Call Shapes the Question
by Rev. Justin Hancock
I was recently blessed to be part of a panel discussion with both clergy and lay participants involving The United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The discussion revolved around what were the factors that encouraged and discouraged younger people, or really persons of any sort, from going into ordained ministry in this day and time. I brought to the discussion my experience as a man with Cerebral Palsy seeking ordination. While it is true that I had a rather gentle and fruitful time through my ordination process, the immediate aftermath of finding work as an ordained clergy person was much harder. I told the story of going on interview after interview and feeling good about where things stood at the end of every interview and never receiving a call-back. It wasn’t until I encountered people who knew me and knew my heart that I was finally able to have success in attaining employment. In the week since this panel discussion, I cannot get this thought out of my head, as regards persons with disabilities. I have known fabulously gifted people who have had to fight much harder to pursue their call to ministry simply because they were disabled. For some persons, when they go up in front of the boards and gatekeepers that oversee ordination in many denominations, their disabilities function as a silent, but huge presence in every room, never directly mentioned, but always on people’s minds. For others, their disability is directly and deliberately, and often loudly, used as a reason why these persons cannot be ordained. As I ask myself why this is, I repeatedly run into one inescapable conclusion: we have got it backwards. What I mean by this is we in the church more broadly, and definitely in The United Methodist Church, often begin any ordination or leadership process with a certain set of doctrinal and religious questions around which calling must be shaped, and then we go from there. I am not arguing that right doctrine is not critically important. I think it is incredibly important. But doctrine should be a conversation partner, not another immovable object persons with disabilities have to navigate. I think those who control ordination must learn to listen to the human experience of a person’s heart and then help that individual learn to articulate right doctrine out of their unique experience. Many persons with disabilities have deep senses of call, but because of how they grew up or maybe how their disability impacts the way they process information, might not be able to articulate it by using traditionally doctrinal language. That does not mean that doctrine is not alive in them; it just means it is articulate in a different and unique way. Until gatekeepers learn to listen better, and drop pre-conceived notions about what disability means or doesn’t mean for a person’s ability to live into their gospel call, then we will not be a complete and fully-flourishing church. This is why call must craft question, and not the other way around.