Princeton Youth Ministry and Disability Conference

At the start of February, I had the pleasure of participating in the Disability and Youth Ministry Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Gratitude is in order to Abigail Visco Rusert, the Institute for Youth Ministry Director, and the many others that made this conference a priority and invested in this important conversation. An extension of hospitality was evident from the moment I and other participants signed up, and the environment was one of generous friendship and open dialogue.

Adolescence is a challenging time for many young people, and with today’s complexities – in part due to rapid technological advancement and 24/7 connectivity – it has only become an increasingly tricky season of life to navigate. Add to this the potential social stigma, barriers, and support needs that come with visible and invisible disabilities and mental health challenges, and it is no wonder that youth pastors and practitioners are hungry for relevant training and resources in this area.

Erin Raffety shares with a group at the Disability & Youth Ministry Conference (courtesy Princeton Theological Seminary on Facebook)

The conference brought together academics, social service professionals, emerging scholars, ministry leaders, and pastors with and without disabilities to address topics such as:

  • “Who is normal: Which God? Whose Image?”
  • “The Skin You’re In: Embodiment, Cure, and Care.”
  • “Disabled Adolescents; [Dis]abling Youth Ministry.”

Toward the end of 2017, I had submitted a paper for consideration entitled Healing through rebirth – Resurrected communities with youth with disabilities. In this paper, I explored the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter in the gospels, and how it challenges our preconceived notions of what “healing” should look like in our own lives and the lives of others. I was honoured that it was selected as one of the four paper presentations to be given at the conference. If this is a topic that is of interest to you, please don’t hesitate to contact me at to learn more.

John Swinton from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland was one of the plenary speakers. He challenged us to think about our images of God, and how these can shape our perceptions of one another. In his second talk, he reflected on the need for the vocations of people with disabilities in our churches, and the ways that “becoming friends of time” redefines our notions of “clock time” and opens us to the experiences and contribution of others. As always, John’s words left participants with a great deal to consider and reflect upon.

You are welcome to listen to any of the three plenary sessions using the player below:

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to pick up a copy of John’s latest book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship

Amy E. Jacober, Founder and Faculty of the Sonoran Theological Group led a session “Redefining Perfect: Ministries That Welcome and Include Youth in Your Community.” Here we learned to challenge our preconceptions of perfection, focusing instead on spaces that foster faith formation and growth. Jacober is author of The Adolescent Journey and the recently published Redefining Perfect: The Interplay Between Theology and Disability.

Ben Conner from Western Theological Seminary led a breakout session “Disabled Adolescents; [Dis]abling youth Ministry.” Conner is the authour of several books including Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. He led us on a fascinating journey through the roots of the modern social construct we call “adolescence” and into considerations for discipleship and Christian practice with young people with disabilities.

In the evening of Thursday, February 1st, Rev. Bill Gaventa hosted an engaging practitioner panel highlighting the intersections of social services and youth ministry.

Erin Raffety wrapped up the conference on Friday afternoon. Erin is a lecturer in Youth, Church, and Culture in the area of Education Formation in the Department of Practical Theology and Princeton Theological Seminary. She shared insights from cultural anthropology and her experience as mother of Lucia, who was born with a progressive genetic disease of the brain. You can read her excellent “On Being Transformed” over at the Institute for Youth Ministry Blog.

In fact, I highly recommend you check out the entire Blog series, a precursor to this conference:

The Promise of Disability: An IYM Blog Series

This series features many of the speakers and authors I have mentioned above.

Again, I must extend thanks to the Institute for Youth Ministry and Princeton Theological Seminary for highlighting this crucial conversation at the intersection of youth, disability, and faith. My hope is that this is only the beginning and we will see other seminaries pick up on this theme to advance the good work that has begun. Ultimately, our prayer is that this will have cascading ripples that help shape positive and faith-formational experiences for hundreds, if not thousands, of young people with disabilities across North America.

I will leave you with a photo of the presenters and keynotes who I truly enjoyed spending these two days with (courtesy of the Princeton Theological Seminary Facebook Page)

Presenters at the conference

(L to R) Keith Dow, John Swinton, Amy Jacober, Erin Raffety, Miriam Spies, Ben Conner, Wes Ellis, Laura MacGregor