Faces of the Movement: Ben Conner

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to share a review of Ben Conner’s new book, Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. Ben has graciously agreed to discuss his book with us in a two-part interview.

Ben has worked with adolescents for twenty years and currently runs a ministry to adolescents with developmental disabilities in Williamsburg, Virginia. He has taught courses at Union Presbyterian Seminary and at Memphis Theological Seminary through the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He’ll also be serving as a faculty member for Inclusion Fusion 2012, speaking on the topic Amplifying Our Witness: From Inclusion to Partnership. In Ben’s Inclusion Fusion talk, he’ll challenge congregations to take seriously the seventeen percent of adolescents with developmental disabilities by offering a practice-centered approach to ministry that accounts for their perspectives, faith responses and contribution to the church’s witness. Here’s our interview with Ben…

C4EC: In your book, you make a connection between the doctrine of election and the importance of pursuing relationships with kids who have disabilities. What strategies would you recommend to churches seeking to pursue kids with developmental disabilities and their families?

BC: I was reading books written by John Elder Robison, a well known self-advocate for people with Asperger’s when I noticed that his solution to the problem of being disconnected was to make yourself more “choosable”.  For him, this meant to discern emotions and proper responses outside of feelings.  To learn when sarcasm might be used even if he can’t pick up on it.  To avoid certain verbal responses to situations even if they seem merited. His plan worked for him, but is not feasible for many of the kids I work with who don’t share his intellectual capacity.  Instead,  I suggest, these kids need to be chosen as friends.  In order to choose them as friends, people from our churches need to be where they are.  So my strategy is to go where kids with developmental disabilities gather or are gathered: Buddy sports programs, help out at a local school, volunteer at a therapeutic horse riding facility, get involved in Special Olympics, or even have someone from your church start a program, like an assisted art program, that supports that community.   When you reach out in love to kids with developmental disabilities you will also being serving their families.

C4EC: You cite the statistic that nearly 20% of youth are diagnosed with a developmental disability in emphasizing the need for inclusive ministry for teens, but much of your book focuses on the relatively small subgroup of kids with intellectual disabilities. What suggestions do you have for serving teens with developmental disabilities without intellectual disabilities? Teens with anxiety or ADHD? Teens who have been traumatized or suffer from attachment issues? Teens with Asperger’s Disorder who are often very sensitive to being lumped together with kids who have intellectual disabilities?

BC: Most of the kids who are involved in our ministry who have Asperger’s without an intellectual disability are given some sort of leadership role so that they can contribute to the ministry.  We will make them responsible for either an individual or some aspect of our event or program.

C4EC: You claim in the book that “it is our culture that disables.” What do you see as the role of the church in transforming the disabling culture?

BC: Clearly it is not culture that his given/caused the developmental disorder or intellectual disability, but it is our culture that makes it difficult for such people a place to exercise their gifts, participate in social life in meaningful ways or feel like they belong.   Church youth groups are strategically placed to transform our disabling culture, beginning in the lunchroom at school.  Youth groups can prepare students to befriend their peers with developmental disabilities, to share in life with them and to give kids with disabilities activities to look forward to.

Tomorrow: Ben discusses the role of parents, imaginative ministry strategies and compares advantages of full inclusion vs. stand alone ministry for teens and young adults with developmental disabilities

Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s second annual Special Needs Ministry Web Summit is made available FREE OF CHARGE to pastors, church staff, volunteers and families everywhere from November 12th-16th, 2012. For an up to date list of speakers, topics, links to speaker blogs and a link for free registration, click here.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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