This blog post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Welcoming EveryBODY: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Shepherd Heart is a ministry of the Pacific Southwest Conference and offers ecumenical care to churches and clergy through continued education, pastoral care and ministry consultation.
Accessibility is about more than accommodation. How we preach about disability is profoundly important. Here are some encouragements and suggestions when preaching on disability from the pulpit.
1. Please do it. It is not a topic to avoid. On the one hand, people with a visible disability sometimes experience “civil inattention,” a social psychology term used to describe the phenomenon of being “polite,” by averting one’s gaze from others in public settings, so as “not to stare.” So-called civil inattention can lead someone with a visible disability to feel unseen. On the other hand, those with an invisible disability often experience being “unseen,” dismissed and invalidated, because they “look fine” on the outside. Preaching on disability in respectful ways can help people feel seen.
2. Please preach out of real, personal vulnerability — and not from a theologically abstract or academic point of view. For those living with a visible or invisible disability, it is deeply personal.
3. Do the deep inner work to be aware of your own projections Don’t put your “stuff” onto others. It takes a good amount of work in humble self-reflection to bring into conscious awareness one’s own anxious preoccupations, implicit biases and bad theology with respect disability. Without brutally honest self-awareness, people are prone to unconscious, protective psychological maneuvers — defense mechanisms — like splitting and projecting — creating illusory categories of “us” & “them.” More on this below.
4. Avoid referring to yourself, by contrast, as “fully-abled.” I assure you, you’re not (see #3, “splitting”). All of us are on a continuum of ability; this must be acknowledged. Sometimes labels reinforce false dichotomies. We all have strengths and struggles. We need one another.
5. Be mindful of your use of the term “the disabled community.” Is there one (the Church could be one)? Or is this yet another, albeit politically correct, term of “othering,” or splitting? Those who live with disability, whether visible or invisible, may feel acutely aware of alienation and a lack of community. (Note: “Community” may indeed be descriptive, e.g., within Deaf culture, where being Deaf might be more rightly understood as culture than disability. Do not presume someone self-identifies as “disabled” or as “able-bodied,” no matter how they appear to you.)
6. Avoid referring to humans by their disability (“special needs kids” etc.). Everyone is more than their abilities.
7. Do not hyperfixate on visible disability. As noted, some disability is invisible. Furthermore, most of the human struggles we face, as a whole, are under the surface. When you see physical differences, do not presume that someone desires “healing” or is “in need of prayer” more than anyone else. Such differences are not cause for prayer request — unless the individual is actually requesting prayer. (Note: Do not publicly pray for someone’s “healing,” unless it is explicitly desired by them. Do not violate someone’s personal boundaries in offering prayer or healing services. Those with physical disabilities likely have been accosted by would-be faith healers and prosperity gospel peddlers, in going about their daily lives.)
8. Be aware that one’s disability may be the least defining thing about their identity (see#6). Make sure not to become so distracted by disability that it’s the predominant thing you notice about someone (see #7). Do not presume to ask someone with a visibly physical difference to preach or teach on disability, unless that person has explicitly indicated this as an area of specialized interest to them. Do not ask someone to personally disclose information about their disability, unless you have a deep and mutually disclosing friendship, or unless that person authorizes you to inquire of such privileged information. Know that disability may be trauma connected, and curiosity does not lend entitlement to someone’s personal story or experience. Do not emotionally “drop” someone who discloses disability or trauma, because it elicits — unexamined — anxiety (See #3).
9. Avoid “able-splaining.” Do not presume to equate experiences of disability with an inconvenience or relatively minor frustration. Never compare someone’s physical disability with something you “don’t like” about your body or appearance. This is more projection than empathy, implying that someone with a disability could not/would not/should not love their body or appearance exactly as it is (see #3).
10. While preaching, discourage gratuitous sentimentality from the congregation toward those with visible disability (e.g., when the congregation is encouraged to “ahhhhh” over a story about someone with a disability). Even when well-intended, it is condescending. People with disabilities are multi-dimensional. They are not “cute” (diminution), nor do they function to serve as inspiration or instruction for others. They need to be met with all the dignity, respect and seriousness that their full humanity demands.
11. Examine your personal implicit and explicit theology around disability before you preach. Steer clear of bad theodicy (i.e., theology around “why bad things happen”). Jesus did (cf. John 9:3; Luke 13:4). Bad theodicy is hurtful to those who have suffered greatly. (see #7, peddlers of prosperity gospel). Blaming people for their struggles and suffering may be a product of the defense mechanisms of splitting and projection.
12. Cultivate a healthy theology of weakness in your congregation. This will feel countercultural to the dominant American mythos — bootstraps and all. We all need one another. Complete independence is not part of Body theology. There is no shame in our interdependence on one another and in our dependence on God. The church would ideally be a safe enough place where invisible and visible disability, as well as general human struggles, could be openly shared without shame, if so desired, and given respect for privacy.
13. Know that “healing” and “cure” are different. Don’t presume to know what healing looks like for another person. Healing a sick society — not curing the “identified patient”— to remove stigma and alienation related to disability, may be all the “healing” that someone needs to feel fully restored.
Welcoming EveryBODY: Learn, Pray, Join celebrates the many gifts that people with disabilities bring to our church communities. This initiative also calls us to repent as a church in the ways we have not fully seen or welcomed people with disabilities. May we commit to being more loving and aware as we care for one another.
This initiative is a partnership between Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADN).
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at https://www.mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/welcoming-everybody/.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.