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Benjamin Conner: The Changes Church Leaders Can Make To Learn From and Support People With Disabilities

Benjamin Conner
Image courtesy of Dr. Benjamin Conner

Dr. Benjamin Conner is professor of practical theology and director of the Center for Disability and Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. The center is hosting a Symposium on Disability in Ministry on July 13, and you can register for free to attend the event in person in Holland, Michigan, or online by following this link. Symposium resources will be available after the event is over.

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Transcript of Interview With Benjamin Conner

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EPISODE 475-FINAL-Benjamin Conner.mp3: this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

Voice Over:
Welcome to the Stetzer Church Leaders Podcast, conversations with today’s top ministry leaders to help you lead better every day. And now, here are your hosts, Ed Stetzer and Daniel Yang.

Daniel Yang:
Welcome to the Stetzer Church Leaders Podcast, where we help in Christian leaders navigate and lead through the cultural issues of our day. My name is Daniel Yang, national director of Churches of Welcome at World Relief. And today we’re talking to Doctor Benjamin Conner, Ben’s professor of practical theology and director of the center for Disability and Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. Western is hosting a symposium on Disability in ministry on July 13th, and you can register for free to attend the event in person in Holland, Michigan, or online by following the link in our show notes. But first, let’s go to Stetzer. Editor in chief of Outreach magazine and the Dean of the Talbot School of Theology.

Ed Stetzer:
Yeah, and so let me remind you too, if you’re listening, you know, we recognize not everyone listens to the podcast immediately when it’s released, though I can’t imagine why you would want to wait. But if you have waited and it’s after July 13th, 2024, you can go to the website and the sessions are there and you can engage more in this as well. And I think, I hope as a pastor and church leader, you’re going to lean in on this conversation. This is important to me personally. Uh, due to our family, uh, my family’s journey. This is important to me. Uh ministerially. I want our congregations to be places where persons with disabilities can thrive and more. And I think a lot of times people are unsure how to best be a church. That is I mean, we use words like, you know, Galatians six two, carry one another’s burdens, but how do we carry the burdens of, of, uh, you know, for example, I’ve written before on, on, on of parents who are, you know, have children with severe or profound disabilities. And how will we minister to them or or how how do we make sure people who maybe be on the spectrum or 100 different things? And so, I don’t know, we’re going to cover all of them today. But I’m excited about what we’re doing here today. So so Ben, let’s start with you. Tell us a little bit about because, again, we intentionally moved up the date so we could do this before your conference. Again, people might be listening after, but tell us about the center for Disability and Ministry. How are you helping leaders prepare to support people who have disabilities? Great.

Benjamin Conner:
Thanks for having me on. I’m glad to be here and happy to meet you this way. Um, so the center for Disability Ministry has a number of ways we reach out to churches and church leaders. One, we have academic programs. So we do have a graduate certificate in disability ministry. And so that’s 21 credits. It’s graduate credit. It has courses like Introduction to Disability in the church Ministry and Margins. We have one on We All Worship which is about how to think through universal design and learning. In our in our worship practices we have Introduction to disability um Bible that we have sort of a Bible oriented one that disability, the Bible and the pastoral imagination. We have a theology oriented one, disability and theology and the Christian tradition and a number of other ones that are taught by leaders in the world in this field, John Swinton, Eric Carter. These names will ring out for people who have read anything on disability and theology. Yeah.

Ed Stetzer:
Let me just say that, um, as someone who leads a, you know, a large seminary here at the Talbot School of Theology, uh, we look to and I think a lot of the seminaries. I was just with Felix, your president. We were at the Association of Theological Schools annual meeting, which you should send him a note and thank him that he goes to that instead of you. But that’s another story for another day. But but again, you guys have just led out in the field. And I love that so many of us are looking to and relying on your good work. And so, so I guess the question, uh, let’s just start with some of the challenging issues. What are some ways that you see churches, uh, well, not engage. Well, let’s neglect or overlook people with disabilities. Let’s start with the problem and then let’s move to the solution.

Benjamin Conner:
Yeah. I mean, one of the, one of the largest ways is so if you figured about 20% of the population has some sort of disability, a lot of those disabilities are hidden. And a lot of times churches, while they want to be welcoming, hospitable, have a view of hospitality that says, here’s how we are and we’re going to try to make it so you can be in here. Now that’s a good first step, right? The Americans with Disabilities Act, for all most organizations, helps them think through that. Churches don’t necessarily have to abide by that, but have the spirit of hospitality, the theological commitment to hospitality, and want to welcome people. The first thing that they think about falls in the category of ramps. And by ramps I mean anything that helps people get into the room. So different height water fountains, wider doorways, pew cutouts, right. Actual ramps, large buttons that open doors so you can enter the space. And that’s great, but you can be included in that way and still not feel like you belong. So we have to move towards what Jeff McNair has called social ramps. Uh, so how are the ways that we’re engaging people that are. Including this kind of welcome as well. So if you’re with a wheelchair user and you call and you say they’re wheelchair bound, you’re misunderstanding something for them.

Benjamin Conner:
The wheelchair is liberating. It’s their way of moving through the world. And to say they’re bound is sort of devaluing, devaluing this important thing. Or if someone’s a wheelchair user, you’re talking to the person who’s pushing them instead of to them, then they’re feeling dehumanized, neglected, or you’re speaking to them loudly and or speaking to them like they’re a child. So these are sort of the social ramps that we need. How do you engage people with disabilities? Um, so not just that the environment’s prepared for them. You have a hearing loop and ramp, these sort of things, but that you also have the social environment so they can flourish. So I think that’s one of the ways that we miss out. Um, another way we miss out is somebody with disabilities, perhaps intellectual disabilities, comes and wants to be involved. And we say, oh, great, you can be a greeter. Well, it could be. They don’t want to be a greeter. I mean, people with disabilities, just like everybody else, come with challenges and and also gifts, and they want to be able to use those gifts and develop those gifts for the sake of the body of Christ. And so I think that’s one way.

Benjamin Conner:
Another way is that people with disabilities and families with children with disabilities might be uncomfortable coming to church because let’s say they’re on the autism spectrum and and there’s no such thing as a, as a question that that is rhetorical. You ask a question in a sermon, they’re going to speak up. Or if my friend Xavier, he expresses his his inclusion and his joy with big, strong leaps and bounds that don’t fit into the the highly, uh, sort of the social intensive structures of a church oftentimes. And it’s if he’s if he’s viewed as a disruption to what’s going on, then he’s not able to bring his whole self and his gifts. In fact, most pastors, I would think they’re giving a sermon. Someone’s reacting that way. They’d say, I wish everybody would respond this way. So I think that’s one of the ways that we miss out, is we’re not creating the spaces necessary for them to flourish and to be there. So instead of a disruption, if someone makes a noise, if the pastor points out and says, oh, that’s my that’s my friend Connor, and Connor’s just expressing that he’s excited. And aren’t you glad Connor’s here? You know that’s Connor’s amen right there. Yeah.

Daniel Yang:
I’d imagine. Two questions for you. I’d imagine. You know, there’s some component of this where you’ve had personal experience and whether your family life or personal life that really, you know, drew you into this work. So I’d be curious as to what your personal connection is. And then also, um, for, for pastors that are navigating this and they’re thinking, do I start with the niche group? I mean, what’s our inroads into finding out the population that we can serve best? How do they figure that out? So first you know, what’s your personal connection. And then secondly is how to pastors figure out their inroads into this.

Benjamin Conner:
So I was getting ready to do doctoral work at Princeton with Darrell Guder, looking at missional and ecumenical theology, which I know you guys are familiar with.

Ed Stetzer:
Oh, don’t don’t start saying Darrell Buddha’s name without expecting a smile or a comment from me. Yeah, change my life in a lot of ways.

Benjamin Conner:
Wonderful. So, uh, so I was I had a ritual of reading to my son every evening. Uh, he was seven years old at the time, and he had a seizure. And we knew already he learned differently, and we were homeschooling him because of that. The school system just couldn’t handle his unique learning style. And through homeschooling, I learned a whole lot about teaching. Learning. Uh, I realized that I wasn’t a very good teacher. You know, the problem is not with the learner. That’s the problem. That’s that’s called ableism. When you take the learner and you say the learner is the problem, often it’s the curriculum or the syllabus, the structure, the way that we teach is the problem. So that that got me interested in this whole topic. And I couldn’t decouple the you know, I’m in a German academic reading group with gutter while I’m taking all these seminars on Bart. But most of my life experience is with a son who’s going to an occupational therapist, physical therapist, an unusual herb lady. Like anything you can do to try to make sense of what’s going on. And I met a bunch of tired parents and lonely children. And so I decided to start a ministry. And an important thing that happened was I took these seven young men to a camp. And at the camp, uh, one of the young men was very upset because there’d been a death in the family, and he was having a hard time processing it.

Benjamin Conner:
He had down syndrome. And so I was trying to use all these skills. I had, you know, parenting skills from my own four kids that I can apply to this situation. And they weren’t working. And but I had a master in divinity, so I used my pastoral care skills and was trying to be a non-anxious presence to this young man completely failed. That was a defense away from the doctorate, where I explored these things and none of my skills and techniques were working, and a young man with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability came next to this guy. Bow, put his arm around him. Bow put his head on Craig’s shoulder, stopped crying and they were friends. The rest of the time. It turns out that the body of Christ has cerebral palsy. The body of Christ has down syndrome, and that these these young men had gifts to offer the church. Until that point, I was thinking I was doing ministry to people with disabilities, and at that point I realized I was doing ministry with and alongside people with disabilities, and it totally transformed the way I think about ministry. It’s why we have a center for Disability and Ministry here at Western.

Ed Stetzer:
I love that, and let’s let’s keep going down some of the theological, scriptural ideas. What what do we see in the scriptures that would help us think more biblically and theologically about disability persons with disabilities? Churches should engage that. Tell us about that.

Benjamin Conner:
Right. So if we map our concept of disability onto the Bible, it’s not going to fit. I mean, it’s just like if we took adolescence and put it onto the Bible, these are socially constructed realities, not meaning that there isn’t such thing as an impairment. It just means the way we understand disability is way different today than it was in biblical times. And so what we look at is the way that Jesus interacted with people with disabilities and how marginalized communities and individuals were were treated by Jesus. And one of the things we notice is that, uh, okay, yes, Jesus healed people, but that wasn’t the primary thing that was going on. The primary thing that was going on was an announcement of the kingdom of God is at hand and and inclusion into this environment. And so if the disability in some way was stopping you from being connected to this, then it wasn’t just the healing. So the woman with internal bleeding touches Jesus and is healed, and then is given the opportunity to give a testimony. She bears witness to this reality. And so the by doing that, she was then you know, it wasn’t that I touched Jesus made Jesus unclean. I touched Jesus and we were made clean. And now I’m included in the community or the lepers who were healed. And now go tell the priests by going and telling the priests that you’re healed now, now you’re included into the community. So anytime there is some sort of a healing thing, it has as much to do with being included in this community and having a voice and a vocation, as it does with the actual healing of the impairment.

Benjamin Conner:
So if we think about it that way, we have a broader understanding of disability ability healing, where the the disability itself, I mean, you can have an impairment, but the impairment can never disable you from being a witness. If we want to take an extreme example, because when we think of ministry and mission, we tend to immediately think of capacities and abilities. But one of the most profound witness bearing events was John the Baptist. And I’m not talking about John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and saying he must increase, I must decrease, follow. You know that I’m talking about John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, meeting Jesus in the womb of Mary and leaping. And that leap didn’t involve, I mean, what intellectual capacity did John have? What physical abilities, what social skills? I mean, that was just a response in joy, a leap at the presence of Jesus that bears witness to the reality of the kingdom of God that’s present. And so as long as we’re thinking about abilities, capacities is the primary lens through mission and ministry, then we’re going to miss out on the many gifts that people with disabilities have to bring to the church. So that’s sort of the biblical, theological, uh, foundation for my understanding of disability.

Daniel Yang:
Yeah, yeah. That’s great. And I’ve heard people often try to make the case about Paul potentially having a handicap. And he’s talked about sort of the the thorn in his side. And potentially that could be a disability as well. It’s hard to confirm that but definitely.

Benjamin Conner:
Or Moses look at look at Moses. I mean when he complains about it. Jesus. God says, I’m I’m the one who made you this way. Yeah. And I didn’t mess up, you know, and so obviously, there was something about that community of him and other people working together that was important in that process. Absolutely.

Daniel Yang:
Yeah. Earlier you mentioned Ben, uh, you mentioned the word, um, ableism. Uh, I think it’d be helpful. Might be a new word to some of our, our listeners here. Wonder if you could go ahead and define what that means. And then also in light of that, you know, what is it about churches that maybe sometimes we don’t realize what it looks like to live with a with a certain disability? And how can we actually kind of reorient our thinking around that?

Benjamin Conner:
Right. So if you would think of Disablism as like discrimination against people because they have disabilities and most people don’t aren’t aren’t that I mean, if you see that, then it’s pretty easy to call out in our culture, right, that somebody’s just being unkind. Um, but ableism is a little bit trickier, because ableism is the idea that everything is oriented towards a certain body mind. Right? So curriculums, buildings, all these things are oriented towards this standard sort of way and being in the world And then the sort of the metaphors that we use, even even in religious stuff, uh, deaf to the voice of God, blind to the truth. Uh, it tends to cast disability in a negative light.

Daniel Yang:
The sets are church leaders.

Ed Stetzer:
Podcast is part of the Church Leaders Podcast Network, which is dedicated to resourcing church leaders in order to help them face the complexities of ministry. Today, the Church Leaders Podcast Network supports pastors and ministry leaders by challenging assumptions, by providing insights and offering practical advice and solutions and steps that will help church leaders navigate the variety of cultures and contexts that we’re serving and learn more at Church leaders.com/podcast network.

Benjamin Conner:
And so instead of thinking of a different way of being in the world, uh, we think of it as a problem to be solved. And that’s the that’s at the heart of ableism, that there is this standard way that you should be in the world and the world sort of, you know, people with disabilities have to become expert life hackers to navigate a world that’s not designed for them in the in the academy. It’s especially that way, I mean, even Monsters University has steep steps and heavy doors and curriculums that aren’t very inclusive, you know?

Ed Stetzer:
So I think you’ve really loved to bring in the Monsters University reference. I bet that’s not the first time you said that. Um, you know, for, for, you know, ableism is used in so many ways, in so many contexts. It’s sometimes something that we, uh, I mean, it’s just used in ways that I don’t think are helpful. I mean, what we’re trying to express is that persons with disabilities should be included in the activities in the life of the church and the community. I think that’s that’s the bigger picture of that. So I might be I might not use the word ableism. I don’t use the word ableism because of how it’s just been hijacked by culture, meaning so many other things. But, you know, my wife has a master’s degree in special education. Early on, when people were talking about what they call then mainstreaming and inclusion. So persons with disabilities were not separated, but were brought into and brought a richness into the classroom that was there and really to, to everybody’s benefit as, as well. So if that’s if that’s what we have a, a heart to do, what are some of the practices. And again, you can push back on my, my description of that as well. I’m, I’m just recognizing that I hear the language sometimes and even the language we use here is probably worth people noticing. If you’re new to this conversation, we’re not referring to disabled people. That’s their primary defining characteristic is they’re disabled. But we’re talking about persons with disabilities. So language does help clarify what we’re talking about and how we’re talking about it. So I guess for me, though, I want to say to pastors and church leaders, here’s how you can be the kind of church that persons with disabilities and families with persons with disabilities and their family can actually feel that they don’t have this extra challenging barrier to participate in the life of the church. So what are some ways you’ve seen that? And again, you can reflect on any of the comments as well.

Benjamin Conner:
Right. Well on on language issues. So people with disabilities that is one way person first language. That’s great. Uh, disabled. To say that, uh, someone is disabled puts the sort of the the issue with society, right. To say I’m a disabled person means, uh, that that society is organized in such a way that I can’t fully be included. So just that’s one other note on language. Yeah, but in terms of how to include. So I talked about ramps and I talked about social ramps. Let’s also talk about social bridges. In other words, if you’re going to set up a sign and say people with disabilities welcome, why are they going to trust you? I mean, so many people with disabilities, much of their life is is being self-advocates. And it’s exhausting. They’ve had to be self-advocates at school. Self-advocates for services, Self-advocates at grocery stores self-advocates to find parking. It’s just it can be a very tiring life. So one of the ways that churches can immediately be involved and endear themselves to this community as one of the largest nonprofits around, is provide respite for parents. These these tired parents who have children, who have wonderful gifts, but also some real challenges. So that’s one. The other thing with the with the ramps, social ramps and social bridges is your church can go where people with disabilities are hanging out. Uh, buddy sports, Special Olympics, things like that. Uh, a family seeing someone who chooses to be with their child without being paid. Most of the people that are hanging out with their children are paid service providers or paid educators. And so for people from your church who aren’t paid and are choosing to go spend time with their family and care for them. Well, when when they’re thinking about a church, they’ll think about your church. And so it’s I think it’s not so much a targeted strategy for a particular disability is just a way of being in the world.

Ed Stetzer:
That makes sense. Okay. So one of the things that I have, you know, I’m not like an expert in this field, but I’ve kind of shared a little of my, uh, I mean, the kind of nebulously it’s not my not my story to share, but, you know, kind of our some of our own family. So I go to one of those big monster churches that has lights and loud music and a smoke machine. I probably should refer to it as my my mariner’s church. So it’s not we don’t call it big Monster church, but but you know, and very engaged. We have a, we have a thriving ministry that um with for persons with disability, that church is very engaged and involved with. It’s very public and um, but I also recognize that people on the spectrum, um, that that my church itself would be, you know, it might be hard to go to an airport where there’s loud and lights and things of that sort. And so, um, and, but there’s all kinds of churches like that. And sometimes people have asked me, what would you advise? And I’m, and I’m not sure like, we have a service that is would be, um, not as sensory overloading as that service would be. But I guess the question is how how far can we should we how might you encourage us to to push the normative structures? Again, that’s somewhat what might we talk about the normative structure of church life. To say this excludes significant number of people who have a high sensitivity to noise and light. So or would we create alternatives or I mean, what would again, because you’re the you’re the you’re the expert. I’m not I don’t want to tell the advice I give because maybe it’s not the best advice, but what would your advice be.

Benjamin Conner:
So there are a number of ways to go about that, but recognizing it is the first step. So you know that’s great. First step the the the goal is that everyone would be able to share the same space together. So you get the benefit of being together. And and if there are things that are going to be loud or have these sort of sensory issues, there’s ways to deal with it ahead of time. People on the autism spectrum often. I mean, you can’t say anything generally about the autism spectrum. Spectrum. You met one person with autism. You’ve met one person with autism famous thing.

Ed Stetzer:
Right.

Benjamin Conner:
And so, uh, but if they, they many of my friends on the autism spectrum like to have a schedule ahead of time to know what’s coming up and if there is going to be something loud, they have some headphones, or do they have something they can manipulate that will help them be more present? What’s going on? And if that doesn’t help, then is there a sensory room now, a sensory room for people who are listening can look online to see all kind of creative ideas about what a sensory room is, but it’s a place where someone who’s overstimulated can go to find a more calm, and the purpose of it is not to get them out of that space, is to help them to adjust so they can re-enter that space. And that’s that’s my big warning, because oftentimes these churches will say, oh, someone with a disability, you can do a children’s program, or we’ll have a special program that’s separate for you as much as you want. You want to have people together so they can encounter each other and get to know each other in a deep and meaningful ways.

Ed Stetzer:
And just so, just so people know we’re kind of do this conversation. That wasn’t always the way people thought. Again, when Donna did her master’s degree 30 years ago, I sat in on some stuff she class wise, she did at Buffalo State College, and they were just now saying, maybe it’s better for people to not be isolated and to be with, but instead to be an internet back then, was mainstream and inclusion inclusion going to mean, you know, get loaded with a lot of meaning in the last few years? But, but but I will tell you, um, as a I love the way you frame it, Ben, you keep coming back to the body of Christ. Is is on the spectrum. The body of Christ is is has disabilities. The body of Christ has people without disabilities. Those all exist. And I think that I hope that Christian. I’m like preaching now, but I hope that the pastors and church leaders will say there is a value for us to be able to say, this is who we are, and there are some ways that we can, you know, there’s there’s an advocate, uh, disability called himself the the autism pastor. And so Lamar.

Benjamin Conner:
Hardwick.

Ed Stetzer:
Yeah, yeah. Lamar Hardwick yeah. And so this is an important issue for me. And but I think it should be maybe maybe I, you know, I don’t want to just be an important issue to me. I want pastors to church leaders to think about how they can move into a better place on some of these issues. But back to you, Daniel. I know you have more questions.

Daniel Yang:
Yeah. I mean, mine is related to sort of this, this, this subject of of communication. How do you talk about it? How do you do it as a way, especially as a church leader, to where you’re not condescending? It doesn’t feel like you’re overly pointing something out, but it’s much more natural. It’s part of how you preach. It’s a part of how you do your messaging. How do you how do you be more sensitive in that particular way? Ben?

Benjamin Conner:
Yeah, I mean, there there are a lot of ways to do that one. I mean, if you come across a healing narrative, I would make sure I check out commentaries that are written and blogs that are written by people with disabilities about that healing narrative, because, uh, having a disability in many instances then provides a hermeneutical advantage. You know, it’s an insight into what’s going on that that can open up the Scripture in a way that that we aren’t. We haven’t.

Ed Stetzer:
So a person with an ongoing physical problem, you mentioned the woman with the flow of blood, someone who’s experienced that for decades would be able to just, you know, testify to the challenges and the walking through that.

Benjamin Conner:
Yeah, absolutely. Or, you know, I had a stunning encounter with and we need to share these encounters from the pulpit like they’re normal, normal things. It’s not a special story. It’s not a special disability Sunday. It’s just part of my life. Right? Um, but I was I was writing a chapter in Disabling Mission enabling witness on deafness. And so I had five deaf interlocutors who I was sort of working through the issues with because I myself am not deaf. And just in casual conversation, I asked one of them, what do you think happens in heaven? Do you think you’ll be able to hear? And without skipping a beat, the guy replies to me saying, I don’t know if I’ll be able to hear, but I’m sure you’ll be deaf. Now he didn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to hear. He meant that I have an access to a different way of being in the world that does theology more communally, that’s more oriented towards space, that has more whole body communication and kinesthetic communication that that I’ll be unlocked in all of these things. And I thought, well, you know, that’s really beautiful. So but these sorts of conversations can inform the way we think about various doctrines of, of God. What do we do with the wounds of Christ that are still there? Post-resurrection the fact that Jesus still has the holes in the hands, in the side. And for many people with disabilities, that’s an important affirmation. Um, then oftentimes that’s taken to like confessors and, um, and martyrs saying that these are actually, uh, part of the Crown. You know, it goes to the glory of God that talk about the faithfulness of witness and this sort of thing. So I think there’s just so many different ways we can think through received biblical translations and theological doctrines when we do it in community with people who have different perspectives because of their embodiment in their minds.

Ed Stetzer:
Yeah. There’s a whole theological conversation, uh, and over the last few years that, you know, what does it talk? What does the new heavens, new heaven, earth look like for someone who, you know, has has had what we’d identify as a disability for the course of their lives. And, and we actually deal with this a little bit, you know, the Church Leaders Podcast Network is created, connected outreach magazine. And, um, by the time this podcast comes out, Johnny Erickson Tada will be on the cover of the magazine and we talk with her about some of these issues. It’s just been such an advocate around some of these areas. So again, I think it’s good timing. In other words, we want to have you on as well. Again, remember, Ben is at the center for Disability and Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. The reason I mentioned that, again, is, is they have all kinds of sessions that you can, if you get sign up beforehand before their July 13th conference, 2024, you can engage online and it’s available online, but also afterwards as as well. Matter of fact, tell us a little bit more about the upcoming symposium, just real briefly, and then we’ll ask one final question.

Benjamin Conner:
Yeah. So this year’s symposium, so it’ll be every year. It’s always the, uh, I believe it’s the second Saturday in July. And this this time it is Rochelle Sherman from Wheaton who’s building on my work.

Ed Stetzer:
I’m sorry.

Ed Stetzer:
Who? Rochelle. Rochelle. Who? Who? Who is that? Rochelle.

Ed Stetzer:
Sherman. Sherman.

Ed Stetzer:
So who? Who? I had the privilege of hiring at Wheaton College.

Ed Stetzer:
There you go.

Ed Stetzer:
And and Daniel Yang knows well. And so we love Rochelle’s the reason that you’re on the podcast. I said I talked to reached out to Rochelle and she said, no, you got a bent so but but I love that. But okay. So Rochelle is coming to speak.

Benjamin Conner:
Yep. And she’s building on the work I did on Just Witness more generally but talking specifically about evangelism and how do we think differently about our practices and theology of evangelism through a disability lens. So most of the time people think evangelism and disability, how do we evangelize people with disabilities? And that’s an important question, right? How do you understand conversion and confession among people with intellectual disabilities? Deaf people are the least evangelized people group in the in the world. Really like with probably under 3% claiming to be Christian, this, this sort of thing. But you can also think differently about our methods of proclamation. You know that. What are the many different ways that we participate in proclamation and the many different ways we demonstrate a commitment? So those are the sort of things we’ll be teasing out, uh, through workshops and through her plenary session. And Johnny and friends will have representatives there. You mentioned Johnny and Friends and some other organizations as well. So that’s that’s one of the things. Another thing I didn’t really so you asked me about the center for Disability Ministry. We’re going to right before this symposium or right after it. We’re going to upload eight free courses. Introduction to disability in the church. So it’s eight sessions of this. We’re going to have a podcast called Disabling the Church. And that’ll start rolling out. And we’re going to continue to develop these sort of resources to support pastors and congregations and thinking through these issues.

Daniel Yang:
Great. Yeah. I was going to ask you about that. I mean, a lot of resources there will drop in the the link there for our listeners. But as we wrap up here, if you would, if you were to say this is a must read resource, you know, as a practical church leader, a pastor, what would that one resource be for? For the pastor?

Benjamin Conner:
So it’s going to it’s going to sound like odd because that the title. But it’s John Swinton’s work Becoming Friends of Time. And it is about vocation, disability, personhood. Uh, it’s a critique of the way that we’ve organized society together that is largely ableist without using the word ableism. So it’s, uh, it’s just a one. It’s an excellent read, and I think it brings it’s a great way to bring people into the conversation with that. That’s not I don’t think is as intimidating as it could otherwise be.

Ed Stetzer:
Yeah. Just, just it’s published by, uh, Baylor University Press. And it is a book geared towards faith spaces. And so I am becoming friends of time, disability time, fullness and gentle discipleship. And and might be I read it years ago, uh, a helpful resource for sure. And again, um, I’m so thankful that you would, uh, take the time to be on this conversation with us. And for pastors and church leaders, I hope. I hope this has been a helpful nudge for you to ask the questions. You know, and maybe it’s hard. Like you might not be able to do everything and but you can probably do more than you’re doing now in almost every congregation to say, well, you know, we comply with the Ada because we have ramps. Can I just say that 711 does that? So let’s let’s move beyond basic level, uh, compliance and ask questions about what does it look like to include people and from all the body of Christ as we as we worship, serve and gather together? To you, Daniel.

Daniel Yang:
We’ve been talking to Doctor Benjamin Conner. You can learn more about him and his work at Western SIM. Edu. Thanks again for listening to the Stetzer Church Leaders podcast. You can find more interviews as well as other great content from ministry leaders at church leaders compered casts. And again, if you found the conversation today helpful, I’d love for you to take a few moments. Leave us a review that will help other ministry leaders find us and benefit from our content. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in the next episode.

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You’ve been listening to the Stetzer Church Leaders podcast for more great interviews as well as articles, videos, and free resources, visit our website at Church leaders.com. Thanks for listening.

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Key Questions for Benjamin Conner

-How are you helping church leaders support people who have disabilities?

-What’s your personal connection with this type of ministry?

-How can churches reorient their thinking toward being supportive of people with disabilities? 

-How can church leaders address this issue wisely and with sensitivity?

Key Quotes From Benjamin Conner

“About 20% of the population has some sort of disability; a lot of those disabilities are hidden.”

“We have to move towards what Jeff McNair has called ‘social ramps.’”

“If you’re with a wheelchair user and you say they’re ‘wheelchair bound,’ you’re misunderstanding something for them. The wheelchair is liberating. It’s their way of moving through the world.”

“People with disabilities, just like everybody else, come with challenges and also gifts, and they want to be able to use those gifts and develop those gifts for the sake of the body of Christ.”

“I think that’s one of the ways that we miss out, is we’re not creating the spaces necessary for [people with disabilities] to flourish and to be there.”

“Through homeschooling, I learned a whole lot about teaching and learning. I realized that I wasn’t a very good teacher.”

“It turns out that the body of Christ has cerebral palsy. The body of Christ has Down syndrome, and that these young men had gifts to offer the church.”

“I was thinking I was doing ministry to people with disabilities…I realized I was doing ministry with and alongside people with disabilities, and it totally transformed the way I think about ministry.”

“If we map our concept of disability onto the Bible, it’s not going to fit…And so what we look at is the way that Jesus interacted with people with disabilities, and how marginalized communities and individuals were treated by Jesus.”

“Any time there is some sort of a healing [in Scripture], it has as much to do with being included in this community and having a voice and a vocation, as it does with the actual healing of the impairment.”

“You can have an impairment, but the impairment can never disable you from being a witness.”

“One of the most profound witness-bearing events was John the Baptist…in the womb of Elizabeth, meeting Jesus in the womb of Mary and leaping.”