world faced with war, economic woes and the needs of an aging population. Who better to preach that God shares in human suffering, he suggested, than disabled clergy who draw strength from that promise?

In 2007, the Rev. Tom Hudspeth, director of deaf ministries at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, was struck with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that paralyzed most of his body. He recovered after several months, but the outcome wasn’t always certain.

“People were quick to pray for my healing, but slow to ask how I was actually doing,” he told others at the meeting. “Why not ask what God was saying to me, in the midst of my frailty? We might learn something.”

Dr. Hudspeth, who is hard-of-hearing, earned a D.Min. in deaf ministry at Wesley Seminary in 2002. Wesley has since dropped the program—not for lack of funding, but because it couldn’t recruit enough students.

“I see an opportunity for us to be stewards of a vision,” Dr. Hudspeth said, “where we encourage a sense that people with disabilities are needed in the church.” He plans to teach a workshop on opportunities for clergy with disabilities during Exploration 2009, the denomination’s conference for young people exploring a call to ministry. The annual event will be held Nov. 13-15 in Dallas.

“Growing up with hearing loss, it was always something I tried to hide from the rest of the world,” he said. “Then I realized God was calling the deaf side of me and saying, ‘I want to use all of you, Tom, not just the hearing side.’

“That’s what this group can offer to the Christian community: God’s call on people to do ministry that involves all of their abilities.”

About UMCOR Health and Disability Concerns

UMCOR Health co-sponsored the meeting. Working with a disability task force, UMCOR Health provides resources for persons with disabilities, their families, friends, caretakers, congregations and clergy. UMCOR offers information related to disability concerns with a focus on spiritual care, including an on-line forum on its website. Material about developmental disabilities, mental illness, appropriate language, social and environmental accessibility and resources on disability for individuals and faith communities is also available. To support UMCOR's disability ministry, please give to Disability Ministry, UMCOR Advance 3021054. Online Giving

Reprinted with permission of the United Methodist Reporter

Bill Fentum is a Staff Writer for United Methodist Reporter*