Vangie Rodenbeck wears a lot of different hats…she has a great message to share.
Some Assembly but No Expertise Required
About 18 months ago, a startling distinction began appearing after my name. Rather than letters confirming my degrees, or the title “Princess of All-She-Surveys,” the dreaded designation “expert” was added to my pedigree.
I first saw it when speaking at a national children’s pastor’s convention emblazoned in 60-pointe font on a placard advertising my workshop. After the nausea subsided, I negotiated with the management regarding their choice use of the term “expert.” As it turns out, when approaching some topics, the public cries out for an expert and nothing less; so, an “expert” I would soon become. Now I see it on the Internet and in print media as well: “Vangie Rodenbeck: Special Needs Expert.” Please know that this is not a reaction out of false modesty. I simply think it is ridiculous.
Why does the public cry out for an “expert” before they will listen? Even in our church culture we are designating more and more people as experts in fields of what was once practical ministry. Experts, not only different demographics of ministry, but also in leadership, administration, and marketing flood the Internet in wait for people who will utilize their authorized skills.
The upside of this is that we have access to people who have researched and networked widely, offering Godly counsel and guidance to churches just beginning their journey. The downside is that many churches perceive that since they do not possess that level of expertise, they cannot offer ministry to certain demographics such as children, teens and adults with disabilities. For many churches, unless they can bring an “expert” on staff or at least have a volunteer certified in special education services, they feel ill-equipped to minister at any level to the differently abled. Surely, this requires an expert!
Certification by Fire
I am the mother of a delightful 12-year old boy named Noah. He has a sweet, compassionate spirit that humbles me daily and drives me to full repentance fortnightly. But Noah was different from infancy. Many people regarded him as the sweetest tempered and easiest going baby imaginable. “You got a good one,” they would say with a smile.
And I did have a good one. But as Noah’s developmental milestones began to pass unmet, I began to suspect an underlying reason for his innate quietude. At 3 years of age, my suspicions were confirmed when Noah was diagnosed with autism. At that point in time, I had one objective only – to learn to understand Noah. I felt that if I could ascertain the fundamental aspects of autism that comprised Noah’s behavior and personality, he wouldn’t feel like such a little stranger.
And that was how I began my journey. I simply wanted to comprehend Noah’s differences and, thus, bridge the gap between his neurological deficits and my understanding. Let me say that during our diagnostic period, at no time was I ever offered a class that would certify me as an expert qualified in the development of special needs children. Nor, since then, have I accumulated course hours from any of the books or articles I have read in order to help Noah reach goals and make achievements.
I simply got to know him.
Time Imparts Expertise
One friend gently reminds me that it is all of my experience that lends me the credentials of “expert.” That is quite correct. Time has given me the educational qualifications required to minister to someone quite different than me. As I got to know not only Noah, but the dozen or so other children I began accumulating within our children’s ministry, I built a relationship with each one that led to a rapport which enabled me to appear like an expert in their midst. I looked like an expert, but in all honesty, all I did was love them and get to know each of them.
I am not alone in my fear that the designation of “expert in the field” has been a detractor for ministry. When seeking an interview with a local legend in the arena of respite ministry, I mistakenly reported that I was looking for experts in the area from which to learn. Her response was memorable.
“Honey, I don’t believe in being an expert in special needs children as a group. I believe you become an expert on one child by loving them and learning them. I can’t help you with the rest.”
Instead of citing her degree and 30 years of experience in the special education classroom before beginning a ministry to disabled children and adults, this saint renders expertise as the result of relationship. Instead of assuming the posture of an expert that knows, perhaps we should always be the friend that is in the process of learning.
Rather than experts who have familiarized themselves with a myriad of diagnostic qualities, maybe we should model friendship that takes an interest in people. As an expert, perhaps my best training could be teaching others how to learn that person. What is it like to be them? What do they enjoy doing? This is how to make an effort to identify with them. This is how to spend time with them.
Benjamin T. Conner, in Amplifying Our Witness, writes
“Friendship shows a way of relating to a person with developmental disabilities beyond the medical model of care – an etiology, signs and symptoms, or a technical solution to the ‘problem’ of disability. In the medical model, disability is often characterized in a way similar to an illness; a specific, definable pathology and an individual problem to be eliminated – this model does not address the human, as such…. Christian friendship – the affirming presence of another – transcends relational boundaries of likeness, instrumentality, or social exchange.”
I’m sure that the market for experts will not soon vanish. Maybe they are looking for someone to blame if things go wrong, then they can say, “Well, we called in this expert…”. Perhaps this is just another instance of culture’s influence on God’s people. Israel had a stellar track record of assimilating the values of its surrounding culture. Have we, too, have become a people that place more value in credentials and titles than in the relational message of the Gospel?
Vangie Rodenbeck became involved with disability ministry when her son, Noah, was diagnosed with autism at age three. Through efforts to create an environment where her son could learn about his relationship with God, her ministry and advocacy for children with special needs became intertwined. After completing her B.S. in Christian Ministry in 2008, she received a scholarship to seminary where she completed an M.A. in Contemporary Theology in 2013. Her thesis project, “Disability and The Image of God” continued her desire to meld theology, practical ministry and disability advocacy.
Vangie currently serves as Resource Director for PURE Ministries in Gainesville, GA, in addition to her work as a consultant for Standard Publishing. She speaks at ministry conferences nationally. She and her husband Jason currently share the worship and teaching ministry at Castle Christian Church in Cumming, GA.