God Makes a Way: Building a Conference Disability Task Force
(Left to right) Naty Rico, Rev. Steve Poteete-Marshall, Sharon McCart, and Sharon Orth, members of the California-Pacific DisAbility Ministries Taskforce.
by Sharon McCart
While I have always believed that God answers prayer, until I started working in disability ministries, I never saw the many ways in which “God makes a way where there is no way.” I had never before stepped so far outside my comfort zone. The less sure I was about what to do, the more God stepped in and took over. I am very grateful for God’s guidance and care and am blessed beyond measure to have this opportunity to share my story with you.
Along with all the other committees and task forces in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, the Disability Concerns Committee had been suspended for a year, starting in July 2011, while our leadership structure underwent a major change. At first, I thought this was a permanent dissolution, not just a temporary suspension. So, by September 2011, I was eager to restart the committee in some form. After 10 years of teaching children with disabilities, I had entered seminary with the firm resolve of helping churches become more welcoming to children like my students.
This is not a linear story. Many things happened at once or were interwoven with other things. At times, weeks went by while I waited for inspiration, advice, or intervention to determine my next step. Here is what I’ve learned so far.
Finding Where to Start
The beginning of this work, like all of it, was initiated by God. While I was at a retreat, I had breakfast one morning with the Rev. Cynthia Abrams (of the General Board of Church and Society) and the Rev. Sandie Richards (co-chair of our conference’s new Justice and Compassion Essential Ministry Team, or JCEMT.) Restarting the Disability Committee was on my mind. During that initial conversation, I discovered that the Disability Committee would be positioned under the JCEMT and that I should begin by writing a proposal and sending it to Sandie. Talking to someone serving in conference leadership is helpful in finding out where to start. In many conferences, the starting place would be the Church and Society committee or the Connectional Ministries office.
First, I wrote a proposal, putting time and heart into the task. I had never written such a document before. Still, filled with hope, I sent it to Sandie—only to learn that there was no budget to support the committee. After setting aside the whole plan for several weeks and praying about what to do next, I awoke one day with the answer: “Facebook is free!” Starting a Facebook group helped me to reach other people with a passion for this ministry and attracted the attention of other conference leaders who were helpful in many ways. One recommended that I create a new Facebook page, making it easy to find in a search. (When using Facebook, consider searchability in choosing a name for your page. If you put your conference name first, your committee will pop up whenever someone searches for any other conference group.)
Whenever you run into a roadblock, make a way where none currently exists. There is always a work-around! Creativity and flexibility are required, but if God hasn’t given you these gifts, find people who have them and ask them to serve on your team.
Gather Passionate People
There are many ways to find like-minded people. Maybe you already know a few. Maybe there is a church in your conference that is already doing disability ministry. If so, start there. If not, find like-minded people through word of mouth, district e-mails, Facebook, and meetings of United Methodist Women or United Methodist Men. Some people will stand out. Some will have gifts that you lack. Choose them. Try to find people who have disabilities and a passion for ministry. Don’t choose anyone who doesn’t have a passion for the ministry.
I found the members of our task force in different ways. The Rev. Fran Materra and I were already friends when I began to gather people. The Rev. Lupita Alonso-Redondo was a friend from seminary and a member of the previous Disability Concerns Committee. The Rev. Steve Poteete-Marshall and the Rev. Tom Reinhart-Marean, members of our conference, were acquaintances from previous times and places. I met the Rev. Diane Mettam, Heather Kinkennon, Kathy Meier, and Nicole Aragon through my Facebook group and page and connected with Dr. Peggy Gott, a lifelong United Methodist, after she contacted the website of the then United Methodist Committee on Disability Ministries. The Rev. Erin McPhee and I had crossed paths several times and I knew about her passion and presence. Sharon Orth is a member of a church I helped with an Accessibility Audit last year. When I returned there to preach recently, she approached me about joining our task force.
There are 12 of us on the task force now. Ten of us have disabilities, including lifelong and acquired disabilities, physical and neurological disabilities, and mental health disabilities. Two members of the task force have one or more children with a disability. One other member and I have experience in teaching children with disabilities. We all have a passion for helping churches become more accessible and welcoming for people with disabilities. And we all have personal strengths. Fran is calm and wise. Lupita is energetic and motivating. Kathy is a writer and editor. Heather often gets me back on track. Steve and Tom have a lot of useful experience in ministry. Nicole has passion and excitement. Diane is generous with time and equipment. Peggy finds information from many places and keeps track of things for me. Erin is my pastoral caregiver and lends her expertise in mental health concerns. Sharon Orth brings laughter and willingness to her new place on the team. I have the call to preach and to advocate.
Together, we have an inside view of what it is like to have a disability, a personal knowledge of the problems and potentials, and a keen awareness of the pain that churches cause when people with disabilities are not able to easily come in and participate in the life of the church the way they are called to do.
Meetings and Communication
It is very difficult for our task force to meet in the same place at the same time. Our annual conference is quite large geographically, ranging across southern California and including Hawaii and Guam. Travel time just across the California portion can be as much as seven hours. Since we have difficulty traveling—for reasons such as the time involved, our jobs, or our disabilities—all of us have never met at once. Still, we are a team. We communicate by e-mail, Facebook messages, phone, and in person when possible. What holds us together is what we want to accomplish together.
Focus on Mission and Goals
Have team members put words to their vision. What do they hope to accomplish together? Why is having a committee important in your conference? What are the concerns and challenges? Deciding on these things will help keep the team focused. There are many ways to educate, advocate, and illuminate, but we only have a given amount of time and energy and strictly limited funds. Limiting sidetracks and digressions will help the team to get more done. It will also help determine what advice to follow and what to bypass. It can even help committee members discover whether they are all on the same page. Maybe someone will find a different way to serve God elsewhere.
Our team decided on our name and our mission statement at a face-to-face meeting attended by about half of us. The rest of us had input through e-mail. Our mission statement includes empowering people with disabilities, increasing awareness of the gifts for ministry that people with disabilities have, and working for accessibility for all. We added detail to that by writing a list of 10 purposes—from providing training and resources to changing the conference culture. Even though some of these goals seemed unrealistic, we let them stand in writing, knowing that God can always make a way. We also added the reasons why our task force is important—a reminder to us and to others that this is not just a busywork kind of committee. What we are doing makes a real difference. Maybe changes happen in only one church at a time—or even in only one life at a time. But we know that, if our task were not important, God wouldn’t have called us to do it.
Spread the Word
Our task force has a presence each year at annual conference. We hand out brochures and other resources and continue the work of the prior committee in providing reserved seat covers and shuttle service. We have also taken part in a presentation explaining the new conference leadership structure. It is important to be visible and vocal so that people in the conference know about you.
Create a link on the conference website to publicize your Facebook page (or whatever web presence you have)—using district office e-mails, sending out your own e-mails, or finding other ways to get the word out about your work. Our task force also has had a booth at Abilities Expo for the past two years. This is a travelling sales show that focuses on all kinds of products for people with disabilities. Many United Methodists have found out about us this way. Some were surprised to learn that the church cares about people with disabilities. This exposition was not only an opportunity for publicity but also a means of healing.
When planning publicity, let people know not only that your task force exists but also what it is doing. Get the word out that resources are available, that the conference is having a retreat or training session, that task force members are available to help with Accessibility Audits and to speak to congregations or other groups. People need to know that your task force is an active, helpful resource!
Last fall, the Cal-Pac Conference successfully requested that Accessibility Audits be added to the local church charge conference packets. We are currently working on resolutions and accessibility concerns for annual conference. We promote church programs that are successful in integrating children who have disabilities. We have helped people obtain wheelchairs and mobility scooters. We provide resources and speak to congregations. We have also started a series of regional retreats to make connections and bring people closer to God.
As our new leadership structure solidified and we showed that we were active in ministry, the Cal-Pac Conference allocated our task force a budget. Not only have we received donations designated for our work but offerings taken on Disability Awareness Sundays also go into this fund.
In addition, we work collaboratively with the Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas, who is involved in disability ministries in the United Church of Christ. We optimize our work together by combining our resources and knowledge.
The Body of Christ
The Body of Christ is not complete until everyone is included. Helping congregations open their doors and hearts wider so that people with disabilities can come in and fully participate is not just an act of compassion. It is a way to walk humbly with God, building God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven—a place where all of God’s children belong and love one another, a place where we all praise God together. Disability Ministries is a movement of the Holy Spirit. Some of us are called to be part of a task force. It is only right that we should say yes to God!
Sharon McCart serves as facilitator of the California-Pacific Conference’s DisAbility Ministries Task Force and as chair of the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church (the United Methodist Committee on Disability Ministries). This article was first published in the May-June 2014 issue of New World Outlook magazine.
Rev. Lupita Alonso-Redondo. Photo Courtesy Sharon McCart
Cal-Pac Task Force member, Rev. Erin Maddox McPhee. Photo: Courtesy Sharon McCart
Graphic by Susan Glattstein. Source: World Health Organization estimates.
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