What’s In A Name? Visioning a Name for Your Special Needs Ministry

by Jason & Vangie Rodenbeck

One of the most frequent questions I (Vangie) am asked as I consult in the field of special needs ministry nationwide is, “What should we call it?” This is a product of our culture’s need to market goods and services, thus “branding” them so that the consumer is both targeted and reached. In a time when other ministries within a church might be named in a way which conveys the meaning behind the ministry but also attracts ministry “consumers,” special needs specific ministries cannot be left aside, lest they become anonymous and undistinguished service projects.

The greater problem inherent within this system is language itself. Just as the methods of branding and advertising are of recent advent to the Church and its ministries (new during the last twenty years) so are the implications of language usage. In an interview with Stanford University Press, philosopher Jacques Derrida said of using language responsibly “we are all mediators, translators.” What Derrida was saying is that our world and culture assign meaning to words and language regardless of the intent of the author of those words.


Language for use in the realm of special needs ministry is no different. Intrinsic in the use of words to describe a ministry of this nature, are certain attitudes and assumptions of our culture. Even when the intent is not to marginalize or “put down,” language can communicate a posture toward a people group. Already, I have entered the controversy with the use of the term “special needs” to differentiate

this ministry from any other based on a physical, emotional or intellectual difference rather than strength.


Here are a few other examples:


  • Handicap – More than just the number of strokes a golfer might exceed par, this literally means to place at a disadvantage or to be disadvantaged.
  • Disability Ministry – This phrase clearly communicates the membership of such a group as “un” able.
  • Developmentally Delayed – Often used to convey, in a gentle way, someone whose development is hindered, this terminology also stresses a weakness rather than a positive attribute to classify an entire people group.[1]


My (Vangie) career as a writer and advocate for this kind of ministry is often frustrated by the dilemma of how to convey meaning without using a phrase that might offend someone outside my immediate context. Almost every text I contribute has, in some part of it, a phrase to which someone might hold strong objection. This is because, as Derrida predicted, everyone is translating my language according to his or her own experience and context. Amos Yong, in The Bible, Disability and The Church, wrote,

In our politically correct times, there are additional pressures for us to adopt nondiscriminatory terms, so we talk about the ‘physically challenged’ rather than the ‘physically disabled’ or the ‘physically handicapped.’ To avoid even the hint of negativity in contemporary discussions, we have even tried dropping ‘disability’ from our vocabulary altogether, resorting instead to the language of ‘temporary able-bodiedness’….This fluidity of our language for disability reflects in part the discomfort of the dominant culture with talking about issues that people fear or do not understand.[2]


More than once, these frustrations have left me feeling as if I have no tools to use in advocacy for a group of people about which I am passionate. While I’d love to write a lecture on the history of language used in the “disability movement” what would be more helpful is a useful discussion about how language changes, as well as  a few guidelines about how to communicate your passion for this ministry.


The Evolution of Language (Jason)

The aforementioned reference to Derrida may leave some “conservatives” with a bad taste in their mouth.  Derrida is recognized as a proponent of “deconstructionism,” or the notion that intended meaning is irrelevant and that a text’s meaning is entirely the responsibility of the reader.  The phrase, “perception is reality” is a kitschy way of capturing the heart of this postmodern approach to meaning.  The assumption is that there is no meaning in a text, or in reality, and that it us up to the reader or the observer to determine meaning for herself. People who believe that kind of thing are liable to say things like, “That’s true for you, but not for me.”

Conservative Christians have often responded to this kind of relativist approach to reality by taking a reactive stance.  Much of my conservative Christian education reacted by insisting that “words have meaning,” which gave the impression that to disagree with deconstructionism is to assume that language is a static, unchanging thing—that words, themselves, are the ideas they represent.

However, being “reactive” is rarely a healthy way to respond to a questionable position.  In other words, if a position is not ideal (or even bad), that doesn’t mean that taking the opposite approach is always logical or advisable.

When it comes to language, I propose an approach which is not Derrida’s deconstruction, but also not “conservative.”  I propose that words do not have inherent meaning.  People have inherent meaning.  This implies that ideas, because they come from people, also have inherent meaning.  But those ideas are tied to the person and that person’s context, not to the words they use; for instance, if we English people are to read Scripture, it must be translated into our language and our context.

Our goal in reading a text, then, is not to determine our own meaning or to simply define the words we see.  Our goal is to find the intended meaning of the text, by getting to know the writer and the writer’s context.  In biblical studies, we call this exegesis.

The practical upshot for our discussion, then, is not to see words as meaningless sets of sounds or unchanging ideas within themselves.  Instead, words are tools created by people and used by those same people—for good or for ill. Language is a constantly evolving thing as people change the usage or meaning of terms, scuttle old language, or create new according to the needs of their context.  What a word means to one person in one context, may not mean the same to another in another. This is not deconstructionism; it is the reality of our world.  And it means that we must always be in the habit of not just asking, “what does this word mean,” but “what does this person mean when they use this word?”  It is the work of exegesis that is the responsibility of all communicators.

So what?  When we approach language this way, we are admitting that God has, indeed, given his people some power over what we call things.  A great student I had in one of my classes, Don Pollard, pointed this out to me one night in class.

It will help you to realize that Don is a paraplegic.  He lost the use of all of his limbs in an accident when he was a very small child.  In this way, we might say he grew up “handicapped” (for our purposes, let’s say “PURE”).

Our discussion for the evening centered on the creation narrative in Genesis, and what Moses meant when he recorded that humans had been created “in God’s image.” Now, there are many ways that people have interpreted this concept.  For myself, I am torn on it.  However, we discussed many theories that night.  That is when Don spoke.

He said, “Jason, I have always wondered if God’s mandate for Adam to ‘name’ the animals has something to do with this.”

Now, I love it when a student blows my mind, so I asked him to go on.

He said, “Well, the creation account says that God created by a speech act.  What if part of being made in God’s image means being like God?  What if being like God means that God has given humans the ability, or the responsibility, to participate in that speech act by naming what he has created?”

Let’s be clear, I believe Don Pollard might be a genius.  Looking at it this way we see that God’s mandate for Adam is still being enacted today.  Being godlike as humans means participating in creation by naming it.  In a healthy, sin-free reality, that naming happens in a healthy way.  We call things what they are for good.  In a sinful reality in which people are selfish, status-oriented, and sometimes cruel, that naming happens for ill.  Hence, racism, verbal abuse, etc.

If we understand this reality well, the church has a grand opportunity, even a responsibility.  It is an opportunity to rename what has been named poorly in the past.  And because we rename it we are, in a sense, restoring it to the beauty and glory that God has given it in the first place.  It is our opportunity to reorient ourselves to the creation that God loves and to reveal to the world his love for that creation.

We don’t name what we name because we want to sell it.  We name what we name because we want to point people to God.


Guidelines for Using “Disability Friendly” Language (Vangie)

#1 Communicate

First and foremost, language is used to communicate ideas. If we succumb to pressures of our culture to be politically correct all the time, we may feel we are left tongue-tied. But do not lose heart! Focus on communicating clearly what your ministry is like. Many churches have decided to settle on Special Needs Ministry because it clearly conveys the goals of the ministry. Another approach is to sit down with a word bank and describe the people of your ministry and how you feel about them. With that in mind, Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, GA called their ministry the JOY Ministry as they seek to extend Jesus’ Opportunity for You. What ever you catchy name you choose, communicate it mission clearly in a near paragraph on your website.


#2 Use People-First Language

By people-first language, I mean phrasing things in such a way that highlights their humanity first, and their differences second. This small distinction respects the individual as a person made in the image of God over all else. Community Bible Church in San Antonio, TX did a masterful job of this in both their ministry title, Axcess, and on their website in the following paragraph:

The Special Needs Ministry serves persons of all abilities. We strive to allow each person and those who care for them to participate fully at CBC. We have both a self-contained learning environment and an inclusive approach. Inclusion is our goal, but we do consider safety and family preferences. We work closely with caregivers so that our volunteers and buddies can help each student feel loved while developing spiritually at his or her level.[3]

#3 Consider PURE Language

At PURE Ministries we have met the challenge of how to convey ministry to persons with different abilities by coining our own language that we believe is not only more positive but also more scriptural. The PURE acronym is packed with meaning:


P erfectly created by a loving sovereign God, designed for His purpose

U nique in his or her own gifts, blessings, talents, desires and contributions

R eceptive and responsive to our communication, touch, and acts of love

E ternal, because there are no Disabled Souls in God’s eyes


Marcus Pointe Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL has done an exemplary job of communicating the vision of PURE ministry on its website with the following description:

P.U.R.E. Friendship Ministries  is a Marcus Pointe small group made up of members who have unique gifts and abilities. The goal: to help the group members realize God’s plan for their lives. The mission of Pure Friendship Ministries is to follow God’s calling to provide a place for families and individuals who are affected by special/unique needs (disabilities) to feel welcome, wanted, safe, and loved. We accomplish this mission by providing assistance when needed, like stuffing envelopes, cleaning the gym after dinner, and other miscellaneous projects around the church.[4]


We believe in PURE ministry – no matter how you brand it. If you aren’t already a member of the PURE Ministry Network, join today to lend your expertise to many churches that are seeking to extend hospitality and membership to PURE families across the world.


[1] For a fuller discussion of this subject see David Zachariah Glover, A Better Way: Where Least Is Most (Bloomington IN: CrossBooks, 2013), page 48-54.

[2] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: a New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), page 8.

[3] “Special Needs – Community Bible Church,” www.communitybible.com, October 29, 2013, accessed October 29, 2013, http://www.communitybible.com/get-involved/children/special-needs/.

[4] “Pure Friendship Ministry,” www.pensacolachurch.org, October 29, 2013, -of-de-finibus-bonorum-et-malorum-written-by-cicero-in-45-bc/.


Posted by Beth
November 13, 2013 at 2:49 am

I appreciate the spirit in which your post is written, and I agree that Don is a genius. However, I’m curious why, “It will help you to realize that Don is a paraplegic.”?
When someone is perceived as having a disability, it really doesn’t “help” anyone, and in the context of this conversation why is it important to mention? His statement is genius regardless.

Posted by Katie at CLC Network
November 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

Thank you Vangie and Jason for walking us through the importance and power of the language the church uses. I particularly appreciate your emphasis on “person-first” language – each individual is a person and child of God first, regardless of their level of ability. Churches and communities need to know how to receive the presence and gifts persons with disabilities have to offer. Instead of viewing these members as weak, churches must recognize persons with disabilities as essential members of their communities.

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