Faces of the Movement: Ben Conner (Part Two)

We’re back for the second part of our interview with Ben Conner, author of the new book, Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. Today, 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.

C4EC: How can the church serve better serve parents and caregivers of teens with developmental disabilities? How can the church best partner with parents in promoting the spiritual development of teens with developmental disabilities?

BC: Parents need to be heard and connected to other parents who share their particular struggles.  They also need respite.

Try having a regularly scheduled parents night out where the church provides a fun and spiritually meaningful time for their kids and I bet you will have a growing response.

C4EC: I liked the statement you made in the book… “The problem is not that adolescents with developmental disabilities have cognitive impairments; the problem is a lack of imagination and an incomplete understanding of prayer on my part.” What are some of the most imaginative strategies you’ve encountered for ministering effectively to youth with developmental disabilities that you weren’t able to include in the book?

BC: Recently I have hired a Staff Associate who has gifts in art. She has been using art to communicate things about the image of God, our interconnectedness as part of Christ’s body, our unique giftedness and contribution to the community.  For example, she has a blank puzzle (you can purchase at any craft store) and she is putting images of our kids on each of the puzzle and letting each kid see themselves connected and then is giving them their piece.

The puzzle is not complete unless everyone is represented. She is also talented enough to take ideas from our group and paint an image that incorporates everyone’s input.  The students play a part in creating something in an image that they imagine.  She then ties our creation to the idea that we are a creation of God, created in His image.  Finally, and more simply, we were talking more about being in God’s image and not letting the world “squeeze you into its mold” (Romans 12:1-2, J B Phillips).  We found cross-shaped stepping stone molds at a craft store (Ben Franklin, Michaels and others) and in groups with the kids made the stepping stones together.  The compound was formless until it was poured into the mold, but the cross-shaped mold gave it definition.  Kids were given beautiful stones to decorate the crosses with their leaders.

The stepping stones now live outside on of our regular meeting places so the kids see them every time the come and are reminded to be shaped like Christ.  I will be working on a companion book to Amplifying Our Witness that includes many of these ideas in detail.

C4EC: Throughout the book, you make a compelling argument for full inclusion in the church of kids with disabilities. You’re also an influential leader within Young Life Capernaum, which serves teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Why is there a need for Young Life Capernaum? Wouldn’t it be more effective to include teens and young adults with developmental disabilities into existing Young Life groups?

BC: This might sound hypocritical, given all that I have been saying so far, but sometimes it is best to have events that are “reverse mainstreamed” events and sometimes it is simply fine to have events that only partially include people with developmental disabilities for their own sake.  Reverse mainstreaming means that the event prepared with the persons with developmental disabilities in mind and the typically developing peers come around them. This is most of our Capernaum events.  But, sometimes, you want a wild, busy, strobe-light filled, fast-moving ministry to reach different kids–I would not want to take many of my Capernaum kids to such a club, but I see the value in them.   This is why we have separate summer camping strategies with the option for taking kids with dev. dis. to typical summer camps.  On another level, I love to share in Bible study and prayer with kids with disabilities and I think they should all be included in the major weekly event of our congregations, Sunday worship.  At the same time, I also love to read hard-core academic theology and discuss it with friends who are much more cerebrally gifted than I–to be “included” in such a group in a significant way is simply not possible for my friends with intellectual disabilities.  At the same time, their presence in the life and community of people who are our theologians is an absolute necessity.  For example, I rewrote my dissertation in light of the lessons I was learning from my friends with disabilities.

Ben’s book, Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities is available through Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

Ben will be serving alongside 35 other leaders representing the breadth and depth of interests throughout the field of disability ministry for Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s second annual Special Needs Ministry Web Summit. Inclusion Fusion 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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