Every leader has moments that demonstrate their most deeply held beliefs. Responding to such tests of belief requires a deep amount of thinking, learning, growing awareness, and a willingness to accept uncertainty. Those moments that in hindsight might most define a leader’s impact are so often made in the midst of a deep fog that obscures the future effects of the decision.
Fog and uncertainty are not uncommon in leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic showed many leaders just how much fog and uncertainty surrounds us every day. And yet, we rely on a loving God who beckons us forward in faith. God calls us to take steps based on the grounding of our faith, on belonging to God, even when the solid ground is obscured beneath us. This is the reality of leading courageously as a Christian. And leading courageously is a theme of Converge 2022, to be held in San Diego on March 8–10 of next year.
In keeping with that theme, I’d like to explore the question of inclusion and belonging in Christian schools. The fog of uncertainty and fear surrounds our reaction to many students, especially students with disabilities. And yet, there is solid ground to form the basis of our response to students who may test the boundaries of leadership. The solid ground is found in community, and in the long-term effects of inclusion that may not be immediately apparent. The community takes note of belonging, in part because it speaks so fundamentally to our hope of belonging to God.
When belonging is created with the most challenging moments in mind, it impacts all students. Not only can it impact the quality of teaching and learning, but we have learned that it also impacts the faith journey of alumni. According to ACSI’s 2019 Flourishing Schools Research report, alumni of Christian schools that meet the needs of students with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to report that they are walking with God.
For many students, the effect of the choices leaders make in the midst of that fog is a sense of belonging. Belonging is simultaneously a simple and complicated idea, but it is also biblical. In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul exhorts Christians to recognize the gifts and contributions of every member of the community, especially those that are traditionally underserved. And in Isaiah 43:1, we hear God say, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Over and over, we are reminded that we belong to God, and that such belonging is not ours to determine for others.
The solid ground before us, in the midst of our most challenging moments, is the knowledge that every student, at any ability, with any disability, is called to know and belong to our God. What steps through this fog must Christians take with such a calling in mind?
What does it mean to belong? Dr. Erik Carter at Vanderbilt University sought to answer this question for persons with disabilities in church communities. Dr. Carter and his associates asked hundreds of individuals with disabilities and their families across the country to identify the aspects that would make them feel like full members of community.
Through this research, Dr. Carter identified ten dimensions of belonging: present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed, and loved. The ten dimensions of belonging are such a beautiful picture of 1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV): “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Examining this model of belonging provides important guidance for understanding where our communities are succeeding, and where we are still working toward that vision:
Present—How often do we look around our schools and wonder about those who aren’t present? It is estimated that 20–25 percent of today’s population has a disability of some kind. On the most basic level, how does your school compare?
Invited—Have you ever attended a private event you weren’t invited to? A personal invitation makes such a difference, and yet we often expect families with disabilities to make the first move. Are there siblings, cousins, or employees we can seek out to add a richness of varied experiences to our community? Who are we missing out on?
Welcomed—Carter suggests you don’t need to be a disability expert to be welcoming; you can say hello, acknowledge each other, and find common ground. Sometimes this may involve gaining new understandings of disabilities, but also learning and teaching our students to recognize the shared humanity of every person we meet.
Known—Being known to your friends and your teachers is different than being known about. It can be tempting to label students by their achievements or even their deficits, but how are we getting to know all the facets and passions of our students?
Accepted—Acceptance follows being known, and accepting others means embracing each person for their uniqueness. For example, rather than asking students with sensory differences to react differently, how can we change the environment to adapt to their experiences of it?
Supported—Well-designed questions can lead us into community with one another, but we must practice active listening as we seek to understand the support students need. In special education practice, we must invest in the appropriate supports and bridges to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities.
Cared for—Based on the good questions mentioned above, are we responding to spiritual, practical, and emotional needs in ways that are meaningful to our students, particularly those with disabilities? Cardus research shows that parents of students in independent schools most value a “supportive, nurturing environment.” Students with disabilities are no different in this aspect.
Befriended—This is such an important skill to teach in our Christian schools, and we cannot assume that students have all the information they need to develop friendships naturally. For students with disabilities and their age-appropriate peers, are we taking the time to teach social skills?
Needed (Valued)—For students and their families who feel invisible or who have experienced rejection due to their disability, this is an extremely powerful aspect. The picture of community painted in 1 Corinthians 12 shows us that our schools need the gifts brought by students with disabilities; inclusion impacts everyone in the community. When was the last time we celebrated the gifts of a student who might also challenge us?
Loved—Much more than simply being nice, loving one another is our most radical act as Christians. For persons with disabilities who have historically been excluded and often feel like “outsiders,” it is a testimony of belonging together in Christ.
Clearing the Fog
The fog of fear and uncertainty can cloud the vision of great Christian school leaders from this solid ground of biblical belonging. It can make it seem like the challenge is to serve diverse abilities instead of diverse students. But in order to bridge that foggy divide, great inclusive leaders take the time to truly see one student at a time.
When approached as an individual child of God, every student brings their own unique history, gifts, skills, abilities, behaviors, and perspectives to the table. Every student brings their own voice, their own testimony to the workings of God in their lives. Perhaps, then, it is not students who must change to fit the existing facets of a school. Rather, Christian communities are called to welcome and embrace the gifts and needs of each student.
In such a way, Christian school leaders can define their impact in a way that exemplifies the Gospel message. Belonging is possible for every student of any ability when our foundation is faith. I hope you will join us at the Converge conference to explore and find inspiration to define your leadership with courageous inclusion.