Just as organization and structure are essential to an effective diocesan ministry with people with disabilities, so too are they needed on a parish level. Many parishes throughout the country have successfully increased the meaningful participation of parishioners with disabilities through the efforts of parish advocates trained and supported by a diocesan director. Other parishes build inclusion through efforts of the parish council or a subcommittee of that official body, disability concerns committee, or other parish entity.
The structure, direction, and speed with which this ministry evolves within any parish will vary according to a number of factors, including the following:
- vision, mission, and ministerial focus of the pastor;
- level of commitment to the ministry on the part of the pastor, parish staff, committee chairs;
- size and demographics of the parish;
- availability of funds;
- number of staff persons or volunteers involved in this ministry;
- programs currently in existence; and
- needs that are particular to a local population (e.g., presence of an institution, group home, or a school for the deaf).
The following components are essential to an effective ministry with people with disabilities, regardless of how the ministry is conducted within the parish structure:
Provides access to the pastor.
It is important that the person assigned to oversee disability ministry within the parish, whether on a paid or volunteer basis (hereafter referred to as the parish advocate) has an opportunity to meet with the pastor to determine his priorities, and thereby assure that the ministry fits within the mission and ministerial scope of the parish. Ongoing communication with and support from the leadership of the parish is critically important to the success and relevance of the ministry.
Clearly identifies placement of ministry within the parish structure.
Ideally, the pastor or his associate identifies the mission and goals for the ministry and where it will fit within the parish structure. Regardless of the ministry structure, the parish advocate should have access to colleagues from various parish offices, committees, and organizations to ensure collaborative efforts for integration and inclusion.
Is committed to the ministry at all levels.
In order to be successful, this ministry must be supported by the pastor, his associates, and other parish personnel and volunteers. Without such a commitment to the goals and ideals of the ministry, the efforts of the parish advocate would be minimized due to a lack of cooperation and support.
Respects the discrete levels at which the ministry is carried out.
This ministry is truly successful if disability concerns are addressed by parish programs, committees, and organizations as part of their regular plans and programs. Therefore, the parish advocate acts as a consultant to parish personnel, infusing a knowledge of disability perspectives and concerns, but allowing the direct interaction with and welcoming of people with disabilities to be made by each entity within the parish. Thus the parish advocate, rather than running special programs which may tend to isolate parishioners with disabilities, enables the various levels within the system to provide welcome and essential services.
For example, rather than hosting a separate retreat for parishioners with disabilities, the parish advocate would offer advice on access issues to the committee planning the parish family retreat, in order to heighten awareness and facilitate participation. Likewise, a parish advocate would offer to the parish director of religious education support and resources to assist in preparing a student with mental retardation to receive first reconciliation and Eucharist within the parish family, rather than in a separate program offered outside the parish.
At the same time, at this level, the parish advocate may be called upon directly to address the issues brought by members of the parish and should be prepared not only to make referrals, but also to function as an advocate and bridge builder when appropriate. Thus, the parish advocate may be involved in direct service in a manner less effective at other levels of the ministry.
Provides sufficient personnel and financial resources.
Adequate staffing, whether on a paid or volunteer basis, and funding enables a ministry to achieve its goals, thereby enriching the parish, and fulfilling its mission of building the Body of Christ.
Utilizes competent personnel.
The pastor appoints a parish advocate qualified to implement the mission and goals throughout the parish, whether establishing the ministry for the first time or assuming leadership for a pre-existing ministry. This person should receive appropriate on-going training. Section B of this chapter details necessary qualifications and responsibilities of the parish advocate.
Delineates clear role descriptions and lines of authority, and provides adequate supervision.
This ministry more effectively carries out the parish mission when it is supported by competent staff or volunteers whose role is clearly defined and supervised.
Creates opportunities for people with disabilities to meaningfully participate.
Parish offices and organizations, with the support of the parish advocate, create opportunities for meaningful participation for people with disabilities and their families in all aspects of the parish community, including the following:
- faith formation;
- sacramental life of the church;
- ministerial, educational, and social life of the church;
- parish activities
- offering their gifts to the community, including as Eucharistic ministers, lectors, deacons, and in otherleadership roles
Incorporates a disability perspective into all areas of the faith community and facilitates collaboration.
Rather than focusing on running separate programs, the parish advocate helps parish offices and organizations to assume their responsibility to welcome and include parishioners with disabilities. Such consultation includes the following:
- works with parish offices, committees and organizations, including, but not limited to, Buildings andGrounds, Liturgy, Family Life, Religious Education, Social Concerns, Sodality;
- shares resources and offers strategies to pastors, DREs, parish councils;
- identifies key resource people, such as those knowledgeable about specific access issues, or sign languageinterpreters;
- builds a resource library;
- utilizes parish bulletins and newsletters;
- offers support to catechists of students with special needs.
Keeps abreast of current and emerging social policy issues, trends, and threats which impact on the life and options of people with disabilities and their families.
In order adequately to promote disability awareness, the parish advocate should be informed on the myriad issues affecting the lives of people with disabilities, including the following:
- social security, welfare, and economic policy;
- health care, managed care, health maintenance organizations;
- education, rehabilitation, and independent living;
- family support issues;
- emerging ethical issues such as euthanasia and assisted suicide, eradication of disability through abortion,genetic testing and pre-birth diagnosis.
Keeping abreast of such issues enables the parish advocate to address more adequately the concerns of people with disabilities and their families.
Priorities, Goals, and Objectives
The parish advocate is appointed to coordinate parish services for people with disabilities in order to ensure their full and meaningful participation in the parish community. During initial planning, the parish advocate establishes goals and objectives for fulfilling the mission and priorities defined by the pastor. In some cases the pastor may delegate the responsibility of defining priorities to the parish advocate. In either case, the goals and objectives, and the time lines within which they are to be accomplished, should be based on a realistic assessment of staff and resource availability. Care should be taken not to set up the ministry for failure by being overly ambitious when defining and setting goals and objectives. Accomplishment of achievable goals sets a firm foundation for future growth.
When assuming responsibility for a pre-existing program or ministry, the parish advocate must familiarize himself or herself with the already defined goals and objectives, and must subsequently develop appropriate time lines and action plan.
For each identified priority, goals and objectives are defined which describe a desired end to be accomplished through a series of concrete tasks. As the diagram on the following page illustrates, each level of the plan supports the next higher level. The priorities, goals, objectives, and tasks together constitute a plan of action for the parish advocate and other volunteers. In order to accomplish the over-arching mission, components of the plan must work harmoniously and stay on target. Tasks must be clearly defined from the beginning to ensure that actions do not stray, but rather stay related to goals and objectives.