The Call To Collaboration

December 11, 2012

Building Relationships

CollaborateCollaboration in special needs ministry is important.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Many barriers exist in our attempts to collaborate with secular organizations that serve people with disabilities.  Collaboration does not mean the faith and secular “worlds” become the same. Rather, they overlap, with the individuals and families impacted by disability benefitting.

I’d like to share some thoughts about collaboration identified by Rev. William Gaventa in his article, “Networking with Disability Ministries and Organizations : The Power and Witness of Seeking, Consulting and Collaborating.  Take note of how his insights might apply to your special needs ministry:

“Secular and public services often have resources and skills that can help in ways church congregations cannot. Good public policy, laws, funding, and effective science all have crucial roles to play. For example, rights in a society that protect human dignity and ensure access can create a legitimate space for people, i.e., they have the right to be there (school, business, neighborhood, playground, etc.). However, it does not guarantee a sense of community and belonging, that new relationships happen, or that friends get made. It does mean there are more opportunities than in segregated settings.

Congregations have unique power to nurture growth, a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. Besides family, the most frequent answer to the question, “Who do you belong to?” is often a “church,” “synagogue” or “temple.” Congregations can be what their signs proclaim—places where people are welcome, known and loved just as they are, places with supports of all kinds, and an invitation to serve God and others out of a common recognition of strengths, gifts and calling. People want the same things: a place to belong and to give as well as receive. That’s why volunteer roles, jobs, and other helping roles within a congregation make such a difference for people with disabilities and their families. None of us like to be on the receiving end all the time.

The core values of advocacy and service organizations are independence, productivity, inclusion and self-determination. At heart, those are public and civic values, which attempt to answer fundamental human and spiritual questions of identity, purpose, belonging and choice.  “Who am I?” “Why am I?” “Whose am I?” “What power do I have to make my own choices?”  The answers in the world of faith may be different—such as believing we are far more dependent on God and others than we are “independent and self-made”—but the questions and values are often very similar.

Faith leaders thus need to understand the values and mission of any public organization in the same way that professionals in those organizations need to understand the ways those core values can be addressed by faith communities. For example, people with disabilities need more than the adjective “disabled” to answer the question of who they are. “Normal” people usually do not answer with something that may be publicly devalued. Instead, we use place, faith, job, and interests (e.g. Baptist from Atlanta who works at FedEx and loves the Braves).

The key challenge is listening deeply, translating core values into different contexts, and working to find a common language. Recent tools in the human service world also being used in some faith communities, such as person-centered planning for people with disabilities and their families and circles of support, can do just that. Friends, families, members of one’s church, and service providers can come together to listen to and support someone’s needs and dreams, what’s important to them, as well as what’s important for them.

When churches embody their own values about hospitality, identity, purpose and belonging, it becomes a powerful witness in the other worlds of advocacy and services. When congregations work with advocacy groups and services on those values, it is even better. The stories of inclusion and membership can ripple outward to those other worlds, just like stories of disinterest or alienation do.

The same issues also face human service providers. An agency may have a mission statement that proclaims the value of community and rights, even the right to religious freedom, but often they do not know how to turn that mission into reality—for example, when consumers say in their individual growth or activity plans that they want to go to church. The church then needs to know enough about the “human services system” to work with them through the philosophical and practical issues. An agency can then understand that spiritual supports and congregational inclusion can put flesh (or, in human service language, be an outcome) of the agency values of choice, self-determination, community inclusion, and/or contribution.”

A special needs ministry has any number of potential allies working at the intersection of disability and faith when it comes to collaborating with community organizations/services.

Michael Woods

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

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2 Comments on “The Call To Collaboration”

  1. Michael De Rosa Says:

    I like your article. Collaboration does not mean that we totally accepting others’ philosophical views, yet it can help us build bridges of improved relationships between the church and society at large


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