Pastors and the Disability Experience

Excerpted from ‘Disability’ by Brian Brock

Excerpted From
By Brian Brock

By chance or by providence, I officially entered middle age while preparing to write this book. The rite of passage was a visit to the emergency room one Saturday morning. I’d finally managed the cliché of injuring myself with a power tool during a weekend do-it-yourself job around the house.

That sunny Saturday morning in November I had been cutting up bits of old furniture and scrap wood for kindling with a circular saw. Next thing you know, I was cutting my finger. For a millisecond I felt nothing. “Whew!” I thought. “None of me is on the ground, really dodged a bullet there!” Then came the blood.

From the instant I saw it beginning to pool dark and red through the tattered gash of my yellow work gloves, my world began to tilt. First a little. Then a lot.

If I was angry at myself when I did it, I felt really embarrassed sitting in the emergency room with the other middle-aged guys with hands and arms wrapped in bloody bandages. Turns out that I had managed to sever the tendon on the back of my right middle finger.

I saw all my middle-aged friends again, along with a few new ones, over the next few months as I attended appointments for reconstructive surgery, follow-up care and physical therapy.

In a flash, with a second’s lapse of attention, my world had changed, radically unsettled. I’m right-handed. It’s been months now that I’ve been trying to write this book with that mangled middle finger. It’s been getting in the way, not just in my body but in my mind. I am amazed how the loss of a tiny portion of my flesh has so directly affected my capacity to do things. Even more shocking is how quickly and deeply not being able to do something alienated me from my familiar relationship with the world.

The finger is no longer transparent to my purposes. What I formerly could do without even thinking about my finger I can now sometimes not do at all. Other times I have to think far too much about how I am going to circumvent that darn finger, which not only doesn’t work but is sticking out and getting in my way!

More unsettlingly, the loss of capacity has made me begin to worry about my identity. If I’m anything, I think of myself as a writer. I constantly need this finger to type or write longhand. How will I get on if it no longer works?

Only months later does it occur to me that the existential tremors that my damaged finger has unleashed in me might be a sort of gift. The finger has forced me to stop and consider what we’re actually saying when we say that someone “is” disabled or “has” a disability.

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I am not suggesting that my injury is equivalent to more serious or lifelong disabling conditions. I am grateful that it did not become infected, which could have been life threatening or even led to the amputation of the hand or more. What the injury has done is to help me think more concretely and to listen more closely and comprehend more of what people are really saying when they speak of disability experiences. One of the most difficult aspects of talking about disability is the awkward fact that most people have precious little firsthand experience of it—or think that they don’t (more on this later).

Pastors and the Disability Experience

Most Christians today tend to think of disabled people as a class of people with serious physical, sensory or mental impairments. Good people will extend kindness and a helping hand to them.

Unless it strikes someone close to them, the great majority of churchgoers tend not to think too often, or theologically, about disability in the church. Not having many chances to rub shoulders with those with disabilities, disability never seems to warrant close thought.

These assumptions explain many pastors’ first response to the question of how they think about ministry to people with disabilities. Hans Reinders reflects on the most common way pastors speak about disability in their churches: “The times that I have asked ministers and pastors about members of their congregations who are disabled, the most frequent response is, ‘We don’t have them.’” This is a remarkable claim. If it is true that most congregations do not have disabled members, huge numbers of people are not in church. If it is false, ministers are widely affected by the serious problem of not seeing what is in front of them. Either way, serious questions need to be asked about why this is such a common response among pastors when asked about disability.

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Having little or no regular contact with people with special needs, most Christian pastors are therefore only slightly embarrassed to admit that they haven’t thought hard, or theologically, about disability. They are not thinking about it because they are not regularly confronted with it in their church.

Bethany Fox interviewed pastors from a wide range of Christian traditions in the Los Angeles area. Aside from pastors explicitly responsible for special needs ministries, she found most pastors tended to describe their relationship to people with special needs as “responsive.” This is the second most common response from pastors when asked how they might relate to people who would come to their church with special needs. In one pastor’s words, “When people come to us, then we try to answer those needs and help them in whatever way we can.”

Some pastors, Fox found, were able to remember having children with intellectual or developmental disabilities in their churches at one time or another. Few, however, could call to mind disabled people who were currently in their churches. Somehow, disabled people seemed to disappear from church after passing Sunday school age—despite the fact that mentally, they still were Sunday school age.

The stories pastors told about those with special needs in their congregations were almost always framed in terms of the needs for help or accommodation that those people brought into the congregation. It seems clear that most pastors perceive the appearance of someone with disabilities in church as a challenge. They create “burdens and practical tasks for the church’s leadership that benefit only the people with disabilities themselves.” These are the facts on the ground about pastors’ views of what it means to have people with special needs in church. The question is why these views are so widespread and powerful. On closer examination, we discover that they are deformations of the Christian gospel that affect far more than pastors.

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Excerpted from Disability by Brian Brock, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing