Monday, August 25, 2014

Theological Foundations Influencing Disability Ministry

My recent doctoral research on comparative perceptions between clergy members and family caregivers of persons with IDD have revealed similarities and differences.  It is imperative for clergy and caregivers to understand each other's perspectives for  persons with IDD to flourish in local worshipping communities.  

Statements were answered utilizing a 4 point Likert scale (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree). The bars on the following charts indicate majority agreeing or disagreeing to statement, while the markers indicate the level of strength in agreement or disagreement (mean).  This report utilizes the validated responses of 84 clergy members and 36 caregivers.

Caregivers and clergy, while both overwhelmingly agreeing on two value statements, have a radically different opinion of how their belief impacts their practices, as observed by both the amount of persons agreeing as well as the strength level of their agreement.  The praxis question “Places of worship should pray regularly for persons with IDD to be made normal” was an inverse correlate of the theological question regarding the image of God; the responses should have been identical. 

There was, however, a significant gap between the two in both frequency and strength of clergy opinion. Caregivers overwhelmingly regard children with IDD created in the image of God as normal, in contrast to the clergy. This can lead to the often reported caregivers’ perception non-normal is equated to “sinful” or “evil”. 

Clergy’s practices significantly contradict their belief: either clergy have not reflected on the implications of the two, or they may be falsely assenting to a value statement. A small group of caregivers’, perhaps reflecting their perceptions of clergy opinion, hold a minority position that normalcy is desired.

In part, these discrepancies may result from improper distinction between healing and normalization: healing is the restoration of one to full participation in God’s image (physical, mentally, socially, relationally, and spiritually), while normalization is placing human notions of God’s likeness upon all humanity. People with disabilities also get sick, injured, divorced – they too need healing. Healing appropriated for a person with or without disability, does not alter any persons’ identity as a limited human being created in God’s image.

Most clergy do not see healing as primary necessity, although the strength of their agreement is not strong. Furthermore, a significant amount (23%) do think it is the primary need. The strength between levels of (dis)agreement is significant between caregivers and clergy, to the point that caregivers are accurate in their perception clergy’s primary goal is to see their child healed. In addition, the primacy of healing seemed to supplant the necessity of salvific grace. Based upon clergy’s inactive expressions, caregivers tend to conclude just the opposite of clergy’s actual values.

Not every clergy member indicated the necessity of salvific grace for people with IDD. Perhaps it is due to how soteriology (theology of salvation) is often interpreted in the Christian community as cognitive assent to doctrinal statements. Twenty-five percent of caregivers perceive clergy believe healing is as high a priority as salvific grace. This united combination of healing and salvation tends to further the perception that grace is only extended to those experiencing healing.

I would encourage clergy and caregivers to engage in mutual dialog in order to better understand each other.