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Benjamin T. Conner on Friendship and Hospitality that Embraces Youth with Developmental Disabilities

Practical theologian Benjamin T. Conner encourages and challenges congregations and pastors to reorient ministry with youth to fully include and amplifiy the witness of adolescents with developmental disabilities.

See all episodes in Season 3

Host [00:00:02] Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship that explores connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of contexts. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faith for worship and witness in our own communities. In season three, we focus on ministry alongside youth by exploring five themes: youth agency, theological questions, the role of families and parents, intergenerational community, and multiple pathways for youth.

Kristen Verhulst [00:01:59] Ben, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast. Glad to have you here.

Benjamin T. Conner [00:01:03] I'm excited to be here. Thanks for inviting me. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:01:06] For all of you who are listening, Benjamin Conner is professor of practical theology and director of the graduate certificate in disability and ministry at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. And today I'm going to talk with Ben about a book he wrote; it’s been out a few years, but it remains one of the only books on bringing together ministry alongside youth in the area of disability and disability studies. And the book that Ben wrote is called Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. So Ben, thanks so much for the book. I’m really excited to hear you talk about it and ways we can learn and find how the area of disability and disability studies intersects and shapes and informs ministry with and alongside youth. 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:02:05] Absolutely. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:02:07] So let's just begin by telling us the story behind the book. Why did you write it? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:02:14] Well, I was getting ready to go to Princeton Theological Seminary to do doctoral work in the area of mission, ecumenics, and history of religion. I was going there because Darrell Guder was there, and I was really impressed by his work. And I was sitting on the couch reading to my son, who was seven years old at the time, and he had a seizure. It was the first time I'd experienced a seizure up close. And it was, frankly, unsettling. And we went through all the tests that you would typically go through: pediatric neurologists, had MRIs and CAT scans. And what we learned is that my son, who I already knew learned differently—we had already decided to homeschool him because we realized that school, . . . the way it was structured, wasn't the best way for him to learn—we learned that he had had a stroke at birth and he was missing about a third of his brain. Today he lives in an apartment with a friend, works, has his own car, and is 25, almost 26. So that was a while ago. But at the time, it introduced me to a whole new world of disability. You have to learn how to be an advocate. You have to learn about educational policies and medications and odd herb women. I mean, there's all sorts of things that you start to learn about when you get into the world of disability. So I was entering into that world while I was writing this dissertation on Christian practices, and I needed my two worlds to be connected a little bit more. And so I was thinking, how does my world with my son connect to the academic studies that I'm doing. Then one other thing happened. After I finished my comprehensive exams, I moved from Princeton back to Williamsburg, Virginia, and started up a ministry to and with young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So I had the opportunity to put into practice these theories I was working on about faith development and how it doesn't have to be tied to developmentalism or stages of human development. In fact, we're really limited in our understanding of what faith is because we tend to understand it primarily through our rational capacities and ability to articulate things, that capacity for abstraction—these sorts of things. And if you're dealing with people who may not have these abilities, then my impression was they didn't have any place to go. But I saw that Christian practices are broad enough to include everyone from children to elderly folks, from people who are Rhodes Scholars to people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. And so I was so moved by that that when I wrote to Eerdmans to try to get my dissertation published, I wrote a little paragraph saying I'd like to explore this further as well. And they wrote back and said, “We're actually more excited about that project.” So that's where the book came from. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:05:51] Thank you. And what have you been hearing and learning from those who engage your book? What stories are coming back to you? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:06:00] It's been received very well, but some of the feedback is that the title's terrible, which I agree. I was trying to have a thoughtful theological title, but for a Google search it's going to take you to amplifiers and that sort of thing. So it was a bad job on my part. Another thing I'm hearing is—it was ten years ago. It needs to be updated. A lot of the information I had, like, on autism has changed and we've learned more about folks on the autism spectrum. People want to think more through different disabilities rather than just intellectual and developmental disabilities. So there will be another volume coming out; I’m in conversation for an updated version that will have the non-sexy title of Disability and Youth Ministry so people can find it. But the other interesting thing that's happening is folks who read it, read it and say, “This is just a book on youth ministry.” Like, this is how youth ministry should be in that it keeps in view the marginalized, it's practice centered, it's not program centered, it sees relationships as sacramental instead of instrumental, it talks about developing young people as leaders, appreciating their gifts, giving them opportunities to use them. And that's just good youth ministry. It's not disability youth ministry. But some of the unique insights that come from working with people who have been marginalized because of their intellectual and developmental capacities is that folks have taken that paradigm and used it with other marginalized people groups. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:07:44] Wonderful. So here at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, where I work, we explore the intersections of public worship [and] every other aspect of Christian life, including youth ministry, youth participation, faith formation. And we, very much like you pointed out, see that as being they all inform each other. They all complement and lift up each other. And so we're working on looking at ministry alongside youth through the lens of five key values. And so I wonder if we could take what you're learning, especially about how doing ministry alongside youth with developmental disabilities, is just simply doing good youth ministry, how that comes up in the area of what we might call youth agency. So what thoughts might you share with us in that regard? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:08:46] So a slogan of the disability rights movement was “Nothing about us without us.” And I think that can be applied to thinking through youth theology and youth ministry as well, understanding youth as theologians. Now, one of the problems with youth in general is how they're understood in society. They have sort of a vacant identity. They're not children and they're not adults. That's how society understands them. And in fact there are books that are written that characterize adolescents, which is the more sort of social scientific term for a youth, [that] characterize an adolescent as fundamentally disabled because of a still-developing prefrontal cortex. That means they operate with passions, and brashly, and we've heard all these characterizations of young people, and we've experienced some of them, too, but we experience them with other folks as well. So youth ministry is often talked about in terms of almost like rehabilitation or keeping them safe until they can be integrated in society as “valued contributing members.” And that's a problem. It's a problem. It's a problem because what we're not doing in terms of youth agency is valuing the perspective that comes with this particular developmental stage that they're in right now. . . . Kenda Dean, professor of youth ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, characterizes that as their passion. And she says the passion is there; it just needs to be properly oriented. But what the church is missing oftentimes is that youth passion, because it's stuck in a youth room with a lopsided ping-pong table and a couch somebody didn't want instead of into the heart. And when it does come into the sanctuary, it's on Youth Sunday, which is poorly attended. And the truth is that youth can speak into all the aspects of what the church is doing and should have the opportunities to express that agency. And then youth passion can be received as a gift by the church instead of being feared. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:11:29] It's really celebrating all the members of the body, including those young people and the capacities they have that some of us perhaps have forgotten as we have aged. 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:11:45] Yes. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:11:46] What about this idea of allowing and making space for youth to explore and ask questions? And here too now, I want to be very sensitive to this idea of disability and disability studies. We're not always talking about cognitive practice, but sometimes there are other ways in which we can engage and make space for question asking with young people. So what might you offer us to help us think better about that? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:12:20] As you mentioned, it's not just asking and exploring questions, but it's embodying spaces that have strict social rules that are challenging to understand for people cross-culturally and for people on the autism spectrum, often. So how do we create spaces that make people feel safe to be there in the first place, to express themselves, and then to bring up things that may be uncomfortable? And the first thing that we have to do is communicate to them through our presence, action, and words that they aren’t going to somehow be devalued if they say things awkwardly, incompletely, or incorrectly. They have to know that this is a space where I can try things out and I'll still be welcomed next time. So that's part of it. In order to make a meeting space that way, it requires time together outside of the meeting space. In other words, if we're just thinking of programs and meetings as the place where youth are going to come and ask these questions, those questions probably won't be raised. They're going to only be raised if the young people feel safe because of a relationship. And so that means as youth leaders, we need to be there in the moments that are both in between and on the way. So it's in between this and that, on the way to this, after their games, at their lunch, after their lunch, on rides to wherever. These are the in-between and on-the-way spaces that youth leaders need to be [present in] to develop the kind of intimacy that promotes vulnerability. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:14:12] Yeah, for sure. This reminds me of two of the real key words as I read your book, and that is friendship and hospitality. And it strikes me that this is getting at both of those things very much. 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:14:29] Absolutely. And it pushes them, because hospitality and youth ministry—we like to think that we make hospitable spaces, but then we're controlling the environment and how people enter the environment. But we have to go into spaces that make us uncomfortable because people, especially young people with disabilities, won't know they have something to offer unless they have the opportunity to exercise hospitality themselves. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:14:56] Exactly. 

Host [00:14:59] You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

Kristen Verhulst [00:15:28] Families and parents have a very unique role in the faith formation of young people. What are you learning in the area of disability studies about how we can encourage and support and not work against the role of families and parents? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:15:47] I learned quickly that when it comes to disabilities, that parents are the experts. You have to. As soon as your child has a disability, you have a huge learning curve. And I'm so impressed by the way parents dive into that, and then they become advocates. And there are disability moms that can be downright scary sometimes because they're so used to having to fight for everything. They immediately get into that mode, and you have to tell them, “Wait, I'm on your team, I'm with you, I'm supporting you!” So they want that support. And what they want more than anything is someone to have a relationship with their child who's not paid to do it, that's not providing a service, not covered by insurance. It's just someone who loves their child and chooses them. And so I think that's the most important thing that we can do in youth ministry. And anyone can do that! That's the thing—we think you have to have these special skills to do ministry with young people with disabilities, but the biggest skill you have to have is being willing to be uncomfortable and learning to get through it. Early on, I also learned that youth ministry to and with young people with disabilities is family ministry. And that's not something I learned growing up in youth ministry. It was decades ago, obviously, and things have changed a lot. But then it was just you're hanging out with young people. You were sort of this adult guarantor yourself. You were this person in their life who was a little bit older who wasn't a parent, who wasn't a sibling, who was in support of the parents. But I realized that when we started this ministry in Virginia, a whole parallel ministry popped up, which was to and with the parents, providing respite and support, creating a community, networking. And it was just one of the most remarkable things. And in fact, in this next book, which is an update and an expanded version of Amplifying Our Witness, I plan to interview the parents of the young people I was working with ten years ago to see what their relationships are now and what they can teach me about, maybe what was good and what could have been better about youth ministry ten years ago. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:18:11] Oh, that sounds wonderful. So very much related to families and parents would be intergenerational community that we get through the church— sometimes the grandparents, but other people in the community. And I wonder too, . . . you said it doesn't take any special skill set other than being willing to be in relationship, to be uncomfortable, maybe to expand your empathetic skills. But what more can churches strive for in terms of intergenerational relationships as a way to love, support, and encourage true connections with youths with disabilities? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:18:58] So there are a number of ways, but the one that most comes to mind is connected to this broad idea that disability is a fluid concept. We think we know what disability is, but it gets murky as soon as we get into it. Does it have to do with a diagnosis and an impairment? Does it have to do with social structures that exclude people? And then can you be disabled for a while and not disabled? We know you can become disabled by accident, by birth, and by—and this is where it ties in—aging. So there are many people in our congregations, many of them the awful term “shut-ins,” but I'll say members, satellite members who want to be involved and connected and feel a sense of connection, who from the standpoint of vocation are in the same place adolescents are. In a sense, these are the two most stressful times for vocation: when you've retired, and when you're an adolescent, because in one you're not sure what you're going to be, and there's so much pressure, and it's all in front of you; and the other, it was your identity and now it's behind you. You're trying to figure out who you were. We could get these two groups together. Both of them feel marginalized, particularly adolescents with disabilities, older members of the congregation who are now more satellite members who can't be in physical spaces with other folks. If we could bring them together in some way, I think it would be an amazing benefit to all. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:20:38] Yeah, that's a wonderful connection. You mentioned earlier [that] many churches sort of fall into a rut of Youth Sunday or youth group held either while everyone else is worshiping in the big space or Sunday night, Wednesday night. But it's really this idea that we're separating youth and sort of a one-way approach to church life. And I think what we're learning a lot here, too, in our work at the Worship Institute is that there have to be multiple pathways that we engage in the Christian life and the life of the church. And so, again, I wonder what you're learning from your work and in practical theology and disability studies about how multiple pathways can really help us to strengthen and encourage and connect well with young people. 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:21:36] So I'll speak in terms of young people, but particularly young people with disabilities. We tend to have a template that we use. So with young people, you've pointed out the template, it's been called in Youth Ministry Journal the “one-eared Mickey Mouse.” So you've got the whole body as the head and then the one ear is where the youth are and they don't really connect. But then we've integrated that when we do it at some sort of Youth Sunday or a mission trip update or something like that. But I think churches are getting better at integrating young people into all the areas of the church, and that's good. But when it comes to young people with disabilities, to many of the congregations I go to it's handing out bulletins or being a greeter. It's to say to somebody, “This is the role that you can have if you want to participate” instead of asking the person. “What do you like to do? What gets you excited? What are some of your interests?” And then finding a mentor for that young person, particularly with intellectual and developmental disabilities, where they can partner with them in any area of the church that they want to. So I suppose the pathways are always through other people. It's always through people that connect them and help them and mentor them to use their gifts and passions for the benefit and growth of the whole body in ways that are fulfilling and that make a real contribution— and then to acknowledge those. And that's where Amplifying Our Witness comes from. Acknowledge those as true gifts to the church. And that changes the whole mindset about what the possibilities are for this young person. From the standpoint of social sciences, that's called “social role valorization.” In other words, now they have a social role that's valued by the community. And by affirming that, you're lifting it up, they're getting dignity, and other people are seeing them in a new role that sparks their imagination to think, “Hey, maybe they could do this; maybe they could do that.” 

Kristen Verhulst [00:23:42] Right. And it really speaks to never wanting to compartmentalize or generalize any individual. We're all created unique. And so why not ask go to that individual to say, “Share with me who you are, your uniqueness. And then that will lead us to helping you flourish in your life.” 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:24:08] Exactly. There's a well-known dictum or slogan, I can't remember exactly who said it, but it was “If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.”

Kristen Verhulst [00:24:19] Exactly. Yeah, that's right. Ben, I'm really thrilled to hear you are working on an updated version of the book, and I’ll be eager to see that when it comes out. As we close out this time together, I'm thinking of pastors and youth pastors who have read your book or might want to pick it up again now having heard this podcast. What parting words of encouragement or challenge or blessing would you give to those in pastoral roles in the church? 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:24:55] Two things as I think about it. One is that vocation is a central issue for young people, and we need to start thinking differently about vocation instead of this big, scary noun, this one thing that you're going to do, and start talking about vocations. Instead of asking young people, “What are you going to do when you grow up?”, start asking them, “What breaks your heart about the world? When do you feel most alive?” Different kinds of questions to help them see [that] the primary vocation of being a disciple has many different expressions in your life, and you'll have many, many vocations. So I think this idea of vocation is important. I've learned a lot from Kathleen Cahalan and her work: instead of thinking about vocation as the noun, the one big thing, to think of it in terms of prepositions, these connecting things—we're called through others, were called with others, out of circumstances, into situations—and help young people to discern what's going on in their lives, and how are these opportunities and challenges shaping them to participate in a unique way with their gifts in God's ongoing redemptive work in the world. So that's one thing. And the other has to do with social media. Don't be scared of social media. Obviously there's all kinds of studies about the anxieties and medications that people are taking to deal with it, bullying, cyberbullying. But it's here. It's here. And so you can't pretend like it's not here. And so how do we think with youth, taking their insights, helping them to think critically, about how do I live in this society that’s structured this way in a way that's faithful and promotes flourishing for all. I think those are the two big issues in youth ministry right now, and I'll be addressing both of those also in the upcoming work. 

Kristen Verhulst [00:27:01] Thank you so much, Ben. I really appreciate your time and learning and hearing from you. 

Benjamin T. Conner [00:27:08] Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. 

Host [00:27:12] Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.