If there are people in a congregation who feel isolated and lonely, then something is amiss with the church they’re attending.
Sadly, many people with disabilities experience just that, even in their United Methodist church. No one means to do it, but it happens.
“When we have that pastoral care meeting, the overwhelming thing that we often hear is that disability is a very lonely making experience and a very isolating experience,” said the Rev. Justin Hancock, a deacon in the North Texas Conference who lives with cerebral palsy. He is the cofounder of The Julian Way, an organization that is working toward “environments where persons of all embodiments can work for leadership and equity throughout the whole of human life together.” He wrote a book on the subject, also titled “The Julian Way.”
The name comes from Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived in the 1300s and wrote some of the earliest surviving works by a female.
“One of the main principles … in her work was that all of God's creation is God's good creation,” Justin said. “So things that are framed to us as disabilities by the rest of the world, we tend to think those are disabilities and they come with hardship.
“But they're also marks of God's creativity, and if all of God's creation is good, even those things that we frame as disabilities are good and can be worked through by God to produce good fruit.”
A lot needs to be done to overhaul how we relate to disabilities in the church. One example: How can a pastor with a disability lead a church where he can’t physically get into the pulpit?
“We have churches that are able to accommodate a disabled pastor,” said Lisa Hancock, director of worship arts at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries and co-founder of The Julian Way with her husband.
“But the vast majority of the churches in The United Methodist Church are actually quite older and rural and the resources to have accessible buildings are not quite there.”
The Disability Ministry Committee of the denomination does help some congregations with this, but doesn’t have the resources to meet all the need, Lisa said.
“I think that continues to be a real problem,” she said. “Not just in physical accessibility, but really just an openness to think that this person can do this job.”
Do no harm
Some people view disabilities as some kind of punishment for sins, she said.
“When you are being formed and shaped by living in a disabled body all the time, it really creates a lot of tension and harm inside of yourself,” Lisa said. “So why would you go to church if churches are a place that is telling you that you're not good enough?”
People with disabilities “have enormous gifts and assets to give the church,” Lisa said.
“But if physical buildings and the attitudes and the theology are not there to empower them to share their gifts, they will go elsewhere,” she said. “It is tiring day in and day out to live within the disability community in a world that is not well equipped to allow the disability community to function.”
The Hancock’s work through The Julian Way seeks to counter these circumstances with training and resources to do a better job of accommodating people with disabilities.
“What would it be like if the intentional Christian community met the needs of those with disabilities?” Justin said. “How could it bridge the gap between the loneliness of having to negotiate the state-based health system.”
Testing has begun on a three-hour training course to help people in churches do better with their congregants who are disabled. The plan is to take the course to more churches and conferences when it is ready.
Justin himself is a living example of someone with disabilities who has thrived in and out of church.
“For somebody that now does pretty pungent advocacy work, I had an insanely normal upbringing,” he said. “There was never a sense from a very early age that there was anything that I couldn't do because of my cerebral palsy.”
Justin was the only disabled child in the family.
“My parents were always respectful of my disability and always allowed me to experience difference and the way it affected me as being unique, but it was never viewed as something that was going to limit me,” he said.
His disability does come in handy when counseling others, he said.
Justin has a running joke he uses in counseling and training sessions.
“You know those old 1980s Hair Club for men commercials?” he said.
“I say, ‘I'm not just the founder. I'm also a client.’”
Jim Patterson is a Nashville, Tennessee freelance writer. Contact him by email.