Christian Horizons’ Vision is that: “People who experience disabilities belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.” This Vision is supported by seven unique Service Principles (you can find the list of these principles here). These Service Principles describe the ways in which Christian Horizons supports people. This is the sixth in a series of posts that takes a look at these Service Principles, to learn how they are important in serving others whether in social services or as part of faith communities.

Christian Horizons’ sixth Service Principle is: “We Recognize the Need for Holistic Supports.”

We believe that a person is more than the sum of his or her parts. It is impossible to totally capture a person’s existence into a few words and phrases. We recognize that persons with exceptional needs are at risk for being seen in a fragmented way, with needs in various areas; therefore we will work to provide supports in a holistic fashion, addressing areas such as: intellectual needs, emotional needs, physical needs and spiritual needs. 

This Service Principle goes on to include descriptions of how Christian Horizons seeks to address each of these areas of need. Hopefully, the principle of holistic supports has been evident in reflections on Christian Horizons’ other Service Principles, as it ties each of these principles together.

Holistic support may be particularly important when contrasted to a “specialist” approach to care. “Specialists” may restrict their focus to a select component of a person’s mind or body. There is a common misconception that quality care depends primarily on the level of expertise or intellectual knowledge the caregiver possesses. In my experience, quality care depends more on the caregiver’s compassion and perspective on the whole person. What some “specialists” seem to forget when they neglect the person as a whole is that concerns are often interconnected. I suggest that in the same way that issues in one area of someone’s life may contribute to issues in another, it is possible that healing in one area may contribute to healing in another. Therefore, a holistic approach is often much more effective than the fragmented approach of compartmentalizing everything into specialties.

Christian ministries may have more impact if they focus on holistic care and ministry than on a “specialist” approach to faith or spirituality. It is too easy to fragment intellectual, physical, and emotional needs as aspects of flourishing spirituality.

Lack of congruence between theology and ministry practices can lead to pain or confusion. For example, someone may be taught that God provides for all their needs but then they go without food. Or, someone who experiences a disability may misunderstand a link between sin and disability, seeing their disability as evidence that God is angry with them for something they did.

It may seem easier to focus on particular areas of need than a whole person, especially if one’s needs appear to be more complex due to disability. The church may be inclined to prioritize spiritual well-being over physical. We need to remember that the work of Jesus, who we seek to emulate, nourished both body and soul in his earthly ministry (thinking of examples such as the feeding of the 5000 and the many physical healings he performed).

We need not overcomplicate a holistic approach to community programs or ministry. Rather, we must be attentive to how we might address various needs within opportunities for involvement in our churches and the wider community. By way of example, let us consider the context of a Bible study or other group participation activity.

Intellectual Needs: There may be a risk of neglecting the intellectual needs of the group if it is assumed that someone will not enjoy or learn from the study if they have intellectual or cognitive limitations. Yet, intellectual needs can be addressed through various types of learning opportunities; including, but not limited to, formal education and training programs or learning through life experiences.  Regardless of whether someone is able to understand and articulate the theological principles of a Bible study, they are surely learning on various levels by the very fact of their participation in the group.

Physical Needs: One might not think that there are physical benefits of a Bible study if the focus is not directly related to the health and well-being of one’s body. Specifically incorporating movement could be a benefit for all participants but, even if that is not a priority, there may be physical benefits in mingling with members before and after the group or in the process of travelling to and from.

Social and Emotional Benefits: These may depend in part on how regularly one can participate. If it represents a one-time event, the social and emotional benefits may be less than if they consistently engage in it over a long period of time. Consistent, long-term participation may foster the development of a variety of social relationships and emotional connections.

Spiritual needs: In some respects, the spiritual benefits of a Bible study may be self-explanatory. If one learns about or practices spiritual teaching there are bound to be spiritual benefits. Even if a participant does not appear to be comprehending those components, similar to the intellectual benefits, one’s spiritual well-being can be enhanced through their experience of others. As a child, Christian family and friends emphasized both that God had the power to heal me and that if He chose not to I was completely acceptable just the way I was. I did not fully understand, believe, and accept this until I was 15 and my youth pastor lifted me onto a regular school bus to go to a youth event.

I realized that God did not need to heal me because through other people God made it possible for me to be blessed and be a blessing.

Whether one experiences disabilities or not, we can all learn and understand a lot about who God is and what God does through our connections to and relationships with other believers. That’s why it is important for the church to recognize that people impacted by disability represent far more than their disability. This is because, from God’s perspective, limitations do not render anyone disabled, but rather dependent on Him and the community which He places around us. We are each specifically equipped with different strengths and limitations to accomplish the purposes that He has for us. While specialists and the wider society may have a limited perspective on one’s less “functional” parts, the church can serve people impacted by disability by viewing them more like God does; recognizing that because we each bear the image of God we are all not only worthy of blessing but are also a blessing to the church and the wider community around us.