Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Gifted, Called, and Differently-Abled


Lisa Thogmartin-Cleaver is Director for Disability Ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Chicago, Illinois. She may be reached at lcleaver@elca.org.

Because I was born with a disability and it has always been part of who I am, for many years I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. I found that as a person who is differently-abled I had one of two choices to make: I could choose to acknowledge my disability and interact with my environment in the unique and best ways possible for me, or I could choose to ignore my disability, try to “fit in” and live as “normal” a life as possible. I made the second choice and spent the first 30 years or so of my life telling myself and being told by others that I was a gifted person with a lot to offer to others “in spite of my disability.”

My relationship with God and with the Lutheran Church has always been there. I grew up in a small town church in central Ohio. For many years the church was not accessible in terms of physical accessibility (wheelchair ramps, elevators, widened bathroom stalls, etc.), but that didn’t seem to be a huge issue for me. Being differently-abled and using a wheelchair was a part of my existence and I got along fine “in spite of it.” I was as active at church as I was able to be, serving as the president of my youth group, singing in the choir, and eventually serving as the president of the women’s organization. Church was a very satisfying part of my life and there came a time when I wanted more involvement in that world.

I suppose on some level I always felt a call to the ministry. As I approached college I gave a good deal of thought to attending a Lutheran college like Capital University and majoring in religion, but at the time the school was not accessible and so I decided on Ohio State. Ordained ministry remained in the back of my mind, but it just didn’t seem like a good choice because women were only beginning to be ordained, and most church buildings I knew of were not anywhere near being physically accessible.

At Ohio State I majored in English Education. The university is totally accessible and I literally encountered no barriers in my four years. The one life-changing thing that did happen during that period of my life was the death of my father. It was one of those moments that made me even more determined to do the best I could for myself “in spite of my disability.” When I graduated from college I began to look for a job in teaching, naively assuming that I wouldn’t have any problems related to being differently-abled. Wrong! I went to the first several interviews without telling them I am differently-abled, and the reaction was “Well, we didn’t know you were handicapped” as if that were the end of any possibility of my being a good teacher. Eventually I began to sub for a school system close to where I was living and then became a permanent part of the staff.

I taught for about three years then went to graduate school for a Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling. Upon graduation I was hired as a counselor at a large hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where I worked for the next couple of years. In 1989, I reached a crossroads in my career. Due to budget cuts people were being laid off. I was one of the chosen and found myself either needing to find a new position in the same field or look for something new. I began the interview process, but there was always some reason I didn’t get the position. Was God trying to tell me something? One day I went to talk with my pastor and he asked me a question that was hard to ignore: “Is it possible God is calling you to something else?” It was the first time I allowed myself to think of being a minister. Could I do it? One day, on the spur of the moment, I went to Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and talked with the admissions officer. I had a tour, looked over the courses, talked about financial aid, and before I knew it I was enrolled as a student in the summer Greek program. Looking back on that period of time I realize God wasn’t just calling, God was pushing!

The four years of my seminary education were the happiest and most fulfilling I had known to that point. I made dear friends, received affirmation of my call to the ordained ministry, and best of all learned to see myself as a gifted person “because of my disability.” I can’t say that I was totally supported by everyone I knew in my decision to go into the ministry. Some of my friends and even some of my family thought I was crazy to do this. How do you explain to someone “I just know this is what I am supposed to do”? It is a very personal experience and almost impossible to convey in words.

In my senior year, I encountered my only true moment of opposition. Each of us had to have a final interview with our candidacy committee which would determine if we were approved for ministry. When I went through my interview I was told they were going to delay my approval because one member of the committee didn’t feel I was “Lutheran” enough in my theology. For once my radar was up and I suspected that the delay had more to do with my disability than anything else. Well, when you give me a challenge I will meet it head on, so I did all the extra work I was asked to do and was eventually approved for graduation and ordination.

I waited about 14 months before I received a call to serve as the pastor of a small town congregation in northwestern Ohio. I served there for nearly five years. It was a time of great growth for everyone involved. For me it was a time to deepen my spiritual life and my dependence on God. It was also a time in which I grew and became more self-confident as person. There were of course difficult times, but with the help of God we were able to accomplish a great deal.

In 1999, I received and accepted a call from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) church-wide offices to serve as its Director for Disability Ministries. It was overwhelming and a little frightening at first, but I eventually began to feel comfortable in this work I had been called to. In my position, I work with all aspects of the ELCA in helping them to understand how to effectively reach out to persons with disabilities. In the three years I have been in this position, I have seen great strides made by the ELCA in including persons with disabilities in all aspects of the church. There is still a long way to go in creating a totally inclusive church for all people with disabilities, but the work towards that goal continues every day.

I am very fulfilled in the work I do. It is an exciting thing to know you are changing the lives of people, including people you will never meet. Most important to me, though, is that I am sure the Holy Spirit is at work in my life. I believe that God called me to this place, and with God’s help I will continue to do effective work until I am called to another place.