You Got Served: What are We Teaching PWDs About Service?

Hello, readers,

I promised a post about PWDs who are jailed often because of their disabilities, and that is coming. However, I have a pressing topic that I found out this morning can no longer wait.

This morning, I was asked to moderate a comment from a reader who goes by the name Shamstar. This reader has Asperger’s Syndrome and because of that has had trouble keeping jobs. This reader writes, “I have to do what I feel like doing,” and finds it difficult to fill orders, take direction, or do other things people take for granted in job settings. Shamstar’s brain is just not built the same way as most workers’ are. But Shamstar’s concerns don’t rest with the job market. They rest with the church.

Most churches are big on service. In the words of Shamstar, “we have help others, serve, give to the needy, coming at us” week after week. Now, as you all know, I have no issue with that on the surface. Jesus said to serve so we could show love for and glorify Him. What I do have a problem with, is the way service is couched and the way PWDs are often left out of service, but then shamed for non-participation.

I know this is true because I have experienced it myself many times. An older woman in my church once bumped into me in town and asked if I was going to help with Vacation Bible School that year. I wasn’t, because I’ve done it before. What ended up happening was, I was welcomed warmly–but then relegated to a corner while the other helpers made the crafts and played the sports and tied the kids’ shoes. I didn’t tell this woman any of that, but, with a clipped tone, she said, “Well, you need to do it.” Subtext: if you don’t, you are disobedient and refusing to serve.

I have been judged for not going on Third World mission trips because they are unsafe. Most people don’t believe that; they believe instead that I am spoiled and making excuses not to serve the most vulnerable people in the world. Or, they believe I don’t go because of my family’s overprotectiveness, and then belittle and push my family, nosing in where they don’t belong.

So naturally, when the topic of service comes up in a sermon, I get prickly. There have been times I came this close to walking out. And now I think, how many other PWDs feel that way? I know Shamstar does–and I have no doubt he or she wants to serve, but isn’t equipped to do so. How many others are out there? More importantly, what are we telling PWDs about service and what should we be telling them instead? I think there are a few common misconceptions on this issue, and I’m going to share them with you now, as well as how we can fix them.

Service is all physical. As in, if you can’t build a house in Africa or pick up trash on the highway, don’t bother coming out–but don’t make excuses, either. Stay home so we can either pity or condemn you later. No, no, NO. Service is not completely physical, nor does it have to take the form of a 9-5 job. Service can be praying for others. Service can be leaving a tip in the barista’s jar, letting someone else go first, or saying, “Have a nice day.” Service can be smiling, and Lord knows we all need smiles.

Conversely, there’s the myth that PWDs can only do “inactive service”-type tasks. You know, like the woman everybody reads about in devotional books who’s bedridden, but prays all day, or the veteran double amputee who now makes blankets to send to Siberia. I’m not for a minute knocking these things–they are great examples of service. If they are what you want to do most, or feel called to do, go for it, my friend. But as with everything else, don’t assume a PWD can’t serve in physical or active ways if he or she wants to.

Service is about production. PWDs get judged and maligned all the time because Christians think “production” is a synonym for service. As in, if that PWD is not out here, helping fix the leaks and change the diapers, he or she must be home, sitting on his or her butt in front of the TV. I will remind those Christians of something I was told today by a very stern but loving friend: service is not about producing. It is about glorifying God. Remember two things. Martha produced–but Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and learned. And Jesus favored neither Mary nor Martha–He loved them both best.

Serving others is about leaving one’s comfort zone. Okay, yeah, I’ll buy that to a point. Even the most extraverted person will probably admit that interacting with strangers is uncomfortable. But just because you’re not being “pushed,” it doesn’t mean you’re not serving. Writing is my comfort zone–and yet it takes a lot out of me to do it. Playing with little kids in children’s church or making appetizers may be what another PWD is comfortable doing, so don’t make the mistake of saying, “You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone–go learn to do X instead.” And at the same time, one more misconception:

PWDs could serve more, if they tried harder/practiced more/learned more. I’m not even going to bother analyzing this one. It’s the blame game, and it assumes all PWDs have hard hearts and attitude problems. Just stop it.

So, go forth and serve–but serve well.



  1. Ugh, I feel angry about that jerk lady getting all uppity at you for not participating in Vacation Bible School. For one, NO ONE is obligated to participate in any particular service, regardless. But yeah, I can only imagine that this uppity attitude is way worse for people with disabilities, especially since you are so often unfairly excluded from things. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about some church-goers (or anyone with an “us” and “them” club, honestly) it’s that they will always find some way to judge themselves holier than thou. It’s such a shame to see things that should be so positive and good wielded as weapons of someone’s ego… things like love, service, charity, family, spirituality. These things should never be tools of discrimination, but sadly, they are.

  2. And, to be honest, I wasn’t trying to make that comment sound all judgey about church folks… I’ve just had a boatload and a half of experience with it from church people (which is why I am not sure I will never go to church again EVER). But I’ve seen it in other groups to so, yeah, it’s not exclusive.

  3. I didn’t take that as judgmental to church people at all. 🙂 Sadly, there are far too many “us and them” groups around, and the consensus seems to be, “If you don’t do everything like us, you are one of them. And we don’t want them.” Anyone would think Christians would be beyond this–I mean, of all people! We’re not, but a great number of us are working on that. Blessings to you.

    1. Thank you. I guess any person in a position of majority or power tends to let it get to their head. Able-bodied people tend to think that they are the proper judge of what people with disabilities can and should do. “Good” churchy people tend to think that they are the proper judge of what the “less holy” people can and should do. White people tend to think to think that they are the proper judge of what black people can and should do. Etc. I think that Christians do it a lot because, in the US, they are the majority so they wield that kind of power. If someone else were the majority, I’ve no doubt it would still happen. I may not be Christian anymore, but I am very glad that Christians are still working on it. All the best to you!

  4. Well said Independence Chick!! No one should be shamed into someone else’s idea of God’s calling in their life.

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