I have only known life with cerebral palsy. For me, the effects have been relatively mild, as CP expresses itself in many different ways. My fine motor skills do not always respond predictably. My speech can be difficult to understand if I am not intentional about enunciation. I struggle with the frustration of knowing quite well what needs to be done, and not always being able to accomplish it quickly, elegantly, or at all.
I did not plan to be a pastor. The door to theological study opened more by the invitation of others than my intentional planning. I spent most of my 3 years at seminary saying to anyone who would listen that I was not going to be a pastor (which, in retrospect I think probably sealed the deal). I knew that I had a call, but I could not see what it was. Seeking a pastoral position is highly vulnerable. You put your understanding of self and God’s calling to you on the line. It is that much more vulnerable when part of yourself includes things beyond your control. I doubted that many people in the pew could identify with someone who is significantly different physically, let alone like what they saw. The first person that I had to convince of my call was me, and it was not easy. For months, I changed from day to day in my understanding of my call, and in whether following that call was something I was willing to risk.
I was not the only person I had to convince of my calling. I remember vividly the first vocational counseling interview I had with a leading conference minister of Mennonite Church USA. In the first minute of the conversation, my disability was noted with the suggestion, “I guess you are most called to work with disability ministries then.” The all-too-neat assumption that people who have disabilities will minister to those like them reinforced my internal dialog. As well intentioned as they may be, such assumptions erect barriers and deliver the message that disability disqualifies you from certain types of ministry. After a calming deep breath, I ventured to suggest that perhaps my disability uniquely qualified me to minister to “regular” folks, in comparison to persons without the insights I carry.
No congregation has ever explicitly told me that I was not a good fit due to my disability. Yet conversations about my physical conditions always played a role as I sought a pastoral placement. Since I knew others might hesitate to bring it up, I opted to place the topic front and center. I composed a letter to accompany my ministry profile, explaining my disability and granting permission for conversation around it. At interviews, when ‘What questions do you have for us?’ came up, I always asked the group what they wanted to know about my disability. Many times after I raised the topic, the tension of the room decreased notably.
The work of adapting to my new role continues now that I have found a pastoral position. Sometimes, the doubts and fears that linger grab hold, and make me doubt my ministering ability. Newcomers to the church sometimes express surprise as they experience a pastoral person with disabilities for the first time, often noting how unexpected it is. I know that understanding the complexity of life with disabilities is a gift I want to contribute to the congregation, in sermons and elsewhere. Yet I struggle with balancing that message with my firm conviction that I have much more to offer to the church than simply my experience as other. I am called to share all of myself with the Body of Christ, even that which has caused me pain, anger, and great measures of joy. However, this is not unique to being a pastor with disabilities; rather, it is simply being pastor. When I do share about my disability publicly, I have sometimes heard, “I had forgotten about that.” A sweet affirmation indeed!
I count myself fortunate to be called to ministry, and fortunate to have found a place in which I can exercise my call freely. I am all too aware of others who have found the barriers—of self, institution, or others—far less easily overcome. But as we make space for all people to follow God’s call in their lives, we are called to new creativity and greater courage, while finding a way to be the body that Christ modeled, where all members are welcome and all are able to serve as God gifts and calls.
Bryce Miller is the former pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, Tucson, Arizona. He is married to Emily Toews who is a pastor at North Star Mennonite Church, and they live in Drake Saskatchewan, Canada.