The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities held its 2013 meeting in Birmingham, Alabama in collaboration with the United Methodist Committee on Disability Ministries, July 10-12, 2013. This article is based on the official report, which is available from the secretary on request.

Brian Burch talks with a member at the dinner.We began with a dinner and fellowship time at Bluff Park UMC. Deb Wade led us in vespers, speaking about the value of unity as a source of influence and encouragement.

On Thursday, the sessions began with devotions led by Greg Edwards, He used various coins to illustrate diversity and value. We then had our first session with David Watson, Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary:

  • Session 1: Theological Anthropology and the Incarnation (Text: John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11)
    • Impairment refers to a physical and/or mental condition of some kind that deviates from the norm that is considered "typical." If a person has one leg rather than two, or if a person has an extra chromosome in every cell of his or her body, or if a person has low vision or blindness, this physical condition is an impairment.
    • Disability refers to the ways in which a person with an impairment may encounter difficulty, and perhaps discrimination, because of his or her impairment. If a building has only stairs, and no elevator or wheelchair lifts, the person in a wheelchair is disabled because of the structure of the building and the lack of consideration in planning the building for people who must use wheelchairs. If a church cannot accommodate children on the autism spectrum or Down Syndrome, these children are not disabled because of the social environment created by the church. Impairment, then, is a physical category. Disability is a social category.
    • The concept of disability as a social category leads to what has come to be called ableism. Ableism refers to all of the social structures that, actions, and attitudes that lead to discrimination against people with impairments.
    David Watson stands to left of projector screen with slide projected listing assumptions about people with disabilities as he addresses group session.There are ways to read the biblical texts that contribute to ableism. The biblical world view is vastly different than our own. In the Gospels and Acts, healings are demonstrations of God’s power and the presence of the kingdom. While we may celebrate such things, they don’t really help us with challenging social systems that discriminate against people with disabilities. We will often have to bring the biblical texts into dialogue with later theological ideas and developments in order to draw redemptive significance from them.

    The sections of John and Philippians we’re looking at today are both hymns. In John, Jesus has a real body. He really does die. And even after his resurrection, he still bears the marks of the crucifixion in his flesh. John studiously avoids a "docetic" Christology. The early church insisted, that Jesus’ body was real. God took on the vulnerabilities of human existence.

    The passage from Philippians helps us to understand this even better. This is called the kenosis hymn, after the Greek work meaning “emptying.” Jesus was “found in human form.” It was this emptying that allowed him to humble himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. In the Incarnation, God took on the vulnerability of human existence.”

    For people with disabilities, the Incarnation has significant implications. First, it says that God values our embodied existence. And embodied existence necessarily involves all of the contingencies that life throws at us.

    Second, it shows us that God came to save us not through overwhelming might, but through the vulnerability of human existence. The very traits that make human beings vulnerable became the media through which God would save us. Presumably, God could have saved us in any number of ways. God could have overridden our free will. God could have done this through some overwhelming act of force. But God chose to save us by becoming human, subjecting himself to all of the vulnerabilities of human existence. The Incarnation, then, tells us that our embodied existence matters. Further, it tells us that the cultural ideals for embodied existence that we so often encounter—ideals around appearance, strength, capability, etc—aren't what God values.

    Properly understood, then, the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the biblical texts that support it, could be understood to undermine ableist understandings of human beings. To be like Christ, the Incarnate God, is to be subject to all of the physical, mental, and emotional contingencies that can accompany the human condition. Christ is the one who shows us what it means to be fully human.

  • Session 2: Dealing with assumptions about people with disabilities (Text: John 9:1-12)

    Introduction: The Deuteronomistic History advocates a cause and effect theology: material prosperity, physical health and fertility, would result from obedience to the law. Failure to obey the commandments would lead to various curses, such as famine, poverty, physical infirmity, and infertility. So the wellbeing of the people of Israel is predicated upon righteousness according to the law. Numerous passages in Deuteronomy link physical infirmity with disobedience to God’s laws (e.g., Deut. 7.13-15 and 28:58-61).

    Clearly, this is not a position that we would adopt today. We know that at times righteous people encounter difficulties, and unrighteous people sometimes seem to live quite well. The Bible challenges this belief, in works such as Job and Ecclesiastes.

    members listen to David Watson speak How do we deal with these issues theologically? People often feel that they have to "explain God," especially in the 20th century when many theologians were fixated on the problem of theodicy, the question of how an all good, all powerful God could allow suffering and injustice in the world. We should be hesitant to claim too much knowledge of the divine will: in the text, the disciples assumed a kind of cause-and-effect understanding of this man’s blindness.

    John understands Jesus miracles in a particular way: they are "signs": God’s power working in and through Jesus. When Jesus performs miracles, they demonstrate the authenticity of his claim to have been sent by the Father, to be one with the Father, and to disclose the Father’s will in a unique and new way. It only makes sense, then, that, within this theological framework, the purpose of the man’s blindness is to provide the opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the work of God by healing him.

    One mistake Christians often make is to confuse the particular and the universal in reading scripture. A passage of scripture may express a certain theological claim within a very particular framework. It may be utilized in order to advance a fairly particular theological vision. And it may stand in tension with other parts of scripture. The Bible contains what James Sanders calls "sacred tension."

    With a passage like this one, then, we would want to ask the question, "Should we understand this explanations of this man’s blindness to be a rule that helps us understand other disabilities?" In light of the very particular theological framework in which we find this passage, it wouldn't be wise to do so.

    Our afternoon session was with Rev. Jackson Day, retired clergy who is involved with several pension and benefit boards. This session began with the 2012 General Conference action on CPP that limits benefits to a pastor whose illness is determined to be "treatable" and "returnable." We discussed a variety of questions that arise from this decision: what do we need for nourishment of our group, how do we act (here and elsewhere) as a caucus, how we can strengthen our relationships with each other. As we did this, we gravitated to the phrase "troubling the water."

    After a break, discussion continued, including some clarification of terms and responses. In the end, we agreed that singling out mental illnesses is wrong, and Eric Pridmore noted that the group is very passionate about this, and that we need to turn that into action as a matter of justice.

    UMAMD Business Session, Thursday, July 11, 2013 6:30-7:30 p.m.

    Present in person: Eric Pridmore, Helen Betenbaugh, Kathy Reeves, Nancy Webb, Tim Tice, Howard Guetherman, Michael McKinney, Paul Crikelair, John Elliott, Jinwook Oh, Tom Hudspeth, Brian Burch, Tim Vermande, Allyssa Green, Janine DeLaunay, Bill Downing, Deb Wade, Dave Goss, Randy Williams, Greg Edwards, Ruthann Simpson, Peggy Johnson, Lisa Jordan, Jack Day, Russell Ewell, Lynn Swedberg, Patricia Magyar, Dodie Risse and Ella Carter.
    Present via Skype: Mark Babb and Lisa McKee.

    Eric Pridmore called the meeting to order. The first piece of business was to share with the group how this current gathering was funded. Patricia Magyar shared how Bishop Peggy sent a letter asking various groups within the UMC for grants. The GBCS, GBGM and the GBD plus our own UMAMD all contributed $2,000 each. The GBHM gave us a grant of $500.

    Eric then shared how our current slate of officers came into being. Around 2009, John Carr nominated Eric, Evy, Greg and Tim for their current positions. At this point Eric and Evy are willing to continue as co-chairs of the UMAMD and Greg would be glad to continue serving as treasurer. (Evy could not be present at this meeting due to medical issues.) Tim would like to shift his time from secretary to the position of webmaster and technical support. Eric then asked for nominations for secretary and Brian Burch was nominated. A quality discussion of term limits found in our by-laws, the need for inclusivity, and a request that a nominating team met before our next gathering took place. At its conclusion, the slate of officers was elected.

    • Eric Pridmore and Evy McDonald were elected as co-chairs
    • Greg Edwards was elected as treasure
    • Brian Burch was elected as secretary
    members sit at table as Nancy Webb addresses the group.Eric then led a discussion of when should we meet again. It was suggested that we encourage members of the association to attend the conference on disabilities in 2014 at United Seminary. This would not be an official meeting of our group. Can we meet again in two years? That is the plan as presented in the bylaws, but the question of funding does exist. By definition our group is unlimited in size. Thus planning does become more challenging than for a set number of people. The largest factor is if funding includes room and board for every participant. One option is to self-fund either through book royalties or asking participants to pay for their own expenses. Tom Hudspeth shared a concern about using book royalties to fund a meeting. The Deaf Ministries had gone through a similar discussion on the royalties they received from the sale of their deaf hymnal. They chose to separate royalties to be used for long-term ministries instead of operating expenses. This way they are not limiting their future. A motion was made by Nancy Webb that we meet in 2015 with the executive team choosing the when and where. This passed.

    We then entered into a time of nominations for several of the committees as set up in our bylaws. Eric shared the importance of these persons for they allow us to take more of our conversations and turn them into action. The following persons were nominated from the floor and elected after agreeing to serve. It was noted that while committee chairs are to be elected by the body, the executive committee can appoint committee members as needed.

    • Committee on Nominations
      • Russell Ewell 1 year term
      • Tim Vermande 2 year term
      • Nancy Webb 3 year term
    • Committee on Promotion and Publicity
      • Dodie Risse
      • Janine DeLaunay, co-chairs
    • Committee on Program
      • Lisa Jordan chair
      • Janine DeLaunay member
      • Paul Crikelair member
      • Lynn Swedberg consultant
    • Committee on Legislative Action
      • Deb Wade chair
      • Kathy Reeves member
    The meeting adjourned with a closing prayer.

    UMAMD Business Session, Friday, July 12, 2013.

    Our Friday session began with a devotion by Eric Pridmore, remembering that this the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and that we are meeting in the city where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter from jail. While we are not perfect, we are moving ahead, and in that context, based on John 17.20-23, we need to recognize our unity.

    As we began our session we recalled those who had been previous leaders of this organization: Earl Miller and John Carr. The chapel at Perkins School of Theology has a chair lift that was donated in Earl’s memory.

    We then took up the issue of responding to the GC 2012 changes to the CPP plan in terms of the 2 year limitation of benefits for those on medical leave due to "treatable and returnable" mental health issues. Lisa Jordan read the motion by Jack Day and it was seconded by Dodie Risse. The following motion was approved by the UMAMD: The UMAMD endorses a strategy of working through Annual Conferences to address the issue of mental illness and CPP and pledge support to Annual Conference Disabilities committees as they prepare submission to their Annual Conferences. The UMAMD supports the work of Joint Committee on Medical Leave and recommends their creation where they don’t already exist.

    Eric then returned us to a time of nominations. Because Greg Edwards is the only person currently associated with our checking account it was deemed important that a chair of the Committee on Finance be elected. According to our bylaws the "Chairperson of Finance and the Treasurer shall be the ones with authority to dispense funds." William (Bill) Downing was nominated and elected as chair of the Committee on Finance.

    In other elections, Jack Day was added as a member of the Committee on Legislative Action and Lisa McKee as chair of the Committee on Continuing Education and Seminary Relations.

    In our final actions, Eric Pridmore volunteered to write thank you notes to the groups that provided grant money for this gathering. Brian Burch agreed to contact John Carr and express the appreciation of this organization. Tim Vermande will take information and photos from our event and share among the General Church.

  • Session 3: Being a minister with a disability (Text: 2 Cor 12:7-10)

    This passage has prompted a lot of speculation. The logic here seems to be that Paul has been given these exceptional revelations, and because of these there is the temptation to become both overly elated and boastful. Therefore, God gives him this "thorn in the flesh" to help him avoid these temptations.

    What is this "thorn in the flesh"? It’s not clear. It is probably some kind of physical ailment; possibly a visual impairment (see Gal 4.15, 6:11). Others have suggested that Paul may be referring to a speech impediment (2 Cor 10:10). Max Krenkel has argued for epilepsy (see Adela Yarbro Collins, "Paul’s Disability: The Thorn in His Flesh," in Disability Studies and Biblical Literature, ed. Jeremy Schipper and Candida R. Moss, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Epilepsy would have been thought to have had a supernatural origin, most often demonic possession, and an epileptic would have been held in deep suspicion (see Gal 4:13-14). In Gal. 4.14, Paul states that the Galatians did not "spit him out," which may refer to epilepsy. When one saw an epileptic, one would spit as a charm against the epilepsy. Epilepsy was something that one could catch, they believed, could ward off spirits who might cause the illness.

    Eric Pridmore prepares to make a point during the discussion session” But whatever the thorn in the flesh is, Paul prayed multiple times that the thorn in his flesh would be taken away. God's answer is, however, a revelation: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." What does this mean? In Paul's day, men were supposed to demonstrate prowess. They were also supposed to act in and look particular ways. Paul doesn't seem to meet these criteria (2 Cor 10:10). People value displays of prowess, certain physical characteristics, and actions that demonstrate these. God values vulnerability, humility, reliance upon God rather than upon one’s own abilities, self-giving.

    This is the same as we encounter in the kenosis hymn. Christ had all of the power, majesty, and honor that anyone could ask for, but he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, or grasped, but emptied himself and became a human being. In the Incarnation, God teaches us certain values, and in this revelation to Paul, God also teaches certain values. God does not want the kinds of things that human beings are naturally inclined to want.

    The meeting concluded with worship led by Jackson Day. His text was Luke 22.14-20, asking us to use the pattern taken, blessed, broken, and shared in our lives.