Despite the 1999 General Synod resolution to make our churches accessible for disabled clergy, most people do not want to hear the response to this question. After all, we live in a society that tells us that disabled men and women are not whole.
As a disabled clergyperson who has recently been granted Privilege of Call in the York Association of the UCC's Maine Conference, I have been both surprised and puzzled by reactions to my physical needs. One church seemed startled by my need for restroom facilities on-site; other members of this historic structure felt the Texaco at the corner should fulfill that requirement!
I preface my seated posture for sermons with the explanation that Jesus, too, came to sit with believers. Still, congregations reviewing clergy profiles often have bypassed mine, and perhaps those of other disabled clergy seeking the opportunity to energize faith communities. Often, a quiet non-conversation results when the spectre of a disabled minister appears. For some people, disabled clergy are seen as physically unable to perform all job requirements, despite the potential usefulness of their life experiences.
Calling a clergyperson with disabilities requires a congregational commitment to new models of ministry. For ministers living with physical challenges, viable ramps may need to be constructed outside churches and up to pulpits, which also may have to be redesigned;. Handicapped accessible restrooms, vestries and classrooms schools may be required. Church members might have to seize the opportunity to live out their faith by visiting members in non-accessible locations.
A church is a community that together forms a ministry, requiring the participation of each person to hear, sing and spread the Good News. If a church sign truly means "everyone welcome," the belief behind that statement is that even disabled clergy are welcome. And if disabled clergy are welcome and serve, the congregation may present a new model of wholeness to the community: support and celebration of all those in need.
Disabled adults, teens and children, often missing in churches, may come to understand that they, too, are welcome and will be valued there, and venture out from their isolation to become lay readers, choir members, committee participants and more. Bothering to say "yes!" to the accommodation needs of disabled clergy can revitalize and re-energize a congregation seeking a caring and compassionate pastor, and that may lead to a new sense of wholeness for everyone and a shining new model of ministry.
The Rev. Cheryl Klein invites you to contact her regarding clergy with disabilities. E-mail her at FlySolo@loa.com or write The Rev. Cheryl Klein, P.O. Box 1373, Saco, ME 04072.