, assistant to the General Conference president for Special Needs Ministries
For decades those who could not see, hear, walk, or think like the majority were often grouped into a category referred to as “those with disabilities.”
While not a bad label, it often did at least two things. First, those receiving this “identity” were reminded of what they could not do. Second, the kind of support given was often limited to what was perceived to be a physical need. Few efforts were made to incorporate the positive contributions these people had to offer into the mainline ministry and activities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
This, however, is about to change.
The General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, formed a committee to address these needs in 2011. The group was named Special Needs Committee and placed within the Personal Ministries and Sabbath School Ministries department. This department gave some support to the blind and others with physical limitations.
This new committee had a more all-inclusive ministry reach. It was an important first step. However, as the church became more aware of the needs, it became obvious that more attention needed to be given to all those with special needs. Many people had been unintentionally marginalized. The work of the Personal Ministries and the Sabbath School Ministries department was already large and, as such, little attention was able to be placed on the special needs of these people.
The insights provided by Ellen White substantiated the focus on this ministry when she wrote: “I saw that it is in the providence of God that widows and orphans, the blind, the deaf, the lame, and persons afflicted in a variety of ways, have been placed in close Christian relationship to His church; it is to prove His people and develop their true character. Angels of God are watching to see how we treat these persons who need our sympathy, love, and disinterested benevolence. This is God’s test of our character” (Christian Service, p.191).
Recognizing the need to elevate this ministry, the General Conference Administrative Committee in September 2015 voted to move the coordination of Special Needs Ministries to presidential oversight and encouragement for an increased global emphasis, and I was appointed as assistant to the president for Special Needs Ministries.
This new role will address the ministry needs of the deaf, blind, orphans and those with physical or mental limitations. The span of needs is broad. Primary attention will be largely directed toward providing opportunities for those with special needs to become more involved with the total mission of the church. In some cases, the physical structure of a church or building may need to be addressed. The primary emphasis, however, is to do whatever can be done so these people can experience inclusion rather then exclusion in fulfilling the church’s mission.
In many cases they are the mission. The most recent estimates from UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, indicate that more than 132 million orphans lived in the world in 2007, including 13 million who had lost both parents. No doubt, these numbers have grown since then. This is a crisis that should not be minimized.
The UN also reports that about 1 billion people worldwide live with disabilities. That’s one seventh of the global population. It should be noted that all of us either are or will become disabled to one degree or another during the course of our lives.
People with disabilities face many barriers from being included in key aspects of society. One of those segments of society is the church and its outreach to those with any kind of serious disability. When it comes to the deaf, for example, it is believed that less than 2 percent are Christian.
There are many ways of viewing the mission of the Adventist Church. When planning our mission strategies, we must not overlook the need to reach those who are often referred to as disabled. Disability is part of the human condition. Sensitizing the church to the needs for this ministry is critical.
General Conference president Ted N.C. Wilson has emphasized this point, noting: “This Special Needs Ministries is following in the footsteps of Christ and His method alone of dealing with people physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. Christ intends for us to reach these people and involve them with the proclamation of the three angels’ messages as we look forward to Christ’s soon coming.”
But the distinctiveness of each of the five groups — the deaf, blind, orphans and those with physical and mental limitations — will continue to be recognized. Ultimately, we envision the creation of an Adventist world advisory council to give guidance in the development of strategic ministry plans. Each of the five groups has as much to offer the global church as to receive from it.