Down Syndrome Day & Christian Community

Today was the 7th annual World Down Syndrome Day, and a post from Amy Julia Becker has me thinking about the relationship between our faith communities and those affected by Down syndrome. Several incidences have brought it the forefront of my thinking lately, which has caused me to realize that I’m very conflicted about the tough decisions parents-to-be are required to make.

Since the late 1960’s, in utero testing has been used to determine chromosomal abnormalities like trisomy 21 (a third copy of chromosome 21 – the most common cause of Down syndrome). With that testing comes an enormous ethical decision for parents who learn that their child will face extreme difficulties throughout their life. Most are probably aware of the developmental challenges and physical abnormalities, but the health risks for those with Down Syndrome also include thyroid disorders, hearing loss, gastrointestinal diseases, and a 50% rate of both congenital heart disease and epilepsy.

The question then presented to potential parents are questions of quality of life, the capacity for a parent to care for their child with Down syndrome (physically, financially and emotionally), and the inevitable burden on others. For these reasons and more, studies show that the abortion rate after parents learn of chromosomal abnormalities may be as high as 90% in the US, and similar numbers can be found across the globe in developed countries.

Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum have made the choice of the ten percenters. The decision is a testament to their faith, and unfortunately, they have each made that clear by politicizing their decision, Santorum even going as far as making it a platform to end paid-for prenatal testing if elected. Even though this is a terrible idea (here’s why), their commitment to their faith in the face of exceptional adversity is what the conscientious objective is all about.

On the other side of the spectrum, Christian Post reported last week that a jury in Portland, Oregon awarded a couple $2.9 million for a wrongful birth case. Prenatal tests showed no chromosomal abnormalities, yet their baby was born with Down Syndrome. They essentially sued their doctor for improperly admitting the tests (keep in mind that no current prenatal testing is 100% accurate) which resulted in faulty test readings, and claiming that they would have aborted the fetus, they won. I’m at a loss for words with the amount of brokenness of our society to allow this situation.

These examples bring to our attention the ethical decisions and complications that arise with Down syndrome testing, but as most of us our outsiders, it doesn’t give us a sense for how we are to respond to those in need.

Capacity of our Christian Community

It is important that we understand the need for our involvement in the lives of those affected by Down syndrome. Two obvious ideas come to mind when thinking about the potential for offering radical community to those facing considerable struggles.

For a variety of reasons, I love living in a townhouse, and not only because I don’t have to do yard work (although that is nice). It actually boils down to one word: community. I run into neighbors everyday walking, taking Khai to the playground, getting the mail, or simply coming and going.

I’m not alone. A couple of weeks ago, we ran into a neighbor whose son has Down syndrome. In the course of the conversation, we discovered that their 18mo old was having his third open heart surgery the following week. When Jenna offered to help out in different ways, the support was greatly appreciated. In fact the family had specifically moved into a townhouse for the potential for community support—not help—simply community.

The emotional and physical strains of caring for a child with Down syndrome had this family seek out a place to live that could offer more community support than a traditional neighborhood. Is this necessary? If so, Christians are not living out their calling.

The implications are, of course, that my neighbors, and yours, are in desperate need of what we have to offer and what Christ calls us to—community. We don’t need to wait for others to literally move searching for community. Offering this community can be as simple as reaching out to someone we already know in our church, community, or neighborhood.

It is necessary to remember that we effect change in the culture around us. Our culture has the tendency to diminish the value of those with disabilities. Offering radical community means changing the culture around us by finding places in our congregations and communities to engage those who are overlooked and allow them to give back to the community in new and impactful ways.

Asset-based Ministry…A Fresh Approach to Engaging Community

On Saturday, I joined a few others from Open Door in attending a Jim Diers workshop, Neighborhood Power. I was first introduced to Asset-Based Community Development at Emory, and it has greatly influenced my view of community, my approach to ministry and even my understanding of Jesus’ work and revelation. So I was excited to attend this with some of our members to help gain a shared vision for “asset-based ministry.” Here I’d like to share some of what makes this vision unique and how ABCD can be utilized in faith communities.

Asset-based community development, as indicated by its name, is designed around the skills, resources and associations of a community.[1] Community development takes place when the community itself is impassioned and motivated by hope for improvement and change. These community resources can be found in gifts of individuals, community groups and associations, and local institutions. This sounds like common sense, and it is, but the vast majority of non-profits, churches and aid organizations operate under the antithetical principles of “needs-based” change and growth. Rather than being internally focused and relationally driven, the traditional “needs-based” approach is setup by an outside agency assessing the needs of a community, coming to external solutions to those needs, and finally supplying those needs with outside resources. The resulting actions, however genuine in their efforts, send the overwhelming message that the community is not capable of resolving issues on their own, reinforcing the lack of empowerment already experienced. Asset-based community development requires more work, more innovation, creativity, and collaboration, but the results are sustainable change, restored dignity and an empowered community.

Churches and other faith communities have found value in these basic principles by identifying individual capacities of its members to mobilize the church and by acting as yet another resource of the community in collaborative development.[2] Multiplying a faith community’s impact by focusing on both internal and external mobilization is obviously preferred, and I believe mutually beneficial to the church and the broader community. The easy part of this discussion is to acknowledge and take advantage of the abilities and capacities of individual members of a faith community. To call on someone for the musical talent to support or lead a worship team is a no brainer, and to use a business connection to save the church money is simply good business sense.

Asset-based strategies, however, are more about engagement than about business sense (although it has that added benefit). Engaging people in the life of the church requires discovering unique gifts of individuals and then allowing their passions to deepen community and to shape the outreach of the church. At Open Door Church, we’re exploring a new warehouse communal space for our gathering grounds that would serve the community and the church in endless ways. While the idea developed over leadership meetings, it took life when we began asking for congregational input. Excitement grew as each individual shared their own ideas and passions about how to engage the community with our new space. Can we offer bike repair, or teach others? Can we invite local bands for shows and talent nights? Table tennis? Mechanic work? Their gifts and vision for growth in our community will shape the outreach of Open Door as we continue, and if we fail to foster this engagement, we will ultimately fail in engaging our community as well.

Read here about how these concepts are supported and understood biblically.

[1] J. P. Kretzmann and J. L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, ACTA Publications: 1993.

[2] S. Rans and H. Altman, Asset-Based Strategies for Faith Communities, ACTA Publications: 2002.

Pastor Seeking Pastoral Advice

When I began applying for ministry positions last year, I sent every potential church my resume accompanied by my wife’s resume. Primarily, I wanted to be clear that my vision for ministry is a partnership, that she brings unique experience and value aside from me, and that we have worked as a team in the past and intend that for our future.

We did not consider the unintended consequences of being in a full-time ministry with a family, and I’m curious about what others have experienced and how they have overcome some of the logistical challenges of ministry. It’s frustrating that anytime one of our children is sick in the family Jenna has to give up her worship time to stay home and care for them. When they’re healthy kids are challenging enough with two parents available to corral them on Sunday mornings, but I’m utterly useless jumping up and down to ensure everything is running smoothly, making sure to spend time with our visitors and of course spending most of the time up front (these things, I signed up for). All of that adds up to Jenna losing a large part of her worship time altogether, with the rest of it greatly degraded and distracted. There are a lot of sacrifices that come with doing ministry (maybe for discussion in future posts), but we didn’t intend for this to be part of what was sacrificed for ministry (and/or maybe family).

This is certainly not a unique experience for pastors’ wives (or husbands), as many parents take on this burden for various uncontrollable and legitimate reasons. Still many other women take on this role because it is expected of them due to misguided biblical perspectives, lazy men, and mothers attempting to fit others’ expectations.

For our family, and for Jenna, this isn’t really acceptable. Together, we’ve been through times where we lacked regular worship and a strong faith community (the latter of which is not missing here), and it is extremely burdensome on spiritual health and growth. We know the end of that story, and it’s not acceptable. This is simply too significant to ignore until it goes away as kids become more independent and manageable on Sunday mornings.

I’m looking for some logistical/spiritual guidance on these matters, hopefully from some seasoned pastor/parents. Where’s the work around?


Jenna’s reflections on these thoughts:

Like all moms of young children my time with them is so precious to me. I love being with them and loving them through all the little struggles of daily life. And like all moms (and dads), Bradley and I sacrifice a lot of personal time to do so. As a pastor’s wife, I, unfortunately, give up my entire Sunday morning worship time.  Bradley is busy managing his responsibilities and I am trying to keep Khaim from running down the aisle during communion. I take communion in the playroom, alone or surrounded by a group of boisterous toddlers. My connection with God on Sunday mornings is much different; I miss being able to be engrossed in a worship song and question a sermon (although I get to do this throughout the week as Bradley and I talk through his thoughts).

In a similar, but very different regard, Bradley misses a bit of his own Sunday connection time. Worrying about his sermon, the power point or soundboard problems, he is unable to fully surrender to worship. In that way, I think we are both looking for ways to rekindle our worship in the absence of “our church time.” Any thoughts?

Good to Great…Sermon Series?

One of the books Jenna is reading (and now me too) for an MBA course has caught my attention: Good to Great by Jim Collins. I’m not the first to recognize it’s potential application for Christians and churches; Collins even wrote a an accompaniment to the book called Good to Great and the Social Sectors. I believe it has an incredible potential for a sermon series, church-wide theme or even an in-depth study among church leadership.

What do we dream about for our congregations, leaders, staff, elders and congregants? Greatness. Greatness looks different in the church than it does elsewhere in our society, a lesson Jesus worked hard to teach his disciples. Jesus wasn’t rejecting greatness as a concept, but he redefined greatness in terms of humility, servitude and discipleship. Collins contends that goodness has the ability to cripple greatness. In the church, leaders and teachers often fall prey to being good; we get lulled to sleep by contentment, consistency, repetition or lack of discipline. I’ve seen plenty of good churches fail to reach for greatness, because they were afraid to risk their good situation. When you come across a leader striving for greatness both individually and for their church, you never forget the moment you met him or her. They inspire you to reach for greatness in yourself and in those around you, and they remind you not to settle for mediocrity (or being good).

A recent conversation about church DNA with a mentor sparked some thinking on church development and growth. He was talking about the sometimes impassibility of a church’s DNA in regards to the shift from good to great. On one hand, many churches have faded into non-existence when their church DNA impeded on their ability to risk the leap from good to great. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in the power to find and inspire greatness in a congregation, an individual or a church, then you yourself may be the one lacking the ability to make the leap from good to great.