In a random twist of events for the awesome, I get to have a conversation with Jen on the Jennifer Fulwiler Show (Sirius XM Channel 129 – The Catholic Channel) on Friday, June 23rd during the last quarter of her show. We’ll be talking about parental expectations and how our Catholic faith might be able to contribute to the conversation. As I’m thinking about the conversation with Jen (which I’m incredibly excited about), it got me thinking about our expectations for Faith Formation and our expectations for ministry with the autism community and individuals with other disabilities.
A theme in my research of ministry for individuals with disabilities is that the ministries are usually begun when a parent of a child with a disability comes to the Pastor or Faith Formation Coordinator so that their child can receive “the Sacraments”. What we mean by this is that they’re asking for their child to begin immediate preparation to receive First Communion and maybe Confirmation.
This experience isn’t all that different from mainstream faith formation. As a Director of Religious Education, we always had a swell in the number of children in Sacramental Prep years as parents came to have their children receive First Communion and then Confirmation.
I was always grateful that parents brought their children for formation, but, if I can be a little more blunt, it was incredibly frustrating that some parents treated First Communion and Confirmation like commodities. The problem wasn’t that the parents wanted their kids to receive all of the Sacraments of Initiation, the issue was that formation and participation in the faith community often stopped once those Sacraments were received. It was always my goal to have families desire a more personal and intimate relationship with God through the church community. I would be remiss as a Youth Minister or Director of Religious Education if my ministry coordinating efforts began and ended with immediate Sacramental preparation and didn’t also seek to help encourage students and families to be lifelong disciples at home and through the parish community through participation in Mass, ongoing faith formation, small faith communities, parish community events, etc.
Really, what we’re talking about is having a ministry goal, ministry expectations, or a centering purpose to our ministry. Having a mission and central goal is important when serving in any ministry.
In the corporate world, it’s called finding your “why” and letting that be the central theme that guides your ministry. Why does your ministry exist? Why do we have faith formation? Why do we have an annual parish picnic or festival? Why do we have youth ministry? Why do we have adult bible study?
In my own life, I have found that my faith and my ministry efforts slide off course when I forget my personal “why”. My why is my encounter and my relationship with God. When I remember what life was like before I recognized God and embraced my relationship with God, then recall his patient pursuit of my heart and the incredible gift of His love, I am reminded of the burning desire to help any and everyone know the goodness of God’s love and the power of having a personal relationship with God. And isn’t this the story of our Church from the beginning? People who encountered Jesus walked away affected by him. Those whose life was transformed were eager to share the Good News with others.
As Catholics, the “why” always boils down to a personal encounter with God. We can phrase it multiple ways, but it usually will be along the lines of: accompanying individuals in the process of becoming fully alive through their knowledge and experience of God’s love for them and sharing of God’s love with others – to recognize and become who God made them to be.
In this light, faith formation will always include Sacramental preparation, but will always be more than just immediate Sacramental Preparation. We will always need to meet individuals where they are at in the middle of the beauty and the mess of their daily lives because that is where God is as well and our role is simply to help them recognize God’s active presence in their daily lives and the world, to help them experience God’s love and to follow Jesus Christ out of love. We, rightly, would never be satisfied with providing only Sacramental Preparation without some other form of assistance for personal and communal discipleship being offered as well. Our hope in Faith Formation is that whatever amount of time we get with our kids will always lead to their active participation in the life of the Church and a personal relationship with God that remains for the whole of their lives, even if we only see them during the Sacramental Prep years. In this way, there’s nothing unique about our hopes, goals, “why”, or execution of ministry for individuals with disabilities. At least not in an ideal world.
Ministry with individuals with disabilities is no different in the need to extend beyond Sacramental preparation and to meet individuals where they are at and in their daily lives. Our efforts will always need to include fostering participation in the life of the Church beyond just receiving the Sacraments of Initiation once. We have experienced the goodness and awe of having an ongoing relationship with God and we want individuals with disabilities (and really, everyone) to be able to receive the goodness and awe that comes from that ongoing relationship with our Creator.
Imagine how our perspective towards ministry with individuals with disabilities would be transformed if we always came back to the central mission of being a conduit of encounter with God and companions on a lifelong journey towards being who God made us to be? Imagine how transformative it would be to any and all of our parish efforts to recall our “why”.
So what is your why? What is your ministry’s why?