[Photo Courtesy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists]
St. Louis, Missouri, United States | Maryellen Hacko

In a world-first for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church Manual has been updated to cater to members who are deaf, blind and have other special physical, mental or emotional needs, thanks to a decision made at the General Conference (GC) Session this year. 

Drafted by the team at Adventist Possibility Ministries (APM) for the General Conference, the amendment took nearly two years to fully develop, led by Larry Evans, Assistant to the General Conference President for the Deaf and Possibility Ministries.

“I’d like to commend elder Larry Evans for his leadership of the GC Possibility Ministries movement throughout the world Church and the committee’s work to ensure this church manual addition was brought to the body today,” said Diane Thurber (NAD), who works in partnership with APM at Christian Record Services. “Adding this section to the Church Manual will raise awareness and help to ensure that there is a representation at the local church for anyone with a visible or hidden disability who may need accommodations. Even more importantly, we as a church will learn more about how to include all of God’s children who desire to help advance the mission of our church.”

Presented at Wednesday night’s business meeting, the amendment was received with almost unanimous support from the floor, with delegates expressing their approval and gratitude to the team at APM for not only ministering to, but also encouraging the local church body to do ministry alongside those with special needs. 

Larry Evans himself was one of the first to speak, voicing his support for the amendment with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter present. “Whether someone can speak or see or hear, walk; whether they’re orphans or vulnerable children; whether widows or widowed; whether caregivers—all of those groups fall within this special ministry,” he began. “We really believe God will bless this kind of compassion and its inclusiveness for the world Church.”

Evans went on to explain that currently more than half of the 13 world divisions have implemented APM leaders and initiatives at the division level, as well as in their unions, conferences, and local churches. He also added that the Adventist Learning Community platform, created by the North American Division (NAD) now has an online course designed to help every local church to train its members for this ministry. “It’s available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and American Sign Language, with videos and classes to help the local church,” he said.

Following Evans, Jeffrey Jordan, a full-time pastor and associate coordinator for the Deaf Ministry for the GC, voiced his support, speaking ASL with the help of a translator. “I have been so impressed by the diversity that I have seen at Session. Men and women from the global platform, different races and languages, and people on the floor. I’m happy to be a representative as a deaf individual,” he said, affirming that this new section will allow God to use all people for his mission.

All delegates who spoke recognized how important it was to acknowledge, in writing, the deaf, blind and other special needs communities in local Adventist Churches. Nevertheless, it was also recognized that education for all church members is important, as well as integrating existing ministries with this new initiative.

“I work in the area of special needs education and am very happy to congratulate the Church on this motion,” said Paulina Villalon Alvarez (Child Union Mission, SAD). “But I believe it’s also important to consider how we educate our wider church on this topic. All ministries—those who greet at church, children’s ministries, pathfinders, adventurers—who deal directly with people need to have their people trained. I pray that this will work in the best way,” she said.

In a similar vein, some delegates expressed the significance and privilege of doing ministry alongside those who have special needs, as opposed to simply catering ministry to them. As GC associate secretary Gerson P. Santos—who introduced the amendment—said, “This is an outstanding document. In the first paragraph, it says that this ministry was ‘established to extend the compassionate and inclusive ministry of Jesus and seek to inspire, equip and mobilize those with special needs and those who are deaf’. This is not just about ministry ‘to’ them but ministry ‘with’ them.”

Other delegates argued that certain tweaks should be made to further legitimize their role in the local church. “My view or suggestion is that we include the elder in charge in this section of the church manual,” added Passmore Mulambo (SID). “This will be like any other department where there is an elder in charge—so having a provision for the church elder in there would just strengthen this part of the manual.”

Patrick Johnson (TED) also stated that some tweaks to the language could help make the passage more expansive. “Instead of saying they ‘should create witnessing programs’, I’d suggest saying ‘should for example create witnessing programs’. Otherwise, people may think that this is all they need to do, but it can be a whole lot more,” he said.

Another suggestion was made that APM leaders at a division or union level should have the responsibility of creating special reports every quarter, to inspire, encourage and track progress in this ministry area. “We also have some secondary schools, primary schools and other entities and it is my suggestion that we include them too so they can be part of this mission,” said Muza Nzumbi, North-East Tanzania Conference (ECD). 

Despite the overwhelmingly positive attitude on the floor, one piece of constructive criticism was suggested by Bhaju Shrestha, Himalayan Section (SUD), to enable the use of closed captioning for Session business meetings. “I myself am deaf—I cannot hear. I need hearing aids to understand what is going on,” he said. “There’s lots of wonderful presentations, could you please have closed captions on the screen whenever the presenters are on? That’s my humble request.”

Ultimately, the motion “To add a new section, Adventist Possibility Ministries, to the Church Manual, Chapter 8, Local Church Officers and Organizations, following Departments and Other Organizations, on page 87, as found in the Session Agenda (item 419)” was passed with nearly unanimous support, with 1045 YES votes (99.6%) and only 4 NO votes (0.4%), legitimizing and enabling local churches to appoint APM leaders and begin this important ministry work. 

“This is such a wonderful, intentional idea to include everybody. We’re not just making accommodations for someone who has a disability to enter our church or use the restroom, but actually encouraging them to get involved because Jesus is coming,” said delegate L’Tonya Jackson (NAD), finishing the discussion on the floor.

To download the resources developed by the APM team for your local church, please visit https://www.possibilityministries.org/, and to watch and listen to comments made during Wednesday Night’s business session in full, visit the Adventist Church’s YouTube page.