Assistant Professor of Church and Community Theology, Director of the Friendship House, and Student Accessibility Coordinator
The Center for Disability and Ministry at Western Theological Seminary exists to support ministry leaders of all abilities in nurturing and receiving the gifts and contributions of persons with disabilities through formational opportunities including theological education, consultation, forums, and publications.
In 2013, Dr. Ben Conner, an experienced ministry practitioner in the field of theology and disability, joined the faculty of WTS. One of the attractions for Ben was the existence of Friendship House, a residence where seminary students share life with young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
That same year, Ben offered Ministry and Margins, the first among many new course offerings to follow, intended to teach students how to both support the inclusion of and appreciate the gifts and perspectives of people with disabilities.
In 2014 the first Friendship House Director was hired with the goal of expanding the influence and integration of Friendship House into the seminary community.
On December 2, 2014, (the International Day of Disabled Persons) the faculty approved the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry, the only ATS accredited master’s program of its kind.
WTS hosted the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability in May, 2016, the premier conference on the subject, in an attempt to foster more energy around campus for disability theology and to offer opportunities for developing competency among faculty to teach in the GCDM program.
These ongoing efforts were supported by a generous grant by the Henry Luce Foundation, “Enabling Theological Education: Preparing the Next Generation of Christian Leaders” which supported WTS in conducting accessibility audits, lectureships, forums, and other opportunities for developing cultural competency led by world leaders in disability studies (Lennard Davis, Jay Dolmage, Bill Gaventa). The grant also supported the launch of the Henri Nouwen Doctoral Fellow program.
In 2019, John Swinton was invited as the Osterhaven lecturer, and that series became WTS’s first symposium on disability and ministry.
On October 29, 2019 all these different programs and opportunities were gathered together to form the Center for Disability and Ministry, with Ben Conner appointed as the first Director.
1. The Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry
The GCDM program is a package of credit-bearing, transcripted courses available through Western Theological Seminary’s distance learning program that prepares men and women called by God to lead the church in mission by giving them the knowledge and skills that will enable them to lead congregations, ministries, schools, colleges and universities, medical practices and businesses to be inclusive of people of all abilities.
Disability is a complex phenomenon: it represents a lived experience, a socially constructed group of people, and a critical analytical lens for examining cultural values and practices. As church leaders (of all abilities) challenge congregations to become more welcoming spaces for people with disabilities and their families, the church will need to reexamine its theology and ministry practices in order to receive the gifts and challenges that will accompany being an inclusive church. This D.Min. program creates the space and time necessary for leaders to develop the concepts and seek the habits, skills, and practices necessary for leading a church made up of people with all kinds of abilities. The primary focus of this program is to develop a better understanding of disability in the US, advance a contextualized practical theology of disability, and work out the implications of both for Christian ministry.
The Friendship House Fellowship Program is a six-year long ministry training program open to individuals with intellectual disabilities who are interested in exploring their ministry gifts within the supportive environment of a community of fellow Christian co-learners. It involves internships at local churches, taking classes with seminary students, and living together in a community while developing life skills.
This program is continuously developing. Learn more about the Friendship House here.
The Friendship House
In 2007, the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at Western Theological Seminary became the first seminary housing of its kind. Friendship House is a pod-style apartment complex where students live alongside young adults with cognitive disabilities, and the partnership has led to astounding results.
Friendship House gives the Friendship House Fellows (previously referred to as “Friends”) an opportunity to live independently and work in the community, while the seminarians get the opportunity to learn what it means to live alongside someone with a disability. We at Western Theological Seminary would be diminished without the presence of our Friendship House Fellows. They have enriched the lives of seminarians and given us a deeper appreciation of all people and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
In 2018, the six “founding” Friends graduated. They transitioned to new living arrangements and have made room for new Fellows to come live at the house. New Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson will be living at Friendship House and serving on the faculty of WTS as a Nouwen Fellow for 2018-2020.
The Friendship House has inspired other seminaries to create similar communities. Duke Divinity School started their own Friendship House in 2013, which was followed by others at Vanderbilt and George Fox University, another in Fayetteville, NC and soon, one at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
Check out this video (produced in 2015) to get a feel for what The Friendship House is all about:
Nouwen Fellow Program
WTS is actively pursuing diversity (understood in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and ability) in its faculty and has established, initially with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, a Nouwen Fellow program designed to encourage applications from ABD scholars whose research focuses on some aspect of disability studies. Scholars with disabilities are especially encouraged to apply. The position includes a one-half teaching load in order to provide time to complete the Ph.D. dissertation or conduct research. One important role of the Nouwen Fellow is working with faculty on the committee for our Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry. The 2018-2020 Nouwen Fellows are Dr. Sarah Jean Barton and L.S. Carlos A. Thompson.
The WTS Center for Disability and Ministry works closely with partners, especially the Reformed Church in America (RCA) Disability Concerns, to offer resources to congregations and ministries. Check out some of our partners below:
John Swinton is a Scottish theologian and a major figure in the development of disability theology. He is a professor of practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy. In 2004 he founded the university’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, which has a dual focus: the relationship between spirituality and health and the theology of disability.
Sarah Jean Barton is Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Theological Ethics at Duke University. Dr. Barton focuses her scholarly work in theological ethics, with special attention to disability, liturgy, and pastoral care. She has a joint faculty appointment at Duke Divinity School and Duke University Medical Center, where she works in the developing Occupational Therapy Doctorate division and practices as an occupational therapist with a board certification in pediatrics.
Bethany McKinney Fox is a speaker, author, and pastor at Beloved Everybody Church, a church where people with and without intellectual disabilities lead and participate together. Her most recent book, Disability in the Way of Jesus, explores how the narratives of Jesus’ healing in the Gospels can offer pathways for congregations to be true places of healing, particularly for people with disabilities.
Jay Dolmage is Professor of English Literature at University of Waterloo, Ontario, and is committed to disability rights in his scholarship, service, and teaching. His work brings together rhetoric, writing, disability studies, and critical pedagogy. His important work, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education was published with Michigan University Press in 2017 and is available in an open-access version online. Dolmage is the Founding Editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies.
The co-branded series provides a platform to share the research and conversations generated by the CDM and the related work of other scholars and authors. Disability theology is an emerging theological discipline that has multiple interdisciplinary conversation partners, sources, and approaches. One aspect of theology that has received relatively little formal attention from disability theology is the discipline of practical theology. Practical theology seeks to develop critical theological reflections on the practices of the church with a view to enabling faithful participation in God’s ongoing mission. It is an ecclesial and missiological discipline that takes formal, credal theology seriously, but seeks to examine and explore how such theology actually works itself out within, is refined by, and emerges from the experiences of the church in the world. In relation to disability theology, a practical theological approach assumes that the specificities of human disability have theological and practical significance for our articulation of and practice of the faith and that reflection on such experience is necessary for the faithful ministry of the church.
Using practical theology as a basic framework for understanding, and targeted to congregations, this book series will seek to initiate a series of conversations around key issues in disability theology with a view to increasing knowledge and creatively and faithfully impacting Christian practice.