Preparing the Next Generation of Church Leaders for Ministry with People with Disabilities

Dara Stull interacts with Barbara Kenney at Mosaic in Axtell.

If Wartburg seminary student Dara Stull could share only one lesson from time she spent with Mosaic last summer, it is “Be not afraid.”

“People get really nervous by the thought of working with people with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “They’re afraid that they’re not going to know how to communicate with them, but they can’t be afraid of it. These are people who have a lot to teach us about how God works in the world.”

Stull was one of a handful of seminary students learning about ministry with and among people with intellectual disabilities through a partnership between Mosaic and Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.The classes were taught by the Rev. Dr. David deFreese, Mosaic’s Vice President of Church Relations and the Rev. Dr. Jim Fruehling, Mosaic’s Vice President of Behavioral and Spiritual Supports.

“The students were full of life,” deFreese said. “They taught us a lot.”

The students spent two weeks in class, where they learned about theology and disability, heard stories from Mosaic’s history and spent time with the people Mosaic serves and employees. The group also spent time at Mosaic’s campus location in Axtell and with Mosaic in Omaha, where they spent time with residents and employees. 

“What we are after is sensitivity and empathy for future leaders of the church,” deFreese said. “People with disabilities are needed and missing in our churches and these students understood that.”

The class was a mix of students who want to be pastors and students who will serve as either diaconal ministers, deaconesses or associates in ministry. 

Stull, who will graduate from Wartburg with a master’s in divinity and plans to be a pastor, developed a passion for working with children with autism while serving as a camp director. 

“There isn’t a whole lot of other resources out there to prepare leaders,” Stull said. “When this class came up on the schedule, I was pretty excited.”

Seeing what happens to people with disabilities when they are adults was very informative, she said.

“Even though I had worked with people with disabilities, it had mostly been with young people. To see the care and the relationships that the staff have with the people in group homes was pretty fantastic,” Stull said. “To hear from staff the pride that they have in what they do was very telling. To actually see that happen as we spent time in the day centers and the training centers was amazing.”

The program was funded in part by a grant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) “Always Being Made New” 25th anniversary campaign, which includes $4 million for expanding ministry with people living with disabilities. Mosaic is an affiliated social ministry organization of the ELCA.

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